The amount of innovation and pure mechanical grip that is dialed into today’s modern drift cars is something to marvel. Because of all the grip and speed that is generated, there are a lot of very specific modifications that you may not fully understand unless you’ve been completely immersed in the highest levels of competitive drifting. We walked through the pits at FDSEA and picked out several modifications that several of the top Formula Drift cars have made that might have casual fans scratching their heads.
1. Carbon/Kevlar Body Parts
While lightweight body parts are far from rare in racing, the exact reasoning behind why so many top teams have so many carbon fiber or carbon Kevlar body parts may be different than expected. Formula Drift has a tire-to-weight rule which limits the width of the tire each car is allowed to run based on the weight of the car. Prior to this rule, cars were allowed to be as lightweight as possible and fit as wide of a tire as possible, which allowed the best-funded teams to get away with more weight. Since the rule was imposed in 2012, several teams have actually looked to add weight to their cars to allow them to run wider tires, but still utilize lightweight body panels to allow them to place that weight exactly where they want it. For the Pro 2 class, the maximum tire width is 260mm for all car weights which helps keep costs lower for new and growing drift teams.
A hood, pair of front fenders and front bumper from the factory can aggregate to a hundred pounds or more, while the carbon versions may only weigh 20 to 30 pounds. Relocating the remaining 70 pounds closer to the center of the chassis and lower on the frame provides a better weight balance and therefore snappier transitions than if the weight was located in those body panels.
2. “NASCAR” Style Door Bars
Roll cages are standard equipment for nearly every style of racing, but the configuration of the door bars is relatively unique to drifting. Because a tandem battle can take place at very high speeds with the cars just inches from each other along the door, the roll cage requirements of Formula Drift require a pair of door anti-intrusion bars.
Drivers have the option of running the main cage bars horizontally with vertical connecting tubes welded to them, which is a configuration that is borrowed from NASCAR rules, or running nearly perpendicular bars that form an “X” in the middle of the door. There’s also an additional tube that is required in the footwell area to prevent a broken wheel from intruding into the foot area, but other than these two specific provisions, a lot of the other roll cage rules are very similar to other wheel-to-wheel motorsports organizations.
3. Engine Mounting Plates
With the relatively unregulated engines rules of Formula Drift, teams are wedging all kinds of obscure engines under the hood of their vehicles. Several of the top teams have converted their engine mounting system away from traditional motor mounts towards using a longitudinally mounted engine plate.
This allows a team to remove the front end of the car and load the engine directly through the front of the car, mounting the engine to the frame rails to reduce the need for an engine hoist or crane. These rigid mounting plates also provide some additional chassis rigidity, which helps prevent chassis twisting due to the extreme G forces that drift cars are exposed to at the top level.
4. Fire Suppression System
Fire suppression is one of the more recent safety regulations, but one that is embraced by all drivers. For drifting regulations require three nozzles to be installed.
The first nozzle should be in the engine bay, the second nozzle should be in the cabin but not aimed at the driver, and the third nozzle should be in the compartment that contains the fuel cell. Many drivers have chosen to place the in-cabin nozzle near their feet as that is one area that is likely to see heat and possibly flames in a catastrophic failure. Last year, Federico Sceriffo’s Ferrari 599 GTB caught fire at Long Beach after a fuel line severed following a collision, and Sceriffo was able to emerge safely. This year, the Napoleon Motorsports Electric Camaro faced some controversy at Long Beach due to the fire crews not feeling comfortable in case of an emergency.
Napoleon Motorsports told us that they implemented a substantially more complex fire suppression system than most other cars on the grid to address the battery compartment, following the FIA Formula E fire suppression recommendations that cover electric vehicles in their series.
5. Hydraulic E-brake and a Second Rear Brake Caliper
Drift cars use an e-brake handle very differently than nearly every other motorsport save for possibly Rallycross. Every driver in the series has a large handle in the driver compartment that operates a hydraulic brake reservoir connected to a second brake caliper on the rear axle.
This allows the driver to instantly lock up the rear wheels, either initiating a drift or extending a drift without affecting the traditional brake pedal or brake bias. Whether the driver uses a lift-up style e-brake handle that emulates the traditional location of the e-brake handle, or a vertical rallycross style e-brake handle like this one in Vaughn Gittin Jr’s Ford Mustang RTR is a matter of personal driver preference.
6. Tire Technology
Drifting is widely recognized as the most abrasive motorsport when it comes to tires. While some fans might think that they use very hard tires to reduce wear, the opposite is actually true.
Formula Drift requires teams to use a tire that can be purchased at a traditional retailer for street use, and there’s a short list of approved tires that are allowed based on some sponsorship requirements. For drivers using Nitto, they have the choice of the older NT05 tire, or the newer NT555 G2 tire, as seen here on one of Ryan Tuerck’s wheels. The NT555 G2 has improved grip and wear compared to the previous generation NT555 that drivers used in past seasons.
7. Nitrous Oxide Systems
Nitrous oxide is used in a lot of sports besides drifting, but the use cases for drifting are a bit unique.
Rather than using an always-on system to increase top-line horsepower, many teams are using nitrous only for the initial launch from the starting line or to help spool the turbo. Today’s modern engine management systems can be programmed to only operate the nitrous in specific gears and at specific RPMs.
With the level of competitiveness of the cars these days, losing a car length or two off the launch from the starting line could be the difference between a competitive tandem battle or losing based on lack of proximity.
8. Dry Sump Oiling Systems
One unique aspect of drifting that is very different from other motorsports is the side g-forces that are seen at full throttle. Oil sloshing is a major issue, and a lot of teams have turned to dry sump oil systems to prevent oil starvation on extreme cornering loads.
As shown here, the reservoir for these oiling systems are often mounted very low to the chassis to keep the center of gravity as low as possible. This issue seems to be especially problematic on some of the V8 engines, but a dry sump setup is almost always seen in competitive drifting—even if it’s only a ‘just-in-case’ preventative measure.
9. Rear Mount Radiator
One of the easiest identifiable modifications that has become prevalent in drifting is the rear-mounted radiator. Since most drift cars spend their time traveling sideways, the airflow through the traditional radiator mounting location isn’t the greatest, and moving the radiator to the back of the car gives the secondary benefit of shifting the weight balance more rearward.
Many cars utilize the low pressure area along the bottom of the rear window to draw air into the radiator. Shifting the radiator rearward also helps reduce the chance of debris like a cone or errant body panel puncturing a hole in the radiator. Most drift cars use an electric water pump to move the water from the back of the car up to the engine, so the belt-operated pump can also be ditched, which frees up a few more important ponies for these high horsepower machines.
10. Suspension Arms & Alignment Settings
There are multiple aspects to this modification, but all of them tend to revolve around either maximum steering for the front end or maximum grip for the rear axle.
Companies like Wisefab, SLR Suspension, and Powered By Max have all began producing specialized drifting suspension arms to handle the unique requirements of drifting. Up front, the arms are designed to push the tires away from the frame rails, to allow as much steering angle as possible without interference or binding. Out back, the custom arms tend to allow for more camber and toe adjustment to add more grip, and also allow for a wider tire to increase the potential contact patch.
Each team is very protective of their exact alignment settings, but nearly all of them have substantially more adjustment and range of motion than what comes stock on the car a person can buy off the showroom floor.