Here's how you want to learn drifting: In a go-kart, on a frozen lake. Or in a Mazda Miata, in an empty, oil-slicked parking lot. Maybe, if you're hugely talented and have some applicable experience in nerve-racking wheel work - either through rallying, stunt driving, or living near Billy Joel - then you could learn to drift in a Nissan 240SX on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The main thing is, when you're learning to perpetuate extreme slip angles, you want to use a modestly powered car on a low-traction surface in a setting where there's nothing to hit.
Notice I'm saying "you," not "me." For me, no challenge is too extreme. If I wanted to try rock climbing, I'd start with Mons Huygens. That's a mountain on the moon. If I wanted to learn karate, I'd begin by fighting a great white shark. I got fired from my job at the Merriam-Webster dictionary when I defined "baby steps" as "giant leaps where one goes straight to the top."
So naturally, my first stab at drifting comes not in a docile car in a wide-open setting but in the factory-backed, heavily modified Dodge Charger SRT8 drift car at Wall Township Speedway in Wall, New Jersey. With a supercharged 6.4-liter Hemi pumping out 750 hp and weight pared to 3300 pounds, the Formula D Charger figures to be something of a handful. Then there's the track itself. Notice that it's not named Safe Runoff Speedway.
The Wall track is an ovoid bowl with every inch covered in pavement. The three-quarter-mile drift course uses the banked ends of the bowl, running down into a figure eight across the flat surface of the bottom. In addition to the guardrail surrounding the top of the banked oval, the figure eight is defined by two circular barriers at the bottom of the bowl. So there's not much room for error, but then again, how hard could this be? All we're talking about is driving a 750-hp sedan at highway speeds while maintaining a controlled spin within inches of steel barricades.
I strap in with Mopar team driver Samuel Hübinette, a.k.a. "The Crazy Swede," for a demo run. He pulls the car up onto the banked straightaway and dumps the clutch. Roughly three seconds later, we're hurtling toward the guardrail at a high rate of speed. Hübinette pitches the Charger into a slide, and the BFGoodrich KDW tires scream in noble pursuit of extreme power oversteer.
The secret of drifting, as revealed from the passenger seat of a 750-hp Dodge, is that you're not really going sideways. You're going backward. The car is cranked over at such an extreme angle - and it's going so fast - that it doesn't feel like you're sliding sideways, if feels as if there's a giant magnet pulling the car backward toward the wall and the car is struggling mightily to escape its pull. Also, from the passenger seat, it constantly seems like the car is about to flip over.
I venture an observation, telling Hübinette that it looks like the secret of a good drift is commitment - if you're not dancing on the verge of no return, it won't work. "That's true," Hübinette says. "You've got to go fast and stay in the throttle. If you back off the throttle, you'll understeer into the wall."
And that's really the extent of my drifting knowledge as I climb behind the wheel: don't understeer into the wall. I'll stay on the flat part of the track and try my luck on the figure eight. It bears mentioning that if I do crash into a wall, Hübinette will be at a distinct disadvantage in tomorrow's competition. It's hard to post a high score when you're sprinting around the track in a driving suit and making tire-squealing noises because a journalist wrecked your race car.
After an ugly stall, I get moving, shift into second gear, and take a stab at the brakes to ascertain how quickly I can rein in the mayhem should this endeavor prove more difficult than anticipated. Unfortunately, with no power assist and no heat in them, the brakes feel about as useful as a Tyrannosaurus rex's front arms. Meanwhile, the emergency brake is so robust, it carries its own calipers on the rear wheels. Rally drivers might use an e-brake move to negotiate a slow hairpin, but I noticed that Hübinette never touched the e-brake during our slide around the Wall bowl. "In drifting, you actually use the e-brake for high-speed tail kicks," he tells me. "At Road Atlanta, you begin with a straightaway, hitting 90 or 100 mph. At the first turn, you've got to slide through a gate with gravel just outside the line. Go too fast and you'll hit the gravel; go too slow and you'll lose points. So you use thee-brake to get the tail out, because with throttle alone, you'd need 1200 horsepower to do it at that speed." I guess when you've got only 750 hp, you need to make do however you can.
I bend the Charger into a corner and roll onto the gas. I'm not sure how far to plant the throttle, because Hübinette cautioned me that this engine winds up quickly, and it likes to break its supercharger belt at excessive revs. The car takes a set, digs in . . . and simply tracks around the corner. There's more grip than I expected. So on the next corner, I rudely mash the throttle in hopes of kicking out the tail.
It's like I karate-chopped a shark in the face. Before I can even react to what's happening, the interior is filled with the deafening scream of supercharged V-8 violence, the back end is passing us, and the nose of the car is pointed toward the wall before I even have a chance to countersteer. I go clutch in, full brake, and get it stopped short of the wall. Hübinette, riding shotgun, assesses my problem: I need to go faster. I need to commit. I need to have that car fighting its way back from the brink of disaster.
OK, coach. My next few laps, I ratchet up the speed and get the tail loose, but instead of graceful drifts, I get herky-jerky tank-slappers. From outside, it probably looked like the two people in the car were having a fight over whether or not to drift.
The problem (OK - one of the problems) is that I'm attempting to consciously override what's become a subconscious reaction: catching a slide. I keep kicking out the rear end and then reflexively backing off the throttle and countersteering. I need to be deprogrammed, because exacerbating a slide instead of reining it in is like telling a fireman that, for one special type of conflagration, you need to douse it with gasoline instead of water. It takes some time to process that idea.
And time is one thing I don't have. With practice hour wrapping up, they're getting ready to close the track for the night. I try to end with one respectable drift, and the resultant spin leaves the nose of the car so close to the wall that I need to use reverse. Back away from the wall. Then, back away from the race car.
As I ride back to the pits in a golf cart, Mopar PR guy Darren Jacobs assuages my ego by telling me that I actually did OK, given that my debut drive came in the heaviest car on the Formula D circuit. But I'm preoccupied, hypnotized by the nearly treadless tires of our humble conveyance. Give me a wet fairway, and I'll bet I could really get the tail out on this thing.