Drift 101: Learning to Slide Like a Pro

Two days of smoking tires and learning how to balance a car sideways

I transition from one controlled slide to another as the car’s tail dances left and right. I execute a pirouette around a cone and come to a stop in a cloud of tire smoke. Feeling triumphant, my arms open wide, awaiting the audience’s applause. No ovation comes. Instead, Formula Drift pro Jeff Jones saunters over to the clapped-out 25-year-old Nissan with a half missing bumper, ruined seat, and leaky water pump.  “Not bad,” he says, “but you could go deeper and really make it dope. Do it again.” His brutal honestly helps. Drifting, like dancing, is an art form, and it takes years to get it right. But the maestros at Drift 101 can take you from zero to relative hero rather quickly.

Naoki Kobayashi started Drift 101 15 years ago. Before the school, he helped bring and popularize drifting to the U.S. and was integral in putting on the sport’s first few events. Over the years, Kobayashi and a handful of drift professors have instructed novices and refined the talents of drifters and stunt professionals. He’s helped many of the top talents who dominate Formula Drift.

Students may choose between a single-day course and more intensive two-day instruction, which is the course Roadkill’s Editor in Chief Elana Scherr and I selected. Each, however, is more free-form than structured tutelage, and the teachers pace your progression based on the ability level you demonstrate. After spending much of my adult life driving in snowy, often terrible Midwestern weather conditions, I feel comfortable sliding RWD cars. I’m not Chris Forsberg or Ryan Tuerck, but I can kick a car’s tail wide. Nevertheless, after pairing with Jones I asked to start at the beginning just to get a good baseline. He obliged.

The instruction began with simple left-hand donuts. Rev the tiny motor, quickly drop the clutch, and hold the steering wheel with your loud pedal foot level with the floorboard as the car pivots around the front wheels. After a few rotations, Jones had me make the donuts tighter around a small cone, then wider arching outwards, then back to tighter, to illustrate how to control the slide via how much throttle you apply. Lots of throttle for tight donuts, lighter throttle for the wider versions.

With my progression proceeding swiftly, Jones leaned across the car’s doorsill and said, “Alright, you know the basics. There’s not a whole lot I can teach about those. Let’s start pushing a bit harder. Let’s try right-hand figure eights.”

Failure after failure, I spun out or straightened too early. There’s a lot of space in between you and the right outside front wheel, and my skills weren’t as satisfying as they were before. I just couldn’t get the transition from right to left. After an exhausting 15 minutes, Jones once again leaned into the car. “You’re in your head,” he said. “I know,” I replied. “Just relax,” he told me. “You’ve got the skills. Don’t think about getting super close proximity to the cones. Make everything wide and have fun. Pretend like you’re showing off to your buddies in an abandoned parking lot with the music cranked to 11.”

As I headed back out on track, I shook my hands, cracked my neck, hummed a tune by Galantis, and gassed the Nissan. I initiated right, got the back to swing around, carried the angle super late into the transition point, lifted, let the steering wheel rotate between my fingers, gassed it back into the drift around the cone, lifted, rotated, gassed it again, done! “Whoo hoo!” Jones ran up, gave me a fist bump, and said, “Hell yeah! That was perfect. Now do it again!” Crap. After semi-nailing a few more eights, we ended the first lesson.

In that short time, I felt like I learned so much. The instructors then told me their intention was to get me to be able to drift almost anything. I felt confident.

On the second day, things got a lot harder. We transitioned from easier donuts, figure eights, and small feint initiations—that’s where you load the suspension up on one side of the car and then transfer the weight to the other side with a sharp steering input to destabilizes the rear, then lay into the throttle—to longer, larger second- and third-gear drifts, complete with clutch kicks and e-brake initiations.

E-brake and clutch kicks by themselves aren’t difficult. But stringing them together in a larger radius arch when the car has less than 150 horsepower and 120 lb-ft of torque is much more complicated. The school has more powerful cars that have plenty of oomph, including a SN95 V-8 Ford Mustang and a supercharged Nissan 350Z. Nevertheless, according to Jones, if I could nail the drills in the less powerful car, I’d have the necessary set of skills to drift practically anything. It was after four or five attempts when I came to the sobering realization that I wasn’t a professional drifter. For years, I thought of myself as a pretty good shoe at sliding a car. I’m not. I just had enough power to overcome my inexperience. Jones, however, didn’t give up.

“You’re back in your head again,” he said, cracking a wry smile.

“I keep getting to a point where I think I have it,” I said, “and then it just sort of peters out. What am I doing wrong?” Jones explained, “You’re back to race-car lines. The point isn’t getting from one apex to the other quickly. It’s about creating a wide arc and looking like a badass.” He then illustrated with his hands the perfect radius for the arc. “You need to just cool down, slow up your hands, and pretend like you’re back in the lot with your buddies.”

I relaxed again, pushed the failures out of my mind, revved the engine, dropped the clutch, and headed toward my initiation point. I pushed wider than I had been, initiating deeper than before. I feinted in and added a clutch kick that sent the back around, and I nailed the wider arc. In my mind, I looked like my teacher riding a wall, smoke billowing off the tail at the House of Drift. In reality, there was little smoke, but the angle was there. I downshifted to second, gave it another clutch kick to transition into a smaller, tighter apex, downshifted again, and e-braked around a cone to a stop. From there, I nailed it three more times, each time getting a better arc—and more smoke.

At the end of the day, a few crews getting ready for SEMA showed up at the track, and Jones and Kobayashi began to show me why high power isn’t great when learning. As both a 1,000-horsepower A/C Cobra and turbocharged LS S14 began to slide, my teachers began pointing out the drivers’ mistakes. “See that? He’s constantly correcting his angle,” Kobayashi said. “Watch him come off this banking and screw up his throttle input,” Jones added. And because of their tutelage, I too began to point out mistakes. It’s a perfect summation to their teaching.

I certainly did not leave ready to compete against Jones in any head-to-head drift battles, scraping walls, killing tires, and bouncing off his door, but I felt like a much more capable drifter and an altogether better driver. Drift 101 doesn’t just teach you the fundamentals of drifting; it’s also about better car control in general.

If you want to learn how to slide and smoke, call Kobayashi, hand over $1,500 for the two-day lesson, and open your ears.

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