For seven weekends a year, Formula Drift attracts thousands of adoring fans to cheer some of the world's most talented drivers. The competition, run in head-to-head knockout rounds, challenges the sport's stars to crush the course with proper behind-the-wheel swagger. Each run is judged in four categories—line, angle, style, and speed—leveling the field and allowing the man with the most control to take the crown.
Formula Drift sounds exciting, right? So, why haven't you heard of it?
Complex.com is out in Irwindale, CA this weekend to get a taste of one of the fastest growing motorsports. The Irwindale Speedway not only hosts the "Title Fight" of Formula Drift it is also the spiritual home of the sport in American. 10 years ago, the town hosted the first drift event on U.S. soil, and remains central to the its growth. Now, the cars are more badass, the drivers more refined, and the scene rowdier than ever.
We spoke with NOS sponsord driver Chris Forsberg, the 2009 Formula Drift Champion, about the series, his start in the sport, and where it is headed in the future.
Interview by Phoebe Lovatt (@phoebelovatt) and Nick Schonberger (@nschon)
Let’s start with an idiot’s guide to Formula Drift. What are the basic elements of the event?
With Drift, it’s about the quality of the driving. It is a judged motorsport, one of the only, and the judges are looking for speed, line, angle, and style...which is how fast the the car gets around the course, for speed; where the car is placed along the course, how close it gets to the wall or inner clipping points, for line; angle is really just how sideways you can get the car; and style is just the use of the throttle, the amount of smoke the car produces, how dynamic the transfers are, and if the car looks smooth around the course. It is not just about driving from point a to b, but making it look like you are in complete control.
What are some key aspects of the car?
The cars are set up a lot differently than you might expect. Most people would think the cars are set loose, so we can slide easily. However, our cars are set up like a sprint car, which are for oval dirt car races, we’re trying to get as much grip out of the backend of the car as we can control the slip ourselves. This is why you hear about cars with so much horsepower—700 or 800, even 1000—out here. When you see the cars smoke around the course, that is all throttle manipulation and getting the car sideways on the bank.
Tell me a little about Irwindale and the history of drift in this place and what it means to the sport in America.
Irwindale was one of the tracks that hosted the earliest drift events, back in 2002 and 2003. From there, it went from the parking lot, to the infield, to the big bank. Now it is known as the house of drift. Irwindale holds the biggest events in the country, fans come from all over the world, drivers as well.
This is the final round round of the 2012 season, correct?
Irwindale hosts the final round of every season.
When you see the cars smoke around the course, that is all throttle manipulation and getting the car sideways on the bank.
How does preparation change for you between rounds and gearing up for different events and courses? How do the setups change?
We do change the setups per course. Irwindale being a high banked, fast course, we set it up with a pretty staggered set up from side to side. We’ll play into the banking so we get even tire from left to right and better traction in different parts of the course. It is about making your car universal, so that it is adjustable to all different types of tracks. Florida is a flat, fast track with a lot of braking, and Irwindale is a fast, high banked track with a lot of throttle. You have adjust your car for these situations to get the most control.
What is your training regime like?
We actually don’t practice or test as much as you might think. We run seven rounds a year for Formula Drift. Outside of the events we might test five times a year. Two or three times before the season, and a few times during if we make any significant changes to the car. Outside of that it is all about making sure the car is 100% for each event. Going out and beating the car up is very expensive. These cars are very low tolerance as far as regular driving. Every part is a wear item from throttle to tires. We can’t just run the car for the sake of it.
How did you get started?
I started out...I’m a self-taught driver, I saw some videos and thought it looked cool. Later, I found some in-car shots that allowed to see the hand and foot movements drivers were using the get the cars to drift the way they wanted. It was a new sport, I didn’t even know what it was called since all the videos were in Japanese (Japan is where the sport originated). This was in 1999. I got my first drift car, a Mazda RX-7, in 2000. It took me a solid year to learn to drift through a turn. There was nobody doing it in the USA. I’m from Pennsylvania, there was absolutely nobody doing it around me. A lot of people in California at the same time. Myself, and a couple of my friends in the Northeast, tried our hand for a year or two, and eventually organized the first events in the East Coast in Englishtown, New Jersey.
What are your perceptions about how the sport has changed in the last decade?
I’d like to say it is still about having fun. It is much more professional and serious now though. The car builds have grown so fast in the last 5 years. The cars are now totally re-engineered. The chassis is now completely stripped and all the metal ground down for the least amount of weight. There is just much more attention to detail and room for adjustment in these cars now.
Could you tell us a little about your sponsor, NOS, and how important the relationship is to you?
NOS Energy Drink and myself have been working together since 2006. It is one of the longest running relationships in Formula Drift. They are a huge supporter of not only my team, but drifting in general. When it first started out, it was a simple handshake deal. It has slowly grown. In 2008, NOS became my primary sponsor, and that is when we got this big rig and the full car wrap. It was a huge step forward in the sport of drifting to have big companies come in and setup full on factory teams. Now, NOS is still supporting and has become a sponsor of the Formula Drift series itself. They are also sponsor of numerous grass roots drivers and pro-am events. A major supporter of growing the sport.
How would you like to see drift grow in the future?
It is not very commercialized at the moment. Most people who know NASCAR might view Formula Drift as a smaller tier motorsport. But, the car builds are at the absolutely peak. We’ve got crazy power to weight ratios in comparison to almost all other motorsports. The amount of crew and support is there. Our biggest thing is that the sport is only 10 years old, whereas NASCAR has been around for 50 or 60 years. Awareness is growing exponentially though, thanks to the power of the Internet. Drift is one of the most entertaining form of racing you can watch. If you see any car commercial, you’ll see some sliding. It is the coolest looking thing you can do in a car.
Looking for new outlets, including a TV package, to become more mainstream is the next challenge. We’re busting at the seams in regards to attendance at these venues—getting 15-20,000 people—and other motorsports have smaller numbers, but TV deals that make the awareness higher. Our biggest issue will be stepping from an event this size to the next level. There is not much middle ground from 20,000 to 80,000, it is a hard leap but Formula Drift will make the leap at the right time.
Related: An English Girl Goes Drifting