My experience learning how to drift a car

Disclaimer: This post is mainly for myself, to remember how I felt when comes the inevitable question whether to do it again or not. To keep an accurate record of the upsides and the downsides of me engaging in this very particular activity, to inform a decision that involves quite a bit of money.

Let’s start with a little bit of history. The earliest I remember learning about the practice of drifting cars dates back to my childhood, when I caught a televised broadcast of a rally stage. The way rally cars were sliding around tight corners was fascinating to me compared to the expected forever grip of the Formula One cars. Then in the early aught, the Need for Speed Underground (2003) video game and the Fast and Furious Tokyo Drift (2006) introduced me to the less official practice of street drifting, and I was hooked.

It remained confined for me to a marginal practice until I first watched Ken Block’s Gymkhana Practice video (2008). It looked way less polished, unfiltered, and more accessible in a way. The following Gymkhana videos are better produced, but the lifestyle company Ken Block created on the heels of the series success, Hoonigans, started a vlog on Youtube from their headquarters called “The Donut Garage” where they welcomed guests and hooned various cars in their tiny lot.

I think that the casual setup for both the location and some of the cars made me first think that maybe I could do it myself too. Getting a drift car was out of the question, but maybe there would exist a “driving experience” package like there are for luxury sport cars and stock cars? I started to look into it around 2018 but at that time it didn’t really exist anywhere close to New York City and my finances didn’t allow for it anyway. Coming in 2022, my finances were looking much better and Team O’Neil had a 2-Day Drift School course in Hew Hampshire just a few hours out of New York and it was on.

We made it a five-day weekend with my partner with Drift School being days 3 and 4. Day 1 and 2 were fine, but I didn’t sleep more than 2 hours at a time, being extremely excited and anxious for the course the next day. Day 1 was really good. I had no expectations for what I would be able to achieve since I was coming in “fresh”. The course was built around a short track with a start and a finish line. The 6 students were split into two groups and we were going one after another in a single group on the track with little down time between laps, and a longer cooldown period as the other group got their turns.

At the end of Day 3, I was satisfied. I managed to rip a few good ones in the most powerful car available (a Ford Mustang GT) using the handbrake drift initiation, but I was feeling my limits already, having trouble with consistency, not feeling all the different cars equally. But I had paid for the two days, and after another extremely choppy night, I was back for Day 4.

There, the combination of now having pre-existing experience creating heightened expectations and a morning figure 8 track that made instructors push students for “another try” even after they spun out a couple times made laps more frustrating and down time between laps longer. I couldn’t achieve as much as I wanted, not as much because I was doing particularly badly, but because I wanted more after Day 1.

The afternoon of Day 4 went better, with the return of an open track with a start and a finish, and a “it’s over soon” attitude that made me enjoy my few more successful runs more and cope with failures better. At the end of Day 4 I was relieved it was over. I didn’t have enough of Day 5 to come down from the emotional heights I had reached (both excitement but mostly anxiety), and the physical toll it took on me (bruises, scratches).

Now, the positives. Drifting is exhilarating, as much as a spectator for the sheer spectacle of it, visual, auditive and olfactive, as a passenger where it feels like a roller coaster ride without the vertigo, and of course as a driver threading a fine line going sideways while maintaining some sort of control over the car. For me there simply isn’t anything like it, and I’ve ridden bikes, skateboards and snowboards which are in a similar riding spirit as drifting is. And I’m grateful I got the chance to experience it in a safe manner.

I also want to point out how great the Team O’Neil staff and fleet was. All the instructors were knowledgeable, friendly and encouraging, the cars were varied and numerous enough to accommodate the few mechanical failures logically associated with pushing cars to their limits. I’m more reserved about the curriculum itself with the rough Day 4 morning where I felt I was asked to do too much given how shaky my performance during Day 3 was, but maybe it was just me.

Now, the negatives. I can’t dive too much into drifting because I can’t really own a drift car. Beyond the cost of the whole endeavor between the car, the parking, the tires of course, I’m not much of a mechanic, and there aren’t obvious drifting spots close to my location in Brooklyn. So it would be a very cold start getting into a hobby that requires an all-in commitment. I’m a software engineer, I’m definitely not part of this crowd who often grew up around cars and worked on their own.

Additionally, as the mounting frustration I felt during Day 5 showed, I’m not much of a natural, so I’d need much more practice to get to any satisfying level. While I was able to find my sweet spot with both skateboarding and snowboarding, I feel like drifting is too similar to three-ball juggling, a skill I’ve never had the patience to train even with a minimal cost of entry.

Going through the same course again is a possibility, of course, but I don’t want to go through the same sheer anxiety I felt both evenings and nights before both days of the course. I couldn’t approach the experience casually the first time, I don’t think I would be able to do it the second time.

In retrospect, I’m glad I did it, it was an itch I wanted to scratch for quite a while, and I don’t get those often, so I’m happy I could see through the end of it, even if the experience wasn’t a complete success. I’m bittersweet there isn’t any video of my best laps, but on the other end I feel like it could have looked disappointing compared to the sheer exhilaration I felt at these times.

I’ll keep being interested in drifting, including in the professional Formula Drift championship, but it isn’t for me to perform at any level.

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