Souped-up cars in the colors of the rainbow peeled off the starting line at a Formula Drift event in Long Beach, Calif. They hit the first corner and left black skid marks behind. The cars slid two at a time through the course with a symphony of squeals.
Some fans describe it as Olympic ice skating meets dog fighting. It’s not a race, but time counts toward points. Formula Drift co-founder Jim Liaw said drifting is judged like snowboarding. Drivers receive style points as they slide around corners in tandem, within inches of each other, trying to get close enough to “clipping points” to light up markers along the course. Liaw said the idea is to look out of control without being out of control.
“Similar to what people would see in maybe, like, a very exciting car commercial. Hey, these guys are slaloming through. They’re nearly hitting something, but not hitting something. That’s kind of a sensory experience. The sound, the closeness of the car getting close to the wall—those all kind of all fall into what it looks and feels like.”
Drifting started a couple of decades ago in Japan. Liaw helped bring the first drifting exhibition to the U.S. in the summer of 2003. The next year, Formula Drift was born. Liaw said this year more than 80,000 fans came out to see the screeching sport, which made stops in Atlanta; Palm Beach, Florida; and Vegas. Liaw said the biggest challenge was getting the word out.
It’s pretty simple. A field of about 60 drivers is whittled down to 32 based on scores by the judges. They then go head-to-head, with the winner of each round advancing until there’s only two.
Liz Keene’s 20-year-old son Ryan Kado drove one of the cars.
“We’ve been NASCAR fans for a long, long time. So was Ryan. He grew up a big Dale Earnhardt fan. But this is just like everything in NASCAR that you love about it—the smoke, the excitement, all in less than 12 hours. So, in a lot shorter time,” she said.
Keene said it was tough because Formula Drift doesn’t appear at the huge venues like those that NASCAR or Indy cars fill. But Formula D—as it’s known—has managed to rev up the younger crowd. The league estimates 87 percent of its fan base is between the ages of 18 and 34. Part of that is because of the accessibility of the drivers. The pits are open to everybody and the drivers seem to love to talk to people.
In the “pits”—in this case, a convention center parking lot by the race course—cars and trailers were spread out among several rows. Fans like 20-year-old Daryl Priyono mingled with drivers, as crews made adjustments to engines and tires. Drivers also interacted with fans like Priyono through Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and “Need for Speed,” the drifting video game. Priyono said the games and movies like “The Fast and the Furious” have helped to establish a younger fan base.
“I like that it’s like no other motor sports. It’s pretty much just loud and fast and it’s all about style. Whereas circuit racing is about having the fastest time, you know, trying to beat the other person, this is about just going out there, expressing yourself, getting, just getting as wild as you can possibly be,” Priyono said.
That’s what Daryl does at a local track every week with his younger brother, Nick.
Nick: He hit me one time.
Daryl: I hit him one time, filming. I hit dirt drop a couple times, like getting your car off the track while you’re drifting, so…
Nick: Spun out on the road.
Daryl: Spun out on the road, yeah.
Nick: Into a ditch.
Daryl: Yeah. All in good fun, all in good fun.
Most pro drivers have multiple sponsors to pay for the inevitable damage to their cars. Ford just signed on as the newest Formula D partner for next season. Driver Rhys Millen said the sport needed sponsors—and more TV time—to grow.
“We have cross-over sponsors here—you know, major automotive manufacturers, tier one/tier two tire manufacturers, a lot of sponsors that have been involved in NASCAR and champ car and all of that. And now they’re seeing the sport as a way to connect with a more youthful, younger audience.”
Millen has done stunt work in car commercials and movies like “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.” He said the subjective nature of drifting scares some sponsors.
“You’re putting the hands of your product value into the decision of a panel of judges. And I know there’s a lot of people that don’t take too kindly of that. But it kind of works similar to—what would you say? —American Idol. Everyone sits back. Everyone has an opportunity to form an opinion and you reach a broader audience doing that.
“So maybe it’s just the opportunity for these guys to peer up with the right partner and who knows? You could be drifting the high banks of Talladega one day.”