Letting it Slide
Think drifting is only for imports with giant exhaust pipes? Jeff Glenn talks to some racers who think Corvettes can clobber the series; Nick Pon pix.
Dave Smith is working on his choku-dori moves and clutch-kicking technique; it sounds like he's entered a Karate tournament, but a 600-horse, smoke-shrouded ballet might be a better analogy.
Smith wants to make it in SCCA-sanctioned Formula D drifting, a motorsport in which car control, lightning-fast reactions, and creative improvisation mean more than lap times or finding the quickest line. Long derided in traditional American-car circles as little more than a game of competitive burnouts (as if, you know, there'd be anything wrong with competitive burnouts), as drifting in this country becomes dominated by US carmakers, it's gaining a more open-minded reception from once-hostile Corvette, Mustang, GTO, and Viper enthusiasts.
Today's drifting fans, whether deep in the import scene or wild for pushrod V8s, know choku-dori means a fishtailing slide on a straight and that clutch-kicking is a tricky technique used to rotate the tail of an RWD car without unduly upsetting its chassis.
Behind the scenes, drivers and teams see Formula Drift ("Formula D") as the next big thing in US motorsports. Indeed, like the high-dollar Japanese D1 Grand Prix series it's based on, Formula D has been outpacing all other major racing groups in terms of sponsorship growth and competitive grids. Sound like a good place for a Corvette? It did to California native Dave Smith, too, who grew up near Sears Point Raceway and began competing on motocross bikes at age 12. Racing karts came next, followed by formula cars, GTA stockers, and eventually Indy Lights. The latter-a big-time, open-wheel farm series for aspiring Indy-car teams and drivers-taught him the importance of strong funding and sponsors.
Simultaneous with his driving, Smith has also long worked as a race-team mechanic and driving instructor. "So far, I've actually had more success on the mechanical side, working for several Indy Lights teams and Dick Simon's Indy Racing League team. I was even the Indy Lights Crew Chief of the Year with Dorricott Racing in '99, when we won the championship. [But] my heart has always been on the driving side; the bottom line is, I'm still chasing that dream of racedriving-of being inside the car. But now I know that means more than just driving; it means putting together an effort that will let me to go out there and be competitive."
Like many race instructors, another side job that Smith does occasionally is new-car and new-product media launches, where his driving skill helps demonstrate hardware for reporters and photographers. At one such event, held during the 2005 Las Vegas SEMA show, he and a few other Jim Russell School teachers were asked to demonstrate several cars for Squires Turbo Systems (STS), an aftermarket tuner that makes and sells remote-mounted turbo setups. He struck up a friendship with head man Rick Squires in the process, and the two kept in touch.
A Corvette drift car sounded like a pretty good idea to Squires, too. His vision of tail-mounted turbos had already hit a handful of drag cars and roadracers, so the burgeoning Formula D scene seemed like the next logical step. "Since drifting is based on the very accurate control of power [and also] scored on sound, it was an obvious choice," Squires says. "With the turbo downstream of the engine, it's able to overpower the engine noise with the spooling turbo-it's a unique sound." STS put its system on amateur drifter Doug Van Den Brink's Mustang last year, and Doug won a Formula D Pro-Am event. Rick Squires then upped his commitment by signing on for an '07 Corvette effort with Smith.
With a primary sponsor on board, Smith's team purchased the white 2001 Corvette Z06 T1 racecar shown here. For those who don't follow the SCCA's intricate rulebook, T1 is essentially a showroom-stock series allowing little but minor suspension mods. To cater to this market GM built a number of T1-ready C5s with all the allowed suspension changes already in place-Sachs shocks, stiffer springs, bigger antiroll bars, dropped ride height, camber plates, etc. This particular chassis didn't ever go racing, however, instead being bought by Chris Cook's ShiftIntoGear driving school and used to teach famous-name NASCAR guys how to go road-racing.
To prep the car for its latest role, the nascent STS effort yanked off the OE cats and added a Squires system of dual rear-mounted Garrett turbos. Rick Squires reckons the additional 120-odd pounds of tubing, intercooler, and compressors are capable of cranking out up to 200 extra horses; in practice, Smith will be able to choose normal- (4-5 psi) and high- (seven psi) boost settings with a cabin switch, leaving the car in the lower range except during extra-dramatic maneuvers. Right after our shoot, Smith and his STS cohorts started the next phase of the build, which involved stripping out the side glass, accessory motors, and anything else that was no longer needed.
After more than 15 years in Japan and three-plus in the US, you'd think that professional drifters would've agreed on a setup. Not so: Gabriel Tyler, with the drifting-parts powerhouse Techno Toy Tuning, notes that beyond a general acceptance that more power never hurts, teams are still finding their way. "With a lower-powered car there's less room for error: You don't have as much ability to make mid-course corrections by getting on and off the throttle, so you just have to commit and keep the throttle down. More power can really help for making directional changes and quickly resuming the drift. Generally speaking, more power also allows you to use wider tires, which means higher potential entry speeds and more smoke."
Since even a stock Corvette is no slouch in the horsepower department, the STS-blown Z06 should have more than enough kick to be competitive. What's still needed is an exact blueprint for the steering and front-end mods. The key maneuver in drifting is the long, deep, well controlled sideways slide, which means lots of additional steering angle is desired. (Having the capacity for additional sideways lock means the driver can bring the car back from seemingly unsavable slip angles.) On the other hand, the same setup has to remain stable enough to give the car some kind of on-center state to return to.
Smith is still sorting through possible control-arm and geometry changes, a process he's gotten help with from fellow drifter and racing friend Ryan Hampton. Hampton, a veteran of everything from endurance racing to IRL and NASCAR ovals, began drifting in '02 as a hobby but soon found himself engaged as a professional. He's campaigned a Miata, a Nissan 180SX (the Japanese version of the 240SX), a Gen-II RX7, and a 1969 Camaro. His 2007 ride will be a 2004 Corvette Z06, a car he began running late in '06.
Hampton says Formula D takes a totally different mindset from the racing that he and Smith did in the past. Rather than seeking the smoothest and least-upsetting line,"in drifting you're more or less abusing the car." Because it's a new game, Formula D is also evolving a lot faster than traditional motorsports. When Hampton first started, everyone was setting up cars extra-stiff in the rear, helping the tail break loose. "Now," Hampton says, "setups have gone toward a more balanced approach; something more similar to road racing, except that the spring rates tend to be a touch softer.
"The good news is that as a platform for drifting, the Corvette is a very good place to start. When I campaigned it the first time we had in essence a totally stock car. We took the cats off, made one minor steering modification, and we still made the main show."
The power of the Corvette V8 is a big part of the appeal, but the chassis also turns out to be very well suited. "If you look at a 240SX," Hampton continues, referring to the obsolete Nissan coupe that has become drifting's ubiquitous entry, "you'll notice the relationship of wheelbase to track width. There tends to be a magic number there; a specific ratio that lends itself to balancing the car while it's sideways. The Miata, for example, turns out to be very difficult to drift, because of its short wheelbase and wide track. The Corvette wheelbase and track fall more toward the 240SX ratio."
Hampton is also a big fan of the Chevrolet's durability under track stresses, a strength he saw time and again while teaching in Corvettes at the Bob Bondurant School: "Our car still has the stock clutch with 29,000 miles, and it's still taking the abuse." His own laundry list of mods for the 2007 season includes a front-brake upgrade and more engine power. Hampton also recently did a product deal with KW shocks, so his Corvette will run new double-adjustable coilovers; Smith may inherit the car's previous dampers.
Unlike road racing, where it's common to alter the shocks, aerodynamics, spring rates, and antiroll bars at every venue, most drifters find that a good balance on one circuit usually works just as well at the next-tire pressures and shock damping seem to be the only variables that constantly need re-tuning, or "....if the track is really tight and you're stuck between gears, you might change the differential." Nevertheless, as with all kinds of motorsport, Formula D has become increasingly costly as its popularity and competitiveness have risen.
"I've seen a few budgets guys are throwing around, and they're in the $250-300K range for the season," Hampton says. "Data acquisition and engineers are definitely coming next; in fact, the two factory-backed guys, Rhys Millen with the Pontiac GTO and Sam Hübinette with the Viper, already have engineers working with them, and it's obviously paying dividends-they're the only two guys who've won championships so far."
Rick Squires accepts this, saying "We've made a pretty big financial commitment to this project, and we'll be supporting it further throughout 2007." At the same time, he and Smith are both working to bring more partners into the deal-a necessary next step for anyone hoping to compete against OE-backed works efforts.
"It looks like we'll have American Racing on board with a wheel package, and we're talking with several tire manufacturers," Smith says. Fidanza, the aftermarket flywheel and clutch builder, recently joined as a sponsor, as have Red Line Oil and Turbo XS, a maker of blowoff valves and other accessories. Smith hopes his connection to the Jim Russell School will result in a Russell-backed driver-training program for STS customers.
If all goes well, the team might even add a second car for Van Den Brink and shift all the prep action to Genoa Racing in Novato, California-the same facility from which Hampton, Jimmy Vasser, and other open-wheel stars have launched multicar, professional-series attacks. But like all racing schemes, this one is still just a plan on a piece paper until the sponsorship dollars are safely in the bank. The fact that drifting is a fast-growing segment aimed squarely at the industry's cherished 16- to 29-year-old car-crazy demographic is what everyone hopes will do it.
As Smith tests an aggressive new caster setting that helps the wheels snap back from opposite lock, it's clear that until all the mods have been dialed in the Corvette will be hard to handle. That means there's more wrenches to turn, more dollars to hustle, and more rubber to melt down in testing. If it all goes according to plan, he'll be ready to slide against fellow Z06 pilot Hampton at the season's 8 April '07 Long Beach kickoff. If not, at least he won't be alone-in that regard, Formula D is pure racing.
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