Drifting is a narcotic. Anybody who has tried it wants to try it again, and spends more and more time and money working to that end. Drift cars run the gauntlet from almost stock to so far departed from the original base car that only the VIN number remains. Looking at the 1000hp, 90-degree-steering-angle $200,000 Formula Drift builds that dominate Youtube and Instagram, knowing what parts to install as a beginner can be tough. Fear not! We are here to help. Let’s run over some of the most important parts to build yourself a quality tyre-smoking machine.
Let’s start with the most basic aspect:
There are some obvious parameters to follow here. The ideal car layout for drifting will be front-engined, with a manual gearbox and the driven wheels at the back. If you want to be able to drift without the aid of two pilfered fast-food trays, RWD is the most important box to tick.
Also, unless you’re Mad Mike or Daigo Saito, stay away from anything mid-or rear-engine. The weight behind the steered axle has a pendulum-like effect when you’re attempting to transfer the weight into a slide and makes it very difficult to control. Google “snap-oversteer” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Auto cars can drift, but if your car is lower powered (under 250hp), you will seriously struggle without a clutch. “Clutch Kicking” as it’s known, is an easy way to increase engine revs and send a boost of power to the wheels to either initiate the drift or maintain angle.
With regards to the chassis itself, choose whichever car you feel like, but ensure it has a strong enough aftermarket to be able to upgrade it. Older BMWs are a common choice for beginners, particularly the E36 and E46 chassis, due to their relatively low price and availability of parts. Other common starter chassis include Mazda’s best-selling MX5, and the Lexus IS200. People with slightly more budget may pump for Nissan’s 350Z. The Nissan 200SX was previously very popular, however their skyrocketing price in recent years has moved them out of most beginner’s budgetary range.
Now you’ve picked out your ride, we can move onto the mods!
As we previously mentioned, there are many different contexts to use a drift car in, and you should build your car to suit. Therefore, we are going to break this down into stages.
The upgrades covered here will help you get out to some of the beginner drift days, and get some seat time under your belt to build confidence.
One of the most important and ideally the one of the first mods you should do on any car you plan to drift is to fit a set of coilovers. A good set of coilovers can be a game changer to people starting out drifting. Back in the old days, people would just get their dads to cut the stock springs in the car. A couple of problems with that arise though. Firstly, it’s far easier for the spring to become unseated and make the car horrible to drive, and as most cars have progressive springs (coils are further apart at the bottom than the top) you actually change the spring rates, making it extremely bouncy.
Quality coilovers (such as those available from Yellow Speed) allow you to set not only the height (which lowers the centre of gravity of the car and avoids instability from body roll) but also the dampening, which allows you to stiffen the car as well. This helps with compliance when the car is on angle.
There are many arguments about which differential setup is the best for drifting, but one thing they all agree on is that an “open differential” is a no-no. This type of diff will only put power to one wheel, which is not conducive to adding power through a slide as it will simply spin the unloaded wheel.
Certain “limited slip diffs” are more effective than others. “Helical” and “Viscous” LSDs are to be avoided, but Torsen diffs, and 1.5 or 2-Way diffs are a wise choice. Certain VLSDs can be “shimmed”, which effectively locks the axles together, much like the classic choice for a drift car…
The welded diff. A favourite since the dirt oval days, welding a diff effectively joins all the gears inside a diff together, so that whatever one wheel does, the other does too. It’s the budget friendly option, but it has to be done properly, as not welding it up thoroughly can be dangerous. It’s also technically illegal for street use, so bear that in mind.
SEATS AND STEERING WHEEL
An often overlooked component when building a basic drift car, a good quality fixed-back bucket seat will stop you being thrown around the car on entry and transition, and avoid loss of control. Additionally, switching out to a good quality racing steering wheel (ideally one which maintains the same radius and thickness its whole circumference) will allow you to more comfortably feed in steering input and grab hold of any section of the wheel to maintain a slide, in addition to looking cool.
Bucket seats and a non-airbag steering wheel are not advisable without investing in a good quality set of racing harnesses. These mount to the car, usually at four points, and will help to keep you planted either whilst drifting or if the worst happens and you crash. Also, a securely-mounted fire extinguisher is an essential part of any race car build, and having it in close proximity to you in the cabin is important. Watching many thousands of pounds burn to the ground because you didn’t fit a £20 fire extinguisher fills you with an unbearable amount of regret. Ask me how I know.
Also, if your car is a soft-top, a roll bar is something you should never forget to install. Older convertibles have the rollover protection of a paper bag. A few hundred quid could save your life.
Don’t ever overlook that. You don’t need to go all out with a full cage if you don’t want to, but some tracks mandate a full cage with door bars if you want to “twin” (drift side-by-side).
Regardless of how much safety gear you wish to fit, Simpson Europe are the one stop shop for all your racing gear and safety equipment, and when you have to use it, you’ll consider it the best money you ever spent.
STEERING ANGLE MODS
Usually, spins in drift cars happen due to the driver running out of steering lock, or “angle”. Therefore, increasing steering lock is a common practice once drivers have found their feet with their car. It is also favoured by lower powered drivers as it enables them to enter the corner faster and maintain the drift more easily.
A lock-increasing measure that is completely free is to remove the OEM lock stops if your car is equipped with them. On rack and pinion steering, they effectively look like a collar on the toothed section of the rack, and by removing them, the track rods can travel further inwards.
Another cheap means of increasing steering lock is with “rack spacers”. These are basically washers that go inside the steering rack where the inner track rod threads in, and give more effective turn at the hubs.
The next step up from these is “cut knuckles”. These are a set of hubs (car specific) where the track rod mount point has been moved outboard. This again equates to more effective turn at the hubs and allows larger slip angle to be maintained more easily. Bear in mind that depending on your wheel and tyre setup and the suspension design of the car, some cars can have issues with the wheel clouting the lower arm at max lock. Also, it is important to check you will not pull your brake caliper flexi completely taut before you get to full lock either. Burst brake lines are no fun for anybody.
If you were to go completely crazy, you can purchase a Wisefab kit, which replaces all the arms and hub assemblies. These kits are extremely expensive and are far more geared towards top-level competition drivers. Best to steer clear of these for a while.
Now we’ve gone over the basics of car preparation, and you’ve hopefully gotten your eye in with your steed, we can now look at what else you can add in the way of keeping yourself and your car happy.
The handbrake is a contentious means of making a car slide, but most drifters will incorporate it somewhere. Obviously, all cars have a handbrake from the factory, of which the vast majority (on older cars at least) are cable-actuated. On most cars where there is a handbrake lever, the button can be unscrewed, and the spring removed. The OEM handbrake button can be changed for a mushroom-shaped button, allowing the driver to push the button outwards to park the car, and for the rest of the time, not engaging the ratchet action to avoid the handbrake locking when the lever is pulled. This is an oft-adopted means of incorporating a usable handbrake into a drift car, but prolonged usage can cause stress on the cable and can make it overstretch or even snap, which you’ll likely not know about until you see your unmanned car rolling into a fence.
At some point, you will have seen a drift car with what looks like a second gear lever bolted to the transmission tunnel. This is a “hydraulic handbrake” and is a hand operated brake pedal that operates the rear calipers separately. There are two installation methods for one of these. It can either be teed into the factory brake distribution blocks, or an independent set of rear calipers can be run, however this will require custom rear hubs and a second master cylinder solely for the handbrake. These are handy for tightening up your line when drifting, or initiating the drift if you’re in a big power car, or if you’re just a bit lazy. Be warned that dragging the handbrake will significantly slow your wheel speed, so it is not ideal in a low power car.
You wanna know what sucks? Paying good money to go to a drift day only for your car to break half a lap in. Particularly if it can’t be fixed in the pits. Don’t let this happen to you! The one thing you want in a drift car is for it to be reliable, so we’ll cover a few basics for what you can do to help with that.
First is upgrading your cooling system. Drift cars spend a lot of time with their angle of attack away from the front grille, which means the radiators receive far less airflow over them than if the car was simply driving in a straight line. A high quality twin core radiator and a fan shroud with powerful fans (such as those available from Turbozentrum) will avoid the car overheating during a run and potentially causing serious damage to your engine.
In addition to upgrading the cooling system, it’s also wise to look at taking some heat management measures. Heat wrap around manifolds, turbo blankets, heat shields and heat-resistant sleeving around rubber hoses and components are well-worth it. As someone who has melted a coil pack or two in his time, heat management is something you can’t overlook. Funk Motorsport are one of the biggest suppliers of heat management gear in the UK, so check them out!
Oil is the lifeblood of your engine. And, much like human blood, there can come a time where it is so hot it simply can’t perform the task asked of it. Oil gets very, very hot in normal use, so imagine it when it’s in an engine banging off the limiter. To avoid your oil getting so hot it can no longer provide lubrication to the engine, a good, thermostatically-controlled oil cooler setup is a worthwhile purchase. Also, the quality of the oil is highly important. Your cheap off-the-shelf 5w30 engine oil will have the lubricating properties of fresh air in a high-stress application. Visit Lucas Oil for a selection of high quality oils with strong heat resistance and heavy film strength to keep those journal bearings happy.
Many drifters opt to add a jacking bar to their drift cars. This provides a convenient point to lift the car for tyre changes. Handy if you’re trying not to sacrifice seat time.
In addition, more adjustability to your alignment setup can be gained by fitting adjustable control arms. This will help you to increase or decrease camber and toe, to raise or reduce your grip levels, particularly when combined with changing tyre pressures.
Bracing is also a common purchase in most drift cars. Braces which tie the two halves of the car together help reduce flex, which is important in modern unibody cars.
Listening to D1 veteran and God-among-men Naoki Nakamura, he would exclaim that stitch-welding your front chassis is invaluable for increasing stiffness. This involves adding small beads of weld around the suspension mounting areas where the panels join to avoid any flex in the metal itself. It’s a lot of work but someone already in possession of a MIG welder can do it for about a tenner’s worth of welding wire.
So, now you’ve got yourself a strong and reliable drift car to have fun in. A lot of people stop there, and to be honest, nobody would think less of you for keeping it as a “party car”. If you did want to venture into competitive drifting however, you may require some additional mods.
ENGINE AND GEARBOX MODS
The harsh truth is that most competitive drift cars now are packing upwards of 500bhp. This is a lot to ask from most engines, however it is doable with the correct internal mods. Another common practice is to swap the engine for a different lump with more power and torque. On a long enough timeline, every car gets an LS. “LS” is the blanket term for the Gen 3 and 4 GM engines. Beloved by drifters, these have the power, torque and reliability people crave. Depending on what country you call home, that may not be a viable solution for you. Fear not, however! Toyota has your back with engines such as the JZ inline sixes, or, if you’re really hankering for an engine with 8 cylinders, the UZ V8s are also hardy and well-built powerplants.
Looking further afield can also turn up some interesting possibilities, such as the Ford Barra engine, the Nissan SR and RB series, BMW’s N54 and their various V8s, or if you really want to showboat, Mazda’s 13B Rotary. Just pick whatever is in your budget and takes your fancy.
Whatever the powerplant, ensuring it has the correct management system keeping everything in check is paramount. LINK Engine Management offer an extensive range of ECUs to suit all builds. Swapped engines can be a nightmare to wire up, so save yourself a headache and get a quality ECU that will be way down the list of things holding the car back if you go for more power.
A welded diff and a lot of power means the gearbox is fighting a war on two fronts, a war which it will inevitably lose, so do your homework and make sure you find a gearbox which is strong enough to hold the power and will actually fit behind your engine. Certain “known tough” gearboxes have off-the-shelf bellhousing adapters to allow the fitment of various engines to them.
A common practice among drifters is also to fit larger brakes. This helps to lock the front wheels and cause a slide. Aftermarket big brake kits can cost a pretty penny depending on your preferred brand, although there are some cars where brakes from a higher model will either bolt on or fit with adapters. The choice is yours.
TUBE FRONT END
Other modifications that are commonplace is “tubing” the front end. Tubing the front end essentially involves cutting away most of the wheel arch support and tubs ahead of the front shock towers, the slam panel and the headlight and grille supports, and replacing it with bent CDS tube with mounting points welded on for the bumpers, lights, radiators, et cetera. This is then bolted to a captive nut plate that is welded in. There are two main benefits of this. Firstly, should the car be involved in a front end collision, the tube front should take the brunt of the hit and theoretically be replaceable easily, which is not so easy to do with the pressed steel panels that the car comes with. Additionally, it is much easier to extract the engine should it need to be removed for any reason.
Competition scrutineering rulebooks oftentimes mandate a selection of additional components before they will clear the car to drive. This could be a small item – such as a shock tower mounted towing eye, or a different coloured wheel spoke – or something major like a plumbed-in fire extinguisher or the complete removal of the interior.
Whatever the championship, ensure that any modifications made to the car meet regulations and will not put you in hot water with the scrutineers. Turning up looking forward to a day at the track only to be hit with the tech-inspection ban hammer is galling, and it’s best to try and avoid it.
So, there you have it. A guide to making your drift car whatever you want it to be, whether you just want to go out and have some fun doing skids with your mates or bang doors with the best in the business. But, above all else, ensure you KEEP. DRIFTING. FUN.