Let us be clear from the start: these 10 keys to building a competitive drift car are not, in any way, meant to be taken as a checklist of bare minimums - of stuff that everyone needs in order to prep their vehicle for drifting. You don't need any of this stuff, really, Bryan Rogers points out, Rogers himself a car builder, ex-pro/am driver (most notably for Megan Racing back in the day), and principal behind DriftKnuckles.com.
Generally speaking, apart from the desire, Bryan says all one really needs to go drifting is a front engine, rear-wheel-drive (or FR) vehicle; a locked/locking differential; and a space big enough to slide a car around in without ruining yours or anyone else's day (which is to say specifically, an area big and empty enough you won't hit anything). That's it.
Some RWD platforms are more conducive to drifting than others, and we always recommend turning to experts to learn the finer points of car building and drift driving technique - but with the bar so low, almost anyone serious enough can make a go of it. We'd argue the real commitment begins when you start to feel confident you have your car control down and start to look for even greater challenges; it's at that point competition may enter the picture, and if it does, correspondingly your equipment is going to need upgrades to meet the challenge. In no particular order, Rogers outlines 10 tips for raising your car's game in the brutal world of competitive drifting.
10 Keys to Building a Competitive Drift Car
- Locked/locking differential
- Adjustable suspension
- Tires and alignment
- Steering angle
- Weight distribution
- Bash bars
- Chassis rigidity (and safety)
- Extended hand brake lever
You need it to break traction in order to get those rear hubs spinning. It's why at the highest levels of professional drifting, it is not uncommon to see competitors opt for torquey, high-horsepower power pants, and indeed in series like Formula DRIFT that has translated into an all-out engine war. Rogers says to learn/just go out for fun, you only need between 100-150hp, but that number goes up significantly in the pro-am ranks to roughly 500 to 600hp, and pro cars range from 800 to 1,200 at the rear wheels.
In drifting, the rear wheels ideally should be spinning at the same rate under load for the sake of predictability, which you typically can't do with an unaltered factory open differential. If you can afford a limited-slip diff (LSD) Rogers says to go for a clutch- or viscous-type; a solid spool (similar to what's used in drag racing) is a slightly cheaper way to go, but the total budget method to locking a diff is welding its spider gears, which Rogers recommends leaving to the experts.
As one might reasonably expect, once you start taxing parts of the power train you'll need to make sure everything linked to them can handle the increased work. Here Rogers says the upgrades depend on your car's power level and grip level and the driver's aggressiveness of driving style; at the top levels, everything from a car's gearbox to its axles are designed for extreme stress. At a minimum, a heavy-duty clutch is probably in order to break the back end loose a little easier during clutch kicking, a common method of drift initiation.
Part of this upgrade involves adjustable coil-overs, but Rogers also lumps in adjustable arms and linkages, too. The reasons you'd want these parts are to lower the car's center of gravity as well as give the driver some flexibility to tune additional body control, namely to get the vehicle to squat and rotate.
TIRES & ALIGNMENT
Alignment goes hand in hand with an adjustable suspension, and Rogers says to think of it this way: drift cars are basically set up to road race in front but drag race in the rear. Forward grip is critical because in essence drift cars pivot around their front end, so you'll generally find a lot of negative camber up front (for when the suspension loads up around turns) and much less or even positive camber in back. It's also useful to have quality sticky rubber with a good, wide footprint up front.
Simply, the more angle one can extract from their steering rack, the better off they'll be in getting the car as sideways as possible - but there are limits, usually related to clearance in the wheel well and getting the suspension arms/links to not bind. Rogers advises noobs to get more angle by installing tie rod end spacers, but the more advanced set have come to rely on custom drifting-specific front knuckles or extended lower control arms.
Here we're looking for a way to exploit the pendulum effect easier, but rather than loading up the extreme ass end of the car most pros tend to spread out weight so that it's equal front to rear and the chassis as neutral as possible (a previous version of this story inaccurately suggested weight was moved forward, which is not entirely correct). It is for reasons of weight distribution most drivers prefer conventional FR platforms for drifting, instead of mid or rear engine machines.
The custom fabricated tube structures at the front and rear of a drift car, usually under the skin, are for convenience more than anything else. For one, they're tougher than most uni-body elements, making them ideal for protecting vital components like coolers/heat exchangers and the like. At the pro level, bash bars are also easier to repair on location, as well as provide mounting solutions for not only coolers and radiators but also body panels.
CHASSIS RIGIDITY (& SAFETY)
Like other types of race cars, making your drift car's chassis stiff with braces and such keeps the car predictable; Rogers puts it smartly that chassis deformation doesn't allow the suspension to do its job. But your biggest source of rigidity will likely be one of the main safety features of most racers: the roll cage. In general, you can never spend enough on safety, so don't cheap out (and that includes your seat, harness, fire suit, helmet, fire suppression, et al).
EXTENDED HAND BRAKE LEVER
What we first noticed on rally cars made its way onto drift cars, and it serves an important purpose. With a longer, more vertical handle in the range of other hand-controlled elements, like the steering wheel and gear shifter, it makes it easy to reach for, in this case to stop the rear wheels and initiate a slide (particularly useful around tight corners). There's a perception that a hydraulic hand brake setup is necessary, but Rogers says it's not; most can get away with a cable hand brake and better brake pads. At the pro level, though, cars are required to have a dual rear caliper system (one each for the foot and hand brakes) for the sake of safety through redundancy.