Exploring the Crazy World of Grass Roots Drifting

I pulled into the Shannonville Motorsports Park around 10am, and the sound of high-strung turbocharged drift missiles was in the air. We were there for TOPP Drift, where Formula D stars like Marin Guilbault and Riley Sexsmith, and budget-drift bros come together for a weekend of tire slaying madness. My guide in the world of amateur drifting were two locals, Colin and Sam, who share an E46 325i that’s been turned into a complete drift weapon, along with my friend Ryan who bravely brought along his daily driven IS300. When I arrived that morning, the back bumper of the E46 was being held on by multiple zip-ties; the result of numerous rear tire blowouts, and the second gear in the IS300 had shattered into pieces, which were now rattling around in the transmission.

The place was essentially drift heaven. There was a portable tire changing station, blown and shredded tires everywhere, cars up on pump jacks, and beards, thick rimmed glasses and skinny jeans as far as the eye could see. Sam was nice enough to take me out for a few rounds in their E46, which to be blunt, is sketchy as hell.  Hoping in, I was greeted with nothing. No carpets, no door panels, no interior door handle; the whole car was completely stripped. Aside from that, the stock steering wheel had been swapped out and a gigantic e-brake handle now protruded from the center console. No roll cage, just extended steering knuckles, stiff suspension and a welded rear differential. This is grass roots drifting.

Cars formed two lines in the paddock; one for single-drifting, and the other for tandem drifting. While waiting to head out in the BMW, I bombarded Sam with questions, essentially trying to figure out how they can afford a hobby that involves destroying a dozen tires a day. The answer was simple: make friends with a tire shop. Most car owners, particularly luxury car owners, replace their tires while they still have some tread left. Those “nearly dead” tires can be picked up for as little as a dollar. Fill the bed of the pickup truck towing your drift car with one-dollar tires, and the whole thing starts to actually seem reasonable.

We were off. Their handbrake was leaking badly, but considering that they had shed nearly 700 lbs. off the car and a welded rear differential now sent power to skinny tires, they had no trouble getting the tired BMW sideways. With nothing to hold onto I grabbed the seat behind me. Luckily for me, Sam is a properly talented driver often skillfully linking slides around Shannonville despite the paltry 170 bhp at his disposal. There’s something properly terrifying about sitting shotgun in a cage-less, gutted BMW as it gets thrown into corners sideways at highway speeds, especially when threatening walls approach. A broken hood latch ended our time on track, though like with any drift car, a zip-tie was used to save the day.

How do Colin and Sam know when they’ve run out of rear tire? More often than not, the one of the rear tires will blow. Seriously; Colin talks about having a rear tire blow out while heading straight towards a wall the way someone might describe stubbing their toe. This isn’t unique to them either; more often than not drivers came off with their rear tires completely shredded among other damage.

These guys have zero mechanical sympathy. Cars are meant to go sideways, and sideways they’ll go. Bumpers break off, tires blow, transmissions rattle themselves to pieces and engines have a tendency to detonate when constantly banging off the limiter. I once sold a set of wheels to a S13 240sx owner who was buying them as drift spares. He told me that in the time he had owned the car, he managed to blow up four SR20 motors. After Ryan destroyed second gear in his IS300, he went back out and made the most of third gear.

Later on I met up with Riley Sexsmith — Formula D driver and the madman behind the infamous 2JZ powered Subaru WRX drift car — and tried to get a feel for what drifting was like from the Formula D perspective. Surprisingly, it’s not that different. Builds are generally prettier because those cars serve as rolling billboards, they generally run wider and stickier rear tires in order to produce more smoke, and subsequently have quadruple the power output. What was amazing to me, was that there wasn’t the sort of massive divide between Formula D and grass-roots drifting as you’d think. FD drivers come to events, they ride with people, they give people pointers, they bring along their own budget-friendly drift cars, and they all go partying together once the tire smoke settles. It would be like if Sebastian Vettel attended a local track day in a Fiat 500.

As the evening approached, CAA tow trucks littered the lot as wounded drift cars made their way home. The sound of tortured tires was replaced with that of track cars arriving for a track day. Drifters are a different breed of car person. They’re seriously gutsy, able to fix their cars in a pinch, make the most out of limited resources, and I’ve never come across another sub culture that’s this fun to be around. If time attack were a competition dance recital, a drift event is a rave held in an abandoned airport hangar at 3 AM where everyone is on ecstasy. It doesn’t make any practical sense, but it doesn’t need to; it’s a party on wheels. Never change drift bros, never change.

Thanks to Ryan Hamade, Colin Holmes, Sam Oveissi and Riley Sexsmith for taking the time to teach me a little bit about killing tires. As always, thanks to the terrific Andrew Zhang for photography help.