Can their be a better day? Fast cars, unlimited tyres, no police, lots of drifting and all in someone else's car?
Back in the 1970s the Japanese automotive industry was at the beginning of its massive world-wide expansion and as the likes of Toyota, Mitsubishi, Nissan and Suzuki planned for world domination, the Japanese themselves became the founders of what we today call Drifting. The evolution continued through the last four decades and has now become a recognised form of motorsport.
Not that I really need to explain drifting to you given how popular it has become in today's car culture, but for those still seeking a valid explanation, the all-knowing Wikipedia sums up drifting as:
A car is said to be drifting when the rear slip angle is greater than the front slip angle prior to the corner apex, and the front wheels are pointing in the opposite direction to the turn (e.g. car is turning left, wheels are pointed right or vice versa), and the driver is controlling these factors.
Note the last bit of that sentence? So when a 17 year old P-plater oversteers at a roundabout in a Commodore for three seconds, that doesn't count as drifting. The idea is to put a car into a drift and keep it there.
The whole concept of drifting isn't about going fast, it's hard to argue that any race-driver would use drifting as a legitimate technique to go quickly around a track. Nonetheless if that's what you were thinking, you're missing the point.
Drifting is a complete show-off sport. It's about who can slide the longest and look the best doing it.
As many of you may know, we live in a country where the authorities stay awake at night making sure no car enthusiast can have any fun. Be it Nazi parking inspectors, revenue raising speed cameras, police obsession with modified cars, or a general hateful attitude towards car enthusiasts. The place for having fun in your car has long ago left the streets. If ex-Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton can't get away with street drifting, you can't either.
Don't get me wrong, you still see the occasional idiot doing a burnout down at your local McDonald's car park (yes, this is for all you folks at Milton McDonalds in Brisbane - If I want to eat a Cheeseburger at 3am in the morning it would be nice if I didn't have to go through a cloud of smoke to get it), but drifting is an art form, and a bloody hard one at that.
Thankfully, Australia is a blessed country full of car enthusiasts. It only takes a few of them to provide the rest of us with an opportunity to explore and enjoy our love of cars in a safe and controlled environment.
When the good folks at Safe Driver Training asked me to come along to their very first Drift School class out at Willobank Raceway (45 minutes from Brisbane), there was a big smile on my face. "Of course," I said. "Finally I can show-off my super-drifting skills". When I say "very first" it's fair to point out the event used to run out at Mt Cotton driver training centre before the authorities decided that it wasn't in the public's best interest. Many, many years later, it's back.
Safe Driver Training has been one of the leading organisations for drivers of all ages to improve their driving ability. Be it a defensive driving course or an advanced course on a race-track, SDT's team of professional instructors (most of whom have a rich professional racing history) have been doing this for years. I've previously attended numerous advanced driver training sessions as well as skid-pad events with SDT.
Before I ever took up car journalism and semi-regular visits to the track, I'd spent the first four years of my P-plater driving career sliding from one street corner to another (don't tell the cops), so it was with enormous confidence that I rocked up to Willowbank Raceway expecting to walk out of the place with an offer to become a drift-instructor by day's end.
I mean, look at this picture of me drifting a TechArt tuned Porsche Cayman S on the last CarAdvice: Full Throttle trip.
Of course, as fairytales usually go, it wasn't meant to be. In fact, you should've seen the look on my face when I realised I am about as good as a proper-drifter as I am a professional roller-skater.
Don't get me wrong, I can slide a car as good as any other man, I can do all the mandatory things any car enthusiast can do, but I couldn't keep the damn thing sliding for 20 seconds and then swing it around another corner and do it all over again whilst looking like a pro. I suppose this is why it's called drift 'school'. You're suppose to actually learn how to drift and forget about your teenage years of sliding cars in the wet to impress your girlfriend.
Once our group quickly realised that whatever we'd learned doing amateur drifting around street-corners was useless, it was time to actually learn how it all works.
Joel Neilsen, the founder and boss of Safe Driver Training happens to be his company's best instructor and drifter. For those that have done driver training before, it's hard to learn anything if the instructor's teaching techniques are intrusive and don't allow you to explore the concepts in your own way. Thankfully, Joel will happily sit next to you and let you do whatever you want (and destroy as many tyres as you want), until you come to the solid conclusion that perhaps it's time to actually listen and learn.
There are numerous activities throughout the day, from learning how to do basic drifting around a corner, going around a tight course of traffic cones sideways, handbrake control to learning the Scandinavian-flick as a method of drifting - and then putting everything you've learned together in an all out drift battle at the end.
If you've ever wanted to actually understand how to properly drift a car, this is the place to do it.
Safe Driver Training supply two Nissan 200SX (Silvia) vehicles setup just for drifting. That means proper suspension, racing seats, optimised handbrake and a vast supply of tyres that guarantees everyone on the day will have bucket loads of fun.
My first few attempt at drifting resulted in about five 180 degree spins. It's a little bit harder than it really seems when you're doing it at speed and the aim isn't just to have a quick slide - it's suppose to be controlled and continuous.
You drive down the main straight, approach the right-hander under full control, use the brakes to push the weight to the front, as soon as the angle is appropriate you give it more and more power, whilst also making sure you catch and compensate for the spin before it actually happens. From there you have to properly feed the throttle making sure there is just enough to keep the wheels spinning and not too much to result in a spin.
Thankfully the cars are fitted with a drift-box that works out how good of a drifter you are (based on G-forces, angles etc), for some reason it will also light up "SPIN" in case you actually spin and don't notice. A handy feature for those suffering from vertigo.
After about 10 tries, I finally started sliding the back of the Nissan and holding it there like a wannabe-pro. You see, like everything else in life, drifting is all about correct technique, of which I had none to start with. Once you learn the basics, it's a matter of trying to overcome your natural urges to over-compensate for a spin and applying far too much or too little throttle and doing all of those things and more all in perfect order.
If spiritually-enlightened folks meditate to improve mental concentration, I imagine drifting has the same affect for car enthusiasts. A whole lot of attention is required to perform the perfect drift. Once you get it though, you appreciate it a whole lot more.
My favourite part of the day was a tight course around witches-hats that encourages a whole lot of handbraking and tyre smoke. The idea is simple, go around witches-hats sideways and make sure there is enough smoke to annoy Peter Gareth.
I have to say, despite having driven a whole bunch of supercars (see the article written by my alter-ego here) in my time, there was a new and unparalleled sense of enjoyment from proper-drifting.
Despite how much fun you can have behind the wheel, the most enjoyable experience is in the passenger seat of Joel's drift car. You see, regardless of how good you become over the five hour course, going for a drive with Joel will make you realise how it's suppose to work.
At one stage the 200SX was sliding from one corner to another for a good two and a half minutes straight. It was so smooth, so controlled, so ... beautiful would be the right word. Seeing the car being setup from one corner to another whilst sliding makes you appreciate just how technical the sport really is.
Once all the learning has concluded, you all gather around the main drift course and get a chance to put everything you've learned together in one massive drift battle.
It's just you, the car, a silent (and terrified) instructor and lots of rubber to burn. Pull the handbrake, cause a power-oversteer, do what ever you want. Just drift!
The event is enjoyable for numerous reasons. There are no police to confiscate your car for hooning, there is no speed cameras, it's not your car and more importantly, it's not your tyres. Of course you're also learning how to drift, if that's not enough reason to attend the course I am not sure what is.
The events run regularily at Willowbank Training Centre (inside Willowbank Raceway). It costs $395 for the 5 hour course with cars and tyres supplied. When you think about it, it's pretty darn cheap because this is what eventually happens to the tyres somewhere along the day: