Catching the Drift: Back at the Racetrack with my Upwardly-Mobile Class Anxiety

If drifting sounds terrifying and like a wreck waiting to happen, well, yeah. Do I need to insert a don't try this at home warning? Don't try this at home. Unless you have rear-wheel drive and a race track.

May 8, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

We headed south, through what passes for Orlando's industrial district. The warehouses got bigger and the roads got backroadier. The signs were handpainted.

My coworker Frank had invited us out to watch drifting events with him before. None of our social circle had really taken him up on that. We decided a bunch of us would go, one recent Sunday, as a show of support.

Drifting is a motorsport built around intentionally oversteering. That means you - on purpose - lose traction and slip across the road with your front wheels pointed in a different direction than the one you are actually traveling. If that sounds terrifying and like a wreck waiting to happen, well, yeah. The idea is to be in control of your oversteer.

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Behind the drifting scenes

(Do I need to insert a don't try this at home warning? Don't try this at home. Unless you have rear-wheel drive and a race track.)

Oversteering is a technique that has been around in car racing for a long time. (I'm not going to reference Disney's "Cars" again. Honest. Except for how I just did. Dang.) But drifting as an event in and of itself seems to have evolved in Japan in the 1970s. Thank you, Japanese street racers.

Mainstream America probably first learned about drifting in "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift." (I did not see this movie because the previews for the first one made me actively loathe the whole idea of it. And it takes a lot to make me hate a movie about cars.) But drifting actually hit the US in the early 1990s. It's no NASCAR, obvy, but drifting has taken off. We've even got a pro drifting circuit in the US: Formula D - yes, the D stands for drift.

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A typical drift car

But fancy pro circuit aside, drifting still seems to be most embraced by people who work on their cars themselves. Backyard mechanics and dudes who just kind of always smell like motor oil and engine grease. Yes, this sport is dominated by 18-29 year old males, most of whom seem to be pretty working class, at least in this neck of the country.

And this is what we trekked across south Orlando to find. A friend of mine wasn't sure the area was even safe - a common concern, I think, of folks not used to those sorts of backroads in a city.

When I was in high school, I'd sometimes go with my uncles (who were in that same demographic group at the time) to the local race track. Small town tracks are awesome because you get to go places -- like the pit -- that you're probably not going to spend any time in at a big fancy race.

The drifting event at the Central Florida Racing Complex (not as all-that as the name implies) reminded me of that small town track like whoa. It smelled like asphalt and melted tires. It smelled great.

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Yes, the drivers wear helmets.

You can read Wrecked Magazine and get a sense of just how DIY a lot of drifting is. There are guys with sponsors but most of the cars are older models and they're modified by the drivers and their friends.

We sat on wooden bleachers near the entrance to the drifting course. It was an S-shaped course, laid out with cones. The different classes of drivers came out aggressively - sometimes too aggressively, which means they spun out and occasionally pulled right back off the track. Think of it as rage quitting, but in a car.

Drifting is a scored event. One of the categories is spectacle. In oval-track racing, you just need to get to the finish line first. But in drifting, you have to have the technical driving skills AND put on a show for the crowd. That seems to mostly translate into smoke. And also taking the car close to the wall.

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Minor damage is to be expected.

Sometimes too close - the sound of a rear fender hitting the wall is actually pretty fantastic. So are the engine noises and squealing tires. Drifting is loud - there's usually only one car on the track (unless they're doing tandem runs), but that just means the noise is more focused.

The crowd was mostly young, mostly male. There was one woman driver - in a pink-purple car that had "real girls drift" written on the back window. When we wandered down to where the cars were parked between runs, to check out the tires and the tuning, she was there, in a bikini top and cut-off jeans, changing her own tires.

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Early-model cars are common.

I drank one of the free energy drinks (Nos energy drink was sponsoring the event) they were giving away. It tasted like someone had dissolved Sour Patch Kids in Mello Yello. That's not a good thing, by the way.

Given my prior race track experience, I should have remembered the uniform for these sorts of things: jeans and a black t-shirt. Instead, I may as well have been decked out for the Kentucky Derby, right down to my giant red sun hat. (But who got sunburned that day? Not me.) It's not the first time I've been overdressed for something - and I doubt it will be the last. But it was weird, because I do identify as someone with a working class background.

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Protected by the power of straw hats

At the ticket booth, when we got there, I realized that they probably weren't going to take debit cards. They didn't; I barely scraped up the cash to get us in. Another friend had to turn around and find an ATM in the wilds of Orlando's warehouses.

Frank took a lot of pictures while hanging out with us all (thanks for the images, Frank!) and the rest of us soaked up the sun and the sweet smell of brake fluid. I thought about the time my dad rebuilt an entire engine and I thought about that small town race track. And, yeah, I cheered everytime a car almost hit the wall.

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High marks for smoke

I've talked about my weird little inner class turmoil before. And I guess, in hindsight, that's why I was so aware of the crowd and the place and the dust on my shoes. I was telling a friend of mine about it and she asked if there was tension. But there really wasn't for me. It felt good. It was a reminder that I haven't lost anything, not really. This stuff still exists and I can still go to it (even if I don't wear the uniform anymore). Car smells still smell good. Wooden bleachers still suck. It still feels good to sweat in the sun at the track.

The guys working on these cars could be my uncles - well not literally but they're the same kind of guys. What's strange is to realize that although I feel that kinship, it wouldn't necessarily be recognized in return. At first glance, I'm an outsider now.

Something in that makes me sad. As much as this trip to the track was a renewed hello to something I really do love, it was another goodbye in a series of goodbyes as my life diverges from its working class roots. That's not to say I won't go again. In fact, I'm eagerly waiting for the next event so I can go and cheer from the stands. I doubt I'll don the uniform - it just isn't natural for me anymore and if I'm going to play dressup, it's going to be fancy dress - but that doesn't mean I can't spend a day smelling like a car wreck.

So maybe it isn't really a goodbye. Actually, maybe it's more like when I've been drinking and my accent comes out and surprises everyone. At that point, it doesn't really matter what I'm wearing - you can hear where I'm from.

Check out drifting if you get the chance. Just remember to cheer when they hit the wall.