I see dead tires. Bone white cords peek through mutilated tread blocks, evidence of their dusty slaughter spattered across the GTO's leather interior. I look down at my trembling palms, where no fewer than six blisters have appeared. Payback.
"Uh, sir? I need a new tire."
Ten minutes later, we're back to sliding sideways through walls of tire smoke at the Bondurant Drifting School in Phoenix, Ariz. Bondurant is famous for its performance and race training programs, which run the gamut from defensive driving to advanced open-wheel road racing. All take place at the massive Firebird International Raceway complex located on the Gila River Indian Reservation.
The two-day course costs $2,495, which is justifiable given the abuse we poured into the school's machines. In just one day, we were personally responsible for the destruction of eight tires.
Les Betchner, professional racecar driver, cool guy and Bondurant instructor, is here to school us in the ways of the hallowed smokey, valiantly displaying techniques in a grossly underpowered V6 Cadillac CTS. During day one of the Bondurant Drifting School, we're mixed in with students enrolled in other programs for basic car control classroom and track exercises. Zero high-performance driving experience is required for the drifting school, just a driver's license, familiarity with the clutch pedal and an ardent hatred of all-season tires.
We spend the first morning in the classroom, which is fine given outside conditions. Did we mention the heat? How about 115 ambient degrees? Hot enough to get a broil tan off the track surface, but it's quickly forgotten once we're mashing pedals and slinging pushrods. Our two classmates for the day are Hyunwoo Cho, a 240SX-driving college student from Iowa and Justin Lofton, a hill climb and Class 10 buggy-driving 18-year-old phenom who makes all we do look too damn easy.
Nothing gives you respect for pros like attempting and sucking at something yourself. Most drivers with decent car controls skills watch a drifting video and think "I can do that." It's true any ham-footed monkey in a rear driver can mash the go-pedal for power-on oversteer exiting a turn. However, pitching a car into a turn at a 45-degree angle, holding the slide exiting the turn at 45 degrees, and then rotating the car 90 degrees to enter the next bend, while never letting the drive tires' velocity match the road speed, requires mad skills.
Freshening up on car control basics does us no harm, and neither does time spent whipping the school's Pontiac GTOs through slaloms and apex search-and-destroy missions. On the second day, we bring the pain to stock-sized, all-season Goodyears mounted on stock wheels.
Pontiac is attempting to cash in on the drifting craze to sell the GTO. Rhys Millen recently won a Formula Drift event in a heavily modified GTO. Bondurant uses GTOs exclusively, but as the program is new, the school cars are still under development. Ours wears Eibach springs and four-piston front, two-piston rear brakes from Holden Special Vehicles (HSV). Or, as it should have come from the factory.
Pontiac, for some reason, thinks Americans want a V8 Barcalounger, so it took out most of what makes the Australian Commodore good and installed soft springs, pillow-tuned dampers, skinny anti-roll bars, soft bushings and bathtub-sized leather seats. Hard lateral acceleration flings us around the inside of the car, meaning we weld our hands to the steering wheel, thus the blisters. May we suggest the installation of a harness?
As Bondurant continues development and replaces more stock parts with hardware from Holden or aftermarket suppliers, the cars will get a lot easier to drift for newbies.
Tremendous LS1 torque allows you to spin the tires at just about any sane speed, which is the GTO's selling point. That said, for those just being introduced to the finer points of weight transfer, the Pontiac's Pillsbury Dough Boy-ishness makes the snap hard to catch. It's a result of the suspension unloading ungracefully, and there's a lot of weight being swung around.
Bondurant dumps us headfirst into a deep valley of tire smoke the morning of day two. Distilled to its essentials, drifting follows this schedule: Initiate a drift, modulate throttle and countersteer to dictate the attitude of the car, and when linking turns, wait for the pause and unwind the wheel the proper amount at the proper time.
Easy in theory. In practice, we're presented with a straight followed by a tight 90-degree right-hand turn followed immediately by a 90-degree left. In theory: Scandinavian flick to the left, enter the dogleg with a right flick, flick left and keep going. In practice: understeer off the first corner. Or spin in the dogleg. Or understeer off the second corner. Or do it just right and leave the smoke trail behind you.
This is my first experience with the Scandinavian flick. Identical in name and execution to the rally staple, when, for example, approaching a right-hand turn, you let off the gas (or touch the brakes) to unload the rear tires, jerk the steering wheel to the left so the now unloaded rear tires lose traction, oversteering you to the right, then you jerk the steering wheel to the right, changing the direction of the slide, for the right-hand turn.
It's a lot easier to do on dirt than on high-grip pavement. Come in too fast and the car understeers. Come in too slow and you won't have enough momentum to upset the rear. Load the suspension too much, or wait too long to unwind the wheel, and you snap-spin. Knowing how much countersteer to add is something that comes through feel and practice, and we're given plenty.
After another of the many A/C and water breaks, instructor Les stresses the need to look ahead through the turn to where we want to end up, because that's where the car will go. This holds true whether you're drifting, grip driving or just trying to avoid an accident. Once this becomes reflex, it's amazing how the drift-and the numerous actions required to maintain it-happens smoothly.
The importance of timing is demonstrated on a tight figure-8 course, where we initiate a drift moderated by both countersteer and the throttle, rotate 180 degrees, feel the pause, lift off the gas to unload the rear tires, and whip the rear of the car in the other direction to complete the other side. This is tough. My main problem is being too enthusiastic with the throttle, causing too much speed on the transition, which in turns makes the car understeer or snap-spin.
It's all timing. Knowing when to unwind the wheel, feeling the pause, knowing how long to pause and knowing when to apply the throttle. And how much to tickle it.
Most of the experience drivers have ass-out, especially those with front-wheel-drive cars, is from exploring the fun that is the emergency or turning brake. "Lots of e-brake use is for pussy drifters" is the message we get. While it's very useful for correcting line middrift, you should be able to use momentum and loading the suspension to initiate near any drift, rather than locking up the rear tires entering the turn. In fact, the only time we use the emergency brake is practicing 180-degree skids in mid-'80s cop cars with foot-actuated, master cylinder-operated e-brakes.
Oppressive heat means 3:00 marks the end of the day and the program, but not before one last exercise designed to tie it all together. We must drift, or attempt to drift, around a kidney bean-shaped section of track, trying to keep the car sideways for a long straight, a 180-degree, high-speed sweeper, a straight with a kink and another high-speed sweeper.
A/C on full, windows down, I line up. With the traction control off, there's nothing stopping me from doing a brake-holding, tire-roasting start. Goodyears still screaming, I flick it hard into the left-hand sweeper, metering the power to keep the GTO rotated, and try to drive up toward the apex. At the apex, I see the track continuing left, so I keep my foot in it, pointing the car past the 180-degree mark. The track bends right, so I lift momentarily to transfer the weight to the front tires and kick the rear out to the left. I do my best sawing at the wheel to keep the car going anywhere but straight for the 200 feet of straightaway, slowing the car before flicking to the right, then left for the final 180-degree, long, fast sweeper.
If it sounds difficult, it is, largely due to the length of the course, large radius of the turns and the speed that's built between them. I do it once, sort of, but mostly only hit parts of it. And then I pick the nastiest, blackest booger you've ever seen.
We leave exhausted, happy and sated.
For more info, contact the Bondurant Drifting School at (800) 842-RACE or www.bondurant.com