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Promoting Ford Drifting - Get The Drift?
Chances are you don’t understand drifting, but Ford’s involvement is important for marketing the Mustang to a younger demographic
Additional photos Courtesy of Vaughn Gittin Jr.
Standing unobtrusively against the back wall of West Palm International Raceway’s press building, I can’t help but make an observation: I am the oldest person in the room by at least 20 years. All around me, younger guys with tattoos, piercings, and many with attractive young ladies by their side await the start of the driver’s meeting for round three of the 2013 Formula Drift season. The drivers, including Mustang pilots Vaughan Gittin Jr. and Justin Pawlak, are seated in the middle while crew members mill around the perimeter.
Outside in the paddock area, young spectators peruse the vendor displays. It reminds me of the early days of Fun Ford Weekend drag racing, only the vendors are targeting the latest generation of young people. As you’d expect, tire manufacturers like Nitto and Falken are represented by huge displays that also serve as tire mounting stations for the competitors. But there are also displays by HPI Racing (RC cars), U.S. Air Force, and the Universal Technical Institute, each trying to attract Formula Drift’s most ardent fan—young males.
If you grew up before 1980, chances are good that you don’t understand all the fuss about drifting, an automotive competition where judges award points for skill and showmanship, unlike traditional racing where the goal is simply reaching the finish line first. Drifting is also viewed by many as a predominantly Asian sport for Asian cars, although that image is quickly changing as American and European cars join the sport.
The origins of drifting can indeed be traced to Japan in the 1970s. Organized drift events have been held in the U.S. since 1996, but the sport really took off here with the formation of the Formula Drift series in 2004. Ford jumped on board a year later with an engine development program from Ford Racing. Using the then-new S197 Mustang, engineers worked with up-and-comer Ken Gushi to develop the 4.6-liter “Aluminator” crate engine, with Gushi scoring the first-ever win for Mustang in Formula Drift competition.
Today, the face of Ford in drifting is Vaughn Gittin Jr. and his attitude-infused ’14 Mustang sponsored by Monster Energy and Ford Racing. Since switching from a Nissan 240SX to the new S197 in 2005, Gittin has been promoting Mustang to the legions of young drifting fans.
Since switching from a Nissan 240SX to the new S197 in 2005, Gittin has been promoting Mustang to the legions of young drifting fans.
“It’s important to have Mustang involved in drifting because it gives Ford a competitive presence,” explains Ford Racing’s marketing manager Mickey Matus. “The nameplate also resonates well with the audience. There is a large percentage of the younger population that loves cars and performance, but they don’t connect with traditional racing like stock car or drag racing. They do, however, value and understand cars and they embrace the action sports world, a key component of which is drifting. So our involvement allows Ford to reach a new audience in a relevant way.”
Ford also pushes the marketing opportunities beyond the actual competition. If you attended the Mustang 45th anniversary celebration in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2009, you may remember the tire smoking exhibition by Gittin as he skewed sideways around the entire 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park road course. With a smoky entrance, Gittin also helped debut the ’10 Mustang during Ford’s special introduction ceremony in California.
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The 33 year-old Gittin understands the connection to the younger generation. As he told us, “The youth market loves it because, let’s face it, if you’re under 40, you have a short attention span because of video games and TV. This sport is short bursts of hardcore action, whereas traditional motorsports takes a really long time. Drifting is also easy to understand for people of my generation who have grown up with action sports—skate boarding, BMX—because a judged sport is not foreign to us.”
It hasn’t hurt that Gittin is one of the sport’s most successful drivers, with 24 podium finishes (first, second, or third) and the 2010 Formula Drift championship under his belt. This season, Gittin started strong with second and third place finishes to lead the points going into the third round at Palm Beach International Raceway, where he finished fourth. A pair of subsequent early-round loses dropped him to fourth place with two events remaining—Texas Motor Speedway on September 13-14 and the Irwindale Speedway final on October 11-12. You can check on Gittin’s 2013 finishing position at www.formulad.com.
When we visited with Gittin at Palm Beach, it was obvious that he is one of the sport’s top stars as autograph-seekers continually tracked him down for a signature. We asked about his switch to Mustang in 2005. “Not really being a Mustang guy, I was really excited by it,” Gittin told us. “The wheelbase is right, the track is right, and we know it’s easy to make horsepower. I was like, ‘Torque!’ after coming from a turbo four-cylinder. The Mustang was the best-kept secret of this sport and it had been in our backyard the whole time. That year, I won the 2005 USA vs. Japan, which was like the shot heard around the world—an American wins against Japan’s finest in a Mustang.”
Today, Gittin is not only a Mustang guy, he and his Monster Energy Ford Racing Mustang are imbedded in the Mustang lifestyle. He’s even built a ’69 SportsRoof and a Fox-body for exhibitions, plus he has his own line of RTR Mustangs that are available from Ford dealers.
“I fell in love with the Mustang,” Gittin adds. “It suited me, it suited my style. Through that, I fell in love with the Mustang community. Now it’s a part of me.”
Just as it’s important for Mustang to be involved in drifting, it’s also important to Formula Drift to feature a legendary nameplate like Mustang. “Ford has done a great job in the way they’ve approached the sport,” says Ryan Sage, a co-founder of the Formula Drift series. “The iconic nature of the Mustang is something I’ve always been fascinated with. We’re proud to have it as a staple of the series.”
Gittin points out that drift cars are engineered and purpose-built to drive sideways at 100 miles-per-hour. “They pull more grip than a lot of road race cars, pulling more than a g in some turns while sideways. The reason we need an 850-horsepower engine is because we dial so much grip into the car. We need that power and torque to keep the tires spinning.”
Gittin also understands the skepticism of older Mustang enthusiasts, saying “Their first thought is, ‘A bunch of guys sliding cars around in parking lots.’ But when somebody sees the sport live, or goes for a ride, their minds change instantly. Cars going inches from each other, 100 miles-per-hour, smoke, noise, 850 horsepower screaming at 9,000 rpm. Who doesn’t love that?”
Drifting and Judging
Unlike traditional motorsports, drifting competition is based on a judging system, with judges awarding points for line, angle, style, and speed. The first three are subjective; speed is measured. Per the Formula Drift website:
“Angle: The maximum drift angle at which a driver can maintain control of the vehicle throughout the marked course. Line: The drift line is defined as the ideal path that a vehicle must take on course and is marked by inner clipping points and outer clipping zones. The exact line is dictated by the judges at each track. Style: The driver’s overall ability to take the specific judging criteria and display it in the most personal and individual way, including aggressive flicks, closeness to walls, extreme angle, and proximity to the lead vehicle (during tandem runs). Style is probably the most subjective part of a run. Speed: A non-subjective criteria, speed is monitored at a specific part of the course.”
There is only one class for the top drivers.
Formula Drift events are held at major American race tracks, including Road Atlanta and Texas Motor Speedway, with the actual drift course using only a small portion of the track. Depending on the venue, it’s not unusual for over 60 cars to enter an event. However, single-car qualifying narrows the actual competition down to 32 cars. From the ladder that’s based on qualifying position, the cars compete in pairs, or “tandem,” with a lead car and a chase car.
According to Formula Drift co-founder Ryan Sage, “The lead driver is supposed to run the best qualifying line; the chase driver is following as closely as possible, using the lead car as what we call a ‘moving clipping point.’ The idea is to follow the lead driver as closely as possible, even if he goes off-line because it shows you have to ability to stay with him. Then the cars reverse and do it again. The driver with the best lead run and the best chase run will most likely win that round.”
From there, the cars move through the ladder with the top four cars facing off in the finals.