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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.