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Inside Vaughn Gittin Jr.'s 950HP Mustang RTR Drift Car
Anatomy of a Drift Car
What is early hot rodding but a tale of grassroots motorsport? Building answers to problems that no one had seen before is the modus operandi of hot rodding, with several firsts bookmarked in the pages of history. The first slapper bars, the first tunnel ram, the first slick, the first bumpbox, the first nitro Hemi. As things went faster, hot rodders had to find new ways to build new things out of new materials, and we've been doing it for about a century in land-speed and drag racing.
Even in Japan, drifting isn't a century old yet. In the U.S., the sport is barely old enough to drink. The current professionals are all yesterday's rookies, and someday they'll be the first of the old-timers; for now, pro-level drifting is the absolute bleeding edge of the sport, like an ever-expanding universe arranging the matter of its existence with every passing second. These guys are making cars do new things, and that comes with new problems to solve.
We met with Formula Drift driver Vaughn Gittin Jr. at Irwindale Speedway ahead of his final race in 2016. He drives the 2016 Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD and has been campaigning the Blue Oval's ponycar for more than 10 years, after essentially introducing American muscle to the sport. He's won championships all over the globe and in 2016 brought new challenges to Formula Drift, as Vaughn moved from the older, solid-axle S197 Mustang platform to the new independent rear suspension of the S550 chassis with his new 2016 Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD.
"Brand-new car for this full season," he explained. "This year, we started with a blank piece of paper and had to figure it out while focusing on [driving] the proper line and competing. It was quite a task this year."
What Is a Drift?
Controlled chaos—or controlled oversteer, at least. A driver initiates the drift with an abundance of speed coming into a corner (to account for the speed scrubbed off while sideways), often using the handbrake to break the rear tires loose, or "flicking" the car in by purposely swerving the car at corner entry so the sudden weight transfer is enough to throw the car into a slide. Other times, they'll "clutch kick," or quickly stomp on the clutch while on the throttle to shock the tires loose once the clutch reengages. Once the rear-end is sliding, the driver balances steering and throttle to set the vehicle's angle while also controlling the ground speed. More throttle means more speed, but it also means that the rear-end will often gain more angle, which is then answered with even more opposite-lock. Once the corner or drift ends, the driver will bring the rear back into line by adding more steering correction while rolling off the throttle slightly, bringing the steering and throttle back in line by dialing out opposite-lock until all four wheels are back in their place.
A drift car is not set up like you would think—with the rear dialed in as loosely as possible with rock-hard tires for easier breakage of traction—it's instead about exploiting every ounce of grip available while sliding, until the tire's available grip is completely exceeded and the driver loses control. "It's all about grip—grip is everything," Vaughn said. "Forward bite and side bite, and controlling it and having the right amount of each is the trick." Think about driving in snow or mud: With the right tires, you can still maintain a fair amount of control even when the tires begin to spin or slip. If you had bald all-seasons, you have no control because the tires have exceeded their grip at a very low speed—the same applies to drifting. Yes, it's easier to start sliding with no traction, but without grip you end up with less control over that slide.
With Ready to Rock (RTR), Vaughn's speed shop is based in Charlotte, North Carolina, deep in heart of NASCAR. It only makes sense that this rowdy Mustang ended up with a heart of gold, a 950hp Roush Yates 436 Ford with an Andrews four-speed dog-box transmission, essentially pulled right out of your favorite stock car. "It revs all day to 9,000 rpm," Vaughn said. "It's an animal, but for us, we're looking for a nice, driveable torque band, and this motor has a 4,500-rpm window of good, usable power. We can get to any track, make sure we're geared right [for the speed needed], and we have that power at any point in the track." In fact, V8s are common in drifting for their wide torque curves, replacing the traditional four-cylinder combinations found stock in most drift-car candidates.
The front retains the S550's MacPherson strut-based suspension, but uses a custom-built, inverted coilover with in-house, CNC-machined billet uprights and control arms. The result is more steering angle and additional track width to help the tire clear the frame at full-lock. The steering angle is key, as that directly limits the drift angle a driver can sustain, and RTR's efforts net up to 71 degrees of steering angle. "You need grip in the front, but mainly only on transitions, or during initial turn-in," Vaughn explained. Like drag racing, and even dirt-track, most of the black magic is happening in the rear. "Once the car is set and drifting, you're really steering with the rear tires, but it is a constant balance of putting the right amount of grip in the rear [with weight transfer] with the amount of power that you have versus the amount of grip that you have in the front." To help maintain control of that weight transfer, the RTR Spec 5-FD has around 6 inches of droop travel up front, which still isn't enough!
Independent Rear Suspension vs. Live Axle
2017 is Vaughn's first with the new independent-rear S550 Ford Mustang chassis. Even at the pro level, Formula Drift requires fairly stock body and suspension, with only minor changes allowed to the suspension's pick-up points and layout. So when he stepped away from the S197's venerable live-axle, there was a substantial difference between the two ponycars, especially when it came to laying down the power. "When we started the previous [live-axle] car, the setups we had to run to be as competitive as we were really put the car on a knife edge," Vaughn said. "It was very sensitive to throttle inputs, mainly getting off the throttle and unloading the car, and that's because of how we had to set up the geometry in the live-axle to generate the grip we needed for drifting. Whereas now that we're on the IRS, we have full control over what's going on independently on both sides with alignment. You can place as much or as little tire on the ground, or offset certain things (such as using wheel spacers to effectively give each side a different amount of sway bar) to make going one way a little bit easier while having more grip going the other way."
For drifting, a car with flexible handling is a more capable car to drive. A driver can get closer to his opponent during a drift battle while keeping a very finite amount of control over vehicle placement. "My job is to put the car where it needs to be, but I can't always be in full control. [The car ahead] will dictate when I can get on the throttle and when I have to slow down, so having a larger window of throttle modulation or off-throttle stability is the real benefit we've been able to dial in with this new chassis," he explained.