Evan Perkins
December 28, 2018
Photos By: Mark Gearhart

Certain forms of motorsport are awash in over-publicized complexity. Formula 1 is a perfect example with exotic materials, stratospheric engine speeds, and mechanical wizardry that constantly have gearheads drooling¬. Top Fuel drag racing commands a similar shock-and-awe, its dynamite-like force barely contained by mere mortals. Drifting however, has never received the mechanical respect it so rightly deserves.

There is a stigma, albeit a highly inaccurate one, that a drift car really isn’t that complex or hard to build. “Grab the E-brake, mash the pedal, voila! On an amateur level, that may be true, but at the professional tier, a drift car rivals the engineering deftness of any racing machine from other disciplines. Pro-level drift cars are an exercise in mechanical expertise and precision that few people truly understand.

The sport of drifting is incredibly unique. It blends mechanical elements and driving styles from drag racing, road racing, and circle track racing into one automotive canvas. To be competitive, a car must accelerate off the line, be incredibly responsive to driver inputs to change direction and hold a line, and, like a dirt circle track car, turn and accelerate with the tires spinning wildly.

To shed some light on the art of slide is multi-time drift champion, Vaughn Gittin Jr., a racer that not only ushered Ford muscle into the drift arena but did it in an era when a pony car was considered an unlikely–if not impossible–champion on the professional drift circuit.


Suspension, Chassis, and Brakes

The suspension under a drift car is tasked with far more jobs than most racing machines. It needs to be able to launch the car off the line, be loose enough to drift, tight enough to accelerate through the drift, all the while remaining responsive enough to transition left to right.


One of the most unique elements of a drift car is the suspension, solely for the laundry list of things it is expected to do in this type of racing. When the car leaves the line, it must have the traction to accelerate, mid-lap it must remain loose enough to slide through the corners, while still maintaining enough bite to drive the car forward with the wheels spinning.

“It’s a mix between a drag car and a dirt car,” said Gittin Jr. “We want to be able to come out of the hole like a 60-foot and transition well but allow the car to drive out hard. It’s a perfect balance of forward bite, and side bite.”

Formula D, the series which this RTR Spec 5D competes in, places strict requirement on what the teams can and can’t do to their cars. “We only can move the suspension points one inch from the chassis, so this is still very much a Mustang,” said Gittin Jr. Changes come in the form of highly adjustable BC coilovers, custom RTR control arms, and custom RTR spindles. Whereas the standard Mustang suspension is a blend of ride-quality, grip, and overall road manners, the whole suspension package on the RTR is designed harmoniously for steering angle, correct bump steer, and optimal camber gain for peak angle (the sideways orientation of the car mid-drift). It’s a motorsports math problem the RTR team has excellently solved.

The basic suspension recipe, according to Gittin Jr. is really soft springs in the rear with really stiff springs in the front that allow the chassis to weight transfer with throttle adjustment. Shocks with lower rebound and higher compression, much like a drag car reside in front for the same purpose. “One click on a shock and a half pound of tire pressure is how dialed in we get these cars,” said Gittin Jr.

“Contrary to popular belief, drifting is not just spinning the tires,” said Gittin Jr. “We are setting up our chassis for as much forward and side bite as possible. That’s why you see our Mustangs running on three wheels.”

For example, if Gittin Jr. runs the Irwindale bank with the car set up for maximum traction, he can floor it and the car will grip without so much as a hint of tire smoke. “We are able to lock it down so much with the chassis we put under it that we can’t spin the tires, said Gittin Jr.

It’s crazy to think with 900-plus horsepower it will dead hook! Finding the balance between grip, and the ability to spin the tires is the razor wire the RTR team walks every race.

Tires are another area where many would assume a harder-compound would be easier to slide. However, the team is using competition-grade Nitto’s to bring as much traction to the table as the rules allow.

“We’re using street NT05 tires that are a super sticky, 140-treadwear and provide a ton of grip, but they’re a real street tire,” said Gittin Jr. “Also, we’re running single digit tire pressures on the ground because we want the biggest footprint we can get. We have so much grip we’re picking up the front end, so there’s a ton of travel needed in the front end. We rely on proper geometry to make sure the contact patch is where it needs to be.”

For data-logging purposes, there are also four infrared tire temperature sensors at all 4 corners of the car the team uses for later analysis and chassis setup.

Stopping the RTR Mustang is of little priority in drifting, though, like any car, it is still a concern. Hence, the car employs very lightweight brakes, lighter than most racing machines that achieve triple digit speeds. “We’re slowing the car down with angle rather than brakes,” said Gittin Jr.

There are two calipers in the rear, one footbrake, one handbrake. The footbrake is used for small adjustments whereas the hand brake is tied to the other caliper and breaks the tires loose for major directional adjustments.

Engine and Drivetrain

At the heart of Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s RTR Spec 5-D Mustang is a Ford Performance/Roush Yates engine. The 455ci naturally aspirated race motor sees stratospheric rpm, and 50-60 passes (laps) a race weekend and is stone-cold reliable.


Much like a road race oriented car, the poweplant of a drift car will need to be able to handle extended high-rpm blasts, only in drifting, the horsepower levels are often much high, routinely exceeding 1,000hp for many teams. Not only must the engines tolerate that brutal grunt, they must be able to do it lap, after lap, after lap, surviving heat, outlandish revs, and abusive clutch drops.

“You want a drivetrain that can handle what you intend to use the car for,” said Gittin Jr. “We’re using a Ford Performance/Roush Yates 455ci naturally aspirated race motor. It’s a very stout engine that’s an absolute animal.

The engine produces 900hp without the use of any power adders and that is, amazingly on the low-side of the power spectrum according to Gittin Jr. A Motec ECU controls fueling for the engine and a digital dash along delivers vital information while on track.

“We’re seeing 130-150mph wheel speeds,” said Gittin Jr. “That’s why we need the horsepower, the more you have, the more grip you can put in the car, and the faster you can go. We have to keep our tires spinning and we have to keep the car sideways, but without the horsepower, your grip is your limiting factor on your speed. The massive power numbers are a result of grip.”

Behind the engine is a four-speed NASCAR-style, dogbox transmission. Several teams have converted to a sequential-style transmission, but the RTR Spec 5-D relies on a good ol’ H-pattern-style transmission. Sending power to the wheels is a Winters quick-change differential that allows the team to make subtle gearing changes depending on track and grip level. “The Winters quick-change differential allows us to change our gear ratio within five minutes,” said Gittin Jr. “We’re constantly adjusting that to make sure we’re getting the right traction. We’ll use the gearing to add more grip to the car, or we’ll use the gear to be able to ‘drive through the grip.’ We’re changing one mph and that’s a big change.”

With Ford’s change to an IRS suspension, the RTR Mustang employs Driveshaft Shop axles on either side of the diff because they can take the abuse.

Drifting Evolution

Building a drift car for the pro ranks is not an easy task. The combination of engineering, durability, and power density required to be competitive rival any other form of motorsport.


As the sport of drifting grows in popularity, so does the ferocity of the competition, and the ante of the hardware involved.

“At one point it was just a few people running at the top level but there has been such a progression in the drivers and teams,” said Gittin Jr. “The other change is the tire technology which has been very, very impressive. There is so much grip!”

He also, adds that “there’s been so much American muscle that is taken over the sport. It is a V8 dominated world. That’s the cool thing about drifting. It’s so diverse. You don’t see that anywhere else.”

To those that still don’t understand the sport of drifting, that think it’s the slowest way around the track and a waste of tires, Gittin Jr.’s rebuttal is that “it’s one of the most fun things you can do on the asphalt in a car. It’s an expression of style, personality, and performance. There’s a whole lot of people who could build a car to run down the quarter mile in 9-seconds. There are very few people that could build a car and run it at 100 percent load for 45 seconds, 50 or 60 times a race weekend. The engineering is extremely impressive when you give it a chance. We’re just the hot rodders of today having some fun.”

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Photos by Mark Gearhart