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Drifting: Showing Off Motorsports’ Smooth Moves

July 21, 2016

When IN Close published a video about illegal street racing and drifting in Kent, we heard from thousands of people. Many of our viewers asked us to follow up with a story about the legal, sanctioned drift scene in the region.

The sounds, smells and sights of Monroe, Washington’s Evergreen Speedway on a hot June weekend would hardly lead you to think of art, but this is DriftCon — the ballet performance of Northwest motorsports. 

“Drift is staying sideways and being in as much control as you can, and having a blast!” says Matt Nelson, co-media director of Evergreen Drift, sponsor of the DriftCon series.

Drivers intentionally oversteer a powerful, rear wheel-drive car at high RPMs, causing the car to go sideways in a controlled manner, and at DriftCon, through a defined angled track and set of corners. Drivers aren’t judged on speed as much as they are on angle, showmanship and tire smoke production.  There is no clock. Style is important.  And you know it when you see it.  Oddly, Olympic figure skating comes to mind.

Says driver TJ Fry, “Basically it’s the first lap, the last lap and the victory donut all in one run, in about 30 seconds or so.”  

“If you watch a NASCAR race, it’s impressive, but there are tiny little movements,“ continues Fry, who is himself a professional driver. “You look in a drift car and the driver’s very busy.  He may be pulling the E-brake, turning the wheel, shifting gears; he’s on the gas, on the brake, he’s left-foot braking, clutching,  everything. So it’s busy.”

The 60-odd drivers who showed up at the June 4 DriftCon were made up of professional drivers — seasoned drifters who have made it their life’s passion — as well as first-timers.  Drifters are true motorheads who spend considerable hours emptying out the stock guts of their cars (Nissan 240Zs seem to be a popular drift model), super-tuning engines, and extensively modifying the front steering and suspension systems to withstand the stress of pushing a car sideways against front-wheel angle.  Basically, a drift car at rest could probably turn its front wheels almost 90 degrees.

It’s that mix of drivers that makes DriftCon so fun.  TJ Fry drives for a living, has done stunt driving for films, and teaches driving in Snoqualmie, Wash. and elsewhere in the country.  Some of his students belong to military special forces.

Matt Vankirk is a tech professional by day, and a drifter at all other times.

“Racing is actually my life. I’ve dedicated everything I have to it. All my money goes to it.”

And all of his time.  Vankirk blew an engine weeks before the June DriftCon event, and spent every waking hour getting a new engine ready for the June 4 event.

Like other drivers, Vankirk learned about drifting from Japanese videos (the sport originated in Japan), and started in the infamous Kent street races. Bad choice, he says.

“I quickly realized that’s not the right way to do this. I got arrested a couple of times. I paid the price.  And then I started coming to the track, and quickly became a pretty popular name. I got my name out there.”

Vankirk won the 2015 Evergreen Drift Pro-Am championship.

Matt Nelson also emphasizes the benefits of the legal track, and speaks often of how this is an affordable and accessible alternative for dangerous street drifting.

“What this offers is a nice, controlled, safe environment to come out and have fun.  We have EMT medical staff on the course, so if anything happens they’re at your car in a heartbeat.”

“We do take it very seriously. We are doing it at a fairly high rate of speed, we’re going sideways, things are flying, smoke's flying, tires are flying, so we really want to make sure it’s safe,” says Nelson.

DriftCon is definitely a show. During the qualifying rounds and the competition, the stands are full and announcer Ben White keeps the show running with wickedly entertaining commentary and full-throat metal music mixes. He knows a lot about each driver, and he lets loose with a humorous zinger when a driver doesn’t have a lot of punch in his run.

And it’s a show off the track, too. The DriftCon trackside car show is a gleaming array of hoods-up, beautifully modified machines. Some of them are the result of individual craft; many exemplify what racing companies and professional engineering can do. You don’t have to be a gearhead to admire the sheer beauty and technology poured into these cars.

Adds Nelson, “It’s a great community. Everyone here is out to have fun together. It brings people from all different parts of the state, and it’s all about expanding the community.”  

The next event is DriftCon AfterDark, Sept. 10, 2016.   


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Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg

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This is a great little segment, good to see a few local guys introduce the sport in this fashion, hope to see everyone at DriftCon Afterdark this September! :D

So awesome! Thank you again Stephen and KCTS 9 for coming out to Evergreen Speedway and sharing some of the fun we all have at Evergreen Speedway.

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