Building a professional drift car is harder than you think

And expensive
by Rowan Horncastle | Apr 12, 2020
PHOTO: TopGear.com
CAR BRANDS IN THIS ARTICLE

The shopping list to go drifting sounds simple: Buy a ratty old rear-wheel-drive car, then find somewhere safe to skid around, melt your tires, do some crashing. And yes, for some grassroots sideways enthusiasts, that’s the deal. But when you climb up the ranks of drifting and get somewhere near the summit (Formula D, Driftmasters, D1GP—that kind of elevation), things get a little more technical. And scientific. And expensive. So, we thought we’d do some invasive surgery and break down the build of a near 1,000hp nitrous-fueled championship-winning skid machine to show you just how potty these rolling bonfires are.

Be warned: Things are about to get oily and nerdy. Very nerdy. Now, let’s get the stereotypes and any ill-judged prejudice out the way first.

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Because the drifting community is polluted by hats branded with energy drinks, vape smoke and an overzealous online community, people often dismiss it as low rent. But in reality, the level of engineering in the cars as well as the precision and skill required with drivers is on a par with—if not above—other forms of top-tier motorsport. This BMW proves that theory.

It’s owned by professional Irishman James Deane, who also happens to be a rather dab hand at the old business of skids. Having started the art of ‘full-send’ in a ratty old Sierra at the age of 15 (remember the opening sentence of this story?), he won his first championship in the same year. And he hasn’t stopped winning since, now holding 16 national and international titles, making him the most successful drifter in the sport’s history.

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Most of his shiny trophies were won behind the wheel of Nissan Silvias. But seeking a new challenge,  wanted a new car—something a bit more German and a bit more BMW-y. Luckily, there were some folks in Latvia who’d already done all the heavy-lifting in turning a BMW M3 into a drifting demon: HGK Racing.

It may surprise you that a tiny company from a small country in the Baltics builds some of the most exquisite drift cars in the business. The level of fabrication HGK put in is well up there with any factory GT race car or WRC-spec car. It’s the real deal. And there’s a lot of fabrication, with very little left of the original road car once HGK gets involved—only the head- and taillights are the same. The build is so custom, the only way to get your head around the scale is to do some invasive surgery and break each component down, piece by piece, so you can see the scale of what’s involved.

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Put your scrubs on—we’re going in.

Chassis

Even though the car looks like an angry M3, underneath, it actually started out as something a lot humbler: an old BMW 320d. It shares all the same hard points as the M3, so it’s a cost-effective way of doing it as everything that’s not needed is chopped away and sold on.

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When it comes to rules of the chassis in drifting, there’s a lot of freedom: The chassis itself must be the same between the subframes, but you’re allowed to modify everything in front of the front subframe forward, and rear one back.

You can make everything from a tubular frame if you want. But Deane’s car runs the standard frame rails and floor pan. And before you think about going crazy and doing a mid-engined M3, that’s a no-no. You’re not allowed to modify the firewall. Other than that, the rules are very, very open: No restrictions on power, steering angles can be Black-Cab-on-Acid, and the suspension points on the rear can be changed to maximize grip and minimize tire wear.

Once HGK stripped the donor car down, fitted a cage, seam welded it up, threw a fuel cell in the rear and painted the chassis, it was shipped back to Ireland for Deane and his team to get busy with the juicy bit: the engine.

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Engine

An E92 M3? Must be a V8 under the hood, right? Wrong. Deane has a habitual affiliation with Toyota’s tuners delight—the bulletproof 2JZ—so he dropped an in-line-six in after a bit of heart surgery...and heavy tinkering. See, this ain’t any 2JZ, but a custom-built motor from his company, Deane Motorsport. They buy the short block off Toyota brand-new (yes, you can still do that even though the engine is as old as cassettes), then strip it back to get to the only bit of juicy meat they use, the standard Toyota crankshaft.

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All the other bits are sold on, then Titan Motorsport solid steel billet main caps are put on because even though the Toytoya ones are pretty heavy duty and good for 750hp, they have a tendency to fracture when you start juicing up the turbos, adding nitrous, and all that other good stuff. This car has all that other good stuff. It’s then outfitted with CP-Carrillo connecting rods, pistons with a 10:1 compression ratio (higher than you’d normally see, but the car runs on E85 race fuel so it’s perfectly happy), and the standard steel Toyota head gasket, but fitted with Brian Crower 280-degree camshafts, adjustable cam pulleys, 1mm oversized valves, dual valve springs, and CNC port and polished cylinder heads. Gucci.

Turbo

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Next up, a big ol’ snail is added—a BorgWarner EFR9180, to be precise. This is accompanied by Hypertune inlet manifolds from Australia, 45mm dual wastegates, Injector Dynamics injectors, and a classy billet rocker cover. It’s a setup Deane and his team have got down to a fine art over the years, and has proved to be a bulletproof wrecking ball of an engine, not having to put a spanner to it all season.

The 2JZ is not the golden bullet of drifting, though. In tandem drifting, you want to be within a gnat’s chap of your opponent, but with them braking and accelerating, that can be unpredictable. So, an engine’s responsiveness is key, but the mill also has to have enough torque and power to keep those rear wheels smoking. Being turbocharged, the 2JZ has inherent lag. This is bad. Some run a stroker kit increasing the standard stroke from 86mm to 94mm, adding a load of low-end torque in the process...but also a lot more rotational mass potentially making it go pop. So, that’s why you see other drift cars with big V8s and superchargers. But there’s something characterful to the 2JZ that Deane loves.

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“Personally, I absolutely love the sound of turbochargers, wastegates hissing, parts banging—the 2JZ is exciting and makes it exciting to drive, too,” he sahres. “I have to get at it, work the pedals, and keep the car in the right powerband, which is all part of the fun. And with a standard crankshaft and 8,800rpm redline, it sounds pretty mighty for an in-line-six, too.”

Nitrous

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As mentioned, the 2JZ has one detrimental personality trait: lag. But Deane has one little trick up his sleeve. Or at the bottom of a bottle: nitrous. Yes, Hollywood’s favorite elements from the periodic table and a roadman’s favorite laughing gas has been equipped to take the fight to lag and increase the engine’s useable powerband. Nitrous kicks in at 3,500rpm to help wake the turbo up. Think of it like the turbo’s morning coffee. Or cocaine.

It’s controlled by the ECU, and when Deane is over 85% throttle and in positive boost pressure, the nitrous spools the turbo. Initially, it was just used between 3-5,000rpm. But then they got greedy (you’ve seen Fast & Furious—nitrous has that effect), so Deane has raised the cut out to 8,000rpm to increase peak power and torque. In Europe, he uses a 75hp shot. But when competing in the US, he doubles it to 150hp, which is quite a punch. Typically, a bottle in the US would last four laps, then eight to 10 laps in Europe, taking power from 830hp to around 1,000hp. But they don’t really know for sure as it just keeps spinning its wheels on the dyno. In every gear. Yelp.

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Carbon-kevlar bodywork

Under that toothpaste green-and-blue Falken livery lies the awesome greeny-gold reptilian weave of carbon-kevlar panels. They’re beneficial in two ways. The first advantage is they save an incredible amount of weight. The 3-Series isn’t a featherweight, so as much chonk needs to be lost as possible, and these panels helped contribute to the 600kg diet. See the rear bumper? That weighs less than 1kg.

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The second advantage is the strength of the panels. Even after a year of quite literally bashing around the world and a multitude of shunts, the E92 still wears its original panels. Fiberglass bumpers would explode on first impact, so teams used to carry a load of spares to each event. Carbon-kevlar panels are so tough, they’re just rebonded or reshaped if they clatter into something—saving a load of money. And HGK does all its own molds, so they’re not widened overfenders and bumpers that tack onto the existing metal body. Oh, no. Instead, every exterior panel bar the A-, B-, and C-pillars is reformed in carbon-kevlar.

Suspension

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As you can imagine, suspension setup is quite important when initiating a car to go heinously sideways. So, there’s a suitably custom kit from Wisefab in Estonia (Eastern Europeans lurrrve to skid, see). It’s fully adjustable and has a monstrous 65 degrees of steering angle, making this the easiest BMW to park in the world.

With regards to the geometry, Deane runs it with quite a lot of caster so the fronts self-center quickly when penduluming from one drift to the other. There’s also a smidge of camber to keep as much tire on the ground when at full-lock, plus a tiny bit of toe out at the front. The damping is also not the norm with the front being quite firm and the rear being hard. This is so when you lock the wheels courtesy of Mr. Handbrake, the caster jacks the wheels up as you’re turning out, putting weight on the inside rear wheel to increase grip. The rear is soft to allow weight to transfer to the rear quickly, yielding as much forward and sideways grip as possible.

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Brakes

Stopping power maybe isn’t something you’d put too high up on the list of priorities for a drift car, and you’d be right. Drifters don’t need the ultimate power of a circuit racer’s brakes (pads can last a few seasons in drifting), but pedal feel is very important. The stopper needs to be consistent as drivers constantly adjust the balance with their left foot.

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But you may notice that there’s not one beefy Alcon caliper, but two. That’s for the hydraulic handbrake that gets pumped on and off (to avoid tire flat spots) and locks the rear to initiate a drift or apply more angle. Two big brakes also makes it look pretty badass, right?

Cooling

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With the car doing only two laps of drifting for a total of 60-odd seconds, you may think you wouldn’t need crazy cooling. But there’s a lot of energy—and heat—produced when you have 900hp at full chat and a custom-made thick aluminum radiator in the rear to feed. So, there’s integrated ducting that not only looks awesome, but also rams air to where it’s needed.

Clever aerodynamic accoutrements in the bodywork direct the airflow effectively: the tapered side skirts and vents to pull cool air onto the rear tires and extract smoke out the back; the front bumper ducts that are angled out toward the back of the front wheels to provide tire and brake cooling; and that split rear screen that diverts cool air through the rear of the car and, in turn, the rear-mounted twin-core, dual-pass radiator and cooling system, before it exits out of two large nostrils where your shopping normally goes.

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Wheels

Wheels are often seen as automotive jewelery, but in drifting, there needs to be function to them, too. The lighter they are, the better, but they also need to be strong in order to withstand a bashing.

Something you may not realize is the insane pressures that drifters use. Deane runs his tire pressures at the rear as low as 10psi (that’s sand-driving levels of air) to increase the contact patch of the tire but also keep the rear temperatures down. Just make sure the bead on the wheel is good enough that the flat tire doesn’t come off the rim over a bump. It happens. And instantly makes you look like a bit of wally.

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Tires

Just because the purpose of drifting is to intentionally incinerate your rear tires (Deane is judged on smoke produced, remember), you may think you’d want the crappest rubber possible. No, siree. Like circuit racing, you want a decent, reliable compound with grip. Yes, grip. And—given the livery—it may come as no surprise that the E92 is fitted with a Falken tire. The RT615K.

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It’s a semi-slick tire that’s got stacks of forward grip to build up speed and get into the triple digits on the speedo to initiate a drift, with a compound that gives grip when sideways. This is important when you’re off-throttle, so the car doesn’t wash out and end up in the Armco. But the tire also has to last. Well, a bit. It needs to be capable of withstanding abuse for two laps: a lead run and a chase run. If it can’t, it’s useless—like going into an Olympic 100-meter finals in a pair of flip-flops. Also, if the tires are too soft, they’ll overheat and have no grip for the second run.

As consumables go, it’s at the top of the list. Deane will go through a set of tires in 60 seconds. Which makes Chris Harris look like a saint.

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Inside

Anything that wasn’t needed in the cabin was binned. So anything you see either serves a purpose for skids or make things safer. As you can see, the standard BMW dash has been ripped out and replaced by a lightweight composite variant. Any replacement panel that could be has been made from carbon; including the passenger footwell, door cards and pedal box. The roll cage, seats and harness are all FIA-grade to be able to protect Deane and his noggin if he has big shunt. Which he has in this car.

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Last year, at the final round of Driftmasters Europe, Deane had the biggest crash of his 13-year drifting career when he aquaplaned at Mondello Park and speared straight into the wall. Luckily, because of all the precautions put in place (and because the E92 is a sturdy beast) both the car and driver were absolutely fine.

Balance

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With the car being front-engined and rear-wheel-drive, you’ll expect the weight balance to be biased toward the nose of the car, right? Wrong. Deane’s Bimmer has as 48:52 weight distribution to get as much weight over the rear wheels for improved forward momentum and grip. So, anything heavy that could be put in the back was—fuel tank, radiator, dry-sump system, oil-cooler, and battery.

The wheelbase also has a massive varying factor in changing the way a car feels on the limit. Cars with a shorter wheelbase like a Mazda RX-7 (a 95-inch wheelbase, if you’re keeping notes) will transition insanely fast, making it snappy and putting the driver on edge as they’re always thinking one-step about what it’ll do as it can get a bit fighty. Nissan Silvias have a 99-inch wheelbase, so they’re very forgiving and neutral, but can be driven aggressively going from one big angle to another. But the BMW is a big old boy (roughly a 109-inch wheelbase), meaning Deane has to work the car a lot harder for it to change direction and get into a flowing run. It has its upsides, though, as it’s slower to react, making it smooth and fluid, and not requiring many corrections when it is going sideways.

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Lines and hoses

Just like you want decent cholesterol-free veins to pump blood around your body, a race car needs good lines and hoses to pump all the fluids around the car efficiently. These braided lines and hoses are not only durable, they can also snap on and off—making it easy to find problems and replace sections if necessary. It also puts people’s OCD at ease, as the dry-sump lines, fuel lines, brake lines, coolant lines, and any other lines are all nice and neat. See, you’re either someone who has wires coming out the back of your TV and home-audio setup looking like Medusa’s bed hair, or you cable-tie them and hide them behind the wall. Deane and his team are of the second school of thought. Tidy.

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Cupholder

Who said race cars can’t be practical?! The Eurofighter even has a carbon cupholder and somewhere to store your iPhone. A Lamborghini Aventador has neither of these things, can’t skid half as well, and costs twice the price.

Price

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Now, you wouldn’t be the first person to have looked at old 3-Series classifieds with the intention to go and skid about. So, how much does it cost to take an old 320d and turn it into a championship-winning drift car? Well, around £150,000 to £200,000 (P9.5-12.6 million). Which, if you think about it, isn’t that bad. No, you can’t use it on the road, but the quality of the componentry and fabrication is some of the best in the biz. When you then think about what you’re getting for less than a used Lamborghini Huracan, it seems like a bit of a bargain.

Well, that’s the argument you can use to your significant other when you’re justifying that you’ve bought a ratty old BMW to go and do some drifting.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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