BEIRUT: What started as illegal car racing on the streets has turned into an almost weekly event that brings dozens of spectators to their feet. It may not be as exciting as the car chases on television, but the sound of screeching tires and the plumes of smoke have certainly given car drifting a thrilling edge. “The Fast and the Furious” movie franchise has also appealed to many car enthusiasts, and has certainly raised the sport’s profile.
Car drifting is not a race; in fact, it’s more like figure skating in a car than a dash to the finish line, and while it seems like its premise is about losing control, the driver is more poised than he makes it appear. Drifting is essentially oversteering, when the car turns more than the amount the driver intends it, pulling the hand brake, and sliding sideways at full throttle. The faster the driver goes, the better.
Drifting tracks are also different from racetracks; they are closed circuits that can be shaped like a U-turn, or a series of S’s, and course markers and red cones are laid out for the driver, who should manage to maneuver his way around them. Those maneuvers are what get the drivers the points they need.
According to Hisham Saad, a professional racer and drifter, drivers are also judged on the looks of the car, the sound and the smoke, general drifting skills, and the reaction of the crowd. The driver himself is also judged on whether he’s cool-headed or nervous, which reflects on his drifting skills. The judges need to be drifting savants with significant experience in the sport.
For those exact reasons, not just any car can master drifting: Cars need to be fully equipped with the proper tires that let out just the right amount of smoke and suspension, which is the system of shock absorbers, springs and linkages connecting a car to its wheels. Cars also need to have manual transmissions and powerful engines.
A sports car with rear-wheel drive and a whole lot of tires to spare is considered ideal.
Professional drifter Paul Khawand has been behind the wheel for 15 years and has become a mentor for those looking to learn. Khawand runs a drifting school in Dikwaneh, where he teaches both drifting and the methods of controlling the car.
“The most important thing is to practice,” Khawand stressed. “I have made a lot of mistakes over the last 15 years and I am still learning.”
It takes a certain ability to balance the car in order not to oversteer and crash, and like everything else, practice makes perfect. Once the car begins to skid, a driver needs to react quickly.
While Khawand has seen his fair share of young drifting enthusiasts eager to learn the tricks of the sport, most of his students prefer to accompany him to car drifting events and see the magic unfold right before their eyes.
Events take place in different venues, and according to Khawand, more people show up to watch than one would expect, enticed by the roar of the engines and the smell of burning rubber.
“The louder the sound, the better,” Khawand said. “It’s attractive and it catches the spectators’ attention.”
Smoke is also essential, and the amount of smoke as a result of the tires shows that the driver is pushing on the pedal with maximum force and using maximum speed.
Like Khawand, drifters need to have a love for the sport, and the panic stricken have no place on the course.
Saad, who has been a professional drifter for six years and also organizes drifting events across Lebanon, shares Khawand’s love for drifting. His BMW is his prized possession.
“I’ve loved drifting since I was a kid,” he said. “It started out as a hobby, and it’s something I do only for myself.”
Saad usually rents a piece of land to practice on far from crowded areas and pedestrians.
Another drifting enthusiast and hobbyist is Andre Atallah, who is part of the Pontiac American Car Lebanon group, and has been drifting for 30 years. He has also participated in events and competitions abroad.
Atallah used to practice on weekends before participating in professional rallies, and his group owns 26 Pontiac Firebird Trans Ams.
“I love American cars,” Atallah said excitedly. “Once you use American cars, you don’t go back.”
Because drifting focuses on losing traction, it makes the motor sport a dangerous one, and drifters agree that safety is key.
Khawand makes it a point not to allow any of his students to practice on the open road, which he adds is the most important safety measure. In fact, Khawand’s group cooperates with YASA, a Lebanese organization aimed at educating individuals on the prevention of road-related injuries, to promote safe driving.