Creating a racing series from scratch is not easy, especially one that is unlike any other professional series. Formula Drift features style-based racing with a winner determined by a panel of judges. Every professional racing series needs rules and regulations – creating them was one of the biggest challenges faced during the inception of the Formula Drift Professional Series.
The unique thing about Formula Drift is that unlike other motorsports where it’s the clock determining the winner, FD is judged. So when it came to a rulebook, FD had no direct series to base theirs off of and ended up using the SCCA rule book and adapting as needed. Within the rulebook there are both technical and sporting rules. Technical encompassing what you can and cannot do to your car and what is required, safety wise. Sporting rules dictate how judging is done, how points are issued and so on.
Kevin Wells is Formula Drift’s Technical Manager. As such, he plays a pivotal part in the evolution of the sport. It is his job is to write and enforce technical regulations and uphold Formula Drift’s technical standards, aiming to make it more competitive while also evening out the field.
Wells stepped into the Technical Manager role a couple of years ago when Tony Angelo stepped out to make a return to driving. Wells had been involved in Formula Drift since its beginning, serving as Crew Chief for Falken Racing and Chris Forsberg Racing. With years of experience on the team side, Kevin came into the Technical Manager role with valuable knowledge.
Problems Wells saw in the past as a crew member, he has worked to eliminate. During his time as Technical Manager, he has focused on refining the grey areas of what is allowed (and what isn’t), separating the sporting from the technical aspects of the rulebook, and refining the driver licensing process. One of the first things he did was separate the two aspects of the rules. “The sporting regulations usually take a little bit longer to develop – so I wanted the technical ones out first. Because now you can be building your car if I hand a rulebook to you – and if the rulebook doesn’t come out until, say, January, there may be changes in there that…’Oh man, I didn’t add this to my roll cage and I’ve already had it powder coated, now I have to do this and take this apart….” says Wells.
Evolution is a logical progression in any form of competition. Probably the most evolved aspect of the Formula Drift series are the cars. Imports such as the 240SX with their 4-cylinder engines were very popular in the beginning – now the V8 is king. Wells states that it’s a “logical progression” as teams couldn’t “keep up with reliability, with all these extra components on there, with turbos failing, couplers coming off, we can’t keep up with that – and we can’t make the torque. If we want to make just the pure horsepower, we don’t have the reliability – it overheats and everything.” Dropping a Nissan V8 into Chris Forsberg’s Z in 2006, it didn’t take the rest of the field long to notice that “simple always tends to do better.”
The V8 seemed like a natural choice for power and reliability. With the abundance of Chevy V8 LS engines, they became the natural engine of choice for US drifting. “They’re cheap. You can pick them up at the junkyard and there are so many aftermarket performance parts. It simplifies everything.” Now all the most competitive cars are running Chevy V8s. Those that aren’t, are running high horsepower 6 cylinder motors pushing upwards of 800 horsepower.
As horsepower continued to skyrocket, FD implemented a weight-to-tire rule, in order to keep the field competitive. The rule limits the width of tire allowed based on the competing car’s weight. “So with X weight and Y tire, you’re going to be on a somewhat level playing field. There is no way to limit your horsepower…but if I put you all on a tire that’s 245 – why are you going to make 2000 horsepower if you’re stuck on a tire that’s a 245. So you basically have to limit yourself because you can’t put the power down anyways,” explains Wells.
In other cases drivers find workarounds. When the Wisefab suspension kits came out, they were illegal per Formula Drift rules. Kevin informed all the drivers in both FD and Pro-Am once the kit was discovered, to prevent privateers and lower level drivers from spending $2,800 on a kit only to have it removed by Round 1. Wisefab has since developed a Formula Drift legal kit complying with the Formula Drift rule book.
This past season, Wells saw the issue of tire de-beading becoming a problem. Teams were experiencing tire failures because they were running such low tire pressures in an attempt to increase grip. Talk of running with beadlock wheels was coming up, so Wells made a rule stating “You can’t run bead locks”. As Kevin explains, “If the top 3 teams go out and get bead locks, that’s $10,000 in wheels…then basically everyone else in the series is not going to be able to beat you, because they can’t afford to go do what you did. So I just made it that you have to police yourself and run a higher tire pressure so your tires don’t falloff.”
To enforce rules, competition cars are inspected in the beginning of the year. Throughout the year, Wells does occasional check-ins and pit walk-throughs. For example, rumors may crop up about a particular team or issue and Kevin will go check it out. Wells’ meticulous attention to the stock specs of all of the model/year variations used within FD help him determine when something is out of place.
Formula Drift and its rules have come a long way in 10 years. Kevin says it’s gotten to the point where a 50 year old woman recognized his Formula Drift shirt and knew it had something to do with cars going sideways. Ten years from now, he hopes that things like that become more common. When it comes to racing Kevin says, “The cars theoretically are just gonna keep getting faster and faster. But, I think that’s more of the reason to have the middle series…so that is where you can do driver development, and then you can put them into another car, instead of having that car come up – and then obviously it works better.”
-Andrew Modena and Kristin Cline