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Formula Drift: 20 Years of Increasing Horsepower

When the first Formula Drift cars hit the track at Road Atlanta in May 2004, the grid looked very different than it does today. Riddled with Nissan S13 and S14 cars, most of which were lucky to hit 300hp if the conditions were right, the driving was more about finesse and momentum than raw horsepower and grip. Fast forward 20 years and it’s rare to find a Formula Drift car that can’t spin 1,000+ horsepower on the dyno.

Dai Yoshihara's Nissan S15 stayed true to the SR20DET powerplant that it had when it rolled off the dealership floor.

Formula Drift has long had open engine rules, meaning any engine is allowed to be swapped into any car (as long as chassis modifications required to fit the engine are allowed within the rule book), and there’s no cap on horsepower, power adders, or other restrictions. This has led to a diversity of manufacturers, engine configurations, and tire manufacturers that have been involved with the series over the years.

Casper Canul drove an SR20-powered Nissan S14 that pushed around 400hp to the wheels in 2005

Here's our retrospective look back at the progression of horsepower and engine configurations on the Formula Drift grid over the years.

Dai Yoshihara's SR20DET-powered Nissan S13 Coupe was very typical of the types of cars on the grid in 2005

2004 to 2007: The Beginning

Sam Hubinette dominated the first season of Formula Drift in 2004 in his V10 Dodge Viper. His Viper was the only V10 on the grid for the first several years of FD

  • Samuel Hubinette’s V10 Dodge Viper and Rhys Millen’s V8 Pontiac GTO are the rare, non-import vehicles on the grid in the early years.

Rhys Millen's Pontiac GTO was one of only a few V8 vehicles in Formula D in 2005, the year he won the FD Championship

  • The majority of cars are Nissan S13’s and S14’s, many of them sporting the Japanese SR20DET engine swap. While many drivers upgraded the turbos to slightly larger T3/T4 turbines, it was rare to see more than 300hp out of these engines.

Forrest Wang's Nissan S14 originally sported a Nissan SR20DET engine before it was later swapped to a Toyota 2JZ V6 engine

  • Some Nissan’s used the USDM KA-T engine, or even the RB25 or RB26 inline-6 engine out of the Nissan Skyline.

Chris Forsberg's VK56 V8 engine swap into the 350Z chassis was groundbreaking when it was debuted at the SEMA show in November of 2004

  • Chris Forsberg debuted his V8 VK56-powered Nissan 350Z at SEMA in 2005, piloting it on track in 2006. The vehicle put out just under 400hp, but with significantly more torque than the 4-cylinder SR20 he had used in competition in 2004 and 2005. This was the first of many V8 swapped cars in Formula Drift.

Stephan Papadakis competed in the early years of Formula Drift, using a turbocharged Honda S2000 that was pushing around 400hp at the time

  • The occasional rotary car or Honda appears on grid. The Bergenholtz RX7 would sport a 13B rotary engine under the hood, while the few Honda S2000 drift cars would have turbocharged F20 engines. Both types of engines pushed 400hp or so.

2008 to 2010

Michael Essa's V10-swapped E92 BMW in 2010 was pushing just over 400 HP at a time when the horsepower wars were heating up

  • Overall, the grid started to diversify in makes and models of vehicles, as well as engine choices. Jeff Jones’s S13 has a 1JZ engine, while Michael Essa swaps a V10 engine from an M5 into his E92 BMW 3-series.

The Drift Emporium Nissan S15 featured a Nissan VK56 V8 engine, which was a very unique engine setup at the time as teams searched for more torque

  • V8’s became more popular as an engine choice, in large part due to their flat torque curves and fewer shifts required around the track which meant fewer opportunities to mis-shift.

The Chevy Camaro has become a competitive chassis in Formula Drift now, but back in 2010, the Tanaka Racing C5 Corvette was one of the first Corvettes to compete in FD Competition

  • Several Ford Mustang’s appear on grid, with the occasional Chevy Camaro or Corvette. Otherwise, the grid is still dominated by import vehicles.

Bergenholtz Racing campaigned a 13B-powered Mazda RX7 for several years with Japanese D1 champion Ryuji Miki behind the wheel

  • Reliability becomes the focus, and engines start to push up to 500hp over the years. Turbochargers, Superchargers, and Nitrous become commonplace throughout the pits. The Drift Emporium G35’s had Stillen superchargers mated to the same VK56 engine block that Forsberg used in his 350Z (and later 370Z) for many years.

This Papadakis Racing built Scion tC that Tanner Foust drove featured a V8 TRD motor from the NASCAR program at Toyota. This was one of the early examples of a race-spec engine in a drifting chassis

  • Several teams start experimenting with ultra lightweight vehicles with large displacement V8’s on fat tires, creating inconsistent tandem runs. Tanner Foust’s NASCAR TRD V8-powered Scion tC is one of many untraditional V8-powered cars on grid.

2011: Tire to Weight Rule Created

The Gardella Racing Pontiac Solstice was driven by Ryan Tuerck in 2011. This was the first year where a tire-to-weight ratio rule came into effect.

  • In an attempt to level the playing field a bit, Formula Drift introduces a rule in 2011 that creates a sliding scale of width of tire to weight of the car, so lightweight cars much run much slimmer tires than heavier cars.

Eric O'Sullivan drove a Pontiac Solstice in 2011, which was the first year of the tire-to-weight ratio rule in Formula Drift

  • Smaller cars like the Pontiac Solstice are now competitive with the larger V8 cars thanks to the tire regulations. 4-cylinder vehicles are now pushing 600hp fairly reliably, while V8’s like Ryan Tuerck’s Camaro are starting to see 700HP or more.

The Bergenholtz Racing Mazda RX8 pushed nearly 800whp out of the 3-rotor engine, and was piloted by several drivers including Chelsea Denofa

  • Bergenholtz Racing builds a Rotary 20B-powered Mazda RX8, pushing nearly 800hp to the grid.

2012: The “Daigo” effect

Daigo Saito changed the game in 2012 when he brought his Lexus SC430 drift car to FD, pushing a rumored 1,200 hp to the rear wheels

  • Daigo Saito brings his 1,200 hp Toyota 2JZ-powered Lexus SC430 to the US and instantly changes the game. His ability to maintain close tandem with an excess of horsepower becomes the new benchmark.

A Vortech supercharger peaks out of the hood of Matt Field's Nissan S14 ahead of the Long Beach round of Formula Drift in 2014

  • Torque becomes nearly as important as horsepower, and a majority of Nissan vehicles on grid are sporting Chevy smallblock V8 engines like the LS7 in Matt Powers’ Nissan S14.

The RS*R Nissan S15 used a turbocharged VQ35 engine in 2012, with around 700hp to the wheels

  • Some vehicles start to play with 6-cylinder engines as well. The RS*R Nissan S15 sported a turbocharged VQ35 engine out of the 350Z, pushing around 700hp to the rear wheels.

2013 to 2016: 1,000 hp or bust

Matt Powers' Nissan S14 featured a Chevy LS7 V8 engine for several years. In the early 2010's, Chevy LS engines became commonplace, especially in Nissan S13's and S14's

  • 1,000HP becomes the new benchmark of horsepower. Many V8-powered cars start adding nitrous, turbochargers, or superchargers to bump up horsepower. The 2JZ engine replaces engines like the SR20 under the hood of many Nissan S13’s and S14’s.
  • Turbocharger technology starts to take center stage as sizing a turbo to the engine to maximize “power under the curve” is nearly as important as the peak horsepower number.

Vaughn Gittin Jr's Ford Mustang has been a balanced pairing of reliability and horsepower over the past decade of Formula Drift competition

  • Suspension development and steering angle starts to elevate the top teams as they convert horsepower to traction.

"Mad" Mike Whiddett's Mazda MX-5 featured an immense amount of steering angle in addition to the 1,000+ hp 4-rotor engine

  • Tire wear and breakage starts to become the limiting factor. Driveline parts like driveshafts, differentials, and axles become equally as important as the engine configuration to ensure the car lasts the entire weekend.

Alex Heilbrun's V8-powered E46 BMW dominated the Pro 2 class before he graduated into the "Pro" class in 2016 to become Rookie of the Year

2017 to Present: Sustainability

Papadakis Racing is the last team to operate a 4-cylinder engine in Formula D. They have developed the Toyota 2AR-FE to produce over 1,000hp and still be reliable enough to win championships

  • In 2017, the Pro 2 class (now called ProSpec) was limited to a 255 width tire, and in 2021, the series was further restricted to a single brand of tires. This was done in an attempt to make Pro 2 a bit more driver focused, and has led to a bit more reliability as less horsepower is needed to keep a 255 width tire spinning compared to larger sizes.
  • There have been small changes to the tire-to-weight classes in the top PRO tier of Formula Drift, which has largely kept the cars competitive. Many drivers who were flirting with 1,100 or 1,200 hp back in the mid 201x’s are now closer to 800 to 900 reliable horsepower under the hood.

Federicco Sceriffo's Ferrari 599 drift car has seen a multitude of engine powerplant combinations. When it debuted in 2018, it featured a twin supercharger configuration under the hood

  • V8’s still seem to dominate the grid, but the 2JZ engine has become more popular as well. You’ll see an occasional V10 or V12 like Dean Kearney’s Dodge Viper or Federicco Sceriffo’s Ferrari 599 GTB, both of which have played with both supercharger and turbocharger options over the years in search of reliable horsepower.

The RTR Motorsports Ford Mustangs have used a huge shot of Nitrous to add horsepower to their Roush Yates RY45 V8 engine setup for the past several seasons of Formula Drift

  • Top championship teams like the Ford Mustang RTR team often add nitrous on top of their race-built V8 engines to adapt horsepower based on track conditions and their opponent.

Fredric Aasbo's Toyota Supra features the original B58 BMW engine, with an upgraded turbocharger and nitrous to bump the horsepower well over 1,000hp

  • Teams like Papadakis Racing have even switched engine packages entirely, switching from the 2AR 4-cylinder package that powered Fredric Aasbo to multiple championships to the newer BMW-designed B58 engine that is under the hood of Aasbo’s current Toyota Supra.

The Napoleon Motorsports Chevy Camaro was the first Electric Drift car to compete in Formula Drift

  • Turnkey Industries out of Texas played built the first Electric drift car in 2019, utilizing a Tesla drivetrain as a replacement for the original V8 engine that came in their Chevy Camaro drift car. While the car qualified at a couple of events, it only competed in Formula Drift for a single year, but was potentially a sign at where motorsports might be headed in the not-too-distant future.

Fredric Aasbo's Toyota Supra is one of many cars on the Formula Drift grid pushing over 1,000hp. We are excited to see where the horsepower will evolve over the next 20 years of drifting!

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