Drift racing is becoming a more and more prevalent form of motorsport. What started as a grassroots weekend competition has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar industry. However, one aspect that’s unique to drifting—especially from, say, NASCAR—is that fans can recognize many of the cars. Formula Drift vehicles begin life as regular street cars that teams modify for competition.
I recently attended the fourth round of the Formula Drift Championship in Englishtown, New Jersey, to get a closer look at driver Ryan Tuerck’s 1,000-horsepower Toyota GR Corolla—built by Papadakis Racing—and find out how it differs from the street car on which it’s based. Turns out there are six key ingredients that transform Toyota’s capable hot hatch into a flame-spitting, tire-slaying drift racer.
Converting to Rear-Wheel Drive
The GR Corolla arrives from the factory with all-wheel drive. While that’s great for maintaining traction on the street, rear-wheel drive is a necessity when it comes to professional drift racing. One of the first steps in the conversion involved rotating the engine 90 degrees to go from a transverse (sideways) engine layout to a longitudinal (lengthwise) configuration. This allowed the team to mate the engine to a four-speed racing transmission—very similar to what NASCAR previously used.
The next step was to make space for the massive aftermarket transmission that Toyota didn’t originally intend for use in the GR Corolla. This involved creating a cavity in the firewall—which separates the engine bay from the cabin—and the floorboard.
The rear of the car required equally crazy levels of fabrication work to send power to only the rear wheels. This process involved swapping in an all-new differential. This component translates power from the driveshaft—which delivers power to the back of the car—to the axles, which are connected to the wheels. Papadakis Racing also swapped in beefier axles that can accommodate more than triple the GR Corolla’s initial 300-hp figure. Yes, you read that right.
Eking Out 1,000+ Horsepower
The standard GR Corolla receives a turbocharged three-cylinder engine cranking out 300 horsepower. That’s all well and good for a road car, but drift cars have become absolute missiles when it comes to horsepower. The race car uses a heavily modified 2AR engine pumping out around 1,000 hp—for those who are keeping track, you’ll find the standard variation of this engine under the hood of Toyota’s RAV4 and Camry models, as well as the Scion Tc. Having said that, the block itself is really the only commonality under the hood between the road car and the race car.
Papadakis racing took the stock 2.0-liter engine and expanded the stroke of each piston. These “stroker” motors use a different camshaft that allows the piston to travel deeper into the block—therefore increasing displacement to 2.7 liters. However, the biggest power adders are the turbocharger and nitrous bottle. The turbo adds power by forcing more air into the combustion chamber—adding to the air, fuel, and spark, that make internal combustion possible. Along with much more capable spark plugs and fuel injectors (the engine now has two injectors per cylinder instead of one), nitrous simply adds even more oxygen into the combustion chamber. More oxygen means you can inject more fuel, which inherently means the engine makes more power.
It’s no surprise then that essentially all of the engine’s internals were swapped with burlier components to cope with the extra power. However, it’s a far cry from being as reliable as the street car. “The weakest link on the engine is the head gasket,” says team owner and engineer Stephen Papadakis. “The challenge is that we’re at the limit of what the cylinder head and the block can take.” No surprise, as a factory 2AR engine is built to handle 185 horsepower. Not 1,000.
The team has two identical engines (A and B, if you will) at its disposal to run the eight races in a Formula Drift season. Mechanics will do a minor rebuild of the A engine after the first four races and swap in the B engine. Papadakis says that the rod bearings are the most worn component due to the amount of horsepower (250) each cylinder has to cope with.
Adding Steering Angle
Winners and losers in drift racing are determined by a team of judges. Love it or hate it, one of the big facets they look for is the angle of the drift that drivers can hold during competition. This essentially means how far the rear of the vehicle slides out from the standard direction of travel. This “slip angle” is how big the drift is.
These long continuous slides are fantastic to watch but require extra steering angle—how far the wheels can turn left or right—to allow the drivers to avoid spinning out. When sliding a car, drivers have to counter-steer in the opposite direction of the slide to keep the car in control. “The driver will point his front tires in the direction he wants to go and will use the throttle to spin the rear tires and get angle out of the vehicle,” says Papadakis. It’s very similar to the “turn right to go left” ethos from Cars the movie. The competition GR Corolla received all new steering components at the front end to extend the amount of steering lock—all to accommodate these mind-bending angles during competition.
The average road car will have a steering angle of around 35 degrees, while Ryan Tuerck’s GR Corolla can achieve roughly 65. This (frankly ridiculous) amount of lock is made possible with longer lower control arms in the front suspension. Along with the extended steering angle, Tuerck’s drift car uses hydraulically assisted power steering instead of the electric assist unit in the factory GR Corolla. This improves the steering feel, giving him a better idea of what the front wheels are doing during a competition run.
Fitting Bigger and Stickier Tires
Your family sedan has tires that last many thousands of miles. However, formula drift vehicles are a bit different. Rather unsurprisingly, drifting is one of the worst things you can do to a tire when it comes to preserving tread wear—tire smoke is literally rubber being burned away.
With such high demands on the rear tires, drivers will go through a set every two laps, with each lap lasting roughly 50 seconds. “In somewhere like New Jersey (with a smaller track), we can probably get four laps on a set of tires, but we change them every two anyway,” says Papadakis. (Formula Drift rules also mandate that rear tires must be left on for two consecutive laps.)
The standard GR Corolla has fairly burly 235 section (235-millimeters wide) Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires at all four corners. However, drifting at the highest level of competition requires maximum traction. Contrary to popular belief, drift cars aren’t actually set up to slide super easily. Rather, drivers want as much grip as possible, which gives them more control and speed. Tuerck’s Corolla, therefore, has 265 section front tires and 315 rears. Along with the sheer width, these are Nitto NT555 tires—the brand’s grippiest road-legal tire.
Making Sure The Chassis Can Take a Beating
Per the Formula Drift rule book, all competition cars must retain the original steel unibody chassis between the factory front and rear suspension mounting points. However, this does allow for teams to chop down and reinforce some of the front and rear structures with steel tubing. Combined with custom composite body panels that flex on impact, these cars can take an absolute beating.
You’ll see above that Tuerck sustained a heavy crash after Branden Sorensen misjudged his entry speed and careened into the side of the GR Corolla. Following the incident, the chassis was fine. The same couldn’t be said for more delicate suspension components on all four corners of the car. The team worked flat out to try and mend the car, but ultimately there was too much to fix and too little time.
Fine-Tuning The Handbrake
Drift drivers have different techniques at their disposal to initiate a slide; one of these involves locking up the rear wheels using the handbrake. However, unlike the GR Corolla streetcar that uses a cable-actuated handbrake, the drift car uses a hydraulic setup to achieve the same effect.
When the driver pulls the handbrake—which is mounted vertically instead of horizontally—it sends hydraulic pressure to the rear brakes, which locks up the rear wheels. However, some drift cars (including the Papadakis GR Corolla) will have two brake calipers on the rear rotor; one caliper is connected to the brake master cylinder and the other to the handbrake. Papadakis says the goal with separating both systems was to avoid cross-talk between the brake pedal and the handbrake when both are being used at the same time.
Rather unsurprisingly, we’ll never see a GR Corolla like this on the streets. However, even though you and I can’t buy the exact car that Tuerck races, we’ll eventually be able to walk into a dealership and purchase the standard version—vehicles will go on sale before the end of the year. The Japanese automaker had a standard GR Corolla display booth set up near Tuerck’s pit garage, which still (in my eyes) looks plenty sharp.
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