Grip motorsports are way different than drifting. In drifting tire squealing, insane sliding angles, and forest fire levels of tire smoke are the norm… conversely, anything remotely resembling such vehicle behavior is cause for panic for a grip driver. As different as the two disciplines are to the eyes, the suspensions under the cars are in some ways similar and in other ways divergent when compared part for part. There are many other misconceptions at work here. Stanced suspensions and a properly performing grip or drift suspension are not mutually exclusive. Spring rates matter, sway bars matter, setup matters.
A General Perspective
Weekend warrior drifters often spend too much time complaining about a lack of power and not enough time addressing the balance of their car. Get the suspension setup right, learn the trade behind the wheel, and then look into packing more ponies under the hood. Desirable attributes include a touch of understeer and quick steering turn-in.
Too often beginners look for oversteer and by biasing too much in that direction they fail to learn how to induce oversteer and maintain it. The car does most of the work and the overzealous setup makes precise control more difficult. The road race driver wants stability, traction, and balance. Where the drifter looks to induce sliding, the road racer looks to avoid and limit it. Any motion not moving forward is detrimental to lap times and a death knell to the task at hand. Road racer’s tires need to last more than the five minutes of abuse that’s unleashed on the drifter’s tires. Everything about the road racer’s car is about gradual movements, predictable weight transfer, and controlling the contact patch.
Shock performance is key for grip, drift, and the daily commute. It is also one of the points of deviation between drift and grip. Road racers run super stiff spring rates that jar cavities loose, compress vertebra, and pound the contact patch into the ground. Drifting benefits from a simple, one step beyond stock approach… something more in line with an autocross set-up. The prototypical Silvia/240SX or AE86 Corolla will do well running 8kg front springs and 6kg rear springs. The setup should be stiffer in front.
Lowering ride height is another key. Stanced is about a look, drifting and road racing are about geometry. Wheel travel matters. In this area a moderate two inches of drop or so will suffice. Bottoming out is bad news when drifting as the entire car is on edge. An abrupt bottoming dramatically upsets the car’s balance, which usually translates into a spinout on the drift course.
Addressing dampening is another don’t go too stiff proposition. Do so and the car will tend to bounce abruptly leading to imbalance and difficulty in control at least… spinning out at worst. Go too soft and the car will feel like it’s floating, delivering vague feedback. Like the springs, you want to focus on the front and rear weight transfer. This is where the transition into drift and the feedback you get during drift can be optimized. Generally softer rear damping adds rear grip, which enhances forward bite. The balancing act is between the bite and the ability to maintain drift, the bite wants to straighten the car out. A stiffer rear will slide out easier and initiate better but the car may be harder to control within the drift. More rear grip and more forward bite appeal to the road racer.
Adjustability: Beyond Basics
Bolting on parts does not a drift car make. Alignment is king. In many ways all the hard parts installed on a drift or grip car are there for their ability to be adjusted. These parts give the tuner the power to manipulate weight transfer, rebound, compression, quickness of action… and reaction, and the all-important contact patch. We’re not talking about ride height anymore: aftermarket steering knuckles, adjustable tension rods, adjustable toe, camber links or plates depending on your suspension. It’s about g-forces.
Camber is the most talked about adjustment. It’s the angle of the top of the tire compared to the centerline. It’s an especially big issue for stanced cars which go too extreme compared to a grip or drift car. Stance rides are negative camber for aesthetics not performance. Some stanced set-ups, dubbed Demon Camber, are nightmares as far as tire wear and tire longevity are concerned, not to mention basic safety. But it has certainly captivated the scene. The ballpark here is three to four degrees of negative front camber, closer to three on multi-link set-ups, nearer to four on strut-type cars.
Caster is a more complicated concept. Looking at the side of the car, caster refers to the angle of the steering pivot center line, an imaginary line that runs between the top and lower ball joints. Positive caster is realized when the top of the pivot is leaning toward the rear of the car, if it is leaning forward, caster is negative. The magic number for drifters is five to seven degrees positive, as much in this range as possible without suffering tire/fender interference. The benefit is an enhanced ability to counter steer. The steering self corrects super quick and the driver need only let the wheel rotate through his hands. Road race cars do not desire this drastic self-counter steering effect as their cars are very rarely ask to transition that extremely between corners so their caster settings are far less aggressive.
Toe is a deviation point between grip and slip. Adjusting front toe out is a key for initiating drift, as well as getting and keeping the car balanced while in drift. This makes it easier to be precise and nail your clipping points, which are akin to apex cones in a road race scenario. Typically, around an 1/8 of an inch of toe out should suffice. This setting’s abrupt nature can be counter productive in a grip car because of the quick weight transfer and jittery, snappy behavior it can produce so road racers say no to toe.
Steering angle is another popular mod for the drift camp. Adding angle to your steering can be accomplished by installing a spacer between the inner tie rod joint and the steering rack. The better method is a purpose-built knuckle. These pieces deliver the angle but keep the geometry of the steering system within spec. With more steering sweep the drift driver can keep the car moving forward at much greater angles, angles that would result in a spinout if it weren’t for the steering modification.
The Grip Perspective
Eric Plebani is the Technical Director and Lead Fabricator for WORLD Racing and WORLD MotorSports East. He handles a lot of prep, fine tuning, and repair on Christian Rado’s winged menace time attack Scion tC.
His comments illustrate that success is not always about carving apexes, it’s about survival. “With our focus on time attack the most important hard part was the hub and bearing assembly for the front wheels,” says Eric. “A lot is asked of these assemblies, they drive and steer the car suffering through a wide range of different g-loads.” “We started out using OEM Toyota hubs and bearings and realized very quickly the shortcomings of the factory set up because of the substantial amount of load and heat put upon these components. Next in the pecking order was spherical bearings, basically replacing rubber or poly bushings, then the obvious components like sway bar, shock, and spring rates.”
We asked Eric what he saw as the three biggest differences in suspension set-up between the two disciplines. “I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in drift suspension,” quips Eric, “but for grip racing we want as much of the tire contact patch to be usable under loaded conditions, in all travel of the suspension. We also had to utilize aero for added downforce on our power wheels, which also were the wheels we steer with. We also had to compensate our suspension to be able to handle that high downforce load with the car at high speed. So the biggest difference I see are contact patch, steering angle, and downforce compensation.”
Sometimes the hardest part of getting started is figuring out where to start and understanding the cause and effect relationship of the changes made to the suspension. Eric says the mistakes he sees amateurs make most often have to do with fashion. “Buying the fad suspension,” says Eric, “and putting too much emphasis on ride height components while ignoring the parts that take more of the stress in the suspension equation, like joints, bushings, and attachment hardware.”
“As far as setup goes I often see improper alignment under high-load conditions, just because it’s low and looks good and handles decent at slow speeds doesn’t mean the suspension is producing the correct amount of tire contact and travel to the ground. Hit some bumps at high speed under load with a slammed car that throws the alignment in and out, besides being ‘unsafe at any speed’ it looks like a flopping fish out of water… Make it tight! Dial in the contact patch, and have the dampening correct. Then you’re open for business.”
“With our roots in drag racing and now road racing our mindset has always been ‘more traction than power application.’ Traction and grip were always the challenge especially since we campaigned front-wheel-drive vehicles for Toyota and Scion. Making power was never an issue, but applying over 1,000 methanol, turbocharged horsepower to the front wheels that we are steering with on a road course was a challenge, but we figured it out and set numerous track records.”
Boxed / Shock / Magic Hub
Boxed– “We boxed in and strengthened the attachment points for the upper control arm, shock mount, and steering swing arm. From our steering rack, the heim joint attaches to the steering swing arm, then our tie rod connects that arm to the hub. All for strength under high load cornering.” – Eric Plebani.
Shock– “We wanted to keep the shock set inward as much as possible to house the widest tire we could fit, since we are powering the wheels we are steering with. We have the shock setup on a sort of bell crank arm is actuated by the lower control arm. As you can see from the upper arm we wanted as much adjustability to maintain tire contact patch under load and we strengthened it as much as possible so bushing flex was minimal.” – Eric Plebani.
The Magic Hub– This was a beefy unit that houses Porsche 935-style bearings. We needed a hub that had no structural issues and could house bearings suited for high speed, high heat, and hard cornering with minimal deflection. It also needed to safely locate our brake calipers. If you look at the hub, it’s very similar to what we used at WORLD Racing in our drag program. The evolution from Rado’s Integra, to the Celica, to the silver Scion, to the Reaper Scion saw the evolution of the hubs, the failures we suffered from running a stock Camry hub were remedied with this solution. As a matter of fact, all these suspension/hub upgrades are a direct result of the failures we would constantly endure on F-Wing 1 (Black Betty) which eventually led to the world record setting F-Wing 2.” – Eric Plebani.
A Drift Perspective
Taka Aono was drifting in America before there was a Formula Drift series. His enthusiasm for the sport, and willingness to offer his advice and insight in the early Drift Days era of American drifting can still be felt today. Aono is known as The Flying 86 because he is the only Formula D competitor still racing a Toyota AE86 Corolla. He’s a privateer with major sponsorship from Hankook Tires and Megan Racing. Being a privateer means he has set his own car up for years, and the fact that he is still in Formula D means he’s good at it.
Aono says a limited-slip differential is his number one mod for both disciplines. “A clutch-type LSD will change how much traction you’ll get at the exit of the corner or how stable the car remains at initial turn-in. This is important for going fast. But the choice of LSD is different,” relates Aono. “For drift, a 2-way’s hard engagement is the way to go. For grip, the softer engagement of a 1-way or 1.5-way tends to not upset the car in the transitions, off throttle, and so on.”
Focusing on grip, Aono points to the almighty contact patch. “Tires are key. To setup a grip suspension, we need to decide what tire is going to be used. That’s the beginning of the traction process. Then look for right spring rate/shock combo. This is a common mistake,” Aono is quick to point out. “Get the tire right first! Make sure it is not bottoming out on coilover. Make sure the suspension arms are not binding throughout the suspension travel sweep. If you have adjustable parts, play with them. A lot of people don’t do anything once they install the parts.”
Focusing on drifting Aono had a very unique perspective pointing to seat time. “You need to go sideways and control the car to call it drifting. If you cannot go sideways and keep it sideways, it is not drifting, hence, seat time.” This also relates to his insistence on adjusting one’s adjustable suspension and the only way to gauge your progress is to experiment, and to quote Aono, “hence, seat time.”
When it comes to similarities Aono says both styles should run harder spring rates than factory setups. “I feel it’s more comfortable with less roll motion and that stability makes it easier to move the weight of the car around and attain a balance.” Oddly, what you do with the balance between the two styles differs but the starting point is the same. “Up to some point, grip and drift suspensions can share many aspects of their setup but rear camber is the big difference,” says Aono. “Drift cars tend to run less camber (0 to negative 0.5 degrees). For serious grip car setups, we tend go more aggressive like negative two to four degrees of rear camber. Front geometry for drifting nowadays isn’t really useful in grip. Drifters modify knuckles to gain more steering angle and quicken response.”
“Dynamic front toe changes due to steering input is critical in drifting. These modified knuckles are not grip friendly. Ackerman angle is the hot topic in drifting. Also, anti-squat versus squat setups for pro drifting cars… there’s always a debate about something going on.”
Aono’s philosophy on suspension setup/tuning was most enlightening. “To dial it all in, we need to feel the difference between the setups. To really feel it, the driver needs to feel comfortable driving it. He should be able to do things without thinking… especially in drifting setups. When we shake hands, we don’t think about the angle of our shoulder joint nor the angle of our forearm… we just do it. Ideally, we want that natural intuition setting up cars. Then small, minor differences are felt and fine tuning can happen.”
The big take away is that drift and road race suspensions are adjustable and experimentation is the gateway to success. If you’re an aspiring weekend drifter or gripster get out there on the track and run. Log some laps, make changes to your set up, run more laps, and gauge the difference. Advice is good, but experience is priceless.