Pontiac GTO Drifter - The GTO may soon be revered for something other than drag racing BY LARRY WEBSTER PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID DEWHURST July 2004 Last February, in front of a sold-out crowd of 10,000 at Southern California’s Irwindale Speedway, Pontiac entered its first drifting event with a GTO. Although it likely hoped for a warm welcome from the youngish spectators, that didn’t happen. Instead, “We got booed,” says the car’s driver, Rhys Millen. But what should Pontiac have expected? Drifting is the country’s newest motorsport, and most of the fans are the same enthusiasts who think it’s cool to spend 50 grand hopping up a Honda Civic that—even when modified—can’t outrun a Corvette. The $33,495 GTO is a classic V-8–powered, rear-drive domestic pony car from a Western conglomerate. It’s in sharp contrast to the front-drive sport compacts the fans would have likely arrived in. Pontiac invaded their turf. In a drifting competition, drivers purposely fishtail their cars around an asphalt course. They are judged on their sliding technique, speed, and how far they’re able to hang out the rear end without spinning off the course. Some old-school racers think that introducing panels of judges—and the inevitable accompanying politics—to motorsports is a strange idea, but the kids dig it. And it is fun to watch. Rear-wheel-drive cars are preferred because a driver can easily put one into a slide with a healthy boot of the gas and, most important, keep it drifting. The Irwindale event was the lone U.S. stop for the seven-round D1 GP drift series. The rest of the events are held in Japan, where the sport originated. Pontiac and Millen will run a GTO in the new, four-round, U.S.-only series called Formula D Drift. The top drivers use rear-drive Japanese sports cars such as the Nissan 240SX, the Mazda RX-7, and the Toyota Supra. Typically, the cars have highly modified turbocharged engines because it takes a lot of power to keep the rear wheels spinning. We’ve been thinking that a big-engined sports car, such as the 350-hp GTO, would be easier to drift than a small-engined turbocharged car. Turbo cars typically can’t match the instant throttle response of a big V-8 and thus require more cajoling to spin the rear tires. What better burnout car can you have than a Corvette, Viper, Camaro, Mustang, or, of course, GTO? Rhys Millen pitched the idea of a GTO drifter to Pontiac. The son of rally legend Rod Millen and a highly skilled driver in his own right, Rhys, 31, owns Rhys Millen Racing (RMR). Neither Millen nor Pontiac would disclose how much the program costs, but Pontiac PR man Todd Christensen said it’s a fraction of what GM spends on the Cadillac CTS-V and Corvette road-racing programs. Our guess is $300,000 or so for the year. After years of testing race cars that were built to stick to the track, here was a GTO that was purposely meant to get unglued. Naturally, we wanted to know what it would take to turn a GTO into a drifter. So we borrowed a stock GTO from Pontiac and met Millen and his drifter GTO at California Speedway last March. Drifting rules call for the inclusion of a safety cage, fire extinguisher, and racing harness, and mandate the use of street tires. Competitors can do anything they want to their engines, and there is no minimum weight. Most of the modifications are the same ones racers in other series would make. The air conditioner, sound-deadening materials, and various other comfort features are ditched. Drifters hollow out the doors, remove the heavy rear bulkhead, and where possible, replace the stock components with lighter ones. The finished GTO weighed about 800 pounds less than a 3821-pound stocker. The squishy rubber suspension bushings were replaced with stiff urethane pieces, and the car was lowered 1.5 inches. We had to look pretty closely to find the drift-specific modifications. The most obvious was in the steering system. Millen’s crew left the rack alone and shortened the steering arms by about an inch so the tie-rod ends were closer to the kingpin axis (the line that a front wheel pivots around). This change allowed the wheels to turn farther. Think of opening a door: If you push three inches at the knob, it doesn’t open very far, but push the same three inches near the hinges, and the door opens a lot farther. The same principle was applied to the steering system. Millen says that being able to turn the wheels farther lets him hang the tail out more dramatically without spinning. That modification also increased the overall steering ratio. Millen, however, wanted even more responsive steering, so he installed a quickener. It’s a planetary gearset that looks like a hockey puck and is mounted inline between the steering wheel and rack. It multiplies the rotational distance of the steering wheel by 1.5 so the front wheels turn farther with any given input. According to Millen, his team experimented with numerous combinations of springs, shocks, and anti-roll bars before arriving at what he calls “a good baseline setup.” We assumed the goal would be to make the car tail-happy and eager to slide. Not so, says Millen: “You use the throttle to begin the slide, so we tuned the suspension and chassis for stability. This way, I can easily and comfortably hang out the tail. In some of the competitions, you’re doing 90-mph slides right next to walls—or other competitors—so the car has to be predictable and easy to slide.” There is a large hand-brake lever on the center console that works the rear brakes, but Millen says he has yet to use it. “Basically,” he says, “I’ll only use the hand brake if I completely blow it. I call it my hail-Mary lever.” They did install an adjustable brake-proportioning valve that limits how hard the rear brakes work. “You really don’t need rear brakes,” he adds. “For the next car, we’ll install smaller ones to save weight.” They’ve added about 100 horsepower to the engine by using Corvette Z06 cylinder heads, a high-lift camshaft, and freer-flowing intake and exhaust systems. Also, the stock engine computer, which manages the unneeded traction control and anti-lock brakes, was swapped for a stand-alone computer that GM sells with its crate engines. The most important modification, however, was increasing the oil supply to the engine. Forcing the GTO into high-rpm sustained drifts starves the engine of oil and can easily fry it. “We blew our first motor,” says Millen. Apparently, other magazines doing stories on drifting—also using Pontiac-supplied cars—blew engines as well. So a Pontiac PR guy, fearing we might want to treat a standard GTO press car to a drifting regimen, treated us to a five-minute tongue lashing about how those cars are not set up to drift. We doubt any production car was developed with drifting in mind, and it’s likely that many would meet the same ruination eventually. So don’t try this at home with Dad’s new GTO. With that in mind, Millen increased the volume of the oil pan and added an Accusump pressure accumulator. The oil capacity was increased by three quarts to about eight, and the Accusump maintains oil pressure during the slides. Now that Millen has figured out what modifications to make, he says he could turn a stock GTO into a drifter for about $25,000. We used four tests to compare Millen’s drifter with a stock GTO: our usual skidpad and lane-change tests, plus a slalom with unevenly spaced gates that we ran in two directions. Since tires have a huge effect on handling, we used the same brand and size for both cars. We thought the stock car would be faster in every test. After all, Millen’s car was built to oversteer—to swing out the tail—and we figured we’d have to take it easy just to complete the tests. We were wrong. In every test, the drift GTO was faster than the stock car. The drifter is not the tail-out beast we expected, but it makes a lot more grip. On the skidpad, the stocker pulled 0.85 g and Millen’s car did 0.96. Have a look at the precise figures in the accompanying chart, but basically that extra traction translated to every other test. Why? For one thing, Millen’s drifter is lighter and carries its weight closer to the ground, owing to the 1.5-inch lowering. A lower center of gravity reduces weight transfer while cornering, so all four tires take a more even share of the cornering load. Also, not only is there less suspension compliance in Millen’s car, but also the alignment settings have been altered (most important, the tops of the front tires were tilted inward) to keep the tires squarely on the pavement. Punch the gas while turning in Millen’s car, and—yahoo!—you’re sliding. Once you’re in the drift, the throttle is like a drifting rheostat: More throttle puts the tail farther out, and less throttle tucks it in. Admittedly, we’re drifting neophytes, but we had the car fishtailing like crazy. We haven’t sampled a turbo drift car, but the linear throttle response of the GTO made the exercise a breeze. The weirdest part was how wide we could swing the tail and yet avoid a full spin. We’d have the car just about completely sideways and think a spin was inevitable, but more often than not, it pulled straight when we commanded. The stock GTO felt completely different. In normal driving, its tail is firmly planted. Getting the tail loose requires a heavy boot of the gas with a jerk of the wheel simultaneously. Keeping it drifting meant frantic steering-wheel movements and a heavy right foot. It was far less precise, and compared with Millen’s car, there was a slight but perceptible delay between giving a command at the helm and the car’s response. Anyone who has done donuts in a snow-covered parking lot knows how much fun drifting can be. And it’s expensive on asphalt. Millen uses up rear tires every three miles and goes through 16 of them at an event. As for the booing, Millen coolly adds, “Once the spectators saw what this thing could do, the booing stopped and crowds formed to check it out.” Vehicle Pontiac GTO RMR GTO Roadholding, 200-ft-diameter skidpad, g 0.85 0.96 Lane change, mph 59.1 61.8 Increasing slalom, mph 43.8 47.9 Decreasing slalom, mph 44.3 46.3 Front spring rate, lb/in 137–177 900 Rear spring rate, lb/in 245–513 600 Negative camber, front/rear, degrees 0.20/1.05 2.50/1.50 In addition to the above suspension changes, the RMR GTO drifter also has a 165-percent-stiffer front anti-roll bar and does not have a rear anti-roll bar. Drifting Heats Up Pontiac is not the only automaker involved in drifting. Dodge recently announced it will sponsor driver Samuel Hubinette in a Viper. Both cars will run in the Formula D Drift series. Here’s the 2004 schedule: April 24–25: Road Atlanta, Braselton Georgia June 12: Reliant Center, Houston, Texas July 11: Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, California August 29: Irwindale Speedway, Irwindale, California Check out www.formulad.com. You can find more information on the Japanese D1 GP at www.d1gp.com. For amateurs, NASA runs a drifting series called US Drift (www.usdrift.com). ---- Bondurant Drifting School - Reckless driving done right BY JOHN PEARLEY HUFFMAN PHOTOGRAPHY BY KEVIN WING July 2004 The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving is a conservative institution. Concentrating on venerable techniques such as trail-braking, heel-and-toe rev matching, focus, smoothness, and patience, it’s a citadel of conventional racing wisdom and, as its winning alumni prove, undeniably successful. Until now, getting sideways at Bondurant was grounds for a discreet talking to, and too much of it could presumably lead to an escort off Firebird International Raceway and a van ride to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport. But Bob Bondurant has added drifting to his school’s course catalog. Bondurant teaching drifting is Henry David Thoreau subdividing Walden Pond into industrial development zones or Noam Chomsky advocating American military intervention in Belgium. It’s going to VMI to study poetry. Bondurant himself is crazy loco for drifting. “People are saying, ‘Oh, it’s just a fad,’” he said, “but I don’t think so. I love it.” That’s not particularly vivid language, but this well-traveled former racer is 71, and it’s still debatable who looks more like a junior-high-school vice-principal, Bondurant or Bobby Rahal. But his eyeballs did glow crimson as he spoke. “It’s been around for 14 years in Japan, where it originated. My grandson and I went to California Speedway to watch a demonstration with some of the Japanese champions, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really fun.’ Of course, we’ve been power-sliding for years. When I raced the Cobras, the only way to go fast was in a four-wheel drift.” Hard-core talk like that will have Professor Bob ordering up an anime character tattoo for his neck and dating “umbrella girls” in no time. With Pontiac supplying GTOs for Bondurant’s drifting instruction, four automotive writers were invited to sample the GTO itself and an abbreviated one-day version of what the school plans as a regular two-day program. No one was going to be transformed into Keiichi “Drift King” Tsuchiya or even Kazuhiro Tanaka, but at least we got a taste of drifting’s challenge, a preview of Bondurant’s evolving syllabus, and an opportunity to guiltlessly burn up some P225/50R-17 Goodyear Eagles. Except for those Goodyears’ replacing the standard BFGoodrich rubber, the six-speed manual GTOs on hand were absolutely stock. The cars that will be used by the school will be equipped with roll cages and probably rally-style hand brakes. They may also eventually have their suspensions tuned for drifting (less rear roll stiffness, for instance, for snap-action side-to-side transitions). Still, turn the untouched GTO’s totalitarian traction control off, and coaxing the 350-hp, 3800-pound car into oversteer is easy. First concentrating on basic car-control skills, instructors Austin Robison and Les Betchner put us through heel-and-toe and trail-braking drills and then let us loose on oval and road courses to practice (Bondurant’s 25-year-old grandson, James, fresh from drift school in Japan, will also likely teach). It’s always good to get out on a racetrack, but these were tame, predictable Bondurant-safe exercises. After lunch, we threw aside the preliminaries and started drifting. Whereas regular classes will include time in Bondurant’s “skid car,” which uses hydraulically engaged outrigger wheels to induce understeer and oversteer conditions, we skipped ahead to parking-brake abuse. Working on a large asphalt pad, we’d accelerate the GTOs toward a traffic cone, ease on (or, more often, slam on) the parking brake to loosen the rear end, then steer around the cone while easing off (theoretically) the parking brake and applying power to head toward the opposite side of another cone maybe 20 yards away, with the rear tires spewing blue-gray splendor. Then repeat, and repeat, and repeat. Performing these figure-eights is emboldening; you get into a full-hero rhythm, wagging the tail with brake and throttle. “If you get a reckless driving ticket,” Betchner proposed, “they ought to send you here to learn to do reckless driving the right way.” The second (and last) exercise expanded on the first by adding a sweeping 180-degree curve to be taken sideways leading into a three-cone slalom. Starting with brake-induced drifts, we then moved into power sliding. It’s nearly impossible to do this course without spinning at first and impossible to do it without grinning with the ferocious happiness of a two-year-old. Brakes? Hell, no. Just keep the tires aflame, wait for the car to head in some safe direction, and steer into it. Glory? There’s nothing more ego exaggerating than to be screaming with the steering in opposite lock—staring straight ahead through a side window. Drifting is infinite fun. If the establishment co-opts drifting, will it lose its giddy, infectious, improvisational edge? The Bondurant school, if for no other reason than it has been around for 36 years, is the establishment. Is it better for America’s nascent drift culture if drivers spend something like $2495 to learn car control from race drivers, or if they teach themselves in empty parking lots? Maybe Bondurant will be the best thing to ever happen to drifting. Maybe a better thing would be if Kmart finally went out of business and freed up some practice space. Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, P.O. Box 51980, Phoenix, Arizona 85076; 800–842–7223; www.bondurant.com.