Horse Sense: Going into the Pikes Peak demonstration, Falken driver JR Gitten estimated he had no more than 40 minutes seat time in his Mustang. JR is a member of the popular group dubbed the Drift Alliance. Check out their innovative Web site at www.driftalliance.com.
There’s nothing like your first time, so they say. Well, this was my second time-in a drift car, that is. Falken Tire invited us to sample its new ’05 Mustang drift machine; so there I was, strapped in, grinning, and hurtling sideways with JR at the wheel. The 700hp, supercharged Four-Valve was screaming, and thick clouds of tire smoke occasionally passed through the cabin as we gyrated left and right.
Then something caught my eye.
It was just a flicker, maybe a shadow or a change in the light to my right. Curious, I turned my head to glance out the side window, and my eyes almost bugged out of my head. Not 3 feet from my bearded chin was the left-front fender of another of Falken’s drift cars, cocked just as impossibly sideways as we were. And behind it was Falken’s other drift car, and behind that, yep, Falken’s fourth drifter. All of us were sliding and smoking like the Blue Angels, and as we slithered through the Pikes Peak International Raceway infield road course, the Nissan beside us closed and opened a foot or two as we hit apexes
It was an awesome sight, one that went straight to permanent memory, instantly a forever-ingrained image. Heck, I thought we were out there by ourselves-it was a real surprise to find another car almost within touching distance, and two more behind it.
But for Vaughn Gittin Jr.-just call him “JR”-the concentrated adrenalin rush of tandem quad drifting is still a major thrill and a regular occurrence. As a pro, JR is, after all, one of an extremely rare breed of cat. He still has his nine-to-five job as an IT specialist in his home state of Maryland but, like a helmeted superhero, on weekends JR is assigned to Falken’s brand-new Mustang. His job is to win drift competitions and wow the crowds at demonstrations, a task he comes by naturally.
Asked how he got into drifting, the built-like-a-footballer JR says he started on his own, following his dad’s musclecar roots and thrashing sideways through industrial parks on the weekends. In love with the slideways feel, JR said he realized he was hooked on the sensation and had a talent for it, so he bought a 240SX, “the perfect drift car,” and got into Formula Drift. With the Nissan, he was one of three Americans who qualified for the top-of-the-heap D1 competition in 2004. Already associated with Falken, they designated this all-American boy for the Mustang’s driver seat even before the car was built.
The building was the work of Eric Cheney and his XMP crew. Eric is well known for his line of outrageous show cars, but it’s a reputation he’s somewhat sensitive about, as he has even more background with proper racing cars and doesn’t want the world to think the only thing he can build is a non-mover with neon-lit wheelwells. As such, Falken’s drift car, which XMP built and maintains, is ample validation of Eric’s performance skills.
Construction began last fall when Falken paid over list for one of the first ’05 GTs out of captivity. The car needed to be in Falken’s booth at the SEMA show, then appear at the Tokyo Auto Salon, so time was short and the pressure was on. XMP stripped the just-assembled car completely, seam-welded the entire chassis, and built a stiff 1 1/2-inch-diameter, chrome-moly, SCCA-legal road racing ‘cage. Eric pointed out that drift-car chassis must be rigid to withstand the endless twisting and side loads they are subjected to, and this has proved just one of several technical details required by this new and energetic discipline.
For auto-show duty, a set of cut Eibach springs went in, but while in Japan, Eric worked with suspension tuner Tein (say “Tane”) to customize the company’s existing “heavy car” Mustang road race/drift coilover suspension-the first American suspension design for this popular Japanese company. A Tein highlight is EDFC, or Electric Down-Force Control. That’s a fancy way of saying cockpit adjustable shocks, something Eric said was planned from the beginning but wasn’t on the Mustang during our ride. It should be by the time you read this, however.
For power, Eric opted for a Sean Hyland Motorsports Four-Valve unit “similar to Jon Mihovitz’s drag engine.”This is an all-out powerplant, with forged everything, titanium connecting rods, and a generally bulletproof high-rpm demeanor. This was necessary, as drift cars need gobs of power to either slap the car sideways at any time or accelerate the machine between the typically tight drift corners. After all, competitive drifting is, style points and all, still a race where running down and passing the other guy-or running away from the guy behind you-is a major goal of the exercise.
To guarantee power, a Paxton Novi supercharger was fitted and geared initially for just 8 pounds of boost, then 12 pounds when we saw it, and it will only go up from there. Already, that puts close to 700 hp on tap at the flywheel, so JR has plenty of snort to work with.
Unfortunately, the supercharger beltdrive has proven a real trial to Eric and the XMP/Falken crews. The first iteration was a single eight-rib belt, but that got flung off about as fast as it could be installed, so Eric moved to a custom two-belt system of his own design, where the stock serpentine belt is retained and a second belt is added just to drive the supercharger. This required considerable effort to design and build some involved bracketry-it really meant a complete redesign of the front engine dress. The two-belt system now divides the humongous belt loads, thereby increasing the blower belt lifespan to at least long enough to make it through a couple passes. It has the added benefit of allowing JR to complete a competition even if the blower belt shreds or comes adrift, which it still occasionally does. This already happened, in fact, at the Houston event just prior to our ride at Pikes Peak. JR says the car is obviously a slug without the blower, but can still do some good and score points.
Another drifting concern is engine overheating. Again, all that showy, tire-smoking rpm is somewhat to blame. Couple the big horsepower-meaning heat-and the slow average speed, and you have a recipe calling for a Kenworth radiator supported by a Cessna-sized fan. My job during my ride was to eyeball the Auto Meter digital water temp, which did a fair impersonation of a space shuttle launch once the fun began in the tightly wound infield. Tellingly, slowly circulating the banked Pikes Peak oval for just a minute cooled the water rapidly, meaning there simply isn’t enough airflow through the big Griffin radiator while drifting.
Eric plans on larger heat exchangers and a high-quality Evans water pump, but is also looking into innovative air management-mainly scoops and ducting-because some of the problem is the relative wind is at a considerable angle to the grille and radiator while the car is crossed up. And since it spends nearly all its time sideways and turning 7,000 to 8,000 rpm, a glancing airflow on the radiator is something he has to change. We couldn’t help but think sealing the engine compartment and fitting a 100hp sucker fan might aid both cooling and handling, but we kept our school-boy engineering solutions to ourselves. This isn’t a Lotus, after all.
Eric said the challenge with the rest of the drivetrain was finding a clutch and transmission that would shift at 8,500 rpm. This took more than three months of research, but ended with a carefully engineered selection of clutch material, design, and hydraulic throwout bearing, as well as a G-Force transmission. Because the base car was an automatic, XMP discovered an ’04 Mustang Cobra manual-transmission pedal assembly bolts right in, although some spacing on the mounting studs is required. And as an eyebrow-raising curiosity, did you know the ’05 Mustang uses a polycarbonate brake pedal? Plastic!
Behind the G-Force is a custom single-piece driveshaft instead of the ’05’s standard two-piece unit. It bolts to a well-modified 8.8-inch rear axle sporting an Auburn electric locker turning 4.10 gears, prototype Superior axles, welded axle tubes, and a TA axle girdle. Furthermore, the Tein rear suspension is entirely Heim-jointed for maximum responsiveness.
No-excuses brakes are drifting necessities. Massive stopping torque is instantly needed when trimming speed in competition, not to mention when trying to stop the craziness if things get out of hand. Eric said he wanted a system designed around a six-piston caliper, and originally approached Baer Brakes as it is now making its own such monoblock caliper. But Baer was already heavily subscribed prior to SEMA and couldn’t squeeze into Eric’s tight deadline. Project Mu then filled the gap, making a one-off, six-piston, 14-inch rotor system on short notice. It delivered an exciting all-aluminum monoblock caliper, cyro’d rotors-the works, says Eric. A Wilwood proportioning valve and the usual odds and ends finalized the system.
One braking component still on the to-do list is the e-brake. At deadline it was the stock cable system, but a hydraulic replacement will likely appear shortly. The fluid mechanics allow less effort and more control over this vital drifting tool.
No points whatsoever for divining that all this rides on Falken tires. The RT625 Azenis measure 255/40R18s in front and 275/35R18s in back. Rear tires last around two runs from what we can figure. It’s a drifting industry standard, as is the odd fact that junk tires do not work in drifting, even if the tires are going up in smoke 80 percent of the time. There are still many crucial moments when traction is vital, and the tires must provide good feedback to the driver. It goes without saying that you aren’t going anywhere in drifting without a tire sponsor, unless your last name is Gates and you have a family fortune to disperse.
If the exterior is looking a bit hotted-up, that’s the 3D Carbon bodywork earning its keep. The huge front grille openings and equally generous hood cutouts help cool the wailing Four-Valve. Expect to see some extra scoops as the overheating issue is tamed.
It’s too bad everyone can’t snag some Recaro seat time with JR. The semi-stripped race-car interior got us in the track mood, but like the rest of the car, with its color-coordinated anodizing and metal polishing, the presentation is high-grade throughout. And the action? Way cool. JR has some motocrossing in his background and thinks of the clutch as a major accessory, as a two-stroke dirt rider would. At high speeds he e-brakes the Mustang sideways, and he often uses the steering wheel to “feint” the car sideways rally style; but whenever possible at low and medium speeds, he “clutch kicks” the machine into the traction netherworld. That means a cat-quick stab in and out of the clutch pedal while holding the power down. This powertrain brutality gives a snappier, judge-pleasing rotation than the feint or braking methods.
And after a couple of laps looking out the door windows, passengers would be just as effusive for their ride as JR is. “It’s the best sounding car ever,” he says. “It gets my adrenalin flowing and in the mood to rock and roll. It holds a ton of angle… [and is] stable at deep angles and high speed.”
Put another way, this graybeard was flashing hardcore hand signs out the window-a rather memorable second time, for all that.
The latest poop from Eric Cheney before we went to press centered around fixing the troublesome blower belt situation. The good news is, by converting the blower belt to an RCD cog drive, belt throwing was eliminated. This made the Falken Mustang much more reliable, allowing JR to strut his stuff in style. High-qualifying spots and podium finishes were gained immediately, and now it looks as if Mr. Gittin is poised for a high finish in the Formula Drift championship.
Eric also announced his XMP company will be offering all the parts on the Falken car for aspiring enthusiasts. Like many in drifting, Eric is big on its possibilities, and sees potential for many more domestic cars and drivers in the sport-thus the dedication to offer even the tough, custom-made gear should you want this level of performance.
And it’s serious performance; Eric quotes the latest tuning at 770-plus rear-wheel horsepower. That’ll smoke a tire.
In the unlikely event JR ever tires of listening to his Four-Valve scream, he can fall back on a Rockford Fosgate sound system-all four of Falken’s drift cars are so equipped.
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