How to Get Into Hobby RC: Exploring RC Drift Cars

By Terry Dunn

Terry explores the exciting world of RC drift car racing!

I assume that most of you are at least somewhat familiar with drifting as a popular motorsport. Perhaps you saw the MythBusters episode about drifting or heard Adam talk about his drift-related run-in with the cops. If none of the above apply to you, then I can summarize drifting by telling you that it is a form of driving where the car is rarely moving in the direction it is pointed.

Much like traditional auto racing, drifting requires a car with plenty of horsepower and a skilled driver. Beyond that, the similarities begin to fade. Whereas a race car driver may view a turn in the track as an obstacle that must be negotiated as efficiently as possible, a drift car driver is likely to view that same turn as a blank canvas where he or she can flaunt their skill and artistry behind the wheel. If you've ever doubted that roaring exhaust, tire smoke and burned rubber are artistic mediums, watching a skilled drift driver will probably convince you otherwise.

Downsized Drifting

I began this project knowing absolutely nothing about RC drifting. I did a little research into how drift competitions are run. From what I've read, they are usually judged events. Driving skill is very important, but it isn't really about crossing the finish line first. Drifting style, consistency, and precision are the attributes that will gain you more points from the judges and a trip to the winner's circle.

After my first few attempts at drift driving, it was pretty clear that I needed some pointers. A quick web search landed me at DriftMission.com, which has a lot of helpful info. I also reached out to the staff at Drift Mission to get a better idea of what RC drifting is all about. Here's what they had to say:

What are the different classes of RC drift competition?

Drift Mission: There are different types of RC Drifting: 50/50, Countersteer, and Rear Wheel Drive. 50/50 implies that 50 percent of the power is driven to the front and 50 percent to the back. Countersteer is a method to overspin the rear end to enhance the drifting experience, so instead of 50/50 it could be 40/60, 30/70, 20/80…etc.

Rear wheel drive is the new hotness and the scene is slowly heading this direction. It makes the RC drifting look more realistic and provides more lock [where the front wheels are fully turned in the direction of the drift] during drifting. There is also usually a concours contest to show off the best bodies with the most detail.

Where are drifting tracks typically located?

Usually they are found inside hobby shops that support RC drifting or racing.

What type of surface is best for a drift course?

That's a debatable question. It is usually carpet or hard concrete surfaces. Specific tires are mandated for each and every type of contest.

How important is the aesthetic aspect of drifting?

It depends. Lots of people are into the hardcore detail, down to adding 3D door handles, wipers, engine bays etc. Others are into blinging out the chassis with all the aluminum and carbon available. Competitions are judged by the style of the drift and usually how deep they hit the clipping points [specific areas of the track that drivers aim to drift through].

What particular skills should rookie drift drivers work to master?

The best thing to start with is the circle eight and holding the lock as long as possible.

As I began my search for an RC drifting platform, I found that most people are using chassis intended for touring car racing. The performance goals of a touring car and a drift car are vastly different, but there is a significant overlap in their preferred layout and components.

The chassis that I used is the Kyosho Fazer VEi ($350). The Fazer is more of a parking lot touring car rather than a top-tier racer. Even so, it has features that I was looking for, such as a full ball bearings and a brushless motor. The car even comes with two sets of wheels and tires. One set is for racing, the other for drifting. As a longtime fan of Chrysler muscle cars, I also appreciate that the VEi version of the Fazer is available with a 2015 Dodge Challenger or 1970 Dodge Charger body. Ignore the fact that the full-scale cars are two-wheel drive, while the RC doppelgangers are four-wheel-drive. I considered going old-school with the Charger, but the Sublime Green Challenger won out in the end.

The Kyosho Fazer VEi was designed as a 4WD touring car, but it includes a set of tires for drifting too.

About the Kyosho Fazer VEi

A Kyosho pistol grip radio is included with the Fazer. Note the angled steering wheel.

The Fazer is a Ready-to-Run package that includes the radio system, battery, and charger. The car is completely built and set-up at the factory. All you have to do is put four AA batteries in the pistol-grip transmitter, charge the car's battery, and go drive.

I really like the Challenger body. It's actually molded in two pieces that are bolted together. It definitely has the iconic shape of a Challenger. The paint job is well done and there are accent pieces such as an antenna and side-view mirrors. I'm usually not a fan of stickers on the outside of RC car bodies. They invariably get bubbles and wrinkles when applied to sections with compound curves. I was pleasantly surprised to find the factory-applied stickers on the Challenger show neither defect and they really dress up the car's appearance.

The Fazer is built mostly of molded plastic components. It has four-wheel independent suspension with an oil-filled coil-over shock on each corner. All of the suspension and steering linkages are solid plastic parts, and thus, not adjustable.

The Fazer has 4-wheel independent suspension with an oil-filled shock on each arm.

There are gear-type differentials front and rear. They are connected by a plastic driveshaft that runs down the center of the chassis. The drive shaft is exposed and serrated, so you have to be sure to keep the battery wires well clear.

Brushless motors are not a requirement for drifting. You're dealing with limited traction anyway, so you don't need insane power to get the wheels spinning. My reason for choosing a brushless rig is that they're very efficient and essentially maintenance-free.

The Orion dDrive 2700Kv motor is unique because it has a built-in ESC. The integrated system is only slightly larger than a motor by itself. This helps to keep the electronics layout on the Fazer clean and uncluttered.

The Orion dDrive brushless motor has an integrated ESC.

I don't plan to do much rainy-weather driving with the Fazer, but I should be covered if I speed through the occasional puddle or two. The steering servo is a waterproof unit. Also, the receiver is covered with a rubber boot to help keep out water.

The included Kyosho Syncro radio is a 2-channel 2.4GHz unit. The various knobs on top of the transmitter are for adjusting the channel trims and end points…handy stuff. The steering wheel is set at a slight angle to the rest of the transmitter body. I assume this is for ergonomic reasons. Whatever the case, the radio is comfortable and works well.

My only disappointment with the Fazer is the included battery and charger. The battery is a 7.2-volt 1800mAh pack comprised of six Sub-C NiMH cells. I have nothing against NiMH batteries, and this battery works fine in the Fazer, but 1800mAh is a really low capacity for modern Sub-C cells. Batteries with more than three times that capacity are readily available at reasonable prices.

The included charger is a rudimentary "wal wart" AC-powered device. It takes six hours to charge the 1800mAh battery. Ain't nobody got time for that! I suspect that many Fazer buyers would be willing to spend a little more to get a larger capacity battery (more run time) and a proper charger (less waiting between runs).

Getting the Drift of Drifting

The Fazer comes with the sticky touring car tires installed. I put in one run using those tires, just to make sure that everything was functional. The only issue I had was that reverse was not enabled on the ESC. I reprogrammed the ESC (it's a simple 1-button operation) to activate the reverse option.

The Fazer's Challenger body accurately captures the essence of the full-scale muscle car.

After the shakedown run, I installed the drift tires. I figured that these tires would be made of a harder-than-usual rubber compound in order to provide the reduced traction needed for drifting. I was surprised, however, to find that the drift tires are actually plastic. Now that's a hard tire! Plastic tires are the norm in the RC drifting scene.

When I drove with the drift tires, I noticed a tremendous difference in how the car handled. It was a little bit like driving on ice. With gentle throttle inputs, the car tended to understeer. A blip of throttle would make the rear tires break loose. Then the car would oversteer. I got off to a mediocre start. I could drift a little, but I was doing more spinning out than drifting.

The Fazer also works well with 2-cell LiPo and 2-cell A123 batteries, of which I have many. So, I spent that first day rotating batteries and trying to develop my drifting skills. I had a lot of fun, but I didn't see much improvement in my driving. I still had a high percentage of spinouts when I was trying to drift through a turn.

With a lot of practice, my drifting skills are slowly improving. It isn't as easy as I thought it would be.

Drift Mission covers quite a bit about chassis tuning and driving techniques. One thing I found is that most RC drift cars use a locked rear differential. This makes a lot of sense. With a gear differential like those on the Fazer, most of the motor power is only going to one wheel at any given time. Since you want both rear wheels to spin at the same time when drifting, locking the differential is an obvious solution. But how the heck do you lock up a differential?

I read about a few different methods that people have used to lock gear differentials. Jamming hot glue or clay between the gears is a common tactic. While those methods are reversible, it seemed like it would be a very tedious job to pick bits of glue or clay out of the gear teeth. Maybe it's easy, but I didn't want to find out the hard way. So I came up with another solution.

I removed both pairs of the internal side gears and spider gears from the differential. I then made a solid shaft that connects to both of the output shafts on the diff. A notch on each end of the shaft lets it engage with the retaining pins on the output shafts. I then drilled a perpendicular hole and inserted the shaft that once held the differential's spider gears.

I fabricated a simple nylon shaft to lock the rear differential for better drifting performance.

My description of the locking shaft may make it sound complex, but it is really quite simple. Since most of the stock transmission parts in the Fazer are plastic, I assumed that a nylon shaft would provide adequate strength and also be easy to make. The raw material I used was a section of .5"-diameter nylon rod. I was able to form it into the desired shape in about 10 minutes using only a band saw to cut and a pin vise to drill. The part is still holding up well after numerous runs in the car.

The locked rear differential provided a significant improvement to my drifting. I felt like I was much more consistent and didn't spin out as much. I've still got a long way to go before I'll be good at drifting, but I think I'm on the right track now.

So far, I've only driven on concrete and blacktop. Well, I've also tried drifting on a not-so-smooth street, but that was a waste of time. I'll continue to practice on the smoother surfaces and try to get better. I don't know if I'll ever get into the scale detailing or "blinging" aspects of drifting, but the driving is a lot of fun.

Adding scale details is a significant aspect of RC drifting for many enthusiasts. The sky is the limit. (photo courtesy of DriftMission.com)

Drifting is a significant departure from anything else I've ever tried with RC. In fact, some aspects of drifting are counter-intuitive to lessons that I learned in racing. Those differences are a big part of the appeal for me. Learning the technical nuances and mastering a new skill are almost always the catalysts for me to try a new part of the RC hobby. Drifting offers plenty of opportunity in both areas.

My thanks to Wilke at DriftMission.com for sharing information and photos for this article.

Terry spent 15 years as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He is now a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow Terry on Twitter: @weirdflight