John Shanahan is an angry man. “Get in that car!” he bellows, frustrated by a mechanic’s inability to locate reverse gear in one of his team’s bright-green Nissan Silvias.
His son, Conor, a skinny 13-year-old in tracksuit bottoms who pilots the 700bhp beast, jumps cat-like through the car’s complex roll-cage and with two hands hauls the sequential gearbox into reverse. Accompanied by a couple of low bangs from the exhaust, the car slips neatly into the garage. Placated, however briefly, Shanahan turns to grab the bacon sandwich left warming on the bonnet of the car belonging to his other son, Jack.
It’s a world away from Formula One’s Monaco Grand Prix. Indeed, in many ways it’s a continent away from most motorsport events, but drifting isn’t most motorsport and that’s exactly what makes it special.
Born on the high mountain roads of Japan as far back as the 1970s, drifting, which essentially involves floating a car sideways through corners by oversteering, has exploded in popularity over the past two decades, initially as an underground, outlaw pursuit, but increasingly in formalised competitions in its homeland, in the US, the Middle East and Europe.
And in Ireland it has found a natural home. Cheap, competitive and reliant on bravado and showmanship as much as it is on razor-sharp driving skills, drifting has become the perfect gateway to track competition for a generation brought up on video-game racing and modified machinery – in short, it’s track action for the Fast and Furious generation.
Leading that generation, the Shanahans are one of Ireland’s fastest families, with 16-year-old Jack set to be one of the top local drivers charged with defending his country’s honour at the Irish Drift Championship’s annual international invitational event, Global Warfare 3. For 12 years, no foreign driver has triumphed at a meeting held on Irish tarmac and the locals are keen to keep it that way.
This year, though, may not be as straightforward as the form of a dozen straight victories suggests. At Mondello Park circuit, just outside Dublin, the sun ducks in and out as the 16 visiting international teams begin to unpack their trucks. The machinery decanted from the shipping containers, from as far away as Dubai and South Africa, very much looks like the real deal.
For Irish drifting poster-boy James Deane, a driver who has never lost a competition he has entered, defending local pride is looking a tall order. “Usually, a lot of the drivers who came to defeat the Irish here in Mondello had to borrow their cars, or hire their cars, but this year everyone has brought their own vehicles, so it’s serious now. There are no excuses,” he says grimly.
“This is going to be the toughest event that we’ve ever had in Ireland, if not in Europe. I definitely want to win it, but it’s not going to be easy. With motorsport, and drifting in particular, nothing’s a given, no matter how good you are or how good your car is. It all comes down to the battle and what happens in those 30 seconds or so.”
Drift cars are, like the sport itself, just about a million miles apart from any other form of motorsport. The standard pursuits of racing-car set-up – aerodynamic efficiency, eking out performance advantages measured in milliseconds, enormous power-to-weight ratios – are in many ways anathema to a competition concerned with creating screeching, tyre-smoking spectacle.
To boost steering angle, front wheels are set as far apart as possible. Differentials are tweaked to assist in locking up wheels. Semi-slick tyres are stretched over lightweight rims and exhausts protrude from holes cut into bonnets.
By and large, though, none of the tuning is unapproachably high-tech. In drifting, there are no transmissions hand-carved from pure unobtanium. Here, carbon fibre makes way for easy to weld steel underneath cheap to replace glass-fibre; these are hands-on machines fixed with a hammer.
“This is the good thing about Irish drifting; the tracks aren’t so big, so a cheaper car with less power can still be competitive,” explains Deane. “If we get typical Irish weather and it starts raining, then they’ll actually have the advantage. When it comes to this sort of shorter track, the big advantage you have with this car is more power means more tyre smoke and more speed on the straight, both of which can make things difficult for an opponent.”
Japanese cars from the ’90s are the weapon of choice, for simple reasons: they speak to the sport’s origins, a plethora of aftermarket drift-specific parts are available, they’re relatively easy to build and maintain, and tellingly, they’re cheap. Only a handful of BMW’s hold out as a last bastion of European metal.
Janis Eglite is behind the wheel of one such ‘Beemer’. He’s from Latvia and calls his car ‘Forest Beast’ – the interior is wrapped in images of pine cones and trees. The beast growls – a Chevrolet Corvette engine, the twin-turbos of which poke through the bonnet, producing close to 1,000bhp, almost 10 times that of the average family saloon.
This is Ireland, the home of the underdog, and squaring up to Eglite’s BMW, having qualified through the ranks of the Semi-Pro competition yesterday, is Dan Moorhead from Carlow and his less than beastly Nissan Skyline. He’s some 700 or so horsepower down on Eglite, but is more than ready to mix it in battle.
Painted in purple and green, his car’s mainly glass-fibre bodywork looks less than pristine and one of his friends saws strips from a freshly fitted bumper in order to add tyre clearance. The car has cost €6,500 by Moorhead’s reckoning, nearly a third of the value of the sequential gearboxes favoured by the pros.
“No pressure!” Moorhead laughs, “I’ve the car very light in weight, so my power-to-weight ratio is up there with a car with maybe 400-500hp. I really don’t give a shit, so I’m not under the slightest bit of pressure. All I’m hoping for today is to have fun. “I’ve been drifting now for 10 years,” he adds. “I’ve made all my friends through it. I make a lot of my living through it, through my garage, and it’s my passion.”
The lead car looks for the perfect racing line around the track, while the chase car attempts to shadow it as closely as possible. Turbo engines flutter and chirp over the shrieking of revs as acrid white tyre smoke billows from the rear arches of both cars. Flashes of flame and shotgun-like bangs emanate from the exhausts.
Piotr Wicek is one of the big international names, and has arrived at the event in a huge race rig complete with two cars and a team of 16 mechanics, but is quickly sent packing by Norway’s Fredrik Oksnevad. The big names are tumbling and it’s the immaculate driving of Deane that has the home crowd on their feet the most often.
One driver who’s in trouble is Lithuania’s Andrius Vasiliauskas. The front end of his BMW has been damaged, and he calls a five-minute rule to allow him to try and make his second run.
John Shanahan is already waiting for Vasiliauskas by the time he gets back to his pit box, and the father of one of the Lithuanian’s biggest competitors is underneath the car almost before it has stopped.
One by one, various spanners, pry bars and even hammers are passed to the Corkman. Live on the big screen, the packed crowd in the grandstands erupts, as with seconds to spare the BMW powers back out of the pit lane leaving John, a used car salesman by trade, to accept hearty back slaps from the paddock.
For Moorhead, the gesture embodies the spirit of drifting in Ireland. “You don’t see the same camaraderie that you see over here,” he says.
“If you go out and you damage your car, your competitor’s pit crew will be over helping to fix your car. In Ireland, if you win a battle, you want to have beaten someone properly. You don’t want to have won it on a technicality.”
For Vasiliauskas it’s all in vain, however. Deane defeats him, sending the home fans through the roof, and an all-Irish final is in the offing. The Irish winning streak is safe. Jack Shanahan, the 16-year-old who drove his first car at just four years old is to battle his mentor, Deane, in the final.
“A lot of people look down on drifting, supposedly because of the tyre smoke and the amount of fuel we use,” says Shanahan before scanning the packed grandstands.
“But look, there isn’t any other buzz like this. You’re doing 100mph and heading for a concrete wall. Even if you crash, the crowd still cheer. If you were in a race and you crashed, they’d all think you were a dumbass, but here they all know that you’re pushing yourself beyond your own limits.”
Deane agrees, adding: “When you see a crazy battle, then it’s just the best thing in the world and you have to jump out of your seat. In rallying you get excited when you see a car going sideways, but in drifting that’s all we’re doing all weekend. Two cars going sideways together at 100mph… I think that it’s the greatest thing that you can do in a car.”
Deane leads them through the first run and Shanahan stays close. The defeated drivers, who have assembled on the bank just beside the track, clutch hands to heads in disbelief as the pair flick their cars towards the wall at over 70mph, before swapping direction completely in a barrage of smoke and noise.
As they punch back out of the cloud, Shanahan is right on Deane’s door. It’s a stellar drive from the youngster and puts pressure on the champ. As they start the high-speed entry to turn one on their second pass, Deane makes his first mistake of the weekend and turns too late. His Nissan straightens abruptly and veers off the track.
Shanahan keeps his cool and drives home to a stunning victory.
The best in the world travelled to take on the little country carving it’s name into drifting folklore, but in the end it was left to a 16-year-old from a couple of hours down the road to collect his first win and maintain national pride.
“I’m not joking, I actually cried driving back,” Shanahan laughs puffing out his cheeks at the enormity of what has just happened. “It means so much to me, in front of this many people.”
He pauses and takes a long look around the scrum of people celebrating all around him: “It’s just unreal.”