Rrrrrrrr-skreeee! A white Nissan 350Z Convertible clad in teal and blue graphics comes sliding sideways on the banked portion of the track, its front wheels in full opposite lock. A nearby camera clicks furiously to life. The Z33 comes off the bank, straightens out, and stops next to me and the photographer. Waving off the lingering smoke in his open cockpit, Chris Forsberg asks us if the drift was any good. It's perfect, we reply, asking him to do it again. He circles the two of us, pegs the throttle, and nails the maneuver again and again until we have the shot. I'm impressed. Dude is consistent.
It was 10 years ago that I first met Chris Forsberg, then a rising star in the drifting world. In a motorsport prized for its flamboyant displays of screeching tires and pluming smoke and even louder drivers, Forsberg is the reserved exception. He lets his driving do the talking. As hardworking as he is consistent, he surprised few when he won his first Formula Drift championship in 2009. He would claim another two, the most recent from this past 2016 Formula Drift season. As the first to hold three titles, Forsberg lays claim as the winningest driver in the premier drift series.
On the eve of the momentous feat, the Donut Media video crew shadowed Forsberg at Irwindale Speedway, home of the final round of the Formula Drift season. The resulting documentary, which you can watch above, charts the highs and lows that come from a race weekend and the forging of a drift legend. We caught up with Forsberg to talk about the film and his journey to the top.
Carter Jung: We chatted about this earlier and it turns out we met exactly a decade ago, back when I was at Super Street and you were drifting, prior to your three championships.
Chris Forsberg: Yep! It was back in 2006 when we were shooting my V8-powered Nissan 350Z at Irwindale Speedway. I remember drifting around the inner bank but the cover shot was taken with a big jig hung off the back of the car! You also used a photo of me without a shirt on, sporting a serious farmer's tan. I always wondered why you guys picked that photo!
CJ: What can I say, I'm a sucker for tan lines. Coincidentally, this video was also shot at Irwindale Speedway by the Donut Media team, during the last round of the 2016 Formula D season. Set the stage for us.
CF: I was sitting first in points, Fredric Aasbo was in second, and Vaughn Gittin Jr. in third. Gittin could have won if Aasbo and I both went out early. Aasbo was closer, he needed to get to the podium to win the championship with an early exit from me.
CJ: So essentially the title was up for grabs. Intense. Describe your current competition car.
CF: It's a Nissan 370Z with a Nissan VK56 V8 engine swap. It pushes around 800 horsepower naturally aspirated with up to another 300 hp of nitrous.
CJ: That's a far cry from your first drift car.
CF: The first car I ever drifted on purpose was a borrowed 1990 Toyota Supra with a few simple bolt-ons. I quickly learned that driving a car sideways was insanely fun so bought my own car shortly after, an '88 Mazda RX-7.
CJ: How did a white guy from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, get into drifting, something that began as a Japanese automotive subculture?
CF: Back in 1999, I learned about drifting from my friend Tony Angelo who had a buddy living in Japan at the time. I quickly fell in love with the look of the cars and wanted to get my own rear-wheel-drive car to set myself apart from the modified Hondas that were popular.
CJ: When did you start drifting competitively?
CF: As I learned how to drift, I noticed that it came pretty easy for me. I was a judge at local east coast drift events before I ever competed, and sometime around 2003, I realized that I could do just well as the other drivers, so I started competing.
CJ: Drifting isn't a race, can you explain the metrics to winning?
CF: Drifting is judged by driving line, angle, and commitment. Driving line is based on where the car is placed on the track as designated by the judges. Angle is how sideways your car is. Commitment is how hard you're driving the car.
To win a drift battle you have to be in control of your car 100 percent of the time and be able to handle driving it sideways against a number of competitors ranging from rookies to past champions. It's about car control and setup. It's a competition of overall skill behind the wheel in the most challenging style of motorsport on the planet.
CJ: What's the most difficult aspect of drifting?
CF: The mental game. You have to be able to flip a switch and go from zero to 100 in seconds and sustain that for a lap. It sounds easy, but you never find yourself in a rhythm as in most forms of racing.
CJ: The documentary talks about how consistent you are, something I discovered when I first met you. I thought it was your zen-like focus, but you reveal that it's finding your threshold and then dialing it back to 95 percent. What happens at 100 percent?
CF: Finding your threshold still takes zen – it's not easy to find the limit of your capabilities. From time to time 100 percent does come out, and it's in those runs where either I shine the most or mess up horribly.
CJ: Back to the final round at Irwindale, what was your strategy going into it?
CF: Our goal was to win the championship. We were going to keep a close eye on our competitors throughout the weekend to make sure we were on pace. Gittin was knocked out after the Top 32, so it was down to just Aasbo and I. However, my crash in the Top 16 brought things to a standstill for about 30 minutes until Aasbo's round, where he also took himself out with a wreck. It was crazy that three of the championship contenders took themselves out.
CJ: What caused you to crash?
CF: Our car was fast around the track and feeling very dialed. Pat Mordaunt's car was having issues and was underpowered, so he went into the lower bank much slower than I anticipated. My front tire made contact with his rear tire, pulling the steering out of my hand. Before I could redirect the car, I hit the wall. Had the collision been body-to-body or wheel-to-body, I would have been able to correct. It was bad luck that I hit in him in the worst possible spot.
CJ: Was that your worst incident?
CF: That was with the convertible 350Z from our shoot a decade ago. I was on the Irwindale bank when I clutch-kicked into the wall and my outer axle broke. I stayed on the gas trying to save the run but the car snapped straight and I went nose first into the bank. The damage was pretty bad but fixable. Thankfully, the damage to my own body was nothing a few trips to the chiropractor couldn't fix.
CJ: Despite the crash at Irwindale, you still lead in points. Fredric Aasbo had to finish second or better to win. What was going through your mind while you were waiting?
CF: My initial thoughts were that I had just blown my shot. After talking to an official and hearing that Aasbo would have to make it to the final round, I was only a bit relieved. Aasbo is a former champion and a great driver, so making it to the finals was by no means a stretch. Sitting there watching was very stressful, but thankfully I didn't have to wait too long. In the same round, Aasbo also hit his competitor, taking himself out.
CJ: Matt Field battled Aasbo in the fateful round. How much did you want to man-hug Field?
CF: [laughter] I was thankful that Matt didn't buckle under the pressure, especially since he had the advantage after Aasbo hit him on the first lap. It's easy for an unseasoned driver to get overly excited in that situation and blow it on the next lap, but I think Matt found his 95 percent!
CJ: Of the three championships, is there one that's most special?
CF: My first in 2009. I was the first grassroots drifter to win a Formula Drift championship after seasoned racers like Tanner Foust, Rhys Millen, and Samuel Hubinette had dominated the series.
CJ: Now that you're the winningest drifter, what's next?
CF: My goals have remained the same: push to become one of the best while enjoying the sport and helping it grow to the best of my abilities. I still enjoy going to local events and helping up-and-comers with advice or physical parts to get them back on the track.
CJ: Do you have any other motorsport aspirations?
CF: I would love to do some off-road truck racing, as I have always enjoyed watching those things fly through the air! Otherwise, I keep myself busy with social media projects and other stunt driving gigs to make driving a full-time job.
CJ: If you could challenge anyone to a drift battle, who would it be?
CF: I would challenge anyone who thinks that professional drifting is easy. Sure, I can teach someone to do donuts and figure-eights in a day, just like anyone can go to a local speedway and learn how to drive a NASCAR in an afternoon, but driving in competition is a whole other animal. I see a lot of people constantly talking about Formula Drift as a sport that anyone can do with a built car, however there have been numerous professional drivers from all forms of racing who have struggled to be competitive.
CJ: Finish this sentence: If I weren't drifting, I'd be ______.
CF: Working in a shop building cars because that's what I love to do.