There are traditional motorsports and then there's Formula Drift.
Founded in 2003, it's the top-tier drifting series in the U.S. If you haven't heard of it, drifting is not quite like anything else you can see at the speedway. In fact, it's perhaps the last form of hot-rodding left in motorsports. Drivers modify their cars, creating 800 to 1,000-horsepower monsters that slide sideways across the track at high speed, screeching out a cacophony of engine noise and tire smoke.
Coming in hot after its 15th anniversary, this still relatively new motorsport marked its return to Long Beach for the start of the 2019 season. And Formula Drift always kicks off the year with a media day. It's a chance to chat with drivers and crew members; an opportunity for the teams to test out off-season changes on the cars; and perhaps the most unique experience compared to other motorsports series – a chance for ride-alongs.
I was fortunate to get a taste of the varying power in the sport by hitching a ride with three drivers – Matt Field, Michael Essa and Dean Kearney – in their Formula Drift cars. All three cars are monsters in their own right, as you can see in the above video, but they differ in how that power is produced.
For those of you who don't know the rules, Formula Drift has a unique scoring system compared to many other motorsports. The Formula Drift field first must qualify to participate in the Top 32 competition. The drivers get two solo runs to put down a qualifying score. The score is rated by three Formula Drift judges and is based on three main criteria: line, angle and style of the drift. Drivers receive a score ranging from an incomplete run to 100 points.
Once a driver reaches the Top 32, that is when tandem or two car battles begin. One car leads and the other follows; then they switch for the second run. The same criteria from qualifying remains, but the lead driver is expected to make pace while the follow driver is expected to remain in close proximity to the lead driver. During tandems, instead of giving a score judges simply pick the driver they believe deserves the win for the run.
Matt Field, who grabbed two second-place finishes during the 2018 Formula Drift season, drives a LS-based, V-8 powered Chevrolet C6 Corvette that he transformed from a moldy, flood-damaged mess into the powerful race car that it is today. You can check out the whole process of him basically stripping the car down to its chassis and rebuilding it for the YouTube series "Field Prep" on the popular automotive channel Donut Media.
For the Long Beach round of competition, Field ended up qualifying number one with a 99-point run. And with an expanded team and his refined Corvette, Field told me that he's ready for the new season.
"2019 brings new challenges to the Drift Cave team," Field said. "We took on another car and driver to campaign two cars for the 2019 Formula Drift season. With the Corvette refined, lighter and smarter, it has already proven to be a very capable car. I am very excited to take on whatever challenges this season brings and strive for great results."
Michael Essa, who won the Formula Drift championship back in 2013, drives a BMW E46 M3 inline-six powered drift car. He told me that the competition gets tougher each year as the sport grows.
"The level of competition increases drastically each year," Essa said. "Most people unfamiliar with competitive drifting think the cars are set up very loose to slide easily, but we're actually trying to make the cars as fast as possible while in drift to win the battles."
And as the competition heats up, Essa is making some tweaks to his car so it will handle better during battles.
"We are always hunting for the balance of a car that is drivable and has as much speed as possible," he said. "This year we are trying different weight balance front to rear in hopes of a more drivable and less twitchy car."
During my ride along, Essa went up against another of the ride-along drivers, Dean Kearney.
Kearney drives a Dodge Viper drift car, which like Field's and Essa's cars, stays true to its roots and is powered by a Dodge Viper V-10 engine, but with the dial turned up a notch by adding two turbos for good measure and a boost in power. During my ride along with Kearney, he drifted the course against Jhonnattan Castro with his Toyota GT86.
"We have done a full rebuild and update on our car for this season and sorted out all the issues of the previous year," Kearney told me. "So for us, it's an exciting season ahead and hopefully we can be back to being competitive with our very unique chassis."
The rest of the 2019 Formula Drift season will bounce the competitors all throughout the United States, including Orlando, Atlanta, St. Louis and Dallas to name just a few stops, before finishing back in the Los Angeles area for the final round at the "The House of Drift" Irwindale Speedway.
Danny Korecki is a freelance automotive writer and CNBC contributor. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @dkorecki