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Fast and Furious: The Physics of Drifting

Authored By: 
Linli Chin, Physics Teacher

Watching my sister burn some serious rubber drifting cars makes me think about the science behind her actions and how I can use physics to explain it all. As a professional Motorsport athlete and often regarded as the Queen of Drift in Malaysia, my sister Leona Chin shot to worldwide fame with her viral video, “Fast and Furious Nerd Pranks Instructor,” which has garnered over 32 million views in the first month since its debut. Watching her maneuver her car with such control and precision, I asked her what she thinks about when she is behind the wheel and if Newton’s laws of motion, momentum, centripetal force, friction and velocity were on her mind.

Her answer: “YES!”

As a math and science enthusiast herself, she does see the importance of friction and centripetal forces (the force that keeps us moving in a circular motion) when making donuts, and Newton’s laws of motion when drifting in order to anticipate how the car would react and keeping it under control.

So, what exactly is happening when the car seemingly goes out of control? In normal driving, when we are trying to make a turn, there needs to be friction between the tires and the road. According to Newton’s first law of motion, the car’s natural tendency is to go straight, but when maneuvering a turn, friction between the two surfaces pulls the car onto a curved path rather than a straight one. Now imagine trying to steer a car on an icy road. That would be close to impossible, as the coefficient of friction (the value that tells us how smooth or rough a surface is) is very low and, subsequently, the centripetal force which allows it to turn would be almost zero. How could you steer the car in order to make a turn? The answer is to rotate your tires away from the direction of the turn (which drifters refer to as counter-steering) in order to lose traction and drift. This explains why the wheels point in the opposite direction when drifters negotiate a turn, and why the tires on cars specially customized for drifting are the most important element of the vehicle.

Having excelled in math and science in high school, Leona’s understanding of the mechanics of physics while learning to drift has made it easier for her to pick up and hone in on her skills. Her advice to students learning the theoretical aspects of Physics and applying it? Put in the time, effort and practice, practice, practice! Get the drift?

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