How to Drift a 1997 Nissan Altima

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Some might say that front-drive cars like the first-generation Altima are to drifting what penguins are to roller-skating -- and that is true. The fact is that the general notion of "drifting" involves lurid powerslides and smoking rear tires; in that sense, the Altima is indeed hopeless. But drifting starts and ends with initiating oversteer and controlling the car during the oversteer condition. Looking at it that way, drifting the front-drive Altima might be a limited proposition, but it's hardly an impossible one.
Don't try any of these maneuvers anywhere except on a legal racetrack or other controlled environment.
To perform them on the street is illegal, irresponsible and reckless, and you'll probably crash your car.

Basic Concepts

  • Drifting is all about directing energy and controlling traction, particularly at the rear tires. A rear-drive car can drift at fairly low speeds and with fairly subtle inputs, because the driver can use the throttle to moderate rear wheelspin and traction. This "powerslide" is what most people think of as drifting. In a front-drive car, you don't have that option. Here you've got two basic tools. Instead of using the throttle to break and control traction at the rear wheels, you've got the handbrake. Instead of continuously adding energy to your drift with the engine, you have to rely on controlling and directing the inertia built up in your car's rear end. The basic concept to keep in mind here is that of swinging a hammer: The front wheels are your "elbow," the body of the car is your arm and the hammer handle, and the rear wheels are the hammer's "head."

Preparing Your Machine

  • If you're planning on regularly taking your Altima out to slide around your local road course, you should seriously consider at least a new set of tires, and perhaps some work on the front suspension. The idea is to keep the front planted and controllable so you can break the rear end loose at lower speeds, maintain your slides longer, hold them at greater angles and then correct quickly. The front end is your all-important "pivot," so here you'll want a good set of wide, sticky, low-profile performance tires. Top that with a set of front struts with stiffer springs and harder dampers, and tighten up your front end with a stiffer anti-roll bar, urethane bushings and a strut tower brace. For the back, do just the opposite: get it loose by bolting on a set of rock-hard "fuel economy" tires running at the maximum rated pressure. You could experiment with bolting down 50 to 100 pounds of ballast weight in the trunk for more extreme drift angles, provided you've done the appropriate work to the front of the car.

Handbrake Turns -- The J-Turn

  • Start by practicing a full 180-degree J-turn. Going down a straight at about 30 mph, flick the wheel in the direction you want to go. Just as you feel the car begin to turn, yank the handbrake up all the way, making sure to keep your thumb on the button. When the car reaches full sideways, at the apex of the turn, stand on the clutch to keep the engine from stalling. Release the handbrake when you're almost through the turn, and begin to straighten out the wheel. Release the clutch as you feed in throttle to go back the way you came. You can think of it like the hands on a clock. You start off going toward 12 O'clock and flick the wheel. Pull that handbrake at 1 O'clock, and press the clutch at 3 O'clock. Release the handbrake and straighten out the wheel at 4:30, and release the clutch at 6 O'clock. It's always: wheel, brake, clutch, then brake, wheel, clutch. Practice going immediately from your J-turn to back in the other direction without ever fully stopping.

Handbrake Turns -- The 90-Degree Turn

  • Once you've got the full 180 handbrake turn down, you're ready to try a 90-degree turn around a corner. The basic principles are the same as the J-turn, except that you'll have to be going about a gear faster to get energy in the "hammer head" of the rear end, things happen more quickly, the handbrake requires a lighter and more strategic touch, and you're going to have to feed in a bit of "opposite lock" as you're coming out of the turn. The thing to remember with a front-drive car is that the front wheels will pull you in whatever direction they're pointed when you hit the gas. Just before the apex -- center point -- of the turn, give the wheel a slight flick in, and yank upward quickly on the handbrake. Release it as soon as the nose of the car goes past 90 degrees -- the 3:30 position -- and simultaneously begin turning your wheel back to the other direction for "opposite lock" toward the 3 O'clock position. Just before you feel the back end "tip over" and come around on you, give the car some throttle to pull the front end out of the slide and straighten the car out.

The Scandinavian Flick

  • So named for the Scandinavian rally drivers who made it famous, the Scandinavian Flick relies purely on inertia to initiate the drift without using the handbrake. Think of this as less like a hammer swing, and more like cracking a whip. For this maneuver, you're going to flick the wheel in the opposite direction of your turn just before the turn, so the car is momentarily pointed away from the it. When you feel all of the car's weight quickly transfer to the tip of your "whip" -- the rear axle of your car -- quickly lift off the throttle and yank the steering wheel in the direction of the turn. This will initiate your slide; control it with the same opposite-lock and power-out that you did with the handbrake 90-degree turn. Since anime fans are probably wondering: Yes, the Scandinavian Flick is another name for what the Japanese famously call "Inertial Drifting." The Inertial Drift is preferable when possible because you're not burning off much-needed energy with the handbrake, excessively slowing this front-drive car down. Mastering this technique will much more easily allow you to "chain" a series of drifts together, because you're preserving more of the energy and speed you'll need for the next one.

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