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Riding shotgun in Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s Formula Drift Mustang RTR
Riding shotgun in Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s Formula Drift Mustang RTR is the four-digit powerslide of your dreams
A 436-cube small-block burbles as the Mustang rolls to the starting line. A nitrous-purge plume hisses as the power enhancing liquid transforms to gas in the warm Florida air. You might assume a drag race is about to go down, and that's not quite the case, but it could be. This 1,200 horsepower Mustang RTR certainly has single-digit potential on a quarter-mile path, but that is not its mission in life.
Instead, Professional Fun-Haver Vaughn Gittin Jr. 's 2019 Mustang RTR Spec 5 D is purpose-built for the slideways rigors of the Formula Drift circuit. Here drivers and their machines are judged on how closely they follow the prescribed line of the course, how much angle they can carry around the track with minimal steering correction, and the style with which they achieve the run, which often means how close to the edge they can go without incident.
It requires dancing on the edge of traction, walls, and other competitors while being aggressive and smooth. Vaughn is short on practice time at the Round 2: Scorched stop on the Formula Drift circuit held at Orlando Speedworld outside of Orlando, Floria. You author is strapped into the passenger racing seat, held tight by Schroth harness belts and at the mercy of the driver's skill.
While the Sunshine State tourist town is home to several intense roller coasters, they are securely riding on rails. Vaughn walks the tightrope of traction in his four-digit pony car, and the passenger seat is not open to the public. Your scribe has been lucky enough to strap in next to the entrepreneurial drift star on more than one occasion, but something is different this time. That purge wasn't there before.
Vaughn turns and asks if I am ready. He says, "This button turns on the party," as he engages the NOS system via the MoTeC ECU's push-button dash controller. Then he kindly swats the visor down on my helmet to protect my face from debris. The starter gives the go-ahead, and he puts the four-speed manual trans into gear, slips the clutch, and unleashes the thrust of a Roush-Yates RY45 small-block that draws on NASCAR tech to deliver over 900 flywheel. This one, however, is bolstered for that shot of juice.
Pinned in the seat as we rip past 70 mph, it feels like a four-digit centrifuge as Vaughn works his magic with the pedals, e-brake, and steering wheel. With a deft flick we are sideways riding a plume of smoke from the fresh set of Nitto NT555 G2 rubber. We are gliding mere inches from the wall of the Orlando Speedworld oval. I am trying to hold tight to my camera gimble and soak up the experience at the same time.
Over the course of a Formula Drift weekend, Vaughn and his teammate Chelsea Denofa burn through 50 Nitto tires and a barrel and a half of C16 at a rate of a gallon per run and a set of tires every three laps.
As we round the banked oval, the speed trails off for an instant as Vaughn transitions close to the apex marker used by the judges to determine his adherence to the line. Another flick of the wheel and the power is back on full-tilt as we round the other side of the figure-eight course and car pulls hard again riding the wall and hurtling toward the finish line.
Seventy to 75 mph might not seem like an insane speed. Some courses on the FD circuit, like Road Atlanta will allow triple-digit approach speeds. However, the combination of torque thrust from a big-cube, nitrous-injected small-block power-sliding around a bank elicit the sensation of a much higher terminal velocity, especially when the passenger side is riding the wall and you muster the nerve to peek through the window net at your close friend the wall.
Much like one of the town's many coasters, this ride is over shortly after it began even as Vaughn carried the end of the run out a bit longer than he should, but the grin I am wearing — generated by a powerful mixture of speed-junkie endorphins and the repressed terror of suspended self preservation —lingers for far longer, and returns the instance the memory is accessed.
"Well, you've done this before, so I know you're not going to be scared," Vaughn said of my shotgun ride. "So I gave you a full run, plus we had just made some changes in the car, so I wanted to make sure that I could put the car where I want it because I knew we were short on practice time, so I just pretended you weren't there, honestly. Now, I did give you a little extra, as I usually shut down when we come out of the inner bank."
Whether or not you are a fan of drifting — and we highly suggest you give it a chance in person before you decide — the car control exhibited by these drivers is nothing short of amazing. Like a mega-powered ballet dancer spinning on a thin tightrope, riding the razor's edge of the tire's grip requires a special set of skills.
Vaughn obviously has the driving part down, but this season he is feeling pretty great about the mechanical side of the equation as well. Since last I sat in his passenger seat, his Mustang RTR Spec 5D trimmed 200 pounds off, so it comes in with a 2,800-pound fighting weight, while the addition of the NOS nitrous system add another 300 when its needed, putting the total around 1,200 at the flywheel and around 1,000 down to the screaming Nitto 555 G2s.
" The construction of the tire, it's a lot different. So it's basically that, you know, have more tread and it's got a thinner sidewall. So the tire can move around a little bit more it dissipates heat better " Shop Foreman Tony Clark, a.k.a Skippy, explained. "This time last year we were lucky to get a lap out of a set of rear tires. So the only way we could really fix that problem, I try and slow the guys down a little bit and put as much grip in the car as they could handle so they can't blow the tires off."
To remedy those struggles, the team switched to the modern Nitto NT555 G2 in a 315/40-18 fitment, put the car on a diet, and revamped the suspension design along with the addition of new BC ZR Series three-way adjustable coilovers. The gear and a new guru delivered an unprecedented level of grip.
"We've got Clay (Stephens), a new suspension engineer and a spotter, and before with our old tires, like where the cars were really on a knife edge and now we make them a little bit easier to drive," Tony said. "But still the guys can get on the gas and move forward with before when they would get rolling, start leaving us and we would just sit there trying to pedal. So now we've got definitely got a better understanding and Clay designed all the suspension, laid it out, and CAD machined it all."
In the Formula Drift category almost anything goes. Power and drivetrain bits aren't limited, but the suspension pickup points are closely regulated. Teams must attach the suspension within a 2-inch circle around the original pickup points, but what they attach is up to their imagination.
"And you know, last year we were having some traction trouble (last season). So we had the cars on three wheels and that was fun and makes for great photos, but it was a knife-edge to drive," Vaughn elaborated. "But I'm actually grateful for the experience because it made me such a better driver. Now the cars have everything that they need, right? We've got the power, and we've got the grip. Now you're able to bring new chassis grab. It's just such an easy car to drive and now we actually have, you know, what everyone else has had that we've been competing against."
That said you might find the addition of up to 300 horsepower puzzling. Well, it turns out that the grip and power of drift cars are inexorably linked. With more power not only comes more responsibility, but it actually adds grip. This is the balance drivers try to maintain. Like riding out a burnout, if you have grip, the car will still accelerate, but spin the tires too much, and you are going nowhere.
"So a lot of people are like, 'Wait, you guys are just spinning your tires out there. Why do you need more power?' But the amount of grip that these cars generate, is a result of the amount of power. If you don't have enough power, you can't keep the car sideways. So that basically your grip level and your power level becomes your limit," Vaughn said of the addition of 300 NOS ponies. "So with more grip you can add, you can add more power. And with more power, you can have more grip. So you were at a point where we were the last naturally aspirated engine in the series. And everybody now has, you know, 900, 1,000, and 1,200 with the juice that they can control where we were about 900 naturally aspirated."
With the 300 shot on board, the team switched bottles every couple of runs to ensure steady pressure, and the extra oomph comes alive based on the engine rpm and the throttle position, though Spec 5D's advanced MoTeC EFI system could flick the switch based on any number of parameters, including the car's GPS location on the track. Right now it's the revs and Vaughn's foot that unleashes the NOS ice dragon's breath into the ravenous small-block.
"I had this 'bread in me notion' not to use nitrous, but everyone in the series had it. And then Chelsea, my teammate, he's used it and he said 'All these cars need is nitrous,'" Vaughn confessed. "I'm like, 'All right, let's, let's try it!' And I drove it the first time at Long Beach and it's unbelievable. It's just like more displacement. It just feels like a higher horsepower, the way that we have it coming in. It's just like an NA curve, very drivable, but just more."
In the end, the combination allowed for Vaughn to rebel against the smooth style he honed with the car riding on the ragged edge of traction. Now he can drive the car more aggressively, which comes as second nature to his teammate Chelsea Denofa, who drives his own 2019 Mustang RTR Spec 5 D with the same combo.
"I've spent all these years of being smooth and like feeling the car and like putting every little bit of grip down," Vaughn added. "But because of the new setup and the new Nitto NT555 G2, it has now forced me to kind of revert back to being more aggressive."
I witnessed that more aggressive style firsthand as Vaughn powered around the figure eight within the Orlando Speedworld oval. He ended up putting down an impressive score of 94 in qualifying, which put him in the middle of the tight 32-car field at Round 2: Scorched. In elimination he powered through three rounds before falling his pal Chris Forsberg in the semifinals. Meanwhile, Chelsea's natural aggression paid off, as he qualified sixth and finished the event on the third podium spot.
After two stops on the Formula Drift tour, Vaughn is ranked eighth in the points and Chelsea slotted at sixth, so both are still in position to make a strong run with all that new power and traction as the season slides on. No matter how the results stack up, we can assure you — from firsthand experience — that the Mustang RTR drivers are having fun, well, professionally.
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Steve Turner and courtesy of RTR Motorsports