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Drifting in the United States has evolved from a small community of Japanese-vehicle-obsessed kids getting their hands onto imported magazines and sliding their cheap Nissans in parking lots. Now our homegrown Formula Drift is an internationally recognized series that has launched the careers of automotive celebrities and professional drivers while broadening the definition of what drift can be.
One of the formative names in drifting has been Vaughn Gittin, Jr. and his team at RTR Vehicles. Gittin, Jr. has been in Formula Drift since the inaugural 2004 season and has been driving a Ford Mustang for all but his first season. As the cars that had launched the sport in Japan like the Nissan Silvia/240SX, Mazda RX-7, and Toyota Corolla AE86 have turned into modern classics – with the rarity and price tag to match – American muscle cars were ready to step up to the plate in drifting. Compared to the Nissan S13 and S14 chassis, they’re “pre-V8 swapped” drift cars with more availability and horsepower, with a community and aftermarket growing to support them. And Gittin, Jr. is just one of the celebrity drivers inspiring a young generation of enthusiasts, like Brandon Barry and his own Mustang.
Brandon's Mustang has come a long way from the black 2002 GT that it started life as.
Brandon grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, the son of a Ford tool and die maker. He spent his high school days the same way generations of car enthusiasts have: squirreling away every dollar that came his way to save for wheels of his own. That day finally came when he purchased a 2002 Ford Mustang GT with an automatic transmission and immaculate black paint. The car was cherry but a preservation class vehicle isn’t the stuff of high school dreams so mods were soon to come. In a tradition as old as hot rodding, Barry kept saving every penny that came his way for upgrades to the car.
With a supercharger and some bolt-ons, the Mustang became a quick car. A turbo and a built motor made it a fast car. Soon, the thrills of the race track beckoned. Memories of Gittin, Jr. shredding a Mustang in Formula Drift were all the inspiration he needed. A self-described “world’s most desperate email” to the team at RTR about getting into drifting with a Mustang received a patient and helpful response, inspiring him to jump into converting his beautiful first car into a drift machine.
An impressive lock-to-lock steering angle keeps the Mustang in control during high-angle drifts.
Now a college graduate with disposable income that a high school student could only dream of, Brandon jumped into the build with both feet. “I didn’t go the route where I would just do little things and take it to an event, I went full in.” He began the build with a manual transmission swap, installing a T56 from a Cobra and some drift basics. Since drifting is a sport that has always valued style (both in aesthetics and driving technique) Brandon wrapped the car to its current flat gray appearance, an homage to the Stealth Grey color on his daily driver Ford Focus RS.
The pandemic lockdowns gave Brandon time to fast track the next phase of his build, including fabricating a roll cage and making drift-ready suspension upgrades, including some Detroit Drifting Co. parts. Mike Skudlarek at DDC has been supporting the SN-95/New Edge platform since they first gained popularity in drifting with an angle kit: a modified set of front suspension components allowing significantly more steering angle than stock. Control arms with relief cut outs and reinforcement allow the tire more travel before lock while knuckles with shorter tie rod arms provide faster steering response and greater range. This allows the driver to control the car in a drift and catch the rear end if it starts to catch up to the front too quickly. The radical camber seen on the Mustang and most drift cars helps to correct suspension geometry at these high steering angles.
The turbocharged 4.6L V8 has cranked out 559 horsepower on the dyno, more than enough to get it around a track.
To augment these steering geometry modifications, the car required an upgrade to the belt driven power steering pump. An electric power steering pump provides the necessary pressure and flow for the demands of drifting. The brake system also got an overhaul: up front, a set of Cobra calipers aid stopping but the rear brake system is more drift-focused, with a second set of hydraulic calipers juiced by an ASD Motorsports hydraulic handbrake.
The Mustang was now a highly capable drift car…on paper. Like most race cars, it needed track time to discover the next weakest link and Brandon needed seat time to pilot it properly. Luckily, he had frontloaded the work and in 2020 he was able to get days of mostly reliable time in the car. Failure points cropped up - like cooling and suspension tuning - and were consequently sorted out, with the support from the growing Mustang drift community. Brandon reflects, “I started with a lot and created a lot of my own unreliability issues, but now I’ve got the car figured out enough that I know what’s going wrong. I’ve been through every square inch of this car multiple times.”
The Mustang sports a minimal drift car interior, complete with cagework and a Fun Haver steering wheel, complete with Vaughn Gittin, Jr.'s signature.
Drifting can be a sport of high attrition, encouraging drivers to explore the very limits of their abilities and the car’s capabilities in a way that most other motorsports don’t. Many drifters start with cheap “drift missiles” that they can run into the ground or destroy without incurring financial or emotional regrets. This was not Brandon’s approach, using his dearly beloved first car to learn the sport and building it to a high level even while he was learning. But there are advantages to investing in a starter car. The horsepower and suspension modifications of the Mustang allowed him to maximize his seat time and the benefit he got from the experiences. And the motivation to not damage the car raised the stakes and taught him to drive aggressively but conservatively.
Describing the experience of drifting his darling, Brandon says, “I was careful with it and more cautious. Also having all this power and angle kit, I think it acted as a crutch for me in a lot of situations. I never really spun out too much because I had so much power to push me through and so much angle to save myself so I think I’m still working on some of those things that maybe require more finesse or let me operate at the limits of what the car can do. So now I have to learn how to use less of the power and less of the angle.”
The reinforced rear bumper mounting keeps damage to a minimum when a run becomes a little too enthusiastic.
As the 2021 season and his skills progressed, Brandon had one goal in mind: get accepted into Holley’s Intergalactic Ford Festival event. He continued running local events, maximizing seat time at each one and learning from the veteran drivers. Halfway through the season his hard work was noticed and rewarded with coveted entry to Ford Fest.
In August the Mustang and Brandon traveled to Bowling Green, KY to participate in Holley’s gathering of fast Fords. The culmination of his drifting dreams that began in 2014 were realized when he lined up next to Vaughan Gittin, Jr. for the track challenges! Brandon met his drifting hero, his car a direct result of RTR’s long history of Formula D Mustangs. The finishing touch in his own car is now a Fun Haver steering wheel, from Gittin, Jr.’s brand and wearing his signature.
One of Brandon's main goals was to bring the car to Holley's Intergalactic Ford Festival and be accepted to drift. He got his chance in 2021 and even managed to pair off with VGJR on the track.
The next steps for the Mustang? Hopefully just driving! With the most significant and difficult modifications completed the car will continue to have weak links reinforced, like a new 8.8” rear end with a spool and strengthened housing. Brandon’s career is taking him from the Motor City to northern California this year and the prospect of year-round drifting with weekly events at Sonoma Raceway is one of the most significant perks to the relocation. The car is primed and ready to provide days and days of reliable drifting and make waves in the California community.
“It’s a little bit of this element of organized chaos,” Brandon describes what he loves about drifting. “The car’s out of control but you’re in that situation where you’re controlling an out of control car. There’s a piece of that feeling that you can control that chaos that makes it really, really fun.”