NZ’s top (and only) female pro drifter heads to China
For a sport that finds its roots in boy racers doing burnouts in the backstreets, professional drifting has some unlikely parallels.
With competitors required to produce highly intricate routines to find favour with judges, who score on artistic flair and technical execution, gymnastics shares a lot of similarities.
So, too, does, erm, figure skating?
“Absolutely”, agrees Jodie Donovan, New Zealand’s leading (and only) professional female drifter.
“It especially takes on the similarities with ice skating when you introduce the second car during battles,” says Donovan. “It is very synchronised. It looks like a dance of some type with cars.”
Synchronised swimming too then? Probably a bridge too far.
To the uninitiated, drifting isn’t necessarily easy to decipher. Drift cars go head-to-head at breakneck speeds, sliding out all over the show on ridiculously tight tracks, but there is no pursuit of a chequered flag.
Drivers instead need to hit “clipping points" with both the front and rears of their cars as they complete the course, racking up points for smoke, artistic flair, speed and angle. In the end – just like ice-dancing and artistic gymnastics - it’s the view of the judges that proves decisive.
“It is a real mental game because if you put one foot wrong, one little cock-up, and you're out,” says Donovan.
Speaking of being out, Donovan is in fact out of this season’s D1NZ championship, which culminates at the Manfield circuit on April 26 and 27.
Her Drift Motorsport NZ team - with husband Drew Donovan, also an elite pro drifter - was forced to withdraw from the championship after round one when key sponsor Cryptopia encountered major headwinds (you can read about that here) and withdrew its support.
For D1NZ that meant the loss of its only female competitor. For Jodie, it meant opening new doors that have included a stint of stunt driving for Fox Studios in Sydney and, shortly, an assault on the professional drifting competition in China.
The couple departed for testing in Hong Kong on Tuesday, and will compete in the first round in Shenzeng next weekend.
As you’d (well, maybe) expect, the Chinese drifting scene dwarfs that of New Zealand, at least in terms of its financial footprint.
“New Zealand is still running off the smell of an oily rag compared to [China],” says Donovan.
Opportunity, then, is most certainly knocking.
Donovan’s first experiences sliding out vehicles came driving farm vehicles on rural Northland roads. At 16, she met Drew, who was already dabbling in drifting. At 18, Jodie had her first drive in Drew’s car – and it proved a life-changing experience.
“I sold my car the next day and went out and bought a huckery old Nissan Cefiro and started learning. That’s how it all started for me,” she says.
With multi-coloured panels and an under-powered engine, that first car was a fairly humble beginning.
“It was called Gary The Snail. It looked like something out of a scrap metal yard,” she says.
But it was a start.
These days the engine alone in a pro drift car will represent an investment of between $15,000 and $50,000. The engines are “highly worked so they can take quite high compression”, says Donovan, which is as far as we head down the technical side of things.
Compared to many motorsports, the bar for entry into drifting is still relatively low – but is steadily increasing.
“With the younger element coming through it still has that element of ‘bad boy’ attached to it,” says Donovan. “But it has now progressed into a full-blown motorsport. It is one of the fastest growing motorsports in New Zealand. And even overseas it is just taking off.”
At Mt Maunganui’s Bay Park – the Donovans’ home track – crowds for drifting events are typically around about the 12,000 to 15,000 mark. To accommodate drifting (which requires a tarmac surface) the stadium’s dirt speedway track was dug up and then replaced over the tarmac drifting track. When it’s time for a drifting event, the dirt surface is scraped off.
The D1NZ circuit typically consists of five or six events, mainly located around the North Island.
The Donovans are among the competition’s elite. Jodie’s résumé includes victories at pro-am level, but she is yet to stand on the top step at D1NZ pro events.
“That really grinds my gears,” she admits.
She’s philosophical about the loss of Cryptopia’s sponsorship – an arrangement that had included training the company’s founder Rob Dawson to drift in the team’s spare car – and the lost season that resulted.
Dawson had been “dreaming of learning how to drift for a long time so it was good to be able to give that to him”, she says.
“All sponsorships are volatile. That’s the game you play with racing. We are pretty well used to it by now.”
In any case, things worked out, firstly in the form of a stunt driving job in Sydney. Donovan signed a non-disclosure agreement so can’t reveal details about the movie, other than to say: “It basically involved drifting an automatic non-handbraked car with every sensor under the sun. It was pretty challenging but it was a really cool experience.”
With female stunt drivers a rare breed (“often they just put wigs on guys”), the experience might well open more doors.
Female drifters are the rarest of breeds. Donovan estimates globally there would be one pro female drifter for every 20 or 30 males.
“There are just no females who stay in it consistently,” she says.
“The ones that do stick in have got that strong support network, which I’m really lucky to have myself with Drew.
“There is no reason why women can’t become more involved in the sport. None of it requires strength. These days we’ve all got power steering. Everything is hydraulically operated. It is not a matter of muscle, it is just a mindset thing.”
While Donovan is hoping to return to D1NZ next year, that will depend on sponsorship. With the Donovans having already competed in Australia and Japan and, very soon, China, it may be that the future for New Zealand’s lone female pro drifter lies offshore.