Interview: Red Bull Drifting Champion Ahmad Daham

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The drift king of the Middle East

When arranging to speak to Ahmad Daham, you almost expect the interview to be conducted in a deserted car park somewhere. It’s easy to picture him pulling into a dusty, urban lot at full speed, entering into a drift right before your eyes, skidding and stopping just a few metres away before jumping out to shake your hand. On this occasion, however, he’s merely on the end of the phone, out of the country, visiting family at home in Jordan before returning to the UAE, which he has represented since 2015.

Daham’s drifting career began in Jordan as a teenager. His parents gave him a modified car as a gift, tempting him onto the race track. He turned professional in 2011, taking part in his first Red Bull Car Park Drift, winning two consecutive King of Drift titles in 2014 and 2015. Subsequent wins followed, including the 2014 Jordan Drift Championship, sponsorship from Red Bull itself, the chance to represent the UAE internationally, and even landing a clutch of world records. So with 2019 admittedly his craziest year so far, what does Ahmad have planned for the future? MOJEH Men investigates…

Has 2019 been a good year for you?

It’s been crazy! I received a new manufacturer sponsorship from Lexus, which came with two new cars to compete in, and with Red Bull on board we had an exclusive invitation to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK, which is the largest and most exciting automotive event on the planet. Then the Emirates Drifting Championship and the Oman Drifting Championship were incredible – Oman I always look forward to, as it brings in one of the best crowds in the Middle East, and some of the best drifters from all over the world. It really pushes me as a competitor.

Drifting really seems to be growing in the Middle East – is that something you’ve witnessed?

Drifting is indeed the fastest-growing motorsport in the world. The adrenaline and enjoyment you get, right from the first small powerslide, will keep you itching for more. I’ve seen drifting grow steadily in the region, and I’m very happy with where it is now. We have drifters of every nationality, and that brings us all together. The feeling of going sideways and the friendly competition, you can’t help but love it.

You got into racing in your teens, but found you liked drifting best. How has that pathway been for you?

The journey has not been easy, but if I was ever to go back, I wouldn’t change a thing. With every obstacle, I learned something new, and eventually it led me to drifting. I was always into grip and time attack, and I even tried rallying – which I’d love to try again one day – but drifting in Jordan attracted the biggest audiences and received the most support, so I think that’s what drew me in the end.

And you build your own cars, is that right? What are you driving currently?

Building the car is part of the competition. I’m currently driving two cars – the Nissan Silvia powered by a Toyota engine is used to compete outside of the Middle East, and within the region before my partnership with Lexus started. But now I have a Lexus RC-F with a supercharged Lexus V8 when driving in the Middle East, and for competition a Toyota-powered Lexus RC350 F-Sport.

How is a car prepared differently for drifting than for racing?

Drift cars and racing cars are very similar, as they both follow the same safety guidelines, fitted with an FIA-certified roll cage, extinguisher system, racing transmission, and a third-party ECU (I use a Link ECU). Some of the main differences are that drift cars have big angle kits, which allows the steering to turn close to 90 degrees. There are no big power restrictions, so I can go over 1,000bhp, and cooling is very important, as drift cars are almost always on high revs and need continuous power.

You’re a Guinness World Record holder. What for?

Myself and [Irish professional drift driver] James Deane managed to maintain a twin tandem drift, without creating a gap, for 28.5km. It felt like an endurance race, but sideways! I’m always up for new challenges, and I couldn’t say no to trying it.

You made a video a couple of years back too, drifting on the streets of Dubai. How was that?

That was… fun! I’d never imagined that I’d be able to pull off something like that – a 1,000bhp car driving on Sheikh Zayed Road and drifting! It was a project collaboration between Red Bull and Aramex. It created a big buzz on the streets and also on social media.

How important was it to you to team up with Red Bull?

Red Bull has really helped the sport to grow in the Middle East with the Red Bull Car Park Drift series. My friend [Lebanese rally driver and triple national champion] Abdo Feghali pushed hard for it and made it a reality, and he took that championship everywhere in the region. It brought so many new faces to the sport. Any rear-wheel-drive car was allowed to compete, and that let new drivers in that don’t need a fully-set-up race car. It ignited the spark.

And where do you tend to race? It’s not just the Middle East, is it?

I’ve drifted in around 17 countries now between the Middle East, Asia and Europe. My aim is to drift in the US at Formula D, but that will require a lot of planning. There are more races this year in Europe. I just finished one in Latvia, and have a few more before I go back to the Middle East, just in time before the season starts, and that’s when Oman, the UAE and Jordan all have their championships running.

If people want to get involved in or try the sport, what should they do? Do you offer lessons?

I haven’t taught a drifting school in a long time, but when I did we had two school cars with different power levels, which the students could use. All of the cars came with a roll cage, racing seat and harnesses, but the most important safety measure is always a good helmet. You can practise in your own car, learning how to oversteer and control it, but it must be done in a controlled, legal and safe environment.

How do you get into and maintain a drift? And how does scoring work?

Maintaining a drift is all down to the throttle. Your throttle response is important, not just to initiate a drift but to maintain it, and it even lets you increase or decrease the car’s angle. That, combined with your steering and use of the handbrake, is what drifting is all about. It needs mental and physical training to be able to drift, as mental health is what keeps you focused, and puts fear away and places skills.

Competitions are scored by different factors. First, it’s qualifications, where the car needs to achieve a high score in order to qualify for the battles, and that’s scored by your angle, hitting the right front and rear clipping points, and maintaining a drift. If you go straight, you get a zero. The scoring in battles is the same as in the qualifications, but there are also proximity points, measured by the distance between the chase and the lead car, who makes the fewest mistakes and who has the better driving style.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned?

There are no perfect drifters. Everyone makes mistakes, and that’s okay, as long as you learn how to recover from them and improve that skill into making yourself better. I’ve made mistakes before, and sometimes mistakes are inevitable, but that’s fine. Competition is important, but what’s more important is to keep drifting fun. A good spirit between drivers is what keeps the sport alive.

Is there anything else you want to achieve?

Drifting has recently been acknowledged by the FIA worldwide, and that’s a big achievement. What’s next is to maintain a good image, and to encourage more manufacturers to get involved in sponsoring teams, as this is what makes the competition more exciting. I wish the sport would get more support from local entities, such as race tracks and governments, but I think you have to take it one step at a time.

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