RIYADH: Drifting, or “tafheet,” has been a common phenomenon among Saudi youth for decades. Young locals take to the streets and engage in high-speed drifting, often exceeding a speed of 100 kph with little concern for public safety or themselves.
Tafheet involves driving cars at high speeds across wide highways, throwing the vehicle left and right to mimic the appearance of drifting.
Abdulhadi Alqahtani, a professional Saudi drifter and business owner, spoke to Arab News about the community that spread the culture and love for drifting.
“There is a big passion for drifting here in Saudi Arabia and everyone knows that it is very common,” he said.
Considered a legend in the sport and an original FIA drifter from the MENA region, Alqahtani said that drifting was always a part of who he was.
“Growing up as a petrolhead in Alkhobar, I found love in motorsports that was unmatched to any other hobby or profession. When I close my helmet just before starting a race, I’m in a different state of mind; I forget everything.”
Throughout his career spanning more than 10 years, Alqahtani has raced in more than 120 international competitions and received several accolades for his prowess in drifting and racing under his banner of the Al-Jazirah Ford Racing Team.
However, in the beginning, there wasn’t any way for him to do what he loved — legally.
Over the years, Saudi Arabia, along with some Gulf countries, has had a reputation for illegal drifting, often resulting in accidents when drivers practice on public roads, endangering themselves and those around them.
“I had a love and passion for speed, and there was no place to do it,” Alqahtani said. “I had to find something that was safer than what I used to see taking place here.”
Even as a youngster, Alqahtani avoided taking to public roads and highways as much as possible, instead opting for empty plots of land away from bystanders to avoid causing them harm.
He entered his first official tournament, Autocross, which took place on Saudi Arabia’s first motorsport track at the Reem International Circuit in Riyadh.
At the tournament, drifting around cones in a parking lot under official drifting rules and judges, Alqahtani experienced a love and thrill for the sport that drew him to the competitive side of the activity.
I found love in motorsports that was unmatched to any other hobby or profession. When I close my helmet just before starting a race, I’m in a different state of mind; I forget everything.
“Ever since my first competition, I stopped driving fast on (public) roads because I didn’t need to be a daredevil anymore,” he said. “I can have this feeling on the track and at the competition,” he said.
“Every Saudi professional driver you know comes from small competitions,” he said.
The first official large-scale drifting competition in Saudi Arabia took place in 2013. It was managed by Alqahtani, who wanted to see the sport develop into something more and to play a role in making that happen.
“There were small competitions but nothing like this,” he said. “This was the first local competition with international standards.”
“Drifting is not about who finishes the course first,” Alqahtani said. After qualifying, a drifting competition comes down to a battle between two drivers in a tandem race.
Each driver takes one turn leading and one turn chasing. A panel of three judges assesses the drivers on different elements of the drift such as a good amount of slip angle throughout the course, a clean run and even flashiness, which is known as impact. The judges then tally the scores to decide the winner.
“The judges have certain parameters they score drivers on both in qualifiers and battles,” he said. “In qualifiers, if you win in your bracket you proceed to the next and this is how the championship goes until a winner is declared.”
Alqahtani said that more support from the government would prevent people from engaging in illegal drifting on public roads and bring them to the track, where they can drift freely, improve their skills and compete for tournament prizes and accolades.
Academies and leagues have since been established by professional racers in an effort to mitigate illegal street drifting incidents and to educate youngsters about its dangers while encouraging them to instead participate in officially sanctioned events.
“I started a drifting school in 2015 called Mahara at Dirab Motor Park in Riyadh,” he said. “We provide the cars, teach people how to drive and drift on our track, but some of the kids that come in already know from their previous experience out there.”
Unfortunately, there has been a “freeze” on drifting since 2018, according to Alqahtani. He believes that the authorities concerned, such as the Saudi Arabian Motorsports Federation and the Ministry of Sports, are focusing more on international motorsports that draw large crowds, such as Formula One, Formula E and the Dakar Rally.
However, drifting has decreased over the years as Saudi Arabia has developed into a haven for investment and business to flourish in areas such as recreation, sports and entertainment. The need to go drifting no longer exists as people have found other ways of occupying their time recreationally.
The Saudi drifter, however, has not not passed up on opportunities to get back on the track. Most recently Alqahtani took part in the 2022 Saudi international motor show, Autoville, where he drifted in style under his banner once again.