One sees its glory days in the past,
the other is a new trend on the rise. A link between Champ Car and
Formula D drifting might just be the answer to push both sports into
racing’s main stage.
the motorsport purist, the concept of drifting may come across as
uninteresting at best, pointless at worst - the equivalent of watching
footbag tricks instead of a World Cup soccer match. For starters,
drifting goes against one of racing’s fundamental pillars: it is a
subjective sport. Think Olympic gymnastics, where parameters such as
“style” and, God forbid, “grace” far outweigh the notions of sheer
speed or elapsed time.
the other hand, racing’s powers that be must acknowledge their sport
hasn’t exactly been the hippest thing out there, at least for the
better part of the past two decades. Tarnished by NASCAR’s redneck
stigma and its monopoly on the media (which has led the American
mainstream to irrevocably associate the concept of “racing” with
“stock-cars goin’ round in circles”), Gen-Y race fans know their
passion consists of a liability rather than an asset in their quest for
“some” across the nation’s college dorms - optimistically assuming
potential bedfellows will even have a clue of what the subject is.
Proof of that is the sentence mercilessly shot at me by a former NYU
female classmate, while I described a few of my Champ Car war stories
in an attempt to impress her: “You realize no one knows what you’re
talking about, don't you?”
Drifting is all about controlled 4-wheel power slides
In all, organized racing seems a world
apart from the interests of college-aged trendsetters - a puzzling
scenario, considering we all take for common sense that kids like
cars. If anyone needed further proof, the popularity of the Fast and
the Furious movies and the Gran Turismo and Need For Speed:
Underground videogames provided for it.
Sell college kids the idea of guys tightly strapped into
800-hp machines traveling at 230 mph should be easier than predicting
Minardi’s championship-winning odds, then.
Yet, for a multitude of reasons, it isn’t. But finally, after years of
marketing neglect, the Champ Car World Series partnered with Media
Wide marketing to do something about it. The first step of their
initiative was a drifting demonstration, presented by Formula D (the
US’s premier skidding league) during this year’s Grand Prix of Monterey,
an initial attempt at building a two-way street to make drifting more
known to race fans, and vice-versa.
All of that explains why I have abandoned my air-conditioned cocoon at
Laguna’s media center to now be sweating inside the cramped racing
seat of a red Nissan 350Z drifter. I wasn’t quite breaking into new
ground: a bunch of major news outlets, including Wired magazine, have
run stories about riding shotgun with drifting champions. Car and
Driver even tested Rhys Millen’s factory-backed Formula D Pontiac GTO.
Being but a humble web scribe, I wasn’t so lucky: my driver, Tony
Angelo, finished a dismal 23rd in this year’s championship. FD may be
an unorthodox form of motorsport, but drivers will always be drivers:
“I was driving a crappy old RX-7,” he justifies.
Formula D is the brainchild of Slipstream Global’s Jim Liaw and Ryan
Sage, who imported the sport from Japan. It ran its first full,
four-round season this year, with driver Samuel Hubinette emerging as
the series’ inaugural champion.
Even though California-based Liaw and Sage look more like boy-band
singers than Wall Street businessmen, their idea has garnered varying
levels of support from several Fortune 500 companies, including GM,
DaimlerChrysler, Mazda, and, not surprisingly after you’ve attended
one of FD’s white-smoke fests, many tire brands.
Featuring official entries by Pontiac and Dodge dicing it against the
Japanese hordes, the championship is to an extent a War of the Worlds
between true-blue American muscle and Far Eastern rice-burners; V-8
cubic inches versus high-revving four and six-bangers - it’s Pearl
Harbor all over again, though I might have gotten too carried away on
this last one.
Although the Laguna demo deal came in the 11th hour, the duo was
grateful to both Champ Car and the Raceway: “We wish more people in
racing realized the relevance of this [youth] market,” they tell me
during Monterey’s downtown CCWS fan fest on Friday night.
Their vision resonates with Gill Campbell, Laguna Seca’s CEO: “We need
to create new fans, and this is the demographic we need to reach, the
gap that exists in motorsports,” she believes. Gill reveals the
association with FD “is one of Kevin Kalkhoven’s pet projects,” a hint
that Champ Car is serious about reaching the “fast and furious”
With a smile suiting of her mother-of-the-year kindness, she
concludes: “Anyone stupid enough to do these drifts deserves to be on
a major racetrack.” But what about those stupid enough to do them
while relinquishing control to the championship’s 23rd-best driver?
Time to find out, as Angelo shifts into first and drops the clutch.
Though the Z has been stripped of all its street goodies, the brutal
acceleration down Laguna’s pit straight instantly tells me Tony isn’t
relying on the stocker’s 287hp to loosen the tail. “It’s
twin-turbocharged, good for some 350 rear-wheel horses,” he estimates.
Other mods include stiffer spring rates and a wider wheel lock. Unlike
the Detroiters, Nissan has yet to officially back any FD teams,
although “we do get some parts from Nismo,” Tony says.
Before Laguna’s Andretti hairpin, a 180-degree bend to the left, my
driver flicks the wheel to the right to send the rear sliding, then
downshifts to second and floors it, while pointing the nose back in
the right direction. We take the full hairpin’s length sideways as
white tire smoke fills the cockpit with its characteristic smell.
Even with the lateral Gs banging my head all over the place, I try to
concentrate on my driver’s hands and footwork. To upset the Z’s tail,
Angelo makes use of two basic techniques: a “clutch kick”, consisting
of depressing the clutch as a drift starts, then releasing it at once
to send a sudden burst of power down the driveline, and the plain
e-brake pull, typical of WRC drivers when approaching hairpins.
Tony overcooks Turn 3 a bit; the left rear brushes the sandy gravel
trap. His unabated expression is supposed to make me think that was
Once we reach the Bosch bridge, Tony makes a U-turn: we’ll now drift
on Laguna’s backwards orientation. We wait in line, midpack among the
demonstration’s six cars. Competitive FD rounds are head-to-head duels
a la drag racing, so even though Liaw and Sage make a point of
emphasizing how drifting is “all about style,” the old-fashioned racer
inside me inquires Angelo: “What about passing?”
“You’re not supposed to do it,” he begins, “unless the driver ahead
makes a mistake”. Hmm. Now that isn’t all that different from some
open-wheel races we’ve been seeing these days, I think.
As we near the apex of 3 on the way back, the Z’s rear decides to
trade positions with the front. We come to a full halt after the
Nothing to worry about, if Chris Forsbergs’ silver car hadn’t been
coming straight at us for what would likely be an unpleasant head-on
encounter. Forsbergs’ 350Z squeezes down to the apex, missing my
side’s rearview mirror by a hair.
Apparently, Forsbergs’ mistake: “What?! Chris was supposed to have
stopped there, and we’d do donuts together!,” exclaims Tony. I
desperately want to believe him.
Truth or not, the vision of a silver Z growing fast on our windshield
must have got into Angelo: we go off-track again, this time at the
Andretti hairpin. Beige dust smoke replaces the tire-generated white
kind inside the cabin. We coast back to the pit lane, somewhat humbly.
We go for another back-and-forth ride, this time trouble-free, and
then it’s over. Before climbing out of the car, I notice the notepad I
carried on my lap is gone - it ended up somewhere near the left
taillight mounting. For the first time in my life, I sympathize for
what my laundry has to routinely go through.
My dizzied walk back to the media center is permeated by a still
unanswered question: so, where does drifting fit in the world of
As a go-kart racer who has also traded more than a few hours’ worth of
college credits for time in front of a Gran Turismo screen, and wasted
more than a few thousand bucks’ worth of college money acquiring Pizza
Hut-sized wheels for my Miata, I don’t think I possess a definitive
The return to my chilled cocoon is greeted with a grave statement by
one of the granddaddies of “orthodox” racing writers, Gordon Kirby:
“If this is the future of motorsports, we’re in big, big trouble,” he
remarks while trying to see something, anything through all the tire
smoke hovering above the front straight.
Maybe. Drifting’s status as a genuine form of racing is surely
debatable - some may even argue snow-belters have been doing it since
forever, except they called it “winter” - but there’s no question it
seems to be the form of motorsport which better speaks to the under-25
audiences nowadays, a market segment a series like Champ Car cannot
afford to ignore.
Marketing ploys aside, it all comes down to this: drifting is just
deliciously silly, and a sure grin-provoker to all of those with even
the slightest percentage of gasoline running in their veins.
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