Drifting into the mainstream

   by Cássio Côrtes
September 15, 2004

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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.

To 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.

On 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” crowds.

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 just business-as-usual.

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 180-spin.

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 motorsport?

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 answer.

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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