12 Apr
LIAS goes deep undercover at the Long Beach Formula D

It was supposed to be just another Tuesday. Do some laundry, write a little, get a haircut, and apply for non-existent jobs. That all changed when I woke up to an email from Charlie Meadows asking, “U wanna go Drifting today?” Ummm, huh? I had no idea what that meant. I thought he was cracking wise at my employment status, the dirty bastard. Soon enough I learned that going Drifting basically meant I would get into a racecar overloaded with pure torque, strap myself in tight and go really, really freaking fast around a track. It meant my life would be in some strange (but professional) driver’s hands. It meant I would not be doing laundry that day.

Now, before I said “yes” I hesitated. I’m not an adrenaline junky (well, I wasn’t one…), I get scared jumping off not-so-high cliffs into the ocean, the thought of skydiving terrifies me, and my preferred form of transportation is a rusted beach cruiser, so I wasn’t so sure I wanted to “Drift”. (By the way, that’s a misleadingly gentle word for what Drifting really is. If you’re like I was — clueless about Drifting — then the best way I can describe it is like a vehicular ballet on pro-wrestler steroids: rear-wheel drive, super tuned racecars are driven around a track at incredibly fast speeds, with the intent of purposefully burning as much rubber around corners as possible, creating violent plumes of white smoke. The more smoke, the louder the squeal, the more graceful the arc of burned rubber, the better the “drift”. It is not so much a “race” as a “dance”, for lack of a better word, rated by judges similar to freestyle motocross, snowboarding or even, yes, ice skating.)

Since I got laid off from my corporate 9-5 job a few weeks ago I’ve been in an “anything goes, what the hell” kind of mood, so I took a deep breath and wrote back, “Fuck it. I’ll do it.” Next thing I know I’m throwing on some jeans and heading out to Long Beach for a ride-along in a Formula D (the preferred league of drifting) car. Terrified and excited. No idea what I’m in for, but knowing whatever it is will be fun, and if I die, well…

Hit the Jump to continue reading the Elf’s adventures in Drifting…

“I remember thinking to myself, as he shifted the car into gear and the engine roared to life, ‘What the hell have I done?’”

The video below is a trailer for an upcoming documentary on Formula D driver Joon Maeng by LIAS friend and videographer Jay Joo. It features great action footage from this weekend’s Long Beach event, including some victory spins from weekend champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. Congrats, Alpinestars!

When I got to the track in Long Beach, the first thing I noticed was the sound — those engines are loud, like scary loud, and I wasn’t even close to the track yet. Once I heard the engines I had a tiny second of panic, and once I actually saw a Formula D car whipping around the track the second of panic decided to stick around, plant itself in my belly and incubate. It really didn’t help that when I signed in at the press tent some dude said, “Sign here. In case you die.” Yeah, thanks.

Next I met some of the crew from Alpinestars, whose roster of drivers includes some of the best Drifters in the world. Guys like 2009 Formula D champion Chris Forsberg, Vaughn Gittin Jr., Ryan Tureck, Tanner Foust and Ken Gushi — who would be my driver that day — all rely on Alpinestars for much needed protection. [As it turns out, Vaughn Gittin Jr. won that weekend's competition in his Monster/Falken Ford Mustang, and Tanner Foust took home third in his Rockstar Scion tC - Ed.]. While guiding me through this whole surreal experience, they told me that Drifting had a kind of outlaw mentality, but to some old, stodgy racing purists it was like “the rollerblading of motor sports.” In other words, Drifting is just coming into its own. But I can tell you from experience, that is a poor metaphor — Drifting is about as far from anything you can do on fruity boots as you can possibly get. I would say it’s more like the Russian Roulette of motor sports.

So after about an hour of getting schooled in all things Drift, the time had come. The shiny red Rogue Status Scion tC pulled up and a helmet was shoved into my hands — a helmet that was so huge that it made me look like one of those aliens from a really primitive 1950s science fiction flick. (You know what else didn’t help my fear? When I asked, “Is it OK that the helmet is so big on me?” and the answer was, “Uh, well, just don’t think about it and don’t move your head.” Great.) I had no choice but to hop into the passenger seat. Before I did I saw painted on the side of the car the not welcoming words, “Don’t Trust Anyone,” which did wonders for my fears. Even when I was told it was the logo of sponsor Rogue Status it didn’t help much — when you’re about to get into a racecar for the first time those words will wildly spike your adrenaline, let me tell you.

The bubble-headed alien seconds before take off

I shook hands with the driver, Ken Gushi, who competed in this weekend’s competition, and asked him, trying to hide the quiver in my voice and sound hardened, not girly, “Do you have any tips?” He just smiled a mischievous smile and said, “Hold on.” So, that’s what I did. White knuckled, I held on. I remember thinking to myself, as he shifted the car into gear and the engine roared to life, “What the hell have I done?” It was terrifying and exhilarating because at that moment, when he punched the accelerator, there really was nothing I could do, I had to let go completely and just trust that I would either live or die or be maimed — I had no control, and that’s a freaking sexy feeling.

“The best way I can describe Drifting is like a vehicular ballet on pro-wrestler steroids.”

But…when he stopped at the starting line, and a second car pulled up right next to us, I realized holy hell, it’s not just us on the track alone — and the panic resurfaced. It’s bad enough it would be our single car veering inches from high-speed collision against a concrete wall, but now they wanted to up the ante? Did we really need to elevate this from a warped, high-speed motor ballet into a suicidal version of synchronized swimming? If you’ve ever seen Drifting you know that it’s all about style, and you also know that beyond single-car competitions, with the cars going one at a time, they also do a synchronized version with 2 or more cars (sometimes even 4 at same time!) flying around the track. Apparently, this was the version I had unwittingly signed up for. Gulp.

And then the starting light before me went from red to yellow to green, and Ken punched the accelerator. We were off.

I mean, hell yes, it is scary. And like the Alpinestars guys warned me, when you’re Drifting you “might feel like the driver has totally lost control of the car.” That’s no lie — it really does feel that way. I mean, I know Ken knew exactly what he was doing, and I lived to write about the experience, but in the moment it does feel like you’re being whipped around in an out-of-control car that’s about to send you to your untimely death. And then there’s a second car sliding chaotically right outside your window, tires squealing, engine screaming. All you can do is be in the moment; there’s not even any time to pray that you don’t crash and wind up in a fiery pyre, one that has your friends and relatives crying at a funeral site on a drizzling afternoon. It’s actually, bizarrely, kinda Zen: Your life and world and orientation are literally spinning out of control, and all you can do is sit and observe. The tires smoke so intensely that black smoke flies in your face, sneaking through some magical unseen crack, and before you know it the car pulls up to the finish and your view refocuses from a blurry mess of color back to plain old reality.  I felt pretty stunned, but had a huge smile on my face, and I BREATHED, since I don’t think I took a single breath while we were Drifting. I turned to Ken and blurted, “Can we go again??” like a kid at Disneyland, and he just smiled. Getting out of the car I was totally exhilarated, happy but also sad it was over. Sad I had to get back in my beat up Toyota with the duct tape holding the mirror together and drive, the designated speed limit, down the 405. But let me tell you that drive home I blared Wolfmother and, since there was mercifully no traffic, I had a real hard time not speeding home. I flew down the freeway, the windows down, smiling.

I can say now, I would do it again… a thousand times again. And skydiving doesn’t sound so bad. Terrifying maybe, but not bad…

Special Thanks to Alpinestars for the invite, who in addition to outfitting World Champion motorcycle racers (Casey Stoner, Nicky Hayden, Ben Spies, Jeremy McGrath, Travis Pastrana, Chad Reed, etc.)  also sponsor high profile champions from a variety of auto racing disciplines. From Michael Schumacher to Danica Patrick, some of the most prolific drivers in the world don their Astar logo-emblazoned Nomex suits every weekend.

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