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Some Drivers Just Drifting Their Way Through Life

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 17 2011

Michael Essa drifts his Z4 on the frontstretch at Texas Motor Speedway. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for TMS)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Fort Worth, Texas – Screeching tires, billowing white smoke and the smell of burning rubber serve as Michael Essa’s calling card, one that likely would drive his authorized BMW dealer to tears.

Essa is a third-season competitor with Formula DRIFT, an “extreme motorsport” that made its debut at Texas Motor Speedway in a non-points competition last Saturday evening. Eight series regulars competed in a traditional bracket elimination tournament as lead-in to the IZOD IndyCar Series’ inaugural Firestone Twin 275s.

TMS’ pit lane and frontstretch were transformed into a winding, 3,080-foot course for a field including Essa’s 2008 GSR Autosport/Nitto Tire BMW Z4 cabriolet.

“I’ve known a lot of people that have never heard of drifting and then come out to see the event, and not even really understand everything that’s going on, but have a lot of fun,” said Essa, a 31-year-old resident of Los Angeles. “It’s like a NASCAR race; you can have a seat here and you can see the whole track. It’s just constant entertainment. And if you’re really not into motorsports, this is completely different. So it’s people that don’t necessarily really like cars, but it’s an extreme sport. It’s something interesting to watch.”

Second-generation motorcycle daredevil Robbie Knievel and Robosaurus – a mechanized, fire-breathing, car-chewing robot – have been prominent among the actors providing pre-race entertainment for TMS’ annual IndyCar June night race. Formula DRIFT, North America’s only professional drifting championship series, was booked this year in a deal both parties believe will be symbiotic.

“We’ve been talking about (hosting) Formula DRIFT for a while, it’s something that’s been on our radar screen for probably the last three or four years,” said Kenton Nelson, TMS’ assistant general

Pro drifter Michael Essa and IndyCar driver Graham Rahal put their BMW through a workout at Texas. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

manager and vice president of events. “And we’ve actually had some of those, if you will, minor league-type series come out and do some stuff out on our road-course.

“Robby Knievel, I guess, has jumped one too many times maybe and we were looking for something different for the June pre-race show, and it made sense to get in touch with these guys and make this happen.”

Ryan Sage, vice president and co-founder of Formula DRIFT, said the seven-race series hoped to tap into the Dallas-Fort Worth market’s “Tuner crowd” with this exhibition. “We’d love to have an event here,” Sage said. “Most of our events are (attended by) 16 to 24-year-old males, and we go as high as 35. But our primary audience is the 16-to-24-year-old male.” Sage said typical on-site attendance ranges from  10,000 to 15,000 fans per event.

Nelson said that’s a demographic TMS management is eager to reach as the traditional oval-racing crowd continues to fast-forward into middle-age. “One of the notes I saw was 65 percent of Formula DRIFT fans are ages 18-to-29, and 92 percent of Formula DRIFT fans are under the age of 39,” Nelson said. “Really, the ‘No Limits’ campaign fits great with the demo with the younger age group.”

Established on the streets of Japan, drifting has evolved into a worldwide competitive sport that challenges each driver’s ability and car-control. “The sport’s been around for about 20 years going back to Japan and for eight (years) in the United States,” Sage said. “The growth that we’ve seen has been really in the past two to three years. We think this is a good showcase for IndyCar racing.”

Essa said his Bimmer is the only European marque out of approximately 50 entries regularly competing in a series featuring Toyotas, Scions, Nissans, Mazdas, Ford Mustangs and Chevrolet Camaros.

“All of the cars are pretty heavily modified; I wouldn’t advise driving them on the street,” Sage said. “There is no standard (car make). That’s one of the ways we market the series is there’s a diversity of cars that you don’t often get in traditional road-racing. There’s no spec car, there’s no spec tire. Any car that can be powered from the rear wheels – and we have some cars that are front-wheel drive – so there’s a large group of cars.”

Saturday’s format started with individual qualifying judged by “traditional standards” of the series.

“It’s pretty much like an NCAA bracket,” Sage said. “They have single-run qualifying, which is based on speed – how fast you’re going through the course; line _ are you following the proper line designated by the judges;  angle – how much drift angle do you have while utilizing those other two criteria and then style, which is the most objective part. Those four criteria add up to 100 points.

“The cars go through and they’re placed in a bracket. The No. 1-ranked driver goes against the No. 8-ranked driver in this case, or in a full competition, No. 1 goes against No. 32. And you whittle them all the way down. Then you get into the tandem part, with the drivers competing head-to-head and those criteria somewhat get thrown out and it’s basically a dog fight going through the course side-by-side. One driver gets a chance to lead once, and you get a result after that.”

Sage said the essence of drifting is this – the driver is in control on the edge of being out-of-control.

“You’re at the absolute limit of control, to where you’re forcing the car to where it would almost spin out, catching it and then holding it at that position all the way through the course,” Essa said. “So it’s similar to finding the ultimate grip level that you would road-racing. But when you’re road-racing you have that little extra edge where you can slide the car a bit and catch it. In drifting you don’t have that, since you’re already sliding the car.

“It’s really a lot of timing. And also, you have to kind of let the car do its own thing. You kind of guide it, but if you force the car too much most likely you’ll spin or the run will be really choppy and all over the place. So you transition and get the car in the direction you want to go, let the wheel travel until you get to the point you want and slow down. If you’re fighting the car, you’re making it more difficult on yourself and makes your run look pretty sloppy.

“I think drifting started out as a road-race driver just overdriving the car and having fun with it. And that’s how I started doing it. I started road-racing a long time ago – autocross, Porsche club events – and I know what it’s like to overdrive the cars and slide them around. I saw that this was a sport and it’s something I want to do. There are a lot of amateur events where you can take your street car, put some old tires on it and just get the hang of it. And when you work your way up, you start building a car with better suspension and better tires – grippy street tires.”

Speed varies according to the particular venue, be it oval, street or natural-terrain road-course. “At Road Atlanta, I think we were doing 95 mph on some of the course,” Essa said. “Usually we sustain a slide at 70 to 80 mph. And at some points of the course we’re going almost 110 mph.”

Essa is fully-vested in drifting via GSR Autosport. “We build the cars, we do track support, we do arrive-and-drives, maintenance on race cars, all kinds of stuff,” Essa said. “I think we’ve got about $75,000 invested in my car. It’s a turbocharged 6-cylinder, got about 600 horsepower at the wheels and everything’s been gone through. BMW motors are really strong, so it’s a completely stock engine with a big turbo on it. It’s 12 pounds of boost and it’s making all that power.”

Essa said it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a tire manufacturer on-board. “Nitto is our tire sponsor and they’ve been really good with us. We burn through a lot of tires,” Essa said. “We’ll go through 40 tires a weekend. Seven events, plus testing…so the tire sponsors, they love it.  A lot of people are out there at the events and they’re getting feedback from it.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, June 17 2011
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