Editor’s Note: Thanks to the courtesy of GMPP-sponsored drifter Conrad Grunewald, we had the opportunity to have contributor Ashley van Dyke as our “embedded reporter” for a Formula DRIFT event. What follows is her account of a smoke-filled weekend at the track. – PH
Growing up at Evergreen Speedway, a NASCAR sanctioned home track, the memories from my childhood are filled with stock car circle track racing, figure 8, and demolition derbies. Back then, there were no drifting competitions and very few people had even heard of such a thing. My grandfather, Richard Avalo, “Pops”, was Director of Racing at Evergreen, and I was a privileged to enjoy shadowing him at the speedway on the weekends. His more than three decades of experience provided me with the seeds I needed to nourish my career in the racing industry.
The drifting scene commenced at Evergreen Speedway after I had made the move down to Los Angeles years ago. Up until this point, I had only read about the event taking place at my home venue. I was excited to make my homecoming to Evergreen Speedway, back to my roots and the treasured memories I have as kid hanging with Pops. So much has changed and yet it feels just the same as it always did as a kid. You can imagine my enthusiasm when Editor Huizenga gave me the assignment to go back to Evergreen to cover the fifth stop on the Formula DRIFT tour.
Not only was my assignment to return home to cover this exciting motorsport event, but I was asked to be an embedded reporter with one of the hottest drivers on the circuit, Conrad Grunewald. Things move fast in Formula DRIFT and that’s certainly the case with Conrad and his 730 HP Camaro powered with GM Performance Parts. I arrived at my home track of Evergreen Speedway, in Monroe, Washington, to check things out.
The Snohomish County locals told me this was the best weather they had seen all summer. Temperatures were in the low 80’s and on both Friday and Saturday. It was clear and as beautiful as I can remember with Mt. Rainier standing out with bright white snow caps in the background to the south. It was good to be home!
More Than Just Inhaling Smoke
If you have been fortunate enough to attend a drift event you have probably noticed that sponsors are going to extensive lengths to bring in “experiential” attractions and booths right in the main paddock area. Truck loads of vendor display materials are available, which include music stages, prizes and contests, promotional product handouts, interactive displays and of course loads of T&A.
While your mind is wandering to the sex appeal, I should add that there was more leg shown in the pits than I have ever seen in my years growing up here at Evergreen Speedway. It brought on a flashback to the days when I wasn’t old enough to go into the pits but I always knew when that day would come it required long pants, closed toe shoes, and absolutely no tank tops.
It was a rewarding opportunity for me to participate in a “ride along” back in April at the Long Beach Grand Prix course for a media day experience. This was my first time riding in a Camaro with so much power. Drifting adds a different kind of experience and dimension in racing as we see tire smoke unlike anywhere else and the transitional changes of car angles in forward movement really puts every part of the car on edge. I always looked forward to having this kind of up close and personal time with such amazingly powerful machines.
A Sport Imported from Japan
Grunewald is currently over the mid-season mark in what is his fourth full year on the Formula DRIFT circuit, which saw its birth in 2004. The sport that originated on the winding roads in the Japanese hillsides now has international appeal with drivers representing dozens of nations and plenty of attention forming around this new kind of car culture.
A Texan, with the sideburns to match, Conrad is your all American kind of drifter, fitting into a series that mixes a variety of personalities and driving abilities. He’s a real Chevy fan at heart and proves it with his passion for the brand and determination to stand by the products. In a series that allows unlimited tuning to the engine and encourages top performance and high horsepower, it’s important to feel confident in your engine and race car ability.
Conrad Grunewald has proven to be a contender in Formula DRIFT, coming off a win at the previous round in New Jersey. You can feel the momentum with his team as well – there are obvious signs of progression. He has come far in handling the pressure and dealing with obstacles that come with being an independent team. He is nowhere near matching the budget other teams in the league are bringing to the table but from the looks of his race car and his remarkable talents behind the wheel, you really would never recognize that.I noticed the Camaro had some weight added in the back of the car. Grunewald explained to me that there is a sliding scale for vehicle weight to tire size. The Hankook Tire Chevy Camaro weighs in at 2,839 pounds (about 1,000 lighter than stock) and with Conrad in the car the minimum weight needs to be 3100. To meet the requirement, the team bolted additional lead in the car. While added weight never sounds like a good idea, the fact that it can be placed wherever they determine they need it for balance leads to a car that’s easier to drive.
Everybody Works, Nobody Quits
Spending most of my time in the garage pits with Conrad and his Hankook tire supporters, I was able view how hands-on he is with the mechanics and setup of his drift car. I saw him troubleshoot an alternator, starter and steering pump – while some forms of racing allow the driver to lounge in air-conditioned comfort, most of the drivers on the FD circuit are part-time mechanics out of necessity. Many of the issues are heat related and they always seem to happen at the worst of times. This did not slow Conrad down; when necessary he got in his truck and drove to the parts store to make last minute replacements. I saw a diehard racer who understands the demands of his race car and is committed to making it right at all costs. Whatever it takes and however late the task will take him, this driver doesn’t sleep or stop until his Camaro is in full and proper working order and ready for battle.
“The three things every driver wants out of his power platform are performance, reliability, and respectable cost,” Grunewald told me. “You just can’t get that from any other source like you can with GM Performance Parts.”
And this was surely a true statement. The powertrain in his vehicle has all three of those traits Conrad mentioned and it doesn’t get any better than that coming from a racer. Running an LS7 GM Performance Parts engine is the ideal package and it’s not just Chevrolet cars out here in Formula DRIFT that carry this platform. Matt Powers is a professional drifter also competing in the circuit and he fields a Nissan 240SX with a 550 HP LS7 under the hood.
“When we first started working with Conrad, we sent him an LSA engine,” shared Dr. Jamie Meyer, product integration manager at GM Performance Parts (and occasional LSXtv contributor). ”Conrad started with one our body-in-white Camaro kits. This is the ‘hanging metal’ of a Camaro – no powertrain, suspension, interior, glass, rubber – nothing but the metal. It’s a great platform to start a race car from. The LSA was chosen for its brute torque curve. It offers up over 550 lb/ft of torque, and probably 400 of that is available before 3,000 RPM – it’s a natural for spinning tires! 2011 pre-season rules changes made the switch to a lighter vehicle with a naturally aspirated engine the direction that Conrad wanted to go.”
“The LS7 was a great choice,” Meyer adds. “It offers up 427 cubic inches of amazing technology. A direct descendant of the 1955 265-inch small block V8, the LS7 is the high water mark for factory naturally aspirated small block Chevy performance. An aluminum block, steel crank, titanium connecting rods, aluminum heads (that flow 360-plus CFM), composite intake, and a valvetrain that will live happy at over 7,000 RPM is just part of the story. Our powertrain engineers put a 100,000 mile warranty on this engine in our production Z06, and even our GMPP engineers sign off for a 2-year/24,000 mile warranty in a street driven hot rod application. Amazing, when you consider that this engine makes 505 horsepower stock. Now, Conrad has changed the cam and updated the valvetrain, added headers, and he’s well over 600 horsepower. But, even in this application, in a racing environment, just look at how this engine is holding up!”
The GMPP Camaro is driving technology right into the hands of the youth automotive market at each stop along Formula DRIFT schedule. Fans of Conrad’s Camaro are hardcore Chevy enthusiasts and many are drag racers at heart as well. To be good at getting around Evergreen you need solid car balance and a car set up for neutral response. Part of the key to scoring a Formula DRIFT victory is simply avoiding serious mistakes, both in setup and execution on the track.
Finding the Right Angle
The competition is fierce in Formula DRIFT with more variables than what meets the eye. Learning how the judging and politics work is a major aspect of this sport. I overheard some of the drivers after the driver’s meeting layout how the setup was working on their car and the effects that may play on corner transitions and carrying speed; all things to factor in when you’re being judged on how well you can follow that lead car in tandem.
Evergreen Speedway is a high speed track by Formula DRIFT standards with a 1/8 mile drag race to the first corner that sits going into turn 2 and drifting along into turn 1 on the 5/8 mile oval. The first zone that judges watch for is a section of space that runs at the end of this long entry turn and they want to see the rear of each driver’s car about an inch from the outer wall. To nail this requirement means you’re angled just right and you don’t turn into the first transition too soon. Cars that don’t commit to the wall or come down too early will be marked down.
Then, they come into what is the center of the figure 8 track or as known here this weekend as the “power alley”. Drivers are coming into tight turns compared to the first entry on the course and are reducing speeds through to the final turn. The zones and clipping points are clearly marked and to win requires hitting your marks with complete accuracy while carrying the necessary speed.
“We want to have an exciting show and we also want the drivers to show off aggressive car control,” Tony Angelo, Formula DRIFT judge explains. “We set up zones and clipping points to control the line the drivers take to demonstrate the most style and difficulty.”
Tony goes on to mention that Evergreen Speedway is a fast track, one of the highest top speed speedways seen on the circuit. He also commented on what an appealing venue it is and that it is fun to come back to the scene here every year, indicating that Evergreen is one of his favorites on the Formula DRIFT schedule.
The official categories the cars are judged on are speed, angle and style. Points are awarded for each category from each round. Drivers are required to show commitment to the speed and angles in their performance on the course. Skill and style make up majority of the judging and it’s not just all about speed.
Each event brings a field of 40 to 50 cars. Formula DRIFT sets up the weekend with practice sessions and then going into qualifying rounds that consist of two full runs for each driver. This gives each driver two attempts to qualify for the main competition that takes the top 32 qualifiers. These cars will then go out in head-to-head tandem runs with eliminations coming from each round. It’s a ladder style layout taking the winner on to the next round until you’re left with two cars in the final round going for the win. The top three placing drivers at the end of each final round take the podium for trophies and celebration.
It’s a tight schedule and they run from session to session almost nonstop. For Grunewald this can be grueling when you have to troubleshoot mechanical issues. Teams are able to work on their cars as they wish from practice and qualifying. Some practice time was lost for him as he had to replace some parts and spend time looking through the bits and pieces of what could be the issue before knowing what needed to be fixed.
The pairing is like a “pro” drag racing ladder, with the highest qualified driver against the lowest qualified driver, and each gets to lead for one run. It’s up to the chase driver to keep close proximity to the lead car and show aggression and progression on the driver in front. In the bracket elimination rounds, each driver gets a turn at leading. After these two runs, a winner is announced to move on, or if two out of the three judges find it too close to call, the pair will line up for another set of tandems which is called out on the loud speaker, “One more time!”
The media presence was very strong on-site and photographers are allowed to get right up and close to the action as the cars are drifting on track. Some of the practice sessions are so fast-paced that you have nonstop drift runs happening in a matter of minutes. Add that up over an hour long session and you can barely see the turns in some sections. I was watching from the announcer booth on Friday during afternoon practice and vision was impaired from that observation. I wonder what that’s like for the drivers and if they have to gain an acquired feel for where the car is despite the lack of visibility.
When you are following in the tandem, it’s your job to run the same line as the lead car. To do this successfully means you’re putting yourself right in the line of fire, or in this case tire smoke. The challenge is to know where your car is in relation to the front car, the driving line and the wall.
Tires: The Main Consumable
“I am lucky to have Hankook as a tire sponsor in Formula DRIFT. They really do make the best tire out here in the field. This year is a great example of how well the tire performs,” says Grunewald. “In drifting it is good to have a tire that can operate in a high heat range. Having a tire that can hold itself together and operate in these conditions is so important.”
The amount of tire use in drifting is not surprising. A set of rear wheels used to run on the course setup at Evergreen Speedway lasts approximately two laps. In practice Conrad was running his rear tires for three laps but explained the third lap had so much traction loss from the tread that it wasn’t a full out run.
“Any motorsports effort will require tires to have consistency and optimum grip characteristics but drifting also requires lots of smoke while going sideways. We have 5 top teams with great partners,” says Paul Jho, Motorsports Marketing Manager at Hankook Tire. “It’s incredible to see all the teams do well and it’s rewarding to have Conrad Grunewald as our only full Hankook livery car which brings great value to us especially with a victory in New Jersey with his GMPP Camaro.”
The drift fans in the northwest have caught the attention from even the judges at Formula DRIFT. It was mentioned to me that the fans that come out to support drifting here are more educated about the sport than most fans in other regions of the country. They grasp the finer points of drifting and there is a strong local scene that has its own series at the track called Evergreen Drift. I think this really speaks volumes at how quickly motorsports can grow and spread. As I was saying earlier, there was nothing the likes of this here ten years ago.
It was impressive to see the amount of fans that come out to watch drifting. There wasn’t an open seat in the house and it was a record sell out show. Spectators enjoyed access to the attractions in the pits and a seat in the overflowing grandstands. They are able to tour the garage and walk up to the race cars and displays. There was more to see and do in the two days of the event than you could possibly experience.
Now, you’re wondering how Conrad placed at Evergreen. I’m saddened to report he did not make it into the final rounds but leaves Evergreen Speedway sitting 8th in the points with two rounds left in the 2011 season. Next stop is Las Vegas where Conrad feels he has the car to beat, and then on to Irwindale Speedway in California, which has a similar car setup to what we saw here at Round 5. Irwindale is the season finale and will hopefully be a top place finish for our favorite Chevy drifter on the circuit, Conrad “The Sheriff” Grunewald.