It's official. Any idiot in America can to be on reality TV. I'm proof. I was there the whole time Speed TV was filming the new series, "Forza Motorsport Showdown," which premiered last Thursday (11:00 pm EST). And that's why I'm going to be your guy behind the scenes of the show. Here's how it works. Teams of supposedly amateur drivers compete in multiple challenges — from road course and autocross driving, to oval, drag, and drifting — for a shot at $100,000. Each week I'll be conveying what it was like to ditch my office job to get sunburned, shit on and generally treated like the Gimp for an outside shot to drive someone else's car really, really fast. So check out the show, or spoil it for yourselves each week. First episode, after the jump.
Watching something you made actually appear on television is like what I imagine it must be like to show a dog. You train it and groom it, but when its big moment arrives you're still worried
it'll take a dump on the runway. As I was watching the first episode of "Forza Showdown" with some friends, I was starting to worry if someone had fed it Beef-a-Reeno in post production. Then, thank god, the racing happened.
The show is its own little race series, leading up to a prize of $100,000. There are six teams with one car and one driver each. The teams brought their own cars and the producers picked who drove them. Teams upgraded their cars, just like in the video game, after the day's events were through. The racers compete in two drag events, three road course races at Road Atlanta, one drifting, one oval track and one autocross event. The team with the most points at the end wins the cash.
I'd found out I was selected a week before filming was set to commence, and was prepared to quit my day job. But I ended up taking what amounted to an emergency vacation and jumped on a plane. I was cast as an alternate driver; my job was to wait and be a scrub Production Assistant unless something went Very Wrong. I made it to the mediocre, North Georgia motel where we were to stay for the next two weeks and tried to get some sleep. All the talent was to take a compressed version of the Panoz Racing School at Road Atlanta first thing the next day so the producers could be sure we wouldn't reenact a driver's ed. class Tales Of Terror video once we got behind the wheel.
That morning I found myself in a classroom at the track with seven strangers, the other "amateur" drivers, and Hawk from American Gladiators (a legitimately great guy named Lee Reherman who was to be the host of the show). The instructors gave us some basic info and sent us to the skid pad for some hoonery in late model Audi TTs. This was about the time when I found out Ken Gushi (he's the one in the Z in the first episode giving that C6 Vette a hard time) was a professional drifter with SCCA Pro Rally experience. The instructor actually got out of the TT giggling and shaking his head after his ride around wet asphalt with Ken. Angela Cope (who races with her twin sister Amber in the ARCA series), Clay Dale (a local late model stock car champion, which put him in the same company as the other alternate driver, Shawn), and Jace Meier (a champion kart/midget driver) all had professional driving experience, which was confusing since the producers had specified amateur drivers. But what the hell? They'd also asked for showroom-stock cars, and the AirRide team showed up with Vortex supercharged Mustang built for SEMA.
That left Freddie Lewis, a MINI salesman and sometime stunt driver; Clarence "Hollywood" Barnes, an L.A. DJ and talented autocrosser, and me, a track day enthusiast, as the rookies. We grabbed some coveralls and jumped into a row of gleaming Panoz Esperante GT-RAs and hit the track. The GT-RA is a 2,550-pound tube frame racer with a 5.0 Mustang mill, single seat, and not much else besides wheels and a digital tach. We could hit speeds in the high 140 mph range on the long back straight at Road Atlanta. We learned the line of the course and practiced NASCAR-style rolling starts. They turned us loose on the track after that and we managed not to maim each other, so they figured we were ready for race day. Lou Gigliotti, whom you may recognize from Trans-Am and Speed World Challenge competition and team Principle of the yellow LG Motorsports C6 Corvette in the show, discreetly timed us.
The official word was that the other alternate, Shawn, had edged me out by a tenth of a second around the track with a 1:51.0, putting us upper-mid pack among the contestants. So much for glory, the first day of filming rolled around and Shawn and I became PA's.
"You will not be doing bitch work." Those words from a producer rang in my head as sweat cascaded of my forehead: it was 100 degrees in Georgia with humidity at similar triple-digit levels and I was unloading and reloading a truck for the third time that day, I'd spent my morning picking up trash around the garage and had to duck a spider as big as my hand at the hotel that morning. I'd gone from "driver" to "stevedore" overnight, and I hadn't signed up for this shit. I was the only man ever to be lied to by a Hollywood producer. If I thought about it, I'd get pissed, so threw myself into the lifting and looked at it like the gym work my sorry desk-jockey ass sorely needed.
Most of the production crew had gotten hopelessly lost in the fog on the way to Atlanta Dragway at Commerce. You may have noticed the fog in the show as they took the cars from their transporters, I arrived, unloaded that truck, and was promptly sent out for coffee for the entire crew. Myself and another PA purchased $700 worth of Starbucks, enough to fill the new Pontiac minivan the General gave us. Twenty-seven years old with a steady job and I was fetching coffee and handing out iced water to the other drivers as they waited for the drags races to begin. It's safe to say I was not taking this well, despite the fact they'd just given me two days in a Panoz for free, but I never claimed to be a well-adjusted member of society.
The drag races began that morning in a big way with Angela in the AirRide Mustang posting the only sub-13 second run of the day. The underpowered 350Z's didn't stand a chance. The brand-new 427 Camaro and 440 Challenger clones on the two YearOne teams, and Jace in the C6 had strong showings, but the closest any of them could get was 13.1. The girl had won. Lou Gigliotti was steaming, and could be seen having an animated discussion with 17 year-old Jace as we packed up for the road race.
Five cars screamed down the front straight as the green flag dropped at Road Atlanta, Angela would start from the pits due to a malfunction. Jace in the C6, Clay in the COPO clone, and Ken in the Z pulled away in first through third place as the race began. The muscle cars quickly crapped out, the Camaro with a fuel issue and the Challenger detonating spectacularly at over 100mph on the back straight as it twisted its drive shaft in half, shooting it through the floorpan and making a ten square inch hole four inches from Clarence's ass.
Angela joined the race and quickly blew by Freddie in the other Z, setting the fastest lap of the day, but she was too far behind to catch Jace and Ken. From my position on a camera tower on turn five, I could see Ken practically sodomizing the C6 with his Z through the esses, only to be left for dead every time he and Jace hit the long straight. Ken would finally make a clean break with his senses and make a spectacularly dangerous pass by vaulting the curbs of the twin 90 left-right turn 10A/B complex and take the lead.
Jace would later tell us that he lost sight of Ken until he looked over his left shoulder and saw Ken's glowing brake rotors at eye-level. But naturally that footage, clearly visible from Jace's onboard cameras was left out of the show. Jace would win both the race and the day, with the victor's spoils being a night spent in the Presidential Suite of Don Panoz's Chateau Elan on a nearby vineyard. Lou fumed and growled at Jace after the victory for putting the car in danger of being taken out by the reckless Gushi when second place would have also netted them a win for the day. The teenager set his jaw and quietly turned crimson while Gigliotti berated him off camera.
Freddie and the Godfather Customs 350Z team would spend the night at what would quickly come to be known as the "Chateau Le Dump" - a tiny trailer dragged down from Dawsonville, GA a few days before. All six teams would receive and install their upgrades the next day before their next challenges on the autocross and drifting courses at Road Atlanta. The drivers had given the cameras a hell of a race that day. At 12:00 midnight I was mopping oil spill in the garage and formulating sweeping theories about the value of an L.A. denizen's word. I was about to quit.
Keep watching, brush off the cloying idiocy of the parts of the show that aren't racing, and I'll see you all next Thursday. I promise this show gets good where the rubber meats the road.