I stood in the shower the day after the first set of races and tried to loosen up painfully stiff muscles in the hot water. Today was to be a modification day before the autocross and drifting events. What that meant for me so far was that I'd gotten to wake up a little later than usual, which along with a cereal bar I'd grabbed the night before did wonders for my outlook on life. I'd seen the shiny new go-fast parts hanging on the walls of the "Speed Shop" the crew had constructed in the garage area set aside for us on the grounds of Road Atlanta, and I wondered which teams would take what. I counted off the months in my mind until I could see the production on television and catch Ken's reckless pass of Jace, which had been the talk of the crew the night before. The sun was warm and I could already hear air guns as I walked onto the set.
The 350Z teams were mechanically overmatched and needed power; they could have used better brakes too, but for Ken Gushi's team they would be a necessity — upon removal his rotors looked like wide-whale corduroy, they were anodized blue all the way around, and white ash would wipe off with a touch. It was safe to say he'd given that car all it could take. Both his team and Freddie's decided to take upgrades in both braking and forza, selecting to bolt on T3/T4 turbos with front mount intercoolers to the already potent, albeit overmatched, Nissan mills. Brake upgrades were popular that day, as were trips to the YearOne side of the garage to see just how big a hole was blown in the floor of the Challenger. The driveshaft itself lay in state on a table near the car, and it looked like half chewed pasta.
Clarence ran back and forth helping where he could and jabbering at a decibel level similar to the power tools, never at a loss for words. I moved equipment around, helped with organizing the tape stock, kept the coolers full of ice and soft drinks and carried batteries for the cameramen. I sneaked in a few minutes playing Forza on the 360s that were kept on set when I could before I was grabbed and taken to the Chateau Elan to film the LG Motorsports team having their day of beauty at the spa: three guys standing around in white robes making macho jokes, not entirely comfortable with words like "pedicure" and "exfoliation." Their discomfort level was nothing compared to the groups of horror-stricken women at the spa who would round a corner sipping cucumber infused water to face a camera crew.
Mod day ended for the production staff, but the mechanics would continue to work well into the early morning, wrenching and welding and grinding on their cars. Tomorrow it was race day.
Another day saw us loading trucks again, hustling to stay on schedule and warm in the early-morning chill. We only had to move the gear from the set to the autocross track, which is tucked into the space between, turns six and seven leading to the long back straight. No one qualified was around, so I volunteered to drive the largest truck down to the track — why not? It was only 40 feet long and who knows how many tons with five people and half a million dollars worth of gear in the back. After a few minutes I figured out how to take the parking brake off and slowly, slowly made it to my destination giggling so hard I was probably making people nervous. At least I was driving something.
Sponsors had paid to have their names displayed on the cars and tracks, and my first job was to hang banners all around the autocross course. A local grip and I grabbed bags of zip ties and set to work. I was asking him what working production in Atlanta was like when I felt a sting on my ankle. I looked down to see very organized, almost military looking regiments of red ants streaming up my shoes out of the ant mound on which I had been squatting as I hung a Speed Channel banner. The Corvette didn't do zero to sixty as fast I did.
The Corvette was also getting a little too much credit, according to Jace, who felt like he wasn't getting his due for the driving he was doing. He drove first and set the standard at the autocross course, a beautifully set up little track with a variable route depending on the placement or orange cones. It even a little bit of elevation and camber change. The competitors' times were shown on a large display hanging under a shady gazebo at trackside — a few steps above the parking lot half filled with slag where I was used to autocrossing. No one would best Jace's autocross time; one more win for Gigliotti's team.
No one had any delusions about taking the following event away from Ken either: the other teams were talking about it like a movie — let's see what this "drifting" thing is all about. Down came the banners in the kingdom of the ants, back up they went on the fences surrounding the drifting course, conveniently located inside the 10A/B turn complex where Ken had jumped the curbs in the road race.
It should be noted that you can't even do what Ken accomplished in real life in the video game, there being a giant field of sand in the game where the drifting course lives at the real track.
An official from Formula D came to judge the event and brought a fully set-up drift car to demonstrate. No one but Ken had ever purposely drifted before, and he was a pro. The cameramen found their positions, the teams lined up near the end of the straight, and the crews said thing like "Sheeit, I've been sideways on dirt since I was kid, but we never made a competition out of it." Jace, Angela, and Clarence took their turns and looped their cars to our mild amusement; Clay Dale channeled his high school days, gunned his Camaro, and rocketed down towards the first turn, sideways well before he got there. He orchestrated not only the most graceful and stylish run so far, but the most beautiful sounding, as his 427 roared and spun those rear tires into a smoky haze that drifted over the course to the accompaniment of cheers from the gallery. Ken was next, the boosted Z snaking its way into the course and pouring smoke like Spicoli's van on a school day. He pinged the motor off its rev limiter while perpendicular to the track and waving to the crowd. It was like watching Michael Jordan drop in for a game of pick-up in an over-40 league.
Do you remember when Yoda looks at Luke and says, "You must unlearn what you have learned"? That's what it's like for drivers who have always focused on preserving traction while behind the wheel to be told they have to pitch it sideways and step on it. Freddie struggled like the rest of them to unlearn, but he figured it out at the end: he put his foot to the floor on the final turn of his last run... and then forgot to take it off. I watched as the car rotated one way, fishtailed, and turned a 540 that ended at the thick concrete barrier with a bang audible from the grandstands 300 yards away. Freddie got out of the crash without a visible bruise, but his ego was as dented as the Z's rear bumper. He had humble words for his Godfather Customs crew, who told him he'd get 'em next time and looked over their shoulders towards the Chateau Le Dump where they'd all spend the night. Crew, cameras, tapes, sound gear and sand bags went in the vehicles and back to the set; everyone and everything except for a grip everybody called T and myself who were chopping zip ties off chain link as the sun made its way down.
That night some of the producers invited the other production assistant/alternate driver, Shawn, and I out to have a few drinks with them at a place on the grounds of the gated community on a golf course where most of them were staying. I came to find out Lee, the host, not only played football for Cornell and the Miami Dolphins, but that he had the letters MBA and Ph.D. after his name. Mostly the two of us drank beer out of a stocked mini fridge and talked about how fun it was to pelt contestants with that tennis ball gun on American Gladiators. Shawn and I got back to our hotel that night buzzed and with renewed respect for the long days and hard work these TV people had chosen for themselves.
We were excited to watch the rest of the racing; Shawn was particularly stoked about the next race at Lanier Speedway, a 3/8-mile asphalt oval track similar to those on which he raced late model stock cars back home in North Carolina. He, Jace and Angela were all circle track drivers, but Clay was a local — and the track champion.
Three more races, and two shows to go. No one knew it then, but everything was about to change, and the next day would be the tipping point. See you all after episode three.
[James Gribbon was there the whole time Speed TV was filming its new series, "Forza Motorsport Showdown." 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 James will be conveying what it was like to ditch his 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.]
You Are There: SpeedTV's Forza Motorsport Showdown [internal]