So, as you may have already seen, I got my shot.
Shawn quit after one day, but I didn't know until I walked into the garage as they were about to film him making the announcement. I walked in to see what the commotion was about and almost immediately heard the news. I'm pretty sure I set a personal best in the vertical leap at that moment. They even tried to get me to do it again for the cameras, but I'd made a pact with myself before I flew down to keep the hamming it up to a minimum, so I declined. I hoped I'd learned a few things from watching reality shows in the past.
Lee called me over and I was introduced as the Godfather teams' third driver. Do you realize I've had to keep my mouth shut about that since October? I even had to be coy about it here, which made me feel like a fake. But that's all over now, baby blue. Here's how it went down...
After I shook hands with Hal, Rick and Jeff from Godfather and Freddie, their first driver, I talked to Shawn.
"It's some personal stuff, man," was how he answered the question. I thought it must be some pretty serious personal stuff for him to walk away from a shot like this, so I didn't ask him to elaborate. I still can't honestly say I know exactly why he made that decision, but I sure wasn't going to press it at the time.
I took over on the night after the race at Lanier with two days and three races to go and one hell of a deficit in points. The Godfather team had become a little skeptical of drivers by this point, but their attitude tended toward the "we want to win, but we know it's just a show, so let's have fun," side of things. This was clearly a team with their priorities in order; they were the ones who, within hours of finding out they'd have to spend another night in the trailer, had hooked it up with a hot tub, brought in a friend with a large grill to cook them steaks, and adorned the Chateau Le Dump with Christmas lights and a sign saying "Godfather Bed & Breakfast." I liked their style.
I got up the next day and went to the set feeling pretty much the same way I imagine Lyle Lovett did when he first got Julia Roberts's number. This was the final modification day, and it was about time for me to get in the car I'd be racing tomorrow for the first time. My crew chief, Rick, came back from a test run and was asked how the car was doing.
"I think it runs like a scalded dawg for what it is," he answered. "You want to take it out for a spin, Xbox?" He and I jumped into the Z for my first test run.
A note on that: You may have noticed people calling me "Xbox" on the show. I probably had the fewest hours on-track out of all the drivers on the show. I'm barely a weekend warrior with some experience at track days and autocrosses over the past four years. When I was 17 I received as a present a trip to the Skip Barber School of Advanced Driving up at Lime Rock, but that was ten years ago by the time I filmed the show. I'd found out about Forza Motorsport Showdown on the website the game developers created for Forza 2, the game the show was meant to hype. I entered a form and was chosen, cast as the "gamer" on the show. I like the game a lot, but I'd never even played in online, so "gamer" might have been too strong a term. But if that's what got me in, so be it. Tony, the crew chief of the Challenger, started calling me Xbox and the nickname stuck. He's also the one who christened the trailer out back the Chateau Le Dump, so I guess he had a flair for that sort of thing.
I got in the Godfather Z with Rick, who sat on the floorpan and hung onto the roll cage as I drove. The car took off well and really slapped your head back when the single T3/T4 turbo spooled up. We ripped through the north Georgia countryside for a while (the upgraded brakes were fantastic) until the motor started to choke high in the rev range. It would pull like crazy up until about 2,000 rpm shy of redline and suddenly run out of steam, managing only another 200 rpm before it would go no further. I had no idea what made it misbehave. ("Tuner" is another word that wouldn't apply to me.) We took the car back to the shop and the crew took a look at it... and the 100-shot nitrous kit they'd picked up after the last race knowing there would be one last drag event. They decided the bottle would do less damage as a paperweight and left it off the car. The cameras would catch me later on that day as I talked with Ken, Jace and Angela, who were doing some smack talking to hide their fear of racing against me the next day. Um... or something.
By the time I got back to the hotel Shawn was gone. I thought about the morning and visualized laps of Road Atlanta in my head. We had all lapped the course in the Panoz cars, but tomorrow was to be my first day firing up the Z in anger. I had a hard time getting to sleep that night, but when I did it was with a big smile.
The next morning I jumped out of my team's Suburban and back into the Z for some test launches. The team had gotten some drag radials with their points, and they helped. But I was having trouble getting a decent launch. The engine glitch seemed to be fixed, though. Thankfully, I had some experience with this kind of thing. I'd done my share of stoplight drags in front-wheel-drive Japanese cars, long before "The Fast and the Furious." Thus, the risk to my safety was just below that of spending spring break in an South African whorehouse. My racetracks had turns in them now. I'd never seen a pro tree before, and damned if I knew how to do a standing burnout in the rear-drive Z. My first two runs were disappointing, running low 13's and spinning the tires all the way through the first two gears. I lined up for my third run next to Clay in the 427 Camaro clone, listened to Rick tell me to launch at 4,000 rpm over my helmet radio, and concentrated on not missing the tree.
Bam! The lights went green and I bogged slightly on the launch, but found all the traction I could. I ran through the gears as Clay's car fuel starved and I whipped past him.
"Twelve-nine! Twelve-nine!" hollered Rick in my ears. I clapped my hands and returned to the car transporter. Ken had been able to wring a 12.1 out of a similar setup, but that was the fastest quarter mile I'd ever driven. The team came over and slapped my back. I was happy to have been able to put some points on the board for them. Time to get to the road course where I actually knew what I was doing.
The time trials from two days before had been canceled due to the rain. Now they would serve as qualifying for the final event to decide which team walked away $100,000 richer — a 15-lap sprint at Road Atlanta. My turn came and the gremlins made their way back into the Nissan's motor. I could not run the damn thing to redline. I estimated it was costing me 25 to 30 mph in top-end speed on the back straight and maybe 20 mph everywhere else. I hit my apexes and gave it all it could take, finishing with a 1:53 and change in last place. But there's more to sports car racing than miles per hour, isn't there?
Ken and Jace's cars were malfunctioning, Ken's with a bad seal around his master cylinder (somehow caused by heat from the turbo), and Jace's with a blown thermostat that had given up the ghost in the 90-plus-degree heat. The producers called the teams together to discuss. Wwould we allow the teams half an hour to fix their cars so they could run the race, worth double or triple points, which would determine the winner?
One of the YearOne crewmembers immediately pointed at Lou Gigliotti and spoke up:
"He wouldn't give us shit if that was us. I say no." There was a general consensus among the teams. Another idea was put forward though: did anyone want to win that way?
So Ken's team got to work on his car as a local Corvette owner stepped forward and offered up the thermostat from his C6 to save Jace's ride — a bit of drama that escaped the show's final cut. My team sat there and worried over the Z. The motor trouble was a phantom; we didn't know where it was or what to do to correct it.
The announcement came that we would be inverting the field, making me the leader for the rolling start. It seems the underdogs had been thrown a bone. The decree was met with howls from the LG team. We all took to our cars for pace laps behind a Panoz School instructor in a GT-RA. This was it.
The pace car peeled off into the pits to the right of turn twelve, the diving right-hander before the start/finish line, and we maintained our speed and positions as we'd been taught.
"Green! Green! Green!" came the call through my helmet as the flag waved and I slammed on the throttle. I ran it as hard as the erratic motor would allow, but was passed in the first turn by the Camaro. Angela's Mustang filled my mirrors as we charged down the short straight into turns six and seven, the two 90-degree right-handers that lead to the long back straight. I was in second place.
I took turn six with all the speed I could, and set myself up for a good line through turn seven. I apexed and rolled into the throttle a little too quickly as I tracked out, fishtailing wildly as cars blew past me. I saved the car and hauled after them.
(Another side note: I had believed that the oversteer was due to too much throttle applied at the exact rpm at which the turbo spooled up, making me break loose, but it seems there's more to it than that. I spoke to Rick last week and this is what he told me: "I didn't want to scare you at the time, but the motor was boiling off a little coolant, and it was running down the body and splashing onto the rear tires." Six months later, this was news to me.)
I hit terminal velocity at about 138 mph two thirds of the way down the back straight. I crested the hill before it dove down to the turn 10 A/B complex, left at A, uphill right at B. Omigod! Ken and Angela slammed into one another and had nearly come to rest under the bridge at turn eleven as I knifed past to their left. I believe Jace in the Corvette was disappearing around turn one when I again made the front straight. Uphill on one, a little left at turn two, and sunlight sizzled off the yellow Vette, motionless in a run off area before the sweeping turn three and the esses. I was the only car I could see on the track as I completed a much better turn seven and took to the back straight again, this time flying by Clay Dale as his formerly race-leading Camaro sat dead in the grass, the victim of a shattered carbon-fiber driveshaft. I had passed four cars out of six to retake second place, and Clarence was in my sights.
I managed to use the better agility of the Z to catch up to Clarence, but I could do nothing to prevent him from burning me once we got to the back straight. I set myself up to the inside of the track before 10A/B and late-braked Clarence without excessive difficulty in A, with a car or two lead by the time we exited B, flung ourselves under the bridge on the blind turn eleven, and skittered across the track on the diving, off-camber turn twelve. The editors chose to skip that pass, however, but it's ok. I'm sure Clarence's 17th joke about women drivers was more worthy of the viewers' time than a pass for the lead anyway. At least I'm not bitter about it.
That Challenger's 440 was asking questions my wheezing turbo Z couldn't answer, and once again I was passed before turn one. I dogged Clarence through the turns but didn't pass him again. I knew the lighter Z could out brake the heavy muscle car every time on the turn 10 complex, and I knew I could hold him off until after the finish line once I'd done it. I almost a lap ahead of everyone but Clarence, and I would bide my time. I waved to Clay as we tore by him on the straight and he waved back. This was fun.
My eyes were down track on turn five at the end of the esses when God hit the slow-mo button on his remote. My rpms fell smoothly away and my car slowed to a halt off line before the turn before the motor died. I radioed it back to the pits: the car had overheated and killed itself. I couldn't get it started. Clarence swung all the way around the track and passed me again before I got the engine to turn over in limp home mode and I stuttered around three-quarters of the track on what felt like two cylinders before I was able to coast downhill into the pits. The pace car came by with Clarence, Ken and Angela rumbling behind.
My thermostat had clanged shut, and the whole team raided every cooler the crew had in order to pour bottle after bottle of water into the radiator. The first bottle instantly vaporized, scalding an extra mechanic we had somehow picked up with a jet of steam. Meanwhile, the race began again with the three cars grouped tightly together. Many long minutes had passed and there was no longer any chance of my winning. I just wanted to finish. I didn't want this one to end in a DNF. We got some water back in the car, got it started up, and I got back on the track. I completed several more modest laps before I got my own checkered flag. I pulled into the pits just in time to see Angela spinning the Mustang in crazed donuts on the other side of the fence. Holy shit, she'd done it. That girl driver could drive.
The show closed with the presentation of the check while Lou stormed back and forth contesting the outcome. The cars had all been fitted with transponders and had been clocked by Road Atlanta officials, however, so his dispute was for naught.
The Godfather team crowded together for the ceremony and they told me how proud they were of me and I apologized for not keeping a better eye on the temp gauge. Clarence and Angela, the best of friends in the real world despite their portrayal on television, were inseparable. Everyone agreed that the past two weeks had been fantastic.
I returned to the set and Rick told me to go take a look at my banner in the garage. A paper sign had been taped to my banner right where the "Help Wanted" sign had been when Shawn quit. Yeah, yeah, Xbox gamer boy, I'd heard it all. That wasn't it, though. As I got closer I could read the sign. And I got a lump in my throat. It was in black marker with an arrow pointing up toward my face, and there were only three words: "Race Car Driver." I don't know why, but I think it was the underline that got me. I couldn't thank they guys enough for that.
Everyone cleaned up and met at a bar outside town for the wrap party. The smiles were just that much brighter with the addition of booze to the equation for everyone but Jace who, at 17, was stuck with soda for another couple years. We struck the set the next day and cleaned up. I got on a plane and thought about the nature of luck.
[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, Episode 3 [internal]