Driving down New Jersey’s Route 34, you immediately knew who was going to Formula Drift and who was not. A long file of lowered Subaru WRXs, stanced BRZs, enloudened Mitsubishi Evos and lowered Volkswagen Golfs, right turn blinkers flashing frenetically, awaited their turn into the stadium parking lot during one Saturday in early June for the fifth round of the 2018 Formula Drift Championship at Wall Stadium in Wall Township, New Jersey.
The good news was that the sun was out. The bad news was also that the sun was out, and it was precisely that kind of humid East Coast summer day that had you wishing for rain—perhaps the single worst thing to wish for right before a drift event.
I was there early, already sticky at 9:20 a.m., to pick up my media credentials. The gates wouldn’t open for official practice until 11, and the parking lot was already filling with fans: Dudes wearing Formula Drift/Monster Energy tank tops. Dudes shotgunning beers. Dudes having a cookout behind their truck. And a few girls.
Inside the fence, teams and vendors hurried about, preparing for the day. Flat-billed hats carefully laid out. Lanyards lined up on tabletops. Detailing kits unpacked and displayed. A black t-shirt above Ken Gushi’s pits that read “Gushi Gang” waved languidly in the choked breeze.
Federico Sceriffo’s yellow Ferrari 599, dubbed “Fiorella,” waited on jack stands, a couple pairs of cargo pants-clad legs protruding from beneath it. Its long hood yawned open, displaying a wanton sea of silvery pipes and the cherry-red intake covers of a Ferrari V12. Beside the car, boxes of Fiorella merch were being unpacked. Body panels for a 599 are by no means cheap to replace.
A little ways away, Justin Pawlak’s turquoise-and-blue Falken Tire Mustang remained beneath the team’s tarp, its hood up and a set of metallic blue wheels leaned against the trailer nearby.
The pits were sleepier than you’d expect. Nobody was panicked. People walked rather than ran. Even the humid air felt like it was waiting. But it was early. Nobody had crashed yet.
At 11, the pits suddenly swelled with onlookers. Cell phones were at the ready, capturing the low-slung, growling, rumbling beasts that rolled out for practice on track. Very little existed by way of barrier between the cars and the crowd.
If you weren’t careful, you’d get your foot flattened by a passing drift car. If you so chose, you could stick out your tongue and lick Chelsea DeNofa’s undoubtedly grape-flavored Mustang as he drove by. Crew members, donning headsets, danced about, waving people back and shouting for their cars to pass through breaks in the crowd, adding to the din.
This, right here, is why you go to a Formula Drift comp. The all-access nature of the pits is something you’d never find at a Formula One race today, or even a bunch of other top-tier series. No way in hell.
Everyone is packed in—and I mean packed the hell in—to this little, one-third of a mile oval track with maybe a few acres of land attached to it that serves as the pits. Waves of humanity overcrowd every square foot in the East Coast humidity, almost tripping into the mechanics.
Professional teams whipped up the same hooptie-ass fixes that you’d do on your own car. Especially when the zip-ties came out. Nobody is too good for the humble zip-tie, as they are the great assemblers of our time.
Already, stacks of bald drift tires were piling up between trailers, bearing sloppy spray paint that spelled out FREE. What use would anyone have for someone’s old tire? Didn’t matter, it’s free proof you survived the heat, a gigantic car version of those big souvenir cups.
The drift cars were loud, unhappy about being stuck in traffic with other drift cars, choked up at the entrance to the track everyone waited their turn to get out on the track for practice. They idled high, the sound undercut with a deep base tone that reverberated through you from sternum to eyeballs.
The heat coming from them was incredible, like standing next to a furnace. Hot exhaust spat my hair back from my face as I bent down close to get a shot. My camera was greasy in my sunscreened hands. I could only imagine what it felt like for the drivers, stripped of any kind of A/C, wearing full fire suits, head socks and helmets.
The cars brought with them the rich—almost cloyingly sweet—perfume of race fuel. The effect was dizzying, harsh on the sinuses and questionably noxious. At the risk of monoxide poisoning, fans drew in close, big, excited grins plastering their faces. It’s one thing to follow a build on Instagram. It’s a whole other to get to smell it.
But then, the winds changed and brought with them the definitive tang of a drifting event: burnt rubber.
The track at Wall Stadium is set slightly into the ground, so you don’t see it immediately as you walk up to it. You climb down through the bleachers instead of up into them. All this is to say that the first thing you see at Wall is only a huge plume of tire smoke blooming lazily over the heads of the crowd.
“YEAH VAUGHN!” a fan bellowed as Vaughn Gittin Jr. and his hulking Mustang lined up at the start line. “SEND IT!” Other Vaughn fans drained their energy waving giant cardboard cutouts of his head on a stick.
The Ford shot across the starting line like a bullet, then initiated beautifully across the banked first turn, back bumper high and tight against the guard rail. The car swept past the stands, its V8 screaming like metal being shorn apart while a great, white cloud of tire smoke swept over cheering spectators. Fine, black grit rained down on all of us.
The heat was getting worse. The sun beat down from above and the pavement, soaked in heat, radiated up to meet it. Bottled water cost $3 at the concession stands, but the cans of NOS energy drinks, handed out at the NOS truck, cost nothing.
Jalopnik’s night editor Justin Westbrook returned to our seats, enthusiastically cradling a NOS can. “What?” he asked, answering my look of disgust. “They’re cold and they’re free.” Later on, I watched as a child upended a free can of NOS of her own. It poured out radioactive red. I wept for Justin’s insides.
The food at Wall Stadium is what makes the day feel like a state fair. Or a Warped Tour. The two are really the same thing. There was a stand selling big, 32-oz cups of lemonade. Hot dogs were everywhere. Even funnel cake. The chicken fingers and fries I ended up with as a pre-competition lunch were surprisingly good, made better by the sweet, old woman whooshing around the condiments table and making sure all the squeeze-bottles were kept cold and filled.
Finally hydrated and slightly less delirious, the crowd and I watched Pawlak and his Mustang begin his lap—but something was immediately wrong. The engine revved too high for too long and then cut abruptly. “Oooh,” the crowd moaned in unison. Blown driveshaft. Bad luck. The tow truck came out and took the limp car away, defeated momentarily by the track itself. It has a bit of a reputation for killing cars, though normally that’s higher up at the bank. JTP waved at everyone out his window. We all waved back.
Eventually, it was time for me to make my way down into the media pit in the middle of the track. My sweaty legs kept catching on the fabric on the inside of my jeans, tugging at the waistband with every step I took. My arms burned, either from the weight of carrying a heavy camera around or from the sun, it was unclear. (It was definitely the sun.)
Standing there in the middle, the cars danced around us small handful of media photographers, clad in sky-blue vests. Roaring past us, their shrieks and bangs echoed off of the edges of the bowl we stood in. The air goes dead down there, even a light breeze refused to blow. But from that vantage point and through the smoke, I could see the stands were full. Colorful umbrellas provided some shade for a few lucky fans from the merciless sun. The rest were like me: slowly roasting. Here and there, someone blew a huge cloud from a vape pen.
Down at the track, I noticed a massive pothole had opened up in the middle of the tarmac. I waited until halftime to prod it with my foot. It was a big hole with sharp corners. It looked dangerous.
A piece of bumper and a disembodied taillight from a Mustang lay forlornly on the asphalt. “Do you think Vaughn will let me keep that light?” one of the photographers wondered.
The stands had emptied out and everyone headed to the pits. It was four in the afternoon, finally overcast, at least.
The sun had not been kind to the fans. Most shone cherry-red from sunburn. Shirts had been removed long ago, revealing tattoos of all shapes and sizes. Everything—and indeed, everyone—gleamed sticky in that sunscreen-mixed-with-sweat, summer camp kind of way.
There were very few places to sit other than in the sun-baked stands. What little shade offered by vendor tends was fenced off for VIPs and event employees. Everyone ended up stuck in a kind of zombie-shuffle. If you moved too quickly, you’d overheat. If you stood still, there’d be zero air moving over your flushed skin.
We were all scuba divers, walking along the bottom of the molten sea. We wanted to come up for air. There was no air.
You could feel the fever of the pavement beaming, even through your shoes. Women tucked their long hair into ponytails and buns, but a few lone hairs still managed to glue themselves to sweaty necks. I was jealous of everyone wearing shorts, just like they were probably jealous of the fresh, cold bottle of Poland Spring clutched in my hand. I tried very hard to remember what it was like to not be damp, but failed.
Children tugged on their parents’ hands, drawn to the flashy drift cars and colorful souvenirs. A crowd had formed around Ryan Tuerck’s Ferrari-engine swapped Toyota GT86, candy red on display. They talked excitedly about the videos they’d seen of it on YouTube. A group of friends, all wearing identical cargo shorts, gathered in front of some aftermarket shocks for sale, radiating a bright, goldenrod yellow.
Scattered loudspeakers played different pop songs, declaring that you! Us! We are the young and having fun! Tonight was the night. For what, it was never made clear.
Crew members climbed to the top of their trailers. Armed with megaphones and freebies, they flung the goods into the eager crowd below. Nothing makes people crazy quite like free shit, and this particular crowd, amped up on free energy drinks, was no exception.
Falken Tire canvas bags slung over their shoulders, they waved their arms skyward as though welcoming The Rapture itself. A free t-shirt went boomeranging over a sea of grasping hands, leaping to catch it like it was the last shirt on earth. Someone got smashed in the face by an elbow.
That same someone then took a flying leap for another shirt and landed on a kid. But it was fine, everybody was fine. Smiles all around.
A long line extended from the Rockstar Energy trailer. At the head of the line was Norwegian-turned-California surfer boy Fredric Aasbø, merrily signing autographs. A few feet away, beneath another tent, other drivers Ryan Tuerck, Alec Hohnadell and Chris Forsberg posed for a photo with a fan. People were taking the free tires left and right.
Unfortunately, this was also my time to leave. I had a very early flight to catch the next morning and I needed to get back to prep for the trip. Once home, I kept the live stream on in the background. It wasn’t the same.
I was air-conditioned. I had better viewing angles. The food certainly was cheaper. But there was none of that energy.
I was sorry I missed Lobster Rim Guy, a human christened by one of the announcers who attracted everyone’s attention when he traded his shirt for a wheel. Personally, I think he needed the shirt more than the wheel, judging by his torso tickled pink by the sun.
Formula Drift’s professional car photographer Larry Chen darted between media pits, multiple cameras clanking from his shoulder. Adoring chants of “Lar-ry! Lar-ry! Lar-ry!” rained down from the crowd. His were the pictures they’d see posted on Instagram all through the day, liking them in the weeks between events.
The final scene of the live stream was, of course, the announcement of the champion. The sun had pretty much set. The big stadium lights were on. And the announcer dragged it out, really dragged it the hell out by listing all of the event-appropriate hashtags. At home, even I felt stabs of anxiety. “Just tell me who won, dammit!” I shrieked at the television. “This isn’t the fucking Oscars!” My boyfriend laughed at me.
“Your winner is... James ‘The Machine’ Deane here in New Jersey!” came the final, echoing call.
Deane leaped into the air, pumping his arms and hugging everyone around him. Maybe it was just the quality of the stream, but he looked worn out. He looked sweaty and grubby. But none of that could hide the triumphant smile that lit his features.
He was given the mic. He graciously thanked his team. It was a long race and a long day. I was happy he won.
The camera panned back to a shot of the stands. They were already, shockingly, mostly empty. How, I wondered. The winner had just been announced.
I could see the last stragglers shuffling up the steps and toward the exit beyond those glaring stadium lights.
The sun had dipped out, retired for the day, and the twilight wept with cool, magenta-streaked relief.