If you’ve heard the name “Gridlife” but aren’t sure what exactly it entails, think of it as the Forza Horizon Festival in real life. On track you can see some seriously competitive time attack cars, a full three days of HPDE-style track experience, and most of the big names from the world of drifting getting sideways through Road Atlanta’s famed esses, and then again down through the 10a-10b-keyhole complex. Off the track you have partying, camping, vendors and a show from Ludacris capping it all off.
It makes perfect sense as a way to get young enthusiasts together for a weekend of racing, revelry, and light debauchery.
And yet just over a year ago, I decided I’d never go to Gridlife.
There are those who might call me overly safety conscious, but after seeing some of the ludicrously unsafe incidents that transpired during Gridlife South 2016, and hearing about others, I was shocked that the event had even been allowed to continue.
There were videos of non-credentialed media standing on the track surface as drift cars screamed past them at three-digit speeds along Road Atlanta’s back straight, kneeling on the ground with iPhones in hand. There were rumors of fans jumping the fence to give drifters high-fives as they negotiated the keyhole corner. There was even video of a podcast being recorded inside the fence with their backs turned to oncoming traffic.
All of this shit seemed just insane, and not in a good way.
(When probed for comment, the organizers of the event said “We learned a lot about how to safely run media at Road Atlanta event after hosting our first Festival there.”)
I’ve been covering motorsport as a writer and photographer for a decade. I’ve been through safety meetings at tracks all over the world, including Road Atlanta. Under any sanctioning body on this green earth, any of those kinds of shenanigans would be cause for removal. Instantly. Plus, I’m just not fond of drifting. I understand the appeal, it just doesn’t do much for me personally.
What I do like, however, is Gridlife’s ability to bring people of all ages together in an appreciation of things that go fast and make loud noises. There are countless articles about how “Millennials don’t care about cars.” It’s all bullshit.
Take one look at the demographic of Gridlife and you’ll see that car culture is alive and well with young folks. This stuff may not be my cup of tea, but I want to see my hobby, hell my livelihood, continue to thrive, and Gridlife is making that happen.
So, how did I find myself flying to Atlanta, Georgia at the end of August for Gridlife South? The short answer is, people and opinions change.
A mutual friend put me in touch with one of the co-founders of the event, Austin Cabot, when we all happened to be in the same place on the same evening to talk over beers. Austin, as it turns out, is an excellent conversationalist with his head in the right place.
I explained that my concern was genuine, and I really just didn’t want to see people dying at the hand of someone in a drift car. The world of racing is already looked down upon by the populace at large as being dangerous and seedy, where adrenaline junkies go to get their rocks off. The last thing we need is for Gridlife to result in bystanders getting pancaked by 240SX drift cars on the 11 o’clock news across the county.
I told Austin that I didn’t want to see Gridlife disappear from the calendar because of safety concerns. With my experience as a trackside photographer, I explained some of what they’d allowed that was beyond the rules, namely anyone on the hot side of the track wall at any time for any reason. I told him that they were extremely lucky nobody got hurt, and that if someone ever did they were sure to lose their insurance policy. After our table was littered with empty beer bottles and I’d put a bit of drawl on my syllables as a result, I blurted out that I was willing to put my proverbial money where my mouth was. “If you give me the authority to improve event safety, I’ll go to Gridlife 2017 and work the whole weekend for free.”
Austin displayed true concern for the safety of attendees. It didn’t take half a beat after I’d finished my last slurred word for him to throw out his hand to shake on it. A gentleman’s agreement had been made.
This year, attendance was up. Way up. Conservative estimates say that Gridlife had twice as many people in 2017 as they had in 2016. (I don’t have exact figures for this event, but to give some context, Gridlife Midwest 2017 had 8,000 people show up. So a lot, in other words.)
They run a fun and exciting event, of course it’s going to garner attention nationwide. People trailered their cars in from as far as California to be a part of Gridlife South, and dedication like that must be commended.
When your event attracts big name drift champions like Vaughn Gittin, Jr, Dai Yoshihara, and Chris Forsberg, you’re going to get a lot of folks to come to your event. When Ludacris is playing a show in the Atlanta suburbs, however, the whole damn city is going to show up.
At Gridlife, the rest of the world just melts away and this microcosm of automotive subculture rises up around you to be the only thing that exists. Thousands of people drawn together with the common bond of burning gasoline to create tire smoke or faster lap times. Having been involved in motorsport for years, this weekend was the single most inclusive event I’ve ever attended. Moreover, I’ve never seen so many women attendees and participants at a race weekend in my entire life.
Even if this kind of racing isn’t exactly my bag, if this is the future of motorsport, that’s fine by me.
Interactivity is the name of the game at Gridlife, giving fans an opportunity to meet their drifting heroes. Not only that, but they are seriously interested in getting people involved that have never done so before. During the HPDE sessions, Gridlife supplied instructors for track driving newbies, including some who had never participated in a track day before.
If you weren’t quite ready for the big track, there was also an Atlanta Region SCCA-sanctioned autocross going on for anyone with a car that would pass tech. In other words, if you wanted to participate, Gridlife made that a very real and very easy possibility.
As I gradually grow up into one of the olds that I swore to myself I’d never be, I am infinitely encouraged by the ability of Gridlife to attract such an amazingly young and diverse crowd. It was three days of incredible motorsport action on track, plus two nights of music and parties and dancing. For the most part it’s a good crowd, and getting them interested in motorsport, in Road Atlanta, or in cars generally is a good idea.
With a lot more people on the grounds, and the eyes of the world watching, Gridlife had to focus on safety to make sure everything went smoothly. With a simple crackdown on which members of the media were allowed to wear photography vests allowing them to go “inside the fence”, the entire event safety changed. Gridlife also enacted a rule that nobody was allowed to photograph from the keyhole, and emphasized safety in all of their photography meetings.
Through the course of the weekend it became clear that my self-invented job had become largely an advisory role. Instead of hauling idiots off the racing surface, I had to remind a couple people not to wear sandals in photo zones, not to lay down, not to lean on the k-rail, or go in restricted zones. And to their credit, the organizers behind Gridlife made safety a serious priority, correcting 2016's oversights.
As for the on-track stuff, the prospect of hosting 75 drift cars on course at one time, barely visible through a haze of atomized rubber seems super sketchy, but only a few cars ended up in the gravel, and there was very little contact to speak of.
To their credit, the three major on-track incidents that I saw over the weekend were all in the HPDE events: one engine fire, one exploded tire, and one honest-to-goodness driver error. Drifting still peaks my anxiety levels, but I understand the appeal now, and I have to give credit to the talents of the individuals.
With a new focus on safety in place, I can’t see how Gridlife will ever be stopped. This event is a new powerhouse in the motorsport world, and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Enticing young people into cars and racing should be the priority of more events around the world, and they could all take a cue from Gridlife on how to make that happen. Plus, improving safety shows how these “underground” feeling events can go more mainstream without losing anything that makes them fun and worthwhile.
If you didn’t go this year, and you like loud fast things, you should make it a priority.
Also, it almost goes without saying, but Ludacris put on an awesome show.
Bradley Brownell is a freelance writer and co-host of the Cammed & Tubbed Podcast living in Reno, NV. A renowned Porschephile, he can often be found behind the wheel of his 1976 912E or 1997 Boxster.