Saturday, November 7, 2009

Driftin' Away by Michael G. Marre

This is a short story my father put together from the last drift event we attended.

My twenty-five year old step-son is a drifter. No, no, don't misunderstand me. He is a solid citizen, a gainfully employed taxpayer, sober, reliable and engaged to be married. He just prefers driving his car sideways!

I'll try to explain. Drifting is a sport in which the participants drive their cars over a designated circuit in a series of (theoretically) controlled slides. Points are awarded by judges for style and for demonstrated competence. The drivers are allowed practice on the circuit, then they have to drive, each in turn, to demonstrate their mastery of that circuit and, of course, of the car. Finally, eight (usually) drivers are selected as qualifiers for head-to-head contests, called tandem runs, to determine the eventual winner.

Late last year, my step-son bought a Nissan 350z from a gentleman who had already used it for such shenanigans out West. This gave my lad the advantage of obtaining a car with roll-cage already fitted (drift competitions include a rule which states 'no helmet, no roll-cage, no service'). Since then, the car has had some other modifications - it has been lowered even further than the previous owner's set-up (the lad's own work), been fitted with a new hood (more of the lad's own workd), and, courtesy of a sponsor, has been fitted with a revised cooling-system. So equipped, he embarked upon his first season of competitive drifting. Yes, he has found sponsors, which reduces the costs - but still leaves some, as you shall see.

Recently, we set out for Shawano, WI, a couple of hundred miles away, where there was held a drift meet, with the entries limited to those who had scored a sufficient number of points in the 2009 season. As the 350z is the lad's only vehicle, he drove that with Miss Garmin (my GPS device) as navigator. My wife was out of town, so I took her 4-wheel-drive station wagon - oops, pardon me, her SUV- paced with tires, wheels, and tools. My pick-up truck has an open bed which carries the risk that the contents my magically disappear during overnight stops, so its use was only briefly considered before the decision was made to use the wagon - uh, darn it, I'm supposed to call it the SUV.

Following the lad was no problem; drifters generally drive cautiously and within the speed-limits to avoid tickets (expensive, especially when you have a drift car to support), license suspension (even more expensive when you have no other practical way to get to work), or, horror of horrors, the impounding of the car, which not only supersedes the other problems, but renders moot the whole point of the exercise. So, the journey was fairly uneventful... well, there was this Corvette, you see. It swept down an on-ramp to find itself next to the lowered, decal-bedecked 350z, with the aero kit which the lad had fitted beneath the front bumper and the side rocker panels only a day or two earlier. As I had already commented that the car was so low that he could not possibly clamber over the paint-strips to change lanes, it was a wonder that anything could be fitted under anything! As things are, railroad-crossings must be negotiated at three MPH, with hazard lights flashing, to avoid serious damage to the nether regions or the car - and the driver. Anyway, the Corvette cruised along next to the Nissan, obviously licking its chops. When the lad refused to take the bait, the Corvette stormed off in illegally rapid disgust;. Even from my seat in a different car (sorry, SUV), I could feel the lad's right foot twitch, but he manfully held himself- and the car- in check. When I later complimented him on his restraint, he ruefully admitted that the Corvette would have blown off his doors in a straight line. "But," he added, reassuringly, "wait 'til I fit the twin turbos!" I was not reassured.

And so we arrived in Shawano, unscratched, undented, and unticketed.

The next morning, we drove to the venue, the USAir Raceway. This offers a choice of circuits )it really is an impressive complex), which , for drifters, varies from fairly basic to insanely difficult (or so it appeared to me, but what do I know?). Also the complex was intended for Go-Karts. Now, these have grown up considerably since my day (many decades ago- I'm an old man), when we drove primitive frames without such fripperies as gearboxes, suspensions, bodywork, or real performance, but, even so, there is still a difference in scale. Clearly, this would cause problems. Clearly, I was the only one who was worried.

As usual at these meets, the cars were... ah... unusual. Some, with more fortunate, or some solvent drivers, were trailered in; others, like the lad's, were driven. The day was bright and sunny - but bitterly cold, unlike a previous meet at the same venue, four weeks earlier, when the temperature had been in the eighties. In fact, it was so hot at that meet that a brand new Hyundai Genesis had done an imitation of a drummer for 'Spinal Tap.' [For those unfamiliar with the movie "This is Spinal Tap", I'll explain that a running gag is that each drummer in turn succumbs to the terrible fate of spontaneous combustion.] Nevertheless, at the meet in question, in spite of the cold, one Mazda Miata went shamelessly topless, baring her roll-cage and interior for everyone to see. A Nissan 240sx, meanwhile, removed his hood, brazenly revealing all, the automotive equivalent of 'flashing', I suppose. My eye was caught by a Mazda RX7 - in the dim and distant past, I owned one, but the one I'd had was steel and glass, not fiberglass, and mine had had an interior, and lights. Mine also had a rotary engine - not many drifters use these, preferring to replace them with something which produces enough torque to more easily break loose the rear wheels. American power sources are favored; indeed, I can recall one Toyota Corolla eyeing another and sighing enviously "I could'a had a V*!"

None of these cars bears much resemblance to its appearance in its first infant days in a showroom somewhere, trying to entice someone to buy a car for gentle daily use - ha!

Practice went fairly well, although excursions to visit scenery and sandbags made redundant the lad's hard work on his aero kit. Par of the rear bumper also decided that it did not wish to participate, and the second time it went on strike, it was discarded - at least, the left half; the right half was quite enjoying itself and remained along for the rides. I must stress that the lad was far from the only one subject to these indignities. I overheard Driver A commenting to driver B that driver C had slid off the track - again. Driver B replied "he's a gardener." Driver A - "I didn't know that." Driver B "well, he's been cutting grass all day!"

The lad qualified second. In the first leg of his first 'head-to-head or 'tandem' run, he did well, but the second leg was marred by a misjudgment, and his day's competition was over. But not the driving. Once the contest is over and the winner is selected, the track is reopened and driving resumes. Alas, the lad communed with Nature, some firmly frozen Nature - while I wasn't looking, the nerve of him - with enough force that the left front wheel was driven up hard enough and far enough to fracture a vital component of the front suspension and to pop the left headlight out of its seating! The car was now undriveable. Nature 1, Technology 0.

A mad scramble ensued to try and obtain a trailer to carry home the wounded 350z. A chance materialized, and I returned to the motel. As the arrangements for the lad's ride home included his driving the car which would be displaced from its trailer by the 340z, a BMW M3 lacking a heater - and lacking a driver's side window - I gave him my fur-lined coat to use. Northern Wisconsin nights in the fall can be very cold: in this instance, well below freezing, and our destination was Norther Illinois which is only slightly less cold (the word 'warmer' would be misleading).

Happy that transport had been arranged and unaware of subsequent events, I returned to the hotel, slept well and went home the next morning, guided by Miss Garmin and carrying the tires, wheels and tools - and sundry pieces of bodywork - in the wagon, ah, SUV, believing the lad and his car to be already back in Illinois.

I later discovered that such was not the case. The car's supposed ride had evaporated with the daylight. The lad contacted AAA, but was informed that his car was 'too low'(no, I did not DARE to say "I told you so"; I'm old but neither that cruel nor that stupid). Price negotiations foundered, and the lad eventually got a ride home from a crew that calls themselves 'Risky Devil', but had to leave the 350z in Shawano, whence it was retrieved the next day - at a price of $450! The Bank of Dad was tapped for financing. The lad then informed me that he should have the new suspension piece (no the first time he's replaced that particular component) in a day or two, and should be able to fit it in time for the next event, which is the next week-end! And I thought the season was over! Meanwhile, he's appropriated my pick-up MY PICK-UP - a man's most meaningful and treasured possession : I know that because all the Country and Western songs say so. And I've only had it a lousy eleven years. It's almost brand-new.

As soon as his mother comes back from her trip, we'll have to discuss the matter of a trailer for the pick-up, which I never expect to be permitted to use again. The sacrifices a man must make for his kids!

Moral: Mothers, don't let your sons grow up to be drifters.