1954 Nash Statesman Country Club coupe
Story and photos by Brian Earnest Lowell Johnson is either a “Nash guy” with a…
Have you ever wondered what your favorite racing game would look like in real life? Take a trip to Road Atlanta in late August and you might find out. Normally, the 2.5—mile road course hosts everything from ChumpCar events to Petit Le Mans, a ten—hour endurance race that takes place each October. But Gridlife, an event expressly created to resemble Forza Horizon — the sandbox fantasy racing game where players can street race Mclaren P1s, attend car shows, and run cross—country rallies — transforms sleepy Braselton, Georgia into a vibrant automotive oasis.
For three days, Road Atlanta became a city within a racetrack, complete with a soundstage, campgrounds, and vendors serving beer, frozen yogurt, hamburgers and gyros. This is the second year for the Gridlife South Festival and featured a buffet of automotive events including time attack, drifting, autocross and high performance driving events (HPDE), a sort of open track day featuring everything from Spec Miatas to a Ferrari 458 Italia and a Volvo S90.
But the action doesn’t stop at the track. The Gridlife Festival was designed to be an experience, rather than a full—on racing event. Aimed squarely at young adult car enthusiasts, Gridlife South incorporates music and creates an all—night party atmosphere after the racing is done. Gridlife’s concept revolves around keeping things moving. Spectators always feel like there’s something going on, because there is activity around every corner. Autocross ran all weekend in the paddock by the tower, but the main paddock where drifters, time attack drivers and HPDE drivers made their pits was a constant buzz of activity. From nine in the morning to six at night, a hot track kept things interesting. After six, live music from EDM artists like Savoy and Georgia—native Ludacris kept the sunburned masses raving into the early morning hours.
Some of the most compelling displays at Gridlife were the drifting heats, which took place on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They featured professional drivers like Vaughn Gittin Jr., Chris Forsberg, Darren McNamera and Kelsey Rowlings, all of Formula Drift fame. What made it different from Formula Drift, though, was the fact that these pro drivers shared the course with grassroots drifters—those without the big budgets from tire sponsors or energy drink companies.
These heats got even more interesting on Sunday, when drivers drifted the full course of Road Atlanta. Formula Drift, the only other drifting event featured at the track, normally confines drift cars to a couple of corners — turns 10a and 10b, if you’re familiar with the track. But on Sunday spectators got to see cars drift the iconic «esses,» a downhill chicane that’s seen countless close races throughout the track’s history.
Drifting wasn’t the only spectacle — Team Honda Manufacturing of Alabama’s creation: a refrigerator white , race—prepped Honda Odyssey that competed in Time Attack, managed to grab eyes all weekend. Maybe even more interesting than seeing a minivan blast down the front straightaway is the story behind the race team itself.
«We’re all associates at the plant,» said Joshua Foran, race crew chief. Their plant in Lincoln, Alabama produces the Honda Ridgeline, Honda Pilot and Honda Odyssey. Everyone from line workers to management and maintenance is represented on Honda of Alabama’s race team. Foran works in Quality Control for the interior division while their driver for the weekend, Karl Hertel, spends his working weeks coordinating parts suppliers.
Foran says associates at the Alabama plant volunteer time after work to develop race cars that compete on a national level. «Without racing, there is no Honda,» said Foran, adding that the company goes to great lengths to make sure its employees throughout the United States and Canada can enjoy building racing teams of their own and even attending Honda—organized driving seminars, outdoor expeditions and 5k races.
Honda of Alabama started with that same Time Attack Odyssey in 2013, when they entered the car in Brock Yates One Lap of America event. Through its brief but illustrious history, multiple engines have powered the race van, including an LMP2 race engine, which helped it clinch second in its class at the 2013 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. But by far the most common engine used has been its factory powerplant, a J35 V6.
Why the Odyssey, you ask? Part of the answer lies in proximity. Since parts are produced on the same line that race team members work on, replacements are readily available. Plus, this means team members are already familiar with what they’re building. Foran says it’s also because they want to show people the racing capabilities of everyday cars.
In addition to the time attack car, the Alabama Manufacturing team also brought a bone—stock 2018 Odyssey to experiment with. Throughout the weekend, the team made slight changes to the van to see just how much they could knock off of its lap times. They changed the brake pads to Carbotech XP24 pads and wrapped the wheels in Bridgestone RE71 tires. These small changes took about six seconds off the van’s lap time, running a 1:57.6. Removing seats and door panels shaved another second off. And finally, by turning traction control off, they were able to scrape off another second, with a final lap time of 1:55.1.
Tailing the 2018 Odyssey throughout most of the weekend was a second generation SCCA racer Ryan Kristoff. His choice of vehicle, a 2017 Volvo S90 in the HPDE class, was a bit unorthodox too. Kristoff says the two—ton luxury sedan performed quite well despite its size and lack of top end power, soaking up the rumble strips and providing a live weight—transfer seminar for anyone lucky enough to watch up close.
Kristoff knows the event organizers personally and said he had big expectations for the event. Even though he’d been a Gridlife instructor for years, this was his first festival, and he wasn’t disappointed. «Everyone I saw, even the people who had wrecked their cars had huge smiles on their faces all weekend,» said Kristoff.
By Sunday afternoon, things had quieted down. Drift events and the last of the Time Attack heats took place, but many spectators and racers had filtered out. A Gridlife worker handed me my driver’s license in exchange for my media vest and we both exchanged the «it’s been a long weekend» look.
What Gridlife show us, along with so many other automotive events, is that car enthusiasts are still out there and energized. But it shows us that they want to see something outside of the box. Gridlife brings back some of the fast—paced, door—to—door excitement of early racing franchises, mixing big names and race cars bare of sponsor stickers. This formula is working for now and we can only hope it keeps the same grassroots appeal into the future.
By Brooks Metzler
Read more: http://autoweek.com/article/events/heres—scene—gridlife—south#ixzz4rdewIen3