Text & Photos by Luke Munnell
The changing nature of communication and technological progress ride strong alongside each other. Following in the footsteps of the printing press, radio, telephone and so many others, today’s big advancements in digital communication are beginning to allow us to connect with more people, over vast and remote distances, more quickly and easier than ever.
Accordingly, there’s a lot of worry by some whether this will lead us to live more sedentary lives. Will interactive, live gaming replace physical competition and interaction? Will messaging, Facetime, and social apps keep us in the comforts of home rather than searching for real-world stimulation? Will drone racing replace real racing? If the Gridlife phenomenon is any indication, hell no.
We can remember hearing similar doomsday concerns in the wake of import drag racing’s foreclosure, the waning popularity of spring-break or “hot import”-themed car shows, and in the failure of certain forms of motorsports to earn massive mainstream fandom. Yet somehow, in the face of all that, Gridlife proves that it’s still possible to create a wildly popular event series encompassing the best of drift, time-attack, track-day driving, and the show scene. Not only possible to create, but possible to grow, spread, and catch like wildfire when you apply their signature blend of style, strategy, and tactics to the whole thing. Even (especially!) on their home turf of South Haven, Michigan’s Gingerman Raceway. Here’s a look at why.
Sure, there are a few of us out there who live and breathe compression ratios, moments of inertia, metallurgy, and dynamic on-board data acquisition. But for most of us, cars and performance are varying portions of a bigger lifestyle we live, which focuses heavily on enjoying life, adrenaline, style, form, and of course the camaraderie that comes with all that. The Gridlife recipe covers that very broad range, appealing to hardcore gearheads as much as those with a basic understanding of cars but with a deep appreciation for a good time.
Take a drive through “GA” at Gridlife’s Midwest Festival—Gingerman’s massive general-admission parking/camping/debauchery site—and you might wonder if activity at the track all weekend comes second to simply having a good time alongside a bunch of cars out in the middle of nowhere.
Very simply, GA is where you come to BBQ, drink massive amounts of adult beverages, engage in the various feats of skill that typically go along with such drinking (beer pong, wizard-staff construction, and the like), survey the local scene’s daily-driven rides, make new friends, and generally have an excessive carefree good time.
Is forging muddy terrain and sharing a four-person tent with six of your best buds something you’ve grown out of? You can also reserve a more spacious lot near the track’s general-admission areas for a little more peace, a lot more room, and the constant hum of race machines rounding the raceway.
Or maybe you came here to take care of business. Gingerman is a stone’s throw from the charming coastal town of South Haven, MI, and is driving distance from Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and South Bend, so stashing your race car, vendor display, or trailer at the track and catching a bit of local nightlife is within reach.
Is show more your thing? Along with the partying and racing (which we’ll get into in just a minute), Gridlife places an equal importance on the more posh and polished side of automotive enthusiasm.
Showcase awards were doled out in about a dozen categories such as Slammed, VIP, Race-prepped, Euro, Japanese, Muscle, and many more, and attracted an accordingly diverse crop of clean machinery.
No matter who you are or where your priorities lie, once the track goes cold there are few better ways to enjoy an evening after a long day than with live entertainment right in your backyard. Gridlife kept the jams pumpin’ all day, each day of the three-day festival, with a variety of stages on the Gingerman grounds. Once the racing stopped the beats really dropped, courtesy of Waka Flocka Flame, The Cool Kids, Lucky Chops, Sweater Beats, CoFresi, artifakts, Low Key, and more.
Gridlife is a car event, and first and foremost a driving event. Sure, what began as HPDE (high-performance driver education) track days five years ago may have morphed into the automotive lifestyle festival portrayed here, but at its core it’s still about the driving.
HPDE run groups for beginner through advanced drivers are still the most popular on-track portion of the event, and claimed the bulk of the schedule at this year’s Midwest Festival. Rain or shine, drivers fielding everything from stock daily driven street cars to odd-swapped and highly tuned Japanese, European and domestic makes enjoyed the 11 turns and 2.21-miles of Gingerman’s tarmac.
Classroom sessions after each Beginner-group heat allowed the more experienced drivers and instructors to coach beginners on the best ways forward, and it was common for beginners to move up through the run groups as the three-day weekend continued, and even for advanced drivers to try their hand in time-attack competition.
Put simply, if you’re looking for an easy way to get involved with driving on the track, Gridlife just might be it.
Gridlife is many things, but a pure and dedicated time-attack series isn’t one of them. Nevertheless, its five-round TrackBattle competition season is, and is open to qualified drivers and machines fitting into Unlimited, Track Modified, Street Modified, and Street classes.
TrackBattle competition employs the conventional driver-versus-clock format, and awards season championship points based not only on fastest laps, but also run-group size, by rewarding drivers more heavily who battle traffic and finish farther ahead of more of their peers.
The top eight fastest time-attackers in each group at Midwest Festival (round two of five for 2018 TrackBattle competition) also had the option of participating in BattleBrackets competition. Drivers were paired against their closest rivals and raced against each other in lead and follow laps like you might see in drifting, with drivers who pulled the biggest gaps on the other earning the advance and ultimate win in each class.
It’s an exciting format, if a little time-consuming, but it just might prove to be a hit with spectators and racers alike. Either way, whether on its own or because it functions as part of a larger event, Gridlife’s time-attack competition is really gaining popularity. By our count, 132 cars entered this round, and if the quantity of them wasn’t one of the most impressive aspects of the entire event, their quality definitely was.
Toronto’s William Au-Yeung posted the fastest lap of the event and set a new Gingerman track record during Qualifying in his Unlimited FWD-class ninth-generation Honda Civic, with a 1:23.775 on the very first day of competition before the rain began to fall. Once it did, however, he decided to withdraw for competition, paving the way for James Houghton — another Toronto native — to clock the second-fastest lap of the event from within his DC2 Integra Type R (with a 1:30.680, on a failing gearbox and in damp conditions), win Unlimited FWD, win BracketBattle, clock the fastest competition lap of the event overall, and assert himself as the leader of Gridlife’s entire 166-car TrackBattle season championship points chase.
Many of the fastest HPDE drivers entered time-attack competition, and the diversity of cars, as well as that of their drivers, was impressive.
Racing is awesome. Especially once you know the rules, drivers, and rivalries that exist therein. The same could be said for drifting, but it’s probably also fair to say it’s every bit as much fun even if you don’t know anything about it.
While we might say the racing was appreciated by all in attendance, the drifting was what got them running to the fences, pausing their flip-cup matches and fighting each other for the best possible vantage point each and every time it took to the track.
Drifting followed the timeless and loosely defined bash-style format, with professional drivers mixing rubber (and occasionally paint) with talented ams, and giving ride-alongs to diehard fans.
Vaughn Gittin Jr, Chelsea DeNofa and Ryan Tuerck could probably have been called the headliners, each in their demo cars, which is especially impressive in the case of Tuerck’s Ferrari-powered Toyota 86.
But professional participation also came from the likes of Falken Tire’s Ken Gushi, Dai Yoshihara, justin Pawlak and Odi Bakchis; Ryan Litteral, Corey Hosford, Geoff Stoneback, Steve Angerman; and a grip of Pro 2 drifters.
Chris Forsberg and Tanner Foust also dropped by for a bit, Chris in his crowd-favorite (and Chris’s favorite, it’s rumored) Infiniti M45 sedan, and Tanner in a new, four-seater “Drift Taxi” iteration of his VW Passat FD competition car.
But for every pro driver there were probably two talented amateur or pro-am wheelmen. Reflecting the impressive diversity and skills show by all throughout the weekend, the caliber of machinery brought out and the skill with which the ams drove was truly a sight to see.
If you’ve made it this far in our coverage and are thinking there’s just more to a Gridlife Festival weekend than one article can convey, congratulations—that’s exactly the case. Three days, intermittent rain, a ton of bugs, a lot of work to do, and not for a minute did we feel bored or tired of any of it, or spot anyone else who did. If that’s not a validation of a successful automotive/lifestyle endeavor, we don’t know what is!
There’s still one more Gridlife festival on the calendar for 2018, at Road Atlanta on August 24. Surrounding it are three more track-day events and TrackBattle rounds, and no doubt bigger and better in the works for the road ahead. Flick through our gallery below to see more from this one, and to get involved, visit the Gridlife website.