It was more than a decade ago when I was a college student, trying desperately—and unsuccessfully—to juggle attending class and studying for Finals, with developing a social life and working a more-than-part-time job to pay for it all. Believe it or not, that was a lot of stress for inexperienced and inefficient me, and like a lot of young people in my situation, I counted the days each year until Spring Break provided a small, but valuable, break from it all.
Fast-forward to present-day: the more things have changed, the more they’ve stayed the same for many of us. We’re still overworked, although probably a little better at managing our time, and we still look forward to any break we can get. Enter Gridlife’s annual Midwest Festival, possibly the best and closest thing to Spring Break we slightly-grown-up car guys and girls will get (and can survive). Let’s have a closer look.
Setting the Stage
Taking place at GingerMan Raceway, which is roughly equidistant between Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, and Indianapolis, Gridlife brings an authentic festival experience—with cars—to a large but underserved area of the Midwest. While other festivals and even car events are so huge that you’ll need to board shuttles or rent golf carts to traverse them (like Hyperfest at VIR), GingerMan Raceway is much smaller, and Gridlife does a perfect job of filling it comfortably while keeping everything connected to everything else.
Camping areas line the racetrack and run into the main stage, providing fans with the best views of the track all the while. Pit/paddock areas do the same but on an adjacent side of the track, and between the two are vendors, displays, and fan activations.
Drifters, time-attackers, HPDE drivers and wheel-to-wheel racers (more on that one later) share the pit/paddock area with vendors, and are a lot more accessible than, say, Formula D and Global Time Attack pits at Road Atlanta.
Food, beverage, medical, clothing, fuel, and even camping-supply vendors are in no short supply during the Festival weekend. Conveniently, you could show up Thursday evening and have a great time clear through Sunday afternoon without ever having to leave the venue.
Three stages keep the music, lights, and visual effects streaming throughout the weekend, and behind it all there’s the constant hum of racing, drifting and high-performance driving on Gingerman’s 2.21 miles and 13 turns. Rain or shine, the party never stops.
“It’s like our Spring Break … but in Michigan.” — Heard over roaring engines and screaming tires, at the 2019 Gridlife Midwest Festival
Between the partying and the drifting (which we’ll get into later) it’s easy to forget that Gridlife is first and foremost a track-focused organization. It runs seven rounds of competitive TrackBattle time-attack competition in classes for Unlimited, Track Modified, Street Modified, and Street cars, in FWD, RWD and AWD trims, and is fast becoming the time attack series in the U.S.
Participation this time around was as big as usual, bringing out many of the fastest machines of Global Time Attack and Super Lap Battle competition, from all corners of the U.S. and southern Canada.
Topping the leaderboard after a weekend plagued by rain and wind, and mechanical failure, were World Challenge Civic TC-R ace Tom O’Gorman in the AWD Professional Awesome EVO IX claiming first overall with a 1:24.485 fastest time, reigning North American time-attack champ William Au-Yeung in his venerable FWD ninth-gen Civic landing in second overall with a 1:25.077, and Toronto rival James Houghton in his monster FWD DC2 nabbing third with a 1:27.249 lap. Missing the overall podium by one spot but rounding out the 1:20s and claiming First Place Unlt’d RAW honors was Sasha Anis in the No. 414 Nissan 350Z, with a 1:29.681.
Jeremy Swenson (Chevy Corvette, 1:32.493), Michael Puglisi (Mitsubishi EVO IX, 1:32.881), and Andrew Stittle (Suzuki Swift—yes, a Suzuki Swift—1:33.206) earned the top spots in Track Modified RWD, AWD, and FWD competition, respectively.
After that it’s almost uncanny how scattered the overall results look, with Unlimited, Track and Street competitors’ names seeming to have gone through a wood chipper before landing in no predictable order on the board. A full 20 cars in various classes finished within just four seconds of each other, so the competition is there—rules and classing just may need a little adjustment, moving forward.
Two things usually spring to mind before all the rest when thinking about Gridlife: partying and drifting. First-timers might be surprised at how little drifting there actually is, compared to everything else happening on track, but when the green flag drops on the drift sessions, it’s easy to see why they’re so popular.
All-out time-attack cars are sick. Wheel-to-wheel racing can be awesome to watch in person. But nothing got the crowds running to the fencing like Gridlife’s drift sessions. Rain or shine, those first uncorked V8s and turbo-sixes screaming to life and bouncing off the limiter was a call to action for fans.
Nitto Tire FD pros headlining the event included Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Chelsea DeNofa; Falken Tire’s Odi Bakchis, Justin “JTP” Pawlak, and Daijiro Yoshihara; and Drift This hosts and Race Service teammates Chris Forsberg and Ryan Tuerck (Ryan in a borrowed Toyota/Papadakis Racing Corolla). They gave attendees ride-alongs all weekend long and put on a hell of a show … even if being crowded a bit by the Race Service camera car.
Veteran FD Pro and Pro 2 support came at the hands of Geoff Stoneback, Steve Angerman, Corey Hosford, Kelsey Rowlings, Adam LZ, George Kiriakopoulos, and Andrew Schulte.
And if that’s not enough, about a drifter’s dozen all-new amateur and pro-am machines made it out this year, including a couple clean BMW E30s, a pair of matching E46 M3s, a 2JZ-powered E46 and Saabaru wagon, FCP Euro’s Dapper Drift E55 AMG, a couple of badass Mustangs (RTRs?), and way too many S13s and S14s to count.
Gridlife’s close proximity to the preceding weekend’s annual Final Bout bash in nearby Wisconsin no doubt had a hand in that, and we certainly feel that type of planning is only a good thing for everyone involved.
Despite many three, four, and even five-plus car tandems and drift trains that ran throughout the weekend, among pros and pro-ams alike, in wet and dry conditions, drifting was largely very clean.
Except, maybe, for that one time JR love-tapped Chelsea, after the two were cut off and then sand-bagged by a much slower E30, in the rain. But hey—demo cars and no competition! All in good fun.
HPDE and the GLTC
Legend has it the Gridlife crew’s roots lie in High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) events, and despite today packing their Midwest Festival roster full of world-class time attack competition and drifting, they always carve out some run groups for HPDE.
Are you a newbie, looking to get some track time for yourself? Are you a seasoned race driver who wants to get in some pressure-free track time between timed sessions? Do you have a vehicle that can meet minimum safety requirements as outlined by the SCCA? If so, HPDE is for you.
But if you want to get into some real racing (the wheel-to-wheel kind), Gridlife’s newly-formed GLTC (Gridlife Touring Cup) competition series may be what you’re looking for. With a very light ruleset and spec sheet, open to just about any vehicle, it’s a great way to learn the particulars of wheel-to-wheel racing in a fun, challenging environment.
After a beta event during Gridlife’s first competition round at Mid Ohio, the GLTC took full form at the Midwest Festival. The sound of over 30 cars roaring to full throttle at exactly the same time on the starting grid at GingerMan was something that needed to be felt to be understood, and if the excitement of all that metal rushing into Turn 1 at once didn’t get your pulse racing, the photo finishes at the end of each bout would’ve.
All the Rest
Like we said in the beginning, the real magic of Gridlife Midwest Festival is how it brings all these elements together in a fun, carefree lifestyle-festival atmosphere. And while it’s never easy to carve out time in our busy schedules for things like this, and it leads to a mountain of work after the fact, if Gridlife—and my college days—have taught me anything, it’s that it’s absolutely necessary to take a step back and enjoy life every now and then.
Flip through our images in the gallery below, and stay with Front Street for more of everything this season, including Gridlife’s upcoming festivals in Colorado (all new!) and at Road Atlanta. To get involved, visit the links below: