It was immediately familiar, pulling into the front lot of Autobahn Country Club’s main gate, but it had been a long time since my last visit. It had been too long really, about six years since I set foot on this track, or any for that matter. This time around, unlike years ago, I would not be driving on the track. However, even as a spectator, as I was this past Saturday, there is something almost spiritual about being there for weirdos like me that love cars. The ever constant din of engines wailing, loud and up close, then echoing in the distance, loud again, then fading away once more. The air is filled with this constant rising and falling melody. Roaming the paddock, you hear an engine bark to life, a straight six with an almost agricultural sounding, mechanical nature. The smell of super-heated brake pad material emanates from the wheel wells of a Mitsubishi Evo rolling past, fresh off a stint on the circuit. The clinking and ratcheting sounds of hand tools and floor jacks as drivers and support crews work to make adjustments, repairs, or bleed off old and tired brake fluid is ever present. Race crews, drivers, friends, all gathered under tents peppered throughout the paddock, trying to stay cool, exchanging stories and recounting adrenaline filled moments on the track. Sometimes a low chatter, occasionally erupting into raucous laughter, the focus all around is racing, competing, but loving and enjoying the time spent here, is clearly above all else.
On the track, the cars seem distant, divided by a fence and considerable space, they are like wild predatory beasts in a zoo enclosure. Awe inspiring, and sometimes terrifying in that they could deal you swift and brutal death if you make a wrong move, just the same as the apex predators in the zoo. Except that here in the paddock, you get to see the lions and tigers come out of their pen, walk along side them, and follow them to their resting spot in the shade. Though the race cars, unlike the big cats, generally will not tear your limbs off once parked. Seeing many of these race cars, up close and personal, is no less impressive than taking in the sight of a giant panting Tiger, paws extended under the shade of a pop up tent. For the Gridlife/Automass event, the variety of cars on hand is impressive. Everything from import to domestic, stripped out racers to modified street cars, there’s nearly an example of every sports car, in nearly every state of tune.
Approaching the skid pad area, a large swath of concrete with numerous traffic cones splayed about, it looks like a typical autocross course. As you near however, the noises you hear suggest this ain’t no autocross. Tires wail their dissatisfaction with drivers viciously throwing them sideways, and peeling the rubber off of them in big smoky displays. From a distance, some of the cars look like streaking comets, a trail of thick smoke left in their wake. Walking the area around the skid pad, you find yourself walking through these clouds, the distinct aroma of melted tires floods your nose briefly as the breeze carries the cloud away. This is where the drifting happens. Home to BRZ/FRS’s, all variants of the Nissan S chassis, Toyota Chasers, and more, all rear wheel drive and all getting very sideways. It is easy to see the appeal of drifting, it’s exciting to watch; the noise, the pendulum swing of the car’s back end rotating, the billows of smoke streaming from the rear tires, all great stuff. Some magical details too, things you don’t experience by simply seeing videos and photos. That moment a car slides close by you, the half second delay, and then the shower of dust, grit and pulverized tire bits rains down on you. You can smell the rubber, you can taste it, you can smell the heated clutch, it’s a sensory overload all while taking in the amazing visuals. One of the most memorable visuals, a sideways 240sx with no hood, front bumper or fenders, emerging from a cloud of it’s own tire smoke. It’s an eerily beautiful moment, and it’s gone in a fraction of a second. I think I may like this drifting stuff.
This Toyota Cressida was one of my favorites from the skid pad. Drift cars are often full of personality, and this one is no different. It started life as an unassuming sedan, a conservative and responsible car dressed in white and beige. Seeing it here, in all the flamboyance of a battered and bruised drift car, is a delightful paradox. The car is like a buttoned down Japanese salary man, unhinged from a night of hard drinking to let off steam, neck tie asunder, a shoe missing, but a foolishly gleeful grin on his face all the while. You can’t help but smile seeing it out on the course, streaking sideways along side a 350Z. The car is here to have a good time, and so is the owner, his excited shouts muffled by his helmet as he pulls into the grid area. Maybe tomorrow is another day at the office, a time to be serious, but this Cressida is all in for today, hooning without a care. How can you not love that?
I love cars that are put together with a clear objective or theme in mind, it generally shows in the finished product and nets some of the coolest cars you’ll see. One such car, is the Fiat X19 pictured below. The owner Bob, has one simple and clear goal, to make it the fastest X19… (cue Jeremy Clarkson voice) in the world. Incredibly light, with tons of aero and packing a K24 swap in the back, it no doubt is well on the way toward that goal. To further his mission, a supercharger is planned in the near future, which Bob reckons should push him close to 400 horsepower and the title of fastest X19. God speed Bob, I’ll be looking forward to seeing this achieve that goal!
The earlier analogy of apex predators, fits this FD RX-7 perfectly. A gorgeous black and green livery covers the aggressive body work, reminiscent of a JGTC car. Under the hood is a 4 rotor engine, mated to a sequential gear box, the combination of which creates one of the most glorious noises around. A local YouTuber, Zack Pradel, captured some great in-car footage here. I was standing at the start of the main straight on the North Circuit of Autobhan, and the noise this FD made when it put the hammer down, was chill inducing even in the 90+ degree heat. It let loose a high pitched scream, like an F1 car, that truly sounded unlike anything else on the track that day. I’ve heard many types of rotary engines, from bridge ported 13B’s, to an IMSA prepped 20B, but nothing, none of them, even approach the sounds this four rotor produced. What an amazing treat to see and hear!
I am clearly a hopeless fan boy for Mazda’s today, particularly rotary powered Mazda’s, but that wasn’t always the case. I started out my love of cars and modifying them, like many, with old Honda’s. So it always gives me a comforting feeling to see an old Honda, built to the nines, and/or being put through the paces on track like this EF Civic hatchback below. It seems the unlikeliest of race cars, and I think that’s what makes it so endearing. A little toaster on wheels, but thanks to the magic of double wishbone suspension on all corners, it’s an angry little apex hunting toaster. This one in particular, appears well cared for and has a beautiful livery, the subtle two tone pattern in soft brown tones, makes the silver, graf-art inspired Ramblers logo really pop. I first saw it at Wekfest this year, but seeing it here in battle mode, puts it into a new context where it really shines.
There is a moment when the track “goes cold”, no cars racing on the track, everything parked and mostly shut down. A serene silence now replaces what was a constant din of combustion and tire squeal. Even the people walking the paddock seem more hushed. There is an eye-of-the-hurricane like calm and peace in the air. The evening rolls on, and the track is soon again hot. Charcoal grills apparently go hot as well, as the smell of charred meats now joins the stew of automotive aromas in the paddock. The sun starts to mellow it’s oppressive glare, the shadows grow longer, and the day’s events begin to wind down. More cars on jacks, exhausted brake fluid purged, cars hoisted on trailers, jugs of fuel, water bottles and tools scattered about as preparation for the next day’s competition, or a trip home begin. I walk back to my car with an unexpected twinge of sadness. I exhale a forlorn sigh as a look at my car parked in the grass, it once romped around these same circuits years ago gleefully, my trustworthy companion. Now, like a faithful old chocolate Lab that was once a playful, energetic pup, it’s begun to show it’s age. It’s coat a bit faded, a bit more drab, a bit dusty, it’s face a bit more tired; but still I can see a glint of light in it’s eye that wants to get back out there. Maybe just a few more laps for old times sake; get the brakes hot, hear the tires squeal through an apex, feel the back end rotate a little. Maybe the car misses that, I think. Then again, maybe it’s just me that misses it. Happy 4th everybody!
-photos and writing: Robert Sixto