For the past three years, a new kind of motorsports festival has been rapidly gaining momentum and popularity within the car community. It’s called Gridlife and it’s a festival that combines road racing, drifting, car shows, and music into one long weekend at the track. After starting at a small track in the fields of Michigan three years ago, it expanded to the fast and grueling Road Atlanta last year.
That being my home track, I finally made time to go check it out during its second round in the Deep South last weekend to see if it could live up to all the hype. It did.
Picture your favorite monthly car show or that last track day you went to. Now imagine if it was extended to three full days with on-site camping, multiple car shows, live music, and loads of various on-track activities. That’s basically Gridlife in a nutshell.
Whether you’re going as a spectator or competitor, there’s never a dull moment at Gridlife. On-track activities are split up into time attack, drifting, and HPDE (open track day) which all run several times throughout the weekend and there’s plenty to do in the paddock between sessions. Several artists representing a decent mix of genres then light up the stage to bring the first two days to a close.
Gridlife organizers really try to make this weekend an unforgettable experience for everyone involved. I survived all three days of Gridlife South and can happily report that they didn’t just try, they excelled. Here’s what I saw.
Life on the Grid
A good majority of the spectators and drivers in attendance chose to camp at the track. The areas around turns 10 A and B and the Esses (shown here) were open to everyone and drivers were allowed into the paddock. Being amongst passionate, like-minded fans everywhere I went and at all hours of the day really enhanced the overall experience. Road Atlanta was like its own city; the kind of city where only car enthusiasts live. It was maybe a quarter to its capacity as is normally seen during Petit Le Mans, but I was never alone.
Most of the infield action gravitated to the paddock as usual. All time attack and drift teams were intermingled and everyone was open and inviting. Some of the larger drift teams had fan experiences, giveaways, and their own DJs. A few spots down, I saw someone trimming a home-made rear diffuser with an axle grinder. Pennzoil had a big promotional display a few tents away from where a local drift team was playing beer pong… at 10 AM.
Gridlife South was big enough to attract lots of big names, but it stuck to its grassroots feel by making everything and everyone accessible. You didn’t need a special pass to walk up to get an autograph or chat with a favorite driver. A lot of people especially gravitated towards the Hoonigan pit to meet some of their heroes from their . Some big YouTube stars would be super restrictive, but not these guys. They spoke with every fan without exception and they weren’t the only ones to do so. All in all, this paddock was about the friendliest group of car enthusiasts I’ve ever seen.
Literally anyone would talk as long as possible about their car given the chance. I found that this BMW 135i time attack special was built by a shop 15 minutes down the road from where I live. The shop owner himself later confirmed the latest specs on this work-in-progress beast, further confirming its status as one of my very favorite cars there.
3,100 pounds with the driver, 589 hp and 645 lb.-ft. of torque at the wheels thanks to a bunch of proprietary mods, and a splitter they had to rebuild from scratch Friday night after losing it in qualifying. They ran a 1:30 flat but know they can pick up a couple extra seconds once it’s dialed in. And it was on my street this entire time.
That’s just a sample of the kind of creations on track last weekend. And speaking of…
They host dozens of HPDE sessions which welcome drivers at all experience levels. Beginner sessions with available instructors make the thrill of driving a professional race track accessible to anyone and advanced sessions allow for the fastest drivers to go all out.
They apparently allowed anything that’ll pass tech onto the track, which made for an interesting couple of run groups. This rally-prepped Celica looked a little out of place, but others were much more so. There was a , a , a BMW E46 wagon, a bone stock Infiniti Q70, and even a couple of Honda Odysseys, … no really.
And yes, the guy who brought a Ferrari 458 Speciale did in fact track it. Credit where it’s due, he drove the crap out of it.
For casual drivers like most of us reading this, an HPDE is the way to go. You can expect between eight and twelve twenty-minute sessions throughout the weekend. There’s no stress, no red mist, and no prizes. Just you, your car, a screaming instructor, and the track ahead of you.
From the stress-free learning environment of the HPDEs come the fast-paced flying laps of the Time Attack sessions. This is where life as a spectator got really interesting. The main difference between organized road racing and Time Attack is the end goal and the length of time given to achieve that. Racers have to endure however many laps or hours to finish in first; time attack drivers only have a few laps to set the fastest time possible.
This opens the door to a wild group of cars and some brave drivers. They’re not building cars that can endure a 24-hour race, they’re building cars that give 110% a few laps at a time and giving them to drivers who can put down flawless laps on command.
My other favorite build in the Time Attack group was this wicked Mustang Cobra. It’s powered by an Aluminator XS racing engine and has two turbochargers that are mounted where the back seats would be. The interior is filled with all the turbo piping and the trunk is occupied by an array of cooling reservoirs and other stuff I don’t even know how to describe. The whole car is like a rolling science project and I give it an A+. The car’s output can be controlled from the steering wheel – over 600 horsepower in the corners and around 850 in the straights.
There are also more production-based cars too that are still perfectly capable of going stupid fast. Two Viper ACRs (which may as well have been showroom stock), tuned GT-Rs, a Corvette Z06, and a BMW 328i Sportwagon… yep, for real.
It’s not all high-powered race cars though as some of the lower run groups allow for street-legal modified cars to have their chance for glory. This Honda gets the “Three-Wheeling” reward from me.
All Time Attack sessions were co-narrated by Matt Farah and at one point he took his commentary duties a step further. He took this Honda Civic Type-R press car and a few other borrowed rides out during HPDEs, but he also had a go in a Time Attack session while doing live commentary on said Time Attack session. His co-host in the announcer’s booth had Matt on speaker phone held up to the mic for the track intercoms as he was doing laps. When the car experienced overheating issues and forced Matt into blasting the heater on a summer day in Georgia, we got to hear that part too.
In conclusion, Time Attack is awesome.
Now here’s where it gets really fun. Sharing the track HPDE and Time Attack was something completely different: drifting.
Several Formula Drift professionals like Vaughn Gittin Jr., Dirk Stratton, Chris Forsberg, Ryan Tuerck, Rob “Chairslayer” Parsons, and others tore up the track along with dozens of amateur drifters.
It was my first time seeing drifting in person… it was chaotic, sketchy, and sometimes even physically painful. It was awesome.
I say painful because of this shot. This shot of Dirk Stratton’s 680-horsepower Corvette resulted in something being kicked up and nailing me in right in the head. . Worth it.
But otherwise, each and every drifting session was just plain fun to watch. The kinds of things these guys were able to do with these high-powered creations of theirs was nothing short of spectacular.
This brings us back to Rob “Chairslayer” Parsons in the 180SX above. A motocross accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, but that didn’t stop him from being at Road Atlanta with an LS-powered Nissan of his own creation. He’s been drifting professionally for a few years now thanks to hand controls that he engineered himself and has earned that “slayer” part of his title.
But it didn’t get any rowdier than the times where the entire track was open for drifting. FD normally just drifts the turn 10 complex where the first shots were taken, but Gridlife opened up the Esses to anyone who dared. All other corners, including the fearsome turns 11 and 12, were only open to the pros. Only Vaughn, Ryan Litteral (above), and Alec Robbins drifted the whole course every time they went past me.
Forsberg and Tuerck would almost always drift the Esses in tandem, which was actually kind of terrifying to watch. The FD circuit at Road Atlanta is one of the more challenging venues because of its 100+ mph initiation speeds. It’s even harder to drift the Esses at greater speeds, but several people would hit this section… or try to anyway.
Some of the amateurs put on a great show and took every chance to go tandem with one of the pros, but some struggled. It’s hard to find another track where you initiate a drift at triple-digit speeds downhill, so for guys who don’t normally get to drift Road Atlanta, that part posed a lot of problems. Like clockwork, someone would get stuck in the gravel pit outside of turn 10A. Every. Time. Sometimes immediately after the track was reopened following another recovery with the tow truck. The excessive delays killed the flow of the drifting sessions, but the spectacle that would unfold on track made up for the wait.
Lots of body panels were lost and smashed, some cars collided with each other, a few cars went into the wall at the Esses, and it all seemed like loosely-organized chaos all the time, but it was a blast. Give drifting a chance, not least because its goodness is now officially .
As track activity would wind down on Friday and Saturday, several different artists would take to a stage that was erected near the top of turn 11 within easy walking distance of the paddock and most of the camping. When the sun goes down, the party starts.
Every artist they brought in had heavy electronic or rap influences. Only one band I saw even had instruments, but even they fused electronic sounds into the mix. That’s not a problem if you like this kind of stuff (Gridlife knows their audience), but if you can’t stand the music kids today listen to, you’ll be left out. I typically listen to rock and nothing else, but even I found a way to enjoy the few songs I could hear over the sound of race cars flying past me.
But the headlining act which pretty everyone turned up for was the one and only Tej from the Fast & Furious franchise. Who knew an internationally-wanted hacker could make for such a good rapper.
But whether it was my kind of music scene or not, I had a blast and everyone in the audience did too. The track was hot from 9am to 7pm on Saturday, but nobody seemed tired when Ludacris started his set at 10pm.
He wrapped up a few minutes after the typical 11pm quiet hour (because he’s Luda and he can), but the party didn’t stop. There was also a huge viewing party in the paddock for the McGregor vs. Mayweather fight and some others burned the midnight oil to make repairs before the next day’s sessions. This city of ours was lit only by the blue flickering from the welders and the soft glow of Pay-Per-View. Like New York City, Road Atlanta didn’t really sleep that weekend.
I Miss It Already
After three days of taking in almost everything that Gridlife had to offer, I’m not really sure how I lived this long without it.
Even though the music selection and the heavy emphasis on modified cars would make it seem like it caters to stance nation millennials, the truth is that everything and everyone of all ages is welcome. I was worried that there would be an overwhelming presence of the kinds of people that get car shows shut down, but the opposite was true. For every slammed Honda Accord with godawful Bosozoku exhaust, there were ten tastefully track-prepped cars with chill and genuinely passionate owners to balance it out.
An event like this is something every car and motorsport enthusiast should look forward to because of what it’s able to pack into a race track on a single weekend. It gives you multiple chances at an open track day session, puts on a show in drifting, and gives you something to cheer for in time attack. It brings out the creativity of our ever-evolving car culture and the competitive spirit that makes a race track such a magical place to be. But best of all, it surrounds you with hundreds if not thousands of fellow enthusiasts to share the experience with.
I left with unforgettable memories, new friends, and expectations that were smashed harder than when my head was hit by that rock.
[Images © 2017 Redusernab/Greg Kachadurian]