Burning Rubber In A Big Rig
October 1, 2011
As an established Hollywood stuntman with more than 600 films, TV shows and commercials to his credit, not much intimidates Mike Ryan. You can add Father Time, younger drivers and a new style of driving that originated on foreign shores to that list.
Ryan, who is better known in trucking circles for racing his big rig in hill climb events, says the trucking industry has not promoted itself very well through motorsports, but Ryan recently found a way to show the fun and performance side of his Freightliner Cascadia via “drifting”, a style of driving that was established on the streets of Tokyo.
In Japan, the art of drifting has been popular among the street racers or “hashiriya” for more than 15 years, and morphed into one of
that country’s number one attended motorsports in less than a decade, where professional Japanese drifters are the equivalent of national celebrities.
To the novice, it would appear that drifting very recently crossed the Pacific Ocean and exploded into the world of racing not more than two years ago, but hard core enthusiasts know different. The American drifting scene’s roots can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. When drag racing was exploding across America, a small number of enthusiast’s fascination was leaning toward an underground sport in Japan called canyon racing and drifting.
A few years later, a company called Formula DRIFT was formed in California, and they soon established a professional drifting championship series where drivers intentionally maneuver their cars into well-executed, controlled sideways slides at high speeds through a marked course. Judged on execution and style, rather than who finishes the course in the fastest time, drifting is often compared to the freestyle nature of skateboarding and motocross and has now evolved into a worldwide competitive sport that challenges each driver’s driving ability and vehicle control.
As the first official series in North America, Formula DRIFT has taken competitive motorsports to the extreme, attracting fans and car enthusiasts from all walks of life and established itself as the worldwide leader for the sport. In April 2004, the first Formula DRIFT event was held at Road Atlanta. Most of the drivers were novice drifters by Japanese standards, but provided high-energy entertainment to the crowds as American “pro drifters.” Some of the drivers also brought professional racing experience to the sport, including Rhys Millen, Samuel Hubinette and Ryan Hampton, making the inaugural year a crowd pleaser, attracting a much younger and hipper audience than the Japanese drift series.
In December of 2005, Formula DRIFT driver Vaughn Gittin, Jr. won the USA vs. Japan All Star event, becoming the first American to win an international competition and proving that the American drivers have raised the bar in North American drifting.
In November of 2008, Formula DRIFT helped create the first ever drifting world championship. This event was the first of its kind and helped bring the sport of drifting recognition worldwide. 17 past and present drifting champions from the top drifting organizations in the world gathered to compete for the largest prize purse in drifting history. A special custom built drifting track was put together at a special location on the Port of Long Beach. Formula DRIFT’s Rhys Millen came out on top to win the inaugural Drifting World Championship. Entering its eighth season, this high-skilled, high-powered motor sport has professional drivers & teams competing in seven championship competitions in 2011.
Hollywood has taken notice of drifting as well, and many of Formula DRIFT’s top driver’s like 2-time champion Samuel Hubinette, champion Rhys Millen, and 2-time champion Tanner Foust, were asked to be the official stunt drivers for the Universal Studios movie, “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Hubinette, Millen and Foust would also figure prominently in Mike Ryan’s exhibition of drifting a big rig. Ryan had worked closely with Hubinette, Millen and Foust on a few movie projects, and admittedly Ryan says “age intimidation” played a role in his decision to try drifting in a semi-truck. “It drove me crazy that these young guys knew something about driving that I didn’t,” Ryan stated. “The only way I could redeem myself was prove that I could do what they could do, but do it in a big rig.”
A few months ago, Ryan went to former El Toro U.S. Marine base in California to hone his drifting skills. His exploits were filmed for a YouTube video called ‘Size Matters’, which has now been viewed more than 900,000 times.
The popularity of that video and Ryan’s racing reputation as a 12-time Pikes Peak International Hill Climb Big Rig Class Champion led to an invitation to do a drifting exhibition in a semi truck at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Formula DRIFT Round 6: After Dark event on August 27. RPM for Truckers magazine was on the scene in Las Vegas to see Ryan in his first public drifting event. “I’m glad I got to do it at a pro event and I wanted to show people something they have never seen before,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s Freightliner Cascadia Pikes Peak Special packs an incredible 1,950hp and 3,400+ ft. lbs. of torque, and he showed up in Las Vegas with the same tires and basic setup that he uses for hill climbs – so he knew the drifting event would be ‘trial and error.’
“Trying to make a truck do what a car can do is a challenge, and weight is the biggest issue,” Ryan said. The Freightliner weighs about 9,950 pounds, which is four times as much as the cars designed for drifting. “Its really about managing momentum, which is the same thing truck drivers face out on the highway,” Ryan said. “Sometimes truckers are put in bad positions by a general public that does not understand the physics involved.”
Ryan is comfortable with the setup required for hill climbs and the small tweaks he has to make to be successful in that environment, but you would have thought his truck was purpose-built for drifting after watching his semi do controlled slides at high speeds in Las Vegas. His Freightliner Cascadia proved to be an attention-getter, and after the smoke cleared from one final burnout, the crowd rose to their feet – some from exhilaration and some from pure astonishment – to give Ryan one of the loudest cheers of the night.
The folks know a good thing when they see it too, and have invited Ryan to participate in any of their future events, and Ryan has committed to drift at the Long Beach Grand Prix in April 2012. (For a race competition schedule and ticket information, visit: www.formuladrift.com.)
Ryan says he will have to make major technical changes for future drifting exhibitions, and is already working with Michelin on some special tires for his next event. Colored smoke and sparks shooting from those Michelins are rumored to be in development, but one thing is for sure: Mike Ryan will continue to put the trucking industry in a good light – just like he did at Formula DRIFT Round 6: After Dark.