Gridlife South has now come and gone, but boy oh boy, will the stories of this trip live on.
Once again, I found myself roped into going along to another one of these Gridlife events, but after the fun time at Gridlife Midwest at Gingerman Raceway earlier this year, this trip took a little less conviction and arm twisting. With that said, the recipe for the Gridlife South festival was the same as Gridlife Midwest - a weekend full of HPDE, time attack, drifting, a car show, and live music. Why wouldn't you want to go?
There was one very apparent difference though between the two events, and that is obviously the venue. Gridlife South was held at Road Atlanta, in Braselton, Georgia, which is about an hour northeast of downtown Atlanta, and roughly a 12 hour drive from Chicago. Road Atlanta is one of the country's premier race tracks, and also recognized as one throughout the world as well. Hosting events like Petite Le Mans, SCCA and NASA events, as well as other big drift events and even a few events for the two wheel type, it almost feels like Gridlife as an event has ascended into the big leagues. This is a major league track, and it surprised me that a smaller grass roots event like Gridlife was hosted here.
Eric "Dewey" DeWitt and Graham Gaylord both set out to chase wins for their championships in their respective classes, and with a long drive down to Atlanta, Dewey needed a co-pilot, and that's where I fit it. Helping your friend keep his sanity and making sure we made it down there in one piece was an easy sell, and it was a great way for me to take a small vacation and see Road Atlanta in person, which I was already told was an experience to be had. He also needed a way to trailer his car down to the event, and that is where Michael Norman came in. Norm lent us his van (which we aptly named "Van Wilder" while driving down there), loaded it up with tools, spare parts and supplies, and sent us on our way. As for the trailer, we literally pulled one out of a field that another friend of Dewey's had laying around behind his shop, and as the motto of the weekend was, we "sent it". We hooked up with Andrew "Warranty" Michalski and Graham for the drive down there, and pulled into Nashville around 4am and got a few hours of sleep before hitting the road again and completing the final leg of the journey to Braselton. The "hills" of Tennessee and northern Georgia are no joke, and are borderline small mountains. We saw a semi truck or two cooking their brakes trying to traverse the steep grade (6%!). We had a few brushes with death of our own, and after having our brakes catch fire only once, we pulled into the Road Atlanta paddock, unloaded the van, and prepared for the long weekend ahead.
Arriving at Road Atlanta was like seeing a roller coaster coaster for the first time. It is by far and away the most insane track I've ever been on, and while I was taking pictures of this event, I tried my best to capture the crazy elevation changes and turns to give you a perspective of just how massive and wild this track is. I've raced here in video games and have seen videos of cars on the track before, but neither show this track in its true form. You really have to be there in person to get a full understanding of how terrifying some of these turns are, especially at the speeds that you can take them at, and if you have the stones to hit some of these blind turns at speed, you can turn a quick lap. I was lucky enough to get a ride along in a 2013 BRZ, and suffice to say, between the great handling characteristics of the car and the layout of the track, I lost my lunch at the end of our 20 minute session. Not a single regret though, because I smiling the entire time.
Road Atlanta is also not a track for a beginner driver in any way. If you've never done a track day before, or have no concept of car control, you will be humbled, and it will probably be expensive and painful. At almost two and a half miles long, you'll see a wide variety of turns and straights that most tracks simply can't offer. The blind hill on turn 12 is outright terrifying to drive down when you're close to 80mph. You have to hope you're aiming the car just right as you crest, ride out the bumps on the way down the hill, and make sure that car sticks to the road instead of on the wall as you come through the front straight. Turn 10A is butt-puckering as some cars were hitting close to 160mph on the back straight and then hitting the brakes hard enough to get the entire car to wiggle under braking. Be sure to high-five Jesus when you see him in the braking zone, and hope you didn't over shoot your braking marker and end up in the pea gravel.
Because of this complexity on the track, there we a lot of cars that didn't make it through the event, and even some drivers who took an ambulance ride and had their weekend cut short too. It was a stark reminder that racing, while fun and competitive, is still dangerous. It didn't seem to matter what skill level you are at either, as even some of the top time attack drivers were tested and had a few offs too. It was a testament to the difficulty of this track, and while Gridlife gives anyone the opportunity to race at Road Atlanta, one wrong move could spell disaster. There is definitely a smaller margin for error here than there is at Gingerman, and for an event that tries to cater to every kind of driver with every kind of vehicle, I wonder if Road Atlanta is the best course for this kind of event. Thankfully, Graham and Dewey both came back to the pits unscathed every time, but if you asked me for my opinion as to which track is better to be on, I would say Gingerman for approach-ability and ease of travel (provided you're coming from the Chicagoland area). With that said, for a taste of what a pro-level driver would see, Road Atlanta will surely satisfy your appetite.
As for the rest of the event, the drift cars were out in force again just like the Midwest festival, as Ryan Tuerck, Vaughn Gittin Jr., and the entire Falken drift team were out doing what they do best again alongside of a few other pro drivers. Seeing these guys dive into turn 10A at breakneck speeds and initiating their drifts close to 300 feet away from the apex of the turn was insane, and really fun to photograph. They are truly on a playing field of their own, and while the amateur drivers were good for a show in their own right, the pros just did it with such profound finesse that it just shadowed everything else on the track. No matter where you were at, when the announcement for the drift cars came on over the loud speaker, everyone took to the track to catch a view of these guys at work. Full-track drifting was one of the most amazing things I've seen in a long time, especially when the stage is set on such a track like Road Atlanta that is anything but flat.
Of course, it wouldn't be a good Gridlife trip if we didn't talk about the cars that were there too, both in the competition and in the car show. As expected, the dirty south knows what's hot in car culture, and the paddock was filled with wild rides. An LS-swapped Porsche 944 looked pretty normal when it was placed next to a Radical RXC 600R race car or a prototype time attack car. There were many exo-cars in attendance as well, which are essentially a Miata or a Honda that have had their body stripped off and a tube frame put in its place. Think poor man's Aerial Atom here.
There was also a skid pad that was being utilized heavily by the RTR crew to "test" the performance of a modified Mustang's rear tires, as well as an autocross course, which was a show in it's own right. While some of the competition that was on the actual race track made their way over to the autocross course for a run or two, the autocross course was home to more every day vehicles than it was properly prepared racing cars. It was almost like all of the cars that were in the parking lot outside of the track were having their own little competition away from everyone else. As the saying goes, run whatcha brung!
When the sun went down, we were treated to a musical performance by the one and only Ludacris, who absolutely crushed it. If there was ever a musical guest that symbolized car culture and Atlanta all in one package, it was him, and he played into the crowd perfectly. The Mayweather-McGregor fight was also being shown in the pits for anyone who was interested, but otherwise, the track became a small party town for the night, just like Midwest. Georgia's finest were also sure to make their presence known on more than one occasion.
I think it's also worth mentioning that because of the sheer size of the track, getting around to any part of it almost mandated some form of personal transportation. Scooters, bikes, and golf carts were essential for getting from one end of the track to the other in a hurry, and with the hills found even in the infield, you'd be silly to actually try and walk anywhere. To some that may be a turn off, as Gingerman offered everything within walking distance and was laid out better I think, but other people might not be bothered by that. After all, there's much more to see of this track, and that's also what makes Road Atlanta so unique.
Dewey and Graham both represented Chitown Subarus well with podium finishes in their respective classes. Graham took home his 4th consecutive 1st-place finish of the season for Time Attack AWD Street Mod, and Dewey scored 2nd place in HPDE+ AWD Street class. With one event left in the season (at Gingerman again in October), Graham is in position to go for the sweep with the championship essentially locked up, and Dewey is still in the fight for 1st overall in his class as well.
Now that I've done both festivals, it's hard to say which one is better, if there even is a better one. I think the appeal of Gridlife is to just bring your car out and have a good time, and even if you're not racing like myself, there was still plenty to see and do. As Gridlife continues to grow, I expect it to expand again to another territory and introduce more people to what I've experienced this year. At the very least, I think this event helps get people excited about cars in any fashion, and at any age. In the time of autonomous cars becoming popular news and humans being removed from any sort of personal transportation, it's refreshing to see that car culture is still alive and well. Gridlife really is, for one weekend at least, the peak of car culture, and I'm certainly excited to see what they're cooking up for next year.