"It feels like I'm down on power!" yells Tanner Foust in the general direction of the gathered throngs containing both his crew and assorted media. Tanner and myself are currently five-point bolted into his new stock car-engined Formula D Scion tC. We've just exited an aborted lap around the Toyota Speedway at Irwindale because something – so says Foust – is amiss with the car.
Rockstar Energy Drink Drift captain Stephan Papadakis comes charging towards the Scion and begins earnestly, if not frantically, checking the car's vitals through the steering wheel's digital readout. Steph floors the motor a few times, checks the numbers and exasperatedly tells Foust that everything looks fine. "Oh," says Tanner, patting me on my beer belly. "Must be him." Very funny, jerk.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.
Rockstar invited us out to Toyota Speedway at Irwindale to take a few laps in Tanner's ludicrous new sideways ride. In fact, the last time we'd seen Tanner drift it up was at the Speedway last year when he became the first ever back-to-back (and first ever two-time) Formula D champion. Meaning he knows the track pretty darn well, thank you.
Today is a shakedown day: aside from giving husky journalists hot laps, Papadakis and the rest of the Rockstar crew are trying to iron the kinks out of the mighty Scion before next weekend's 2009 Formula D final event known as Judgment Day, taking place October 16-17. They've been having some sort of fuel problem and are (obviously) hoping to get it fixed.
In case you haven't heard, Mr. Foust is no longer behind the wheel of a supercharged Nissan 350Z. Instead he's been rocking the absolutely earth-shaking NASCAR Scion. Why earth-shaking? Well, the Toyota V8 for one. Yup, the same Toyota V8 that Toyota runs at NASCAR events. While it's ostensibly a Toyota motor, it was 100% designed in the USA by TRD and Ed Pink Racing Engines.
The carburetor has been removed and replaced with fuel injection, but other than that, this is the same engine you'd find under the hood of a NASCAR stock car (with shorty track pistons, shorty pipes, etc). Power? "Oh, about 600 or so to the wheels," says Papadakis. All that small block fury gets routed to the smoky rear tires via a four-speed Muncie-style dog-engagement G-force gearbox, then through a MKIV Supra rear end. The car is essentially a little ball of wow. And you have to hear it to believe how deaf I am.
Ace photographer Drew Phillips and I spent the morning standing behind concrete barricades in the middle of Irwindale's infield watching Tanner and fellow Scion dorifto driver Ken Gushi (in his Avensis-based tC) make dozens upon dozens of practice runs. You'd think they'd take fewer runs than that, seeing as how a set of rear meats is only good for about two laps, but hey – that's what tire sponsors are for.
Eventually, they both left the track but then Foust came back in golf cart to set up the clipping cones. Tanner was nice enough to give us a lift back to the paddock as long as we helped him with the cones. I should have been asking him auto-journo type questions at this point ("compare this new car to your old Z") but instead we just joked about the golf cart's Momo wheel and how Tanner's should take it drifting.
Right, so after Tanner's little joke (the one where he made fun of my fat gut), it was time for two laps with arguably the world's best drifter on his home track in a snorting monster of a car. And we're off. There's a Mitsubishi EVO IX camera car in front and to the right of us filming the laps. At first the acceleration isn't all that. But then Tanner drops it into second gear. I've felt some epic thrust in my time, but the only way I can describe the experience of a 650+ hp Scion at full tilt is to ask you to imagine a big guy standing behind you and swinging a baseball bat as hard as he can into the small of your back. CRACK! The little "Scion" takes off like a moonshot. A moment later we are traveling at well over 100 mph, rocketing towards both the EVO and a cement wall. Suddenly, up goes the handbrake.
Somehow, and honestly I really have zero idea how, Tanner threaded the Scion through a maybe seven-foot wide gap between the Mitsu and the wall. We're totally sideways at this point, with the Scion's rump pointing at the curving concrete barrier and its snout nearly facing the middle of the track. I was reminded of a time when I got a couple laps in a decommissioned stock car on the California Speedway's big oval. My right ear was less than a foot away from a huge wall and we were going over 180 mph. In both instances, what's actually taking place is so loudly violent, so cataclysmically crazed, so on the ragged edge of both the laws of physics and my own sense of self-preservation that I just let go. It's as if you must turn to faith to get you back alive in one piece, as logic and reason have long ago exited the car. Doing so turns everything almost serene.
We slow down (a little) as we approach the first clipping point and by doing so some of the seemingly endless smoke generated by the quickly-melting tires begins filling the cabin. I would later ask Papadakis what the lung-cancer rate amongst drifters is, and he replied, "The sport's too young to tell!" It turns out, that tire smoke not only tastes awful, it prefers clinging to exposed metal over human flash and t-shirts. Which is why for a second I'm convinced that the A-pillar corner of the roll cage is on fire. Before I have time to process that thought, the handbrake goes up again and we're pointed nearly 180 degrees in the other direction. Oh look, another solid concrete wall accompanied by triple digit forward velocity. Were today actually a Formula D event, this particular part of the track would be home to the VIP grandstands. Meaning that this is where the real action/showboating happens.
And dude, did it happen.
Tanner yanks hard on the handbrake and the Scion pitches itself more than 180 degrees to the left. I was told later that for some reason, Tanner took this particular run a little deeper than he'd been doing earlier with other passengers (jerk). As the turn is such an incredible change of both direction and momentum, the result is almost nothing but smoke. Tons of it. So much smoke that people on the other side of the wall (and probably riding in the camera car) lose sight of us for a second. Tanner quickly transitions it back the other way (more like fishtailing it from where I'm sitting) for the last set of cones and this time, he really punches it, trying to use up what's left of the Hankooks for a sort of mini grand finale. More smoke, more stupid silly sideways g forces, more deafening roar. I'm beginning to really like this.
I'm in a daze as we make a U-turn in the paddock for lap two. Foust asks me how I liked it. I begin applauding. First of all, I'm stunned that not only didn't we crash and burst into flames, but somehow, I'm still breathing. Second, how in the hell did he just do that? I make up my mind to watch Tanner's hands and feet on this lap to try and see how he's able to maintain such phenomenal control. Big mistake. Foust is making so many moves, and dancing between the pedals, wheel, stick and handbrake so quickly, that it's nonsensical. I just can't process it. To me, he's having a seizure. My poor little brain can't cope with what my eyes are telling it and for the first time I'm frightened. Best to just look out the side window at the looming mass of approaching concrete. Honestly, that calms me down.
Photos copyright ©2009 Drew Phillips / Weblogs, Inc.