Sliding Sideways Through The Desert: A day spent drifting with Michael Essa [w/video]

Drifting isn't a real sport.

So sayeth the peanut gallery that thinks drifting is just a bunch of wheel-spinning youngsters who've watched way too many selections from the Fast and Furious library. I'm here to tell you that it's very much a sport, and the men and women behind the wheels of their sideways machines dance the thin line between aggressive fury and smoke-filled poetry.

I'm sweating my ass off in the middle of the Mojave Desert for my first lesson on drifting, and my teacher for the day is none other than Mr. Michael Essa. He's late, it's hot and I'm surrounded by a pit road filled with random examples of rear-wheel-drive Japanese machinery in all the colors of the rainbow. Plus three more hues that I've never seen before.

Who exactly is this guy I'm waiting for? If you're already a fan of drifting, than you know that Professor Essa is the bespectacled pilot of the GSR Autosport BMW Z4. Essa is a professional drifter who competes in the Formula Drift series alongside the likes of Vaughn Gittin Jr., Rhys Millen and Samuel Hubinette, amongst others. Mike is passionate about his sport, skilled behind the wheel and also capable of ducking under the hood and turning some wrenches. At the moment, however, I don't know any of this... because I'm melting into the asphalt of the Streets of Willow, and Essa is still late.
A truck pulls into view and it's hauling a trailer packed with a drift car that's traveled all around the world. The man normally piloting said drift machine is now helming the full-size hauler and his multinational cargo. He may be fast on the track, but his trip to the desert drift destination was slow. Regardless, all is forgiven when he hands me a bottle of water. All is forgotten when he fires up the BMW Z4 for the first time.

I called it a multinational machine, and I meant it. The car is mostly of Germanic origin, but it also features a healthy dose of American DNA and competes in a sport that originated in Japan. The exterior sheet metal is all Z4, with the exception of the folding hardtop that was ditched to save weight. Under the hood sits the S54 inline six-cylinder engine, which has been worked over by Essa's GSR Autosport garage, and now features induced excitement courtesy of a Garrett turbo. The mighty mill produces 600 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque, which is just what you need when your goal is a life spent sideways. Those figures, by the way, are measured at the wheels.

Essa wasn't content to route all that energy into a standard Z4 transmission and rear end. Instead, he machined his own bell housing so he could bolt in a NASCAR-style Tex Racing four-speed manual gearbox, and then pair that with a Speedway Engineering quick change independent rear suspension. See, told you that there car had a bit 'o 'Murica buried within.

The combination of the BMW engine with the NASCAR gearbox and rear end means that Essa's drift machine is actually a drift monster. Forward is obviously no problem, but sideways is a direction that Mike has dialed in more efficiently than I do any number stored on my smartphone. If he wants the world to slide by from his favorite perspective, all he has to do is think it... and he's going to prove it to me.

The GSR Autosport BMW Z4 has arrived here at the Streets of Willow to attend an event called the All-Star Drift Bash. Fans of the sport are spending their weekend sweating, wrenching and, most of all, sharing their love for their favorite form of motorsports. While waiting for Essa to arrive, I had wandered the paddock and spied all sorts of drift cars in various states of repair. Some rookies are running sans bumper or fender, not because it's the style, but because that part of their car is now lying on the track. Meanwhile, other amateurs who've spent more time on the track are beginning to link their turns together, and picking up speed. Despite the aggression on display, the paddock remains jovial, and people spend time chatting, sharing food they just barbecued or offering tips on car setups and driving lines.

It's a great side of the lower tier of the sport that I appreciated getting the time to take in. Still, it's not why I drove away from the beach this morning, and into temperatures topping 110 degrees. Mike Essa just returned from a shakedown run, and he's holding an extra helmet in his hand. It fits my head, the Recaro seats appear to be a perfect match for both the Z4 and my backside, and the racing harness is secure around my trunk. I'm locked into the shotgun seat of Essa's German sports car, and with a push of a button the Garret-turbo-fed ex-E46-M3 motor barks to life with orders that would've made Manfred von Richthofen snap to attention. Mike looks over and gives me the universal you-ready-to-go-? thumbs up, and I reply with a calm, collected of-course-I-am thumb of my own.

We rumble through the paddock towards the track where my outlook on motorsports will change.

The first thing you notice about the GSR Autosport Z4 is, of course, the rapacious exhaust note that takes the place of all other sounds currently occupying your ear canal. Second, however, is the how mechanically wonderfully the transmission and rear end sort out the power sent from the engine. Each shift hammers home with a noise that makes you think it's killing itself, so that Mike can live. It's heavy metal in mechanical form. As the transmission locks into place, it then becomes the rear end's turn to sort out the next phase of our rubber-devouring adventure. The entire powertrain is ready to work together in a hard rock symphony, and conductor Essa has taken his place at the podium.

We enter the track.

The sweltering landscape rockets past, and my calm, collected demeanor has been left to rot in the sweltering heat. I'm crying, laughing, smiling and generally doing all the things that I told myself I wouldn't. Our rate of acceleration is incredible, but the forward momentum is a mere sideshow act to the big event that waits before every turn. Essa drops a gear, tugs on the super-sized handbrake lever and pitches the car sideways. Not a little bit sideways either, mind you. Our angle of entry on every turn has me craning my neck to stay focused on the track ahead. On some turns, it feels like we're entering the corner trunk first, yet Essa is able to control application of the throttle, steering, handbrake and foot brake in instantly measured amounts to make sure our ultimate direction is what the track designer intended. You can see for yourself in the video.

This is pure automotive ballet, assuming the star of the show is all black swan, all the time.

My experience on the track with Mr. Essa was over as quickly as it started. It was loud, smoke-filled and tattooed a why-so-serious smile across my face. I came into the day thinking drifting was an exhibition of driving skills designed to convince enthusiasts to buy certain brands of tires. I had a similar attitude as the aforementioned peanut gallery, but that outlook is gone forever thanks to 600 horsepower and a day spent chatting with Michael Essa.

This is a very real form of motorsports that takes careful planning with regards to driving lines and car setup, not to mention tremendous amounts of talent sitting behind the steering wheel. Essa's passion for the sport is mirrored on the faces and cars of the amateur drifters who show up at events like the All-Star Bash, and who arrive in droves to cheer on their favorite racers at Formula Drift events hosted around the country.

These fans are out wrenching on their beloved machines in triple-digit heat just so they can spend a few days on the track trying to get better at a sport they love. Like SCCA, NASA and other racing organizations that see members dedicating time and money to motorsports, these drifting enthusiasts deserve equal status in the motorsports community. Not only is drifting downright inspiring, it is damn right entertaining.

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