Driver Michael Essa shares with us his background in Formula Drift and looks ahead to his new car for the 2013 Formula Drift 10th anniversary season.
After four years of competing at the highest level of competitive drifting (Formula Drift USA), the most common question I’m asked is “How did you get started in such a crazy motorsport?”
Since it’s such a popular question, I thought I’d answer it here for everybody: I started driving in 1996 at local SCCA autocross events, and not long after started road-racing at tracks in Southern California.
I was quickly hooked but ever since my first track day, I’ve always enjoyed over-driving the car. And, I was pretty good at it!
I continued driving with various race clubs and performance driving organizations before deciding to compete in Porsche Owners’ Club events. It made sense – I owned a Porsche race shop, and they have a very competitive group of racers.
At this point, I didn’t know much about drifting but saw that the “Drift Day” group held local parking lot practice events, so talked a buddy into letting me borrow his 240SX.
I’d been “sliding” cars around for years – in the canyons, on the track, in the rain… how hard could it be? Well, I sucked at drifting.
To slide in one direction was no big deal. To get around a sweeper, you just keep consistent throttle and decent steering lock. Well, there’s more to it than that, obviously… You need to adjust your speed, add angle and change direction.
Transitions are difficult: it’s a balance of throttle modulation and steering finesse to coax the car into wanting to change direction, while in a slide. As a result, drifting was the most challenging type of driving I’d ever attempted.
I decided to keep drifting at local events and won a few competitions in my first year. I was then encouraged to try for a pro-am license event, where I earned a spot to compete for my Formula Drift license. And then having qualified second and finished third, I was a pro drifter with a license!
My first competition car was a ’91 Mazda RX-7 with a stock Chevy LS6 engine. It made 360whp/360wtq and was a great car but not competitive. In ’09, most of the Formula Drift teams ran 400+ with some over 700hp (currently, few teams are under 500hp, and some even reach 1000hp) but I managed sixth place at the Las Vegas round in my rookie season, but knew I had to make changes to be consistently competitive.
Why do you need so much power when drifting isn’t a race?” Well actually, it is a race of sorts: Two cars run, one leads, the other follow. Technically, the following car must not pass the leader, but should stay as close as possible. So if the lead car has 800hp and you have 300hp, you get left behind. And the judges no longer consider the power difference any more. It’s a professional motorsport and if you want to compete, you build a faster car.
In 2010, I partnered with long-time customer and all-round good guy, Nick Richards to form GSR Autosport. We decided to showcase our shop’s capabilities by building an E92 BMW 335i for the 2010 FD season. We felt the BMW M5 V10 S85 engine would be a great powerplant for this chassis and the car (dubbed the GSR Autosport 350R) had great potential. Unfortunately, a lack of sponsorship meant we were unable to explore its full potential and decided that the BMW’s suspension design and how way the Formula DRIFT rules were written meant it would be better to building a different drift car.
The 350R is now used for road course duty while we built an E85 BMW Z4 for 2011. The wheelbase was much shorter, allowing it to transition quicker, and the suspension worked well for drifting.
We went with the S54 3.2L M3 engine, adding a Garrett GTX3582R turbo with our own exhaust manifold running and ethanol-based race fuel from Ignite. This combo allowed us to safely make 620whp at 12psi on a stock bottom end for the full season.
The engine was still running great when we pulled it to install a freshly built motor with CP pistons and Carrillo rods. Using the same Garrett turbo, but running 20psi, we’re now making 760whp/650wtq.
After two full seasons with the Z4, we’ve decided to again change things up. I liked the suspension and level of grip, but the short wheelbase had become a disadvantage. So, we’re building an E46 BMW 3 Series for 2013. The suspension is almost identical, but with 10” longer wheelbase. This should help when following cars and to slow the transitions when needed.
With only three months until the first 2013 Formula Drift event in Long Beach, CA,we have our work cut out to complete the car. Follow us here at www.europeancarweb.com as we chronicle the build of the GSR Autosport BMW E46 Formula DRIFT competition car and chronicle the 2013 drift series.