When the organizers of Winter Jam say it is the largest drift event in Northern California, they are not messing around. The most recent edition of the growing festival drew an amazing 357 entries to the world-famous Sonoma Raceway. Those hundreds of cars and drivers had at their disposal a half dozen drifting courses, from super fast and reverse-entry layouts to a donut box. No joke, Winter Jam was huge in 2017.
Bigger than it's ever been, in fact, and if we were to nail down one party for that insane growth, it would have to be organizer Faruk Kugay and his team. If the name sounds familiar, it's because you've seen him competing at the top level of the Formula DRIFT pro championship, but we were just as surprised and impressed with his resume from behind the scenes. Scroll down to read our conversation with Faruk as he talks about the past, present, and future of Winter Jam.
Super Street: How old is Winter Jam?
Faruk Kugay: It's been around since 2011, but it changed formats in 2014. I was hired on by Sonoma Raceway in 2014 and we discussed how Winter Jam would be run, how the program would be run. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, it was only on the ex-Formula DRIFT (FD) course, so it was one course and on average there were about 30 drivers [each year] — it was a fun little local event. [The raceway] hired me on because of my experience in Europe and also running larger scale drift events. In the first year of the new format we had about 150 drivers. The second year was about 180. 2016 was about 220, and  was 357.
SS: So this is the fourth year of the modern era of this event ...
SS: By most standards that's a pretty huge amount of drivers.
FK: I've done a lot of work in Europe. I worked with Drift Allstars [international drifting series] for years, and I also drive and compete in Formula D. Through that history in Drift Allstars I saw a different way of running events. FD runs events as a competition, and most US events don't have that festival vibe. Huge events like the 24 Hours of Nurburgring, or Le Mans, or Gatebil in Europe — people sometimes don't go to see the racing, they just go to hang out with their friends and to be around people who are like-minded. Those kinds of festivals are rad.
SS: So something like Gridlife?
FK: Yeah, similar, I love the vibe [of Gridlife]. One thing we've done differently is keep Winter Jam about drifting — we don't do time attack, we don't do drag racing, we don't do any other car stuff. That's something that is quite unique.
SS: Sonoma Raceway is a pretty big facility, and I know you claim six tracks running simultaneously. How are the property and the road course cut up to achieve that?
FK: When we first started talking about doing a full track event, the idea came up to let people loose and let them run laps of drifting. I quickly shot down that idea because that would make things a complete mess, no one would get any track time. What we did is we took the ex-FD course, used that as a rough idea, and then created other courses around the track. The two classic courses at Sonoma Raceway are Summer Jam and Winter Jam; Winter Jam is the ex-FD course (using Turns 7 and 7a), and Summer Jam is between Turns 2 and 4.
SS: [The Summer Jam course is] where they're coming up over the hill, right?
FK: Right! That's the huge elevation change you see on a lot of videos and photos coming out of the event. You start at Turn 2 and fire up Turn 3, link through turn 3A, and then fire down [Turn] 4. It's awesome — you're at the top of fourth gear fully pinned; it's rad.
I wanted to create something at the iconic Turn 11 [hairpin], which is where NASCAR finishes its race [at Sonoma]. We decided to start at the Start/Finish line of NASCAR's road course and enter Turn 11 backwards; it's another course where you're pinned in fourth gear. You're flying toward a wall that's been made famous by IndyCar and NASCAR. It's a pretty cool feeling.
In previous years, we used to do something called the "Flying 8" at Turn 8. This year I changed it up because these awesome fourth-gear courses are great and good for pictures and experienced guys, but one thing that's key about this event is that it still has a lot of room and a place for grassroots guys and beginners to perform, excel, learn, or just enjoy themselves. This year at Turn 8 we did something called the "Beginner 8," where we created a little course that cuts into [the Turn 9a] Bus Stop. It's a slower course designed to help drivers focus on their entries and technical slow speed switchbacks.
The course in the paddock changes a little bit every year. We've run a replica of Meihan [Sportsland], a famous drift circuit in the southern part of Japan, in the past. This year we ran a much looser version of it, just so people had a little bit more track time.
SS: This is the area right behind the main grandstand at Sonoma?
FK: Yep, the main paddock behind the grandstand. Like I mentioned, we've had a replica of Meihan some years but this year we ran a course that could be considered a little bit more easygoing. Behind the grandstand there is also a donut box, which is a crowd favorite. We set up K-rails and we let people have at it for 30 seconds. People love it. It's a hit with both the drivers finishing up their tires and with the fans. Being able to get that close to the cars getting silly and sideways is always entertaining.
SS: That's kinda interesting that people are so interested in donuts.
FK: You gotta think about it — the whole sideshow, street racing/street drifting scene has been and probably always will be huge in Northern California; this area is the birthplace of sideshows. A lot of local [drivers] come from that. There are some local guys at Duncan Motorsports who made a [steering] angle kit for 5.0 Mustangs, and our program has been a great outlet for drivers to bring new chassis off the streets and onto a racetrack. So think about that — one year you're doing silly illegal things on the streets of the Bay Area, endangering yourself and others - and the next year you're given the opportunity to be responsible and hone your skills in a controlled environment a few miles away.
SS: So do you work directly for Sonoma Raceway?
FK: This is one of the unique things about this program; rather than renting the track like most event organizers do, I'm actually hired by Sonoma Raceway. Winter Jam is an official event held by the racetrack, rather than a track day rental or something like that.
SS: I was just about to make that point — I don't know if you hear too often about a track being so proactive in bringing in the drifting community, and by hiring you they sort of gave their endorsement of the motorsport. They're basically saying this is something they want to have at their facility.
FK: We got some backlash at first from local drivers when we brought the program up to the level of safety we currently run, but people quickly understood we are looking out for them. We are known for running one of the safest drifting events in the United States. At Winter Jam, anyone who is drifting on any part of the road course has to have a fire suit. We require only a single-layer fire suit, but because we have so many drivers and so many people in different places, we want that added [safety]. That being said, [ride-along] passengers are also required to take the same safety measures as drivers, which includes a SA2010 or newer helmet, which is rarely enforced at drift events. Many [drift event organizers] are okay with M2010 helmets, which is a motorcycle helmet. Because of the fire retardant and multi impact nature of SA2010 helmets, we make sure that's present. We require neck braces, legal helmets and fire suits, which can be prohibiting to some, but we really wanted to help the community and in conjunction with that I made a deal with RaceQuip. For $356 drivers get registration [for Winter Jam 2017], a neck brace, a helmet, and a fire suit - and they get to keep all the equipment. Regular registration without equipment was only $150 for two days of driving.
SS: Do you have any favorite memories from this last Winter Jam or any of the other years you've been involved with the event?
FK: We usually have a team tandem competition on Saturdays and a top-16 competition on Sundays; in addition to the craziness going on everywhere on six tracks, we somehow decided it would be a good idea to also organize two competitions (laughs). On Sunday this year, the battle for third place was between a local guy who comes out with his 5.0 S13, Dale Katen, and Formula D Pro 2 driver Crick Filippi. Crick had rebuilt his whole car in the week before Winter Jam — made it twin turbo, and it's an FD-spec car — and Dale was driving the same 5.0-powered S13 that he's been driving for the last four years, and they had the most epic battle ever. It is an example in one battle of what Winter Jam is. It's the ability for a grassroots guy to battle a big dog. It's about the big dog being humbled, staying patient and laying it all on the line against a grassroots guy. It's about driving and people who want to watch and hang out with awesome drivers. It's not really about anything pretentious; it's just about having fun, and being safe while doing it.
SS: There's a "pureness" to it.
FK: Exactly. I think that's one of the reasons it's grown so much. Even when we changed tracks, we've tried to make sure everything is centered around the driver.
SS: As far as you can tell, would you be able to accommodate even more drivers next year, or in the coming years? Is there still room for Winter Jam to grow?
FK: There is room for growth in the event, but as of now not in terms of driver count. I think [in the future] we're going to be capping the number of drivers. This is the first time we hit such a high number. After this year's 357 drivers we decided it's a little too much. [For Winter Jam 2017] we estimated that we would be good at about 260, 270 entries, and then when we got around 300 we thought it was still okay - but 357, that's a tad too much. It's not necessarily the on-track time that's the issue, because we have an amazing staff. To give you an example, we have four tow trucks in service over the two days of the event, so people are constantly being towed off; we have five fire and safety trucks, two ambulances — it's a production. Next year we'll have some bands; I think we're going to develop the entertainment side of the event, but as far as drivers - I think we're going to cap it at about 300.