When you pull through the gates into Road America, you know right away it's a pro track. The straights are fast, braking zones are heavy, and the walls are unforgiving. Mistakes are not left unpunished here, and one slip through the infamous "Kink" often means pieces of your car will be immortalized in the catch fence. By the end of the weekend, more drivers than I'd like to admit had taken complete losses on their vehicles, but let's start from the beginning...
The season finale for Gridlife unfolded in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin recently at the venerable Road America. A weekend full of Time Attack, GLTC, HPDE and Bracket Battles kept drivers and fans alike busy with action each day, and the historic track provided an absolutely stunning backdrop for the final round of competition in the Track Battle series. With no music festival at this event, all eyes were on the track.
When you're involved in grassroots racing you often spend a lot of time lapping small, local tracks with lots of runoff and margin for error. Pulling into the paddock here for the first time, you're suddenly overcome with a buzz in the air that lets you know this isn't one of those tracks. This place is serious, and everyone knows it. Spinning off backwards into an empty field isn't really an option at Road America. If you lose concentration, you're going to have a nasty shunt. Bring your A-game, and don't blink through the Kink.
New for this year is the Gridlife Touring Cup series, and boy do they bring their A-game. GLTC is the first iteration of a grassroots wheel-to-wheel campaign by the folks at Gridlife. The series is open to production cars built to a 12.5:1 power to weight ratio, which makes for great balanced racing across some seriously unusual platforms. Most of the front-runners are in Hondas and K-swapped Miatas, but there are also minivans, C4 Corvettes, and old Volvos out there going door-to-door successfully. People were going three-wide for last place and the racing was so good. The formula has largely produced close, relatively incident-free racing among a tightly knit group of drivers, and Gridlife even provided their own comp school to supplement the standard SCCA provisional license. Cage your car, pick your tires, get on the scales, and see where you're at. Then go racing. GLTC is the most accessible w2w series in the country right now, and drivers are starting to notice.
The overall GLTC winner for the weekend was Aaron Leichty, piloting his Winning Formula K-swapped Miata to a victory in every race. He also set the fastest time of the weekend at 2:30.097. For a car with 185whp, that's absolutely flying around here. Aaron's approach is brilliant, where his K24 actually makes 222whp, too much for the cars' weight, but is detuned and uses an electronic throttle body, which limits his peak power via TPS yet offers a super flat power curve all the way to redline. While others are waiting for their power at the top of the range, Aaron is using all of his, all the time.
Honda engineer and club racer extraordinaire Eric Kutil found 2rd overall in his Instagram-famous #82 EH hatch, battling it out with Leichty at every turn and posting 2nd place finishes in all four races. Topping off the weekend podium was Julian Drennen is his ultra-fast s2000. We also saw a GLTC cameo from Honda factory driver Tom O'Gorman, who took a break from his hectic TCR schedule to come and pilot whatever he could get his hands on, in this case a C4 Corvette he drove straight to the front of the field in Race 4.
The battle in Unlimited was intense, as always, with Gridlife regular James Houghton and his Integra Type-R defending against the world-class 2012 Civic Si of Will Au-Yeung. I use the words Civic and Integra lightly here. These are production-based cars, but one look at either and you'll realize some serious R&D has gone into both. As a photographer, these are the cars we get most excited about when they come back around, and the ones we worry the most about when they don't. Unfortunately, that worry became a reality for Will Saturday morning when I saw him go by once, and then he never came back around. Losing his engine on the way into T1, he spun into the wall on his own oil at 160mph and made full use of the car's cage and safety equipment.
The impact was enough that the car went airborne before landing back on the track and coming to a rest in a pile of carbon and petrol. Out of the car and into medical under his own power, Will was ok. The car was not. In April, a Porsche 911 GT2 RS set the production-based lap record at 2:15.17. The night before Will's crash, he went 2:11. In a Honda Civic.
And if you think that's insane, the track staff did too. Imagine their surprise when the next day, ol' Jimmy Houghton ran a 2:08 in his k-swapped turbo Integra. The track literally requested alternate data and cctv footage because they couldn't believe the times these little Hondas were setting. Gridlife is attracting some serious ringers.
Hot on the heels of Houghton and Au-Yeung were Unlimited drivers Ben Johnson, who took third in his Audi S3, and Dan Kroll in the wicked fast WRX STI. Fresh off a solid Pikes Peak run, Kevin Wesley and the Wesley Motorsports team were also present, running the Unlimited Challenger and widebody Charger. Although the Unlimited field isn't nearly as deep as Street Mod or and HPDE grid, these are still the cars that pack the fences and get people really excited. Huge aero, crazy power levels, and drivers who want to find out how fast the earth will let them go that day. It's quite the spectacle.
With a significant gap, Jeremy Swenson took the win in TM in his ZR1 C6 with a time of 2:15.623. Swenson has been on a roll lately, with wins at both Alpine Horizon and UMI's King of the Mountain, he is quickly proving that he's the Track Mod benchmark. Everyone is gunning for his pace. Feras Qartourmy had another great showing, putting his Z06 'Vette into second place behind Swenson, and Luke McGrew found time between giving rides to people in HPDE to set a 2:17.864, good enough for third. Both Swenson and McGrew have been keeping sharp over the winter in Gridlife's iRacing league, battling door to door on laser-scanned tracks in the simulator, and it shows. For more information head over to Facebook and search for the #GRIDLIFE iRacers page!
Even with a dominating final weekend, Swenson was unable to overcome the points lead held by McGrew, who made every event and took the overall season championship in Track Mod. With stellar performances from Round 1 at Mid-Ohio all the way through Road Atlanta, McGrew locked down enough points to come out on top and solidify the Viper ACR as a serious track contender with only minimal upgrades. Over stock, Luke's car has only had minor head work and cams to bump up the power a bit. Apparently 575whp wasn't quite enough, it's sitting at 675 now. It's also worth noting that at almost 6'4", I can lock my knees straight in the ACR. It has more passenger legroom than any car I've ever been in. Weird. Tall guys take notice. You don't have to cut the floor pan out like in your Miata, and it's only $120,000 more.
FCP EURO STREET MOD
Street Mod is out of control. In a good way. What once started as a class for those who had streetable cars and just wanted a little more out of them, SM has turned into an all-out arms race with turbos and aero and every gimmick in the book to find time. The joke is you need 1,000hp to even compete, and barring any additional regulation, it's looking like that might actually end up being the case. Imagine everyone's surprise on the forums when Gridlife co-founder Adam Jabbay jokingly posted that all SM cars would have to be plated, insured, and driven to the track from their state of origin. People lost their minds. But alas, that isn't happening...yet, and these Street Mod guys are really throwing down in heavily modded cars you can still kind of technically drive to the track. Maybe.
At the top of the list we saw Eric "Dewey" Dewitt drive his patchwork paneled Subaru Impreza "Boogeyman" to a class win with a blistering time of 2:21.895. Boogeyman has been slowly developing this season, but after some initial teething problems the car is really flying and Dewey is no slouch behind the wheel. Despite all that speed, he still couldn't catch Street Mod season champ Shawn Krebsbach in the overall points, despite putting nearly 3 seconds on him at this weekend's Track Battle. Shawn has been on his game all season in the Evo and regularly beats out cars that he should have no business beating. A number of wins and solid finishes this year put him on top for the overall SM points. Blue By You Racing's Eric Rockwell took third for the weekend in his Mustang with a time of 2:22.694.
Like Unlimited, Street Mod also saw some unfortunate incidents that resulted in the loss of a vehicle, reminding everyone that racing is inherently dangerous and safety must be a top priority. Luckily for Dan Lewis, his no. 357 S2000 was well-prepped for safety when he stayed in it a little too long coming out of T8, finding himself in a tank-slapper, and lost it backwards with enough speed to carry into the bridge wall before the Carousel. Like Will Au-Yeung the day before, Dan also walked away from the incident unharmed because of proper safety precautions, and hopes to be back racing soon in a new chassis.
Street GT was introduced this year to make room for all of the recently-to-market V8 monsters that generally don't need a whole lot of mods to be fast: Camaros, Mustangs, Corvettes, even a few Challengers with their banana-yellow splitter protectors removed! You'll find these chassis' in Unlimited as well, but with way more aero, tire, and power. Here in Street GT they are left relatively stock and often driven to the track.
Topping the charts was season points champion Coby Shield in his 2018 Camaro, setting a time of 2:27.768 around Road America. Close behind was the Cars and Coffee Survivor Racing Mustang of Brian Leazenby and Ron Spear, with a time of 2:29.492. Gridlife Time Attack is open to co-drivers, so a few drivers have teamed up to share cost and track duties, making the competition even more accessible. Third in class went to Chris Bickford and his Corvette, clocking in with a 2:31.167.
Now that Street isn't split into drivetrain categories, it is often dominated by AWD and RWD cars, and last weekend was no exception. Josh Halka took the Street win in his WRX with a time of 2:31.277, beating out second-place finisher Austin Hertel by mere thousandths. Austin laid down a 2:31.283, which was a good half second faster than third place taken by Charles "Spaz" Miller in his Evo 10.
Street class is designed to produce close competition, and also to provide a place to play when you aren't interested in spending tons of money developing your car and designing aero packages. Grab some brake pads and fluid, make sure everything is safe and in working order, and go hit the track! These drivers are close on and off the circuit, and it makes for some very friendly competition and great BBQs after the track goes cold. Lester Epps's Integra was the only casualty (Lester was fine) among the Street class competitors this weekend. Les had the back end step out unexpectedly into the braking zone of Canada Corner, which took him into the wall on driver's left. The verdict is still out on whether the chassis can be saved or not, but it sounds like a mechanical issue caused the initial spin. Lester is an extremely talented driver and instructor, which just goes to show that Road America is not to be taken lightly by anyone. Hope to see Lester back out soon with the Hard Times Racing crew!
New for this season are the Gridlife Bracket Battles, where instead of traditional time attack rules, drivers are pitted against one another in a 1v1 chase to maintain or extend the gap. Whichever driver can close that gap on the chase and open it up as the leader will ultimately move on to the next bracket. This presents an interesting challenge when most TA drivers are used to having an entire session to find their fastest time. With bracket racing, your opponent is hot on your heels the whole lap and if you let them get closer, you're basically done. Drivers are forced to manage their cars' weakness against their opponent's strength, and still put down a fast time under pressure. No time attack event has ever packed the fences with spectators like the bracket battles! Winners in their respective classes were James Houghton, Jeremy Swenson, Shawn Krebsbach, Austin Hertal, and Cars and Coffee Survivor Racing.
As Gridlife closes what was perhaps the most epic season to date, it's easy to forget where this all started. It was some 16 years ago when founder Chris Stewart looked at Adam Jabbay and said, "You know you can rent a racetrack?" And they did! And now we have the nation's most accessible Time Attack and wheel-to-wheel series around. The travelling motorsports circus that is Gridlife found new places to party all over the country this year, from Pikes Peak in Colorado to Road America, and together we all learned one thing: grassroots motorsports is not dead.