The summer sun doesn't quite set in Latvia. Not until you're there, looking at your iPhone map to pinpoint your current location, do you realize you're almost in Russia... And then you realize Russia is gigantic.
The country is vast, largely uninhabited and has a seasonal anomaly called "white nights" where the sky never actually becomes dark at night. Russia shares this phenomenon with Latvia, and both countries like to live on the wild side. So the car scene was unlike anything we'd ever witnessed before.
For our trip, I'd be accompanying friend and professional Formula Drift driver, Ryan Tuerck, on his quest to compete in Round Three of the Eastern European Drift Championship (EEDC), which would be held at Bikernieki Racetrack in Riga, Latvia.
The hometown heroes, HGK Motorsport, build some of the most insane BMWs in the world and had invited Ryan to drive one in the EEDC. And we discovered that a BMW is the only car to drive in Latvia if you want to be cool. The E36 and E46 M3 is to the Latvian drift scene what the Nissan 240SX is to Japan's drifting roots.
However, Ryan wouldn't be driving a regular M3. HGK's owner, driver and master of speed, Kristaps Bluss, had given him a special car with a custom tube chassis that was built in-house.
"A customer told us he wanted the craziest car ever built," laughed Kristaps. "So we wanted to do something really special."
"The tube chassis wasn't based on anything at all. It was an experiment that worked out very well!" he continued.
Despite its obvious drifting potential, the car wasn't originally built for the sport, but eventually HGK realized it would be perfect for some sideways action.
With the popularity of BMW platforms, they decided the project would look like an E46 M3, but that is the only real similarity between this and the BMW product, aside from its BMW Motorsport limited-slip differential.
The body panels were constructed from fiberglass and can be removed in four pieces, including the doors. It was designed along the lines of the BMW Motorsport M3 GTR and molded at the HGK workshop in Riga.
The tuner then developed the front and rear suspension, using Sachs Racing shocks all around. For drifting, the steering angle can reach 67° in order to maintain lurid slides around tight turns.
The car sits with a 50/50 weight distribution and tips the scales at only 2160 lb. So you can imagine how stupidly quick and agile it is with a big ol' LS3 Chevy V8 under the hood. It cranks out a healthy 505hp and 516 lb-ft with relatively few modifications made to it.
Although this might seem like overkill, the power is needed to spin the wheels, maintain speed through the turns and put on a good show. Remarkably, HGK didn't think it was fully up to the task: "It needs more power to spin 18" wheels, so we run 17s instead," Kristaps explained.
So with a new car under his control, Ryan had a steep learning curve to be competitive in Latvia, having to drive eleven-tenths if he wanted to win.
Showing up to a local track, mixing with drivers who've known each other for years was undoubtedly nerve-wracking for Ryan. Yet the locals treated him like a celebrity, so he was signing autographs, shaking hands and taking photos with both the fans and even other drivers. And while he wanted to enjoy the experience, it simply put more pressure on him to perform well and dominate the field.
After a few practice runs, Ryan looked fast and smooth. "It felt like a proper racecar," Ryan admitted, "but it was set-up differently from anything I'd driven before."
Before each race, the V8 was kicked into life, snorting and roaring through its side-exit exhausts. Once into the fray, Ryan would throw the car sideways, applying full opposite lock and leaving a dense smokescreen behind him, thanks to his Maxxis tires, which were in plentiful supply thanks to his sponsorship agreement with the company.
Returning to the pits for adjustments was a spectacle in itself. All the HGK cars were equipped with air jacks - something normally reserved for touring cars or Le Mans racers. Once the air line was connected, the car was raised unceremoniously on its jacks. Adding to the sight was the ease of access for the crew, who were able to strip the body panels in less than a minute to access the car's main components.
Once the rear wing was removed, the rear body panel was effortlessly lifted off. Similarly, the one-piece front-end was set aside, while the doors lifted off their hinges. Stripped naked, the HGK kit car was menacing, its innards exposed, and to see it drifting in its bare form was very special indeed.
To think these guys fabricated such an epic machine in a small Latvian workshop was baffling, especially when it performed flawlessly and drew attention like no other.
In a field of extremely well-built cars, which wouldn't look out of place in the larger, better financed American drifting scene, Ryan was able to battle his way to second place on the podium for the weekend after a close finish.
"I ran perfect all day," Ryan noted. "In the finals I was matched with Gvido Elksnis but his car broke, so he drove a friend's car. The organizers allowed him a practice lap and he ended up narrowly beating me, but I really think they should have gone one more time..."
Despite the obstacles, second place is a testament to Ryan's skill behind the wheel and, of course, to HGK Motorsport's amazing tube chassis. Unfortunately, regulations mean a vehicle like this (or like most of the drift cars in Eastern Europe) would never be able to compete in the US, but it was fascinating to see how our European cousins approach the sport.
HGK Motorsport Kit Car
Engine 6.2-liter LS376 V8
Drivetrain five-speed manual Tremec transmission
Brakes Wilwood four-piston calipers, 12.8" rotors f&r, hydraulic handbrake
Suspension Sachs Racing coilovers
Wheels & Tires 17x9" BBS Motorsport wheels, 255/40 R17 Maxxis MA-Z1 Drift tires
Exterior four-piece custom fiberglass body
Interior Sparco seats, OMP steering wheel, Wilwood pedal box