Touring car top dogs RealTime Racing gear up to make a run at a decidedly less grippy sport: drifting. We hear from the team--including hotshoe phenom Pierre Kleinubing--about its supercharged S2K hope and prospects for the '07 season.
Love it or hate it, there's little question that drifting has captured the attention of many, from average enthusiasts to media, on up to racing's elite (recall the NASCAR/Mopar/D1 affair last year). It's the sport du jour for the import car crowd, and all that can really be argued is the duration of its trendiness. The more it is embraced by fans and the motorsport community at large, the more likely it will find a permanent place in the landscape.
Among the ranks of drift converts to emerge from the Honda world is the team from RealTime Racing. Many will recognize RTR as one of the most successful names in American touring cars, securing no less than 10 SCCA SPEED World Challenge titles in 20 seasons of competition. What fewer know, though, is the crew's roots in sliding. Indeed, their tenure competing in SCCA began with ice and rally racing in Civics, CRXs, and GSRs.
Given RTR's long history and deep relationship with the big H, it was almost a forgone conclusion the team would end up in an S2000 for its detour into drifting. The AP2 chassis has been lightened, seam welded, and reinforced, and its 2.2L mill receives a healthy dose of boost thanks to a Vortech supercharger, said to make horsepower somewhere in the mid-400s. With the machine, RealTime hopes to continue its foray into pro drift, a journey that began with baby steps in Formula D last season.
At the wheel of the S2K will be one of RTR's surest pilots, Pierre Kleinubing. PK proved his skills to the touring car world by sealing four World Challenge championships since he came to the series in '97, including back-to-back titles in '00 and '01. We're guessing that sliding at high speeds in tandem with another vehicle will provide an entirely new set of challenges for the Brazilian, though. Recently we spoke to Kleinubing and team manager Nathan Bonneau to get a sense of where this sideways ride was going.
Pierre Kleinubing, driver Honda Tuning: What attracted you to drifting?PK: I like being able to go out onto the racetrack and just thrash on a car, tear through tires, and not have to care about the equipment or anything like that. With the World Challenge car, everything is carefully monitored and logged, and we can't push things too hard, especially in testing. Drifting has a very different mentality.
HT: How involved were you in building and setting up the car?PK: I have a bunch of friends in the sport. I've known Tanner [Foust], Sam [Hubinette], and Rich [Rutherford] for a while now, and was able to get a bunch of information from them. I drove the A'PEXi RX-7 drift car around three years ago at some dealer demos with Bridgestone and they had an idea of what to do and where to go with it. I also drove for A'PEXi a little bit [in '06] when RealTime couldn't make it out, mainly at Sonoma and Irwindale. I'm good friends with all the guys at A'PEXi. They've helped teach me how to setup the drift car and what to watch for.
HT: How have your experiences been so far?PK: I really like it. We get better every time out. We've learned a bunch about the sport and all the different aspects, like car setup, driving style, and all that, and overall it's pretty cool. I hope we can do it again next year, what with our busy schedule and the licensing situation. Right now, Formula D is contemplating giving me a license or not. If that doesn't happen, then I might do a few D1 events with A'PEXi, depending on time.
HT: How hard was it to bounce back and forth between drifting and driving for the SPEED World Challenge?PK: The hardest thing is the schedule. This year will be even harder because I'll be driving a car in Grand-Am Cup as well. From March to the end of November, I'll be at one racetrack or another every weekend. I haven't driven Grand-Am in almost 10 years, so I'm excited to get back into it. RealTime has been my gig for the past 10 years, but [driving Grand-Am] is just going to make me that much busier.
HT: What are your goals with the RealTime team for the season?PK: Our goal for World Challenge is to win it again. The series is pretty competitive, and we've been working hard testing the car. We tested before Christmas, took a little break for the holidays, and then we tested in January and February as well to get everything fine-tuned. We have a great team. Hopefully we'll accomplish our goals again. For drifting, we're just looking to go out and have fun. We learn new things every time we go out, and it's nice because there's no pressure on us.
Nathan Bonneau, team managerHT: Who brought up drifting to the RealTime team? How did the idea develop into building a car?NB: Drifting first came into the picture [for us] around '04 or so. There was a drifting exhibition on the road course at one of the touring car events at Road Atlanta, and we had a car there that we were competing with. Our team watched the demo and thought that [it] looked cool. Since we do all the Bridgestone ride-and-drives, Bridgestone was there showing off one of its new tires with the A'PEXi RX-7. They brought a Japanese driver and Pierre [Kleinubing] and Peter Cunningham both rode along in it and drove it a little, and Pierre was hooked. We waited to see if the drifting fad was going to come and go, so we sat back for a little bit to see how things would play out..
At the end of [the '06 season], our crew chief Mike Busacchi and I went out to the final [Formula D] event at Irwindale to walk around and kind of figure out what it was all about and how it would work. Mike knows the RMR guys (Rhys Millen Racing) through rallying; that's where his background is. They helped us out a little bit, [but] other than that it was a lot of reading magazines and seeing what worked best for us.
When Bridgestone decided to bring out the RE-01R as a drift tire, Pierre said "Let's go ahead and do this." We built the car with a little help from our sponsors, like Honda, Bridgestone, Vortech, Brembo, Redline, etc. We already had good working relationships with these sponsors, so it was pretty easy to piece together. It was a quick after-hours project that we could do at the shop. It's not like a full touring car build, since the car is still mostly a street car.
HT: Let's talk about the build. You mentioned that it happened mostly after hours; how long did it actually take?NB: From start to finish, we built the car in three weeks. We got the car in March ['06], stripped it down, and then it sat in the corner of the shop while we focused on the touring car for the following few weeks. We knew we wanted to go to Road Atlanta in May, so we put our heads down to bang the car out and get it completed. The first time we even drove the car was the day before the Atlanta Formula D event at Linear Speedway across the street. We were happy nothing broke! The only thing we've really broken on the car was a set of axles.
We took the time and built the motor right with Mahle pistons and Carillo rods. We built the motor to take the stress. When we went to Atlanta, we didn't know what to expect. We had the car set up a little bit to road race, [but] we found out quickly that wasn't going to work. We made changes to things like toe, caster, and camber, but we [ultimately] found out that we had too stiff of springs, so we started playing with some of the shock settings.
HT: What were your initial goals with your drifting program?NB: Our first goal for Atlanta was not to break. Then our second goal was to make it to Day 2 [by qualifying in the unseeded practice], which we did. When we went to Chicago, we had made a few changes like tweaking the blower, changing the springs out, and we had a little bit higher expectations from there with some experience under our belt. We didn't quite do as good as we could have, but that's the way things go. We were really happy overall with our performance, and I think our sponsors were happy, so that's all that matters.
HT: What are your hopes for the '07 season?NB: We would like to do more than two races, but we have to compare the schedule to the World Challenge schedule. We would like to maybe do New Jersey, maybe bring the car out to California depending on scheduling. World Challenge comes first for us. There's a fine line between what we can and can't do. We don't want to take away from the World Challenge program.
At the end of the '06 season, I went to Irwindale to experience the drifting season more and really see what it was like. Pierre was driving for Bridgestone in the A'PEXi RX-7. He did really well, although he didn't qualify for tandem. Personally I think he was robbed, but Pierre really showed us that he's capable of great driving. We just have to get the car ready for it.
HT: Who has helped the most with developing this car?NB: I know Tanner Foust on a personal level. He's been really helpful. I've known him for a few years from the ride-and-drive programs and rallying, as well as other motorsports events. John [Concialdi] at AEM has helped us a little bit, but all in all it's just been us trying to make a go of it. I think we know where we need to go. We make good horsepower and torque, but not in the right powerband. We also need to make more steering angle. We know how to do it. We just need to make a budget and find some time to. Hopefully, we can show everybody we can do this and fit in with the crowd.
HP: What are your personal impressions of the car?NB: For what we spent on the program, I think we turned out a pretty good car. Some of the parts are a little bit better than maybe what some people would expect to see on a drift car. It's got a full EFI four-channel standalone ECU, and air jacks. The only thing I really would like is a full gearbox in the car, and then we could have some fun! This season has been fun overall. The guys are pretty happy, and I think we have a car and a driver we can be proud of. With a little more practice, we can definitely be competitive