“Understand the opportunity.” Formula DRIFT (FD) co-founder and Vice President Ryan Sage spoke these words to the collected hot shoes and team members during the final drivers meeting ahead of tandem eliminations at Round 4 of FD’s 2016 Pro 2 championship. The message was a simple but direct one: grasp the totality of where you are and where you’re headed.
Pro 2 began in 2014 as a bridge into the big leagues – a.k.a. the FD Pro Championship – for pro-am drivers and teams. Currently the feeder series has fewer rounds in a given year than Pro, and the talent in Pro 2 can seem uneven at times (the learning curve is steep), but pound for pound Pro and Pro 2 are very similar beasts. Agreeing to compete in Pro 2 means having an actual racing “program,” one you can pack up and transport to different parts of the continental United States for days at a time. It means having your car in order and being prepared for most eventualities. It means dealing with sponsors, other teams, the sanctioning body, and fans like a mature adult. And most of all, it means figuring out a way to pay for everything.
In other words, Pro 2 gives you just enough of a taste of being Pro you should be able to figure out if it’s something you want to – and can – pursue.
The genesis of this story evolved from seeing a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings disseminated about professional drifting in America. Chief among them is the notion anyone competing in the sport at the highest levels is getting rich (or hell, evening making a living) off of drifting. This could not be further from the truth, at least for most teams. In fact, it’s likely the opposite; if we had to boil it down to one idea, it would probably be “sacrifice” – as in, you better love this sport and really understand what it takes to become a pro, because you probably will be sacrificing a lot to chase that dream.
One of those dream-chasers is our Mark 4 Supra-loving bud RAD Dan Burkett. If you’ve been keeping up, you know we’ve spent considerable time with Burkett, his wife Renee, and the RAD Industries team over the past couple years, sometimes documenting, sometimes just witness to the ups and downs of Pro 2. It requires an iron will and immense vision, both which Dan has in spades. It also requires resiliency, because there will be disappointments and setbacks, and many of them will be unexpected.
We chose the final round of the 2016 Formula D Pro 2 season to illustrate the challenges of “going pro.” Team RAD graciously allowed us to embed with them for the weekend at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park (WHPMP) in Chandler, Ariz., where among the squad’s goals was getting Dan his Formula D Pro license. It is through the prism of a round of competition the real struggles crystalize.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 28TH
9 a.m. – We arrived at RAD Industries in Santa Ana, Calif., to see the team rig packed and ready to make the 400-plus mile drive to Chandler. The team has been going through this routine for the past two years – that is, hauling Burkett’s Supra, spare parts, and crew to most of the Pro 2 rounds, to facilities in places as far away as Florida and Georgia (basically the other side of the country). Having Team RAD on the road means closing down the shop, RAD Industries, and essentially not making money, and obviously the longer everyone is away, the longer the shop stays closed. That financial sting becomes more acute with each stop to refuel, each part that breaks in competition, etc.
Speaking of parts, the trailer is loaded up with as many spare components and tools as they can cram in it. Dan is pretty fortunate when it comes to backups, he and Renee putting in a lot of legwork to set up partnerships that are invaluable to keeping the RAD program afloat. Dan is also fairly OCD when it comes to transporting spares, keeping everything easily accessible; all throughout the trailer’s interior are a small fortune’s worth of replacement parts stored on shelves, within cabinets, and zip-tied to racks – drive train parts, suspension parts, tires, gear sets, fluids, and on and on. RAD even brought along a backup 2JZ engine (which for many teams is a luxury), and unique to Round 4 Burkett decided to bring along his tire changer, mainly because unlike other events the 2016 Pro 2 season finale was not held in conjunction with a Pro round, which generally see stronger logistical support from the many tire companies involved with the series (which is to say the team didn’t know if a tire changer would be available at WHPMP, so they brought their own).
We arrived at WHPMP in the midafternoon, greeted by a stifling Arizona heat that lasted the entire event. After finding their spot in the paddock, RAD team members Jeff Le and Austin Sager unhooked the rig from the truck, saving the complete set up for the next day, and then the lot of us went to go check out the track before heading to our home for the next four days. This was Pro 2’s first go at WHPMP, making course recon absolutely essential.
The rest of the day was spent settling into our temporary off-track environs – namely unloading and unpacking at our rental property and going on a supermarket run. In order to keep expenses to a minimum, measures like making meals and not eating out, and renting a house through a service like Airbnb versus renting hotel rooms, are essential. When they’re on the other side of the US, Team RAD also save money by storing the Supra and trailer on the East Coast instead of hauling it all the way back to Cali in between events. Additionally, Team RAD has in the past made some extra scratch by getting hired to transport competitor cars to rounds; they don’t make a ton of money doing it, but every little bit helps.
THURSDAY, SEPT. 29TH
On the day’s agenda was setting up the team’s paddock spot, making final tweaks to the car, and then the weekend’s first open practice. Everybody pitched in, erecting their E-Z-Up, pulling the car, tool sets, tire changer, etc. out of the rig, and basically digging in for the next three days at the track. There is no slack in the small team of four – everyone is always busy. If it isn’t setting up or tearing down their pit area, it’s working on the car, or working trackside support, or spotting, or running errands. There is rarely a chance to slow down until each day is done at the track.
The constant hustle is a reminder everyone on the RAD team, like Dan, has the same dream: to keep moving forward in professional competition. Core to that success is having the right machine, which for Burkett is a JZA80 Toyota Supra. As we’ve documented, this is no normal Mark IV; pro drift cars are serious racecars, and come with a corresponding price tag. It’s not uncommon to hear of builds exceeding the six-digit cost mark (though you can get away with running a car that costs much less than that), which is an enormous ask even with sponsor support. And that doesn’t even take into account what it took to get to this point (we’re talking about past years of previous cars, replacement motors and other parts, that sort of thing). But Team RAD has several vital partners that help keep the car and crew battle ready – among them relatives of Dan and Renee, making the effort a true family affair.
That afternoon, Dan took the Supra out for the event’s first practice session, with Jeff and Austin posted up in the hot pits. In the oppressive heat, the pair hauled sets of tires, tools, and other trackside necessities in the bed of Dan’s truck, ready to run through tire changes, topping off the fuel cell, and basically monitoring the health of the car. For Jeff and Austin, it’s short bursts of frenzied activity separated by long periods of waiting for Dan to get his lap and return to pit lane.
After the session, Formula D decided to slightly alter the track configuration, placing a manji clipping point halfway through the first sweeping left turn. But Dan and all the other drivers would have to wait until the following day to try out the new line.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 30TH
After two days of setup and prep, Dan and the team’s focus changed to the important tasks at hand – namely putting in a solid performance, qualifying well, and aiming for the podium. Pro 2’s Round 4 of 4 was especially important, being the last opportunity in 2016 anyone would have to score points. And Dan in particular needed all the points he could get.
Entering the event, Burkett was sitting tied for ninth in the drivers’ points table, but only the top eight points earners of the season get an FD Pro license. So his course was clear – qualifying for tandem eliminations was a must, and then going as deep as possible into eliminations. Anything less and the dream of earning a license would likely have to wait one more season.
After another daylight practice session, competitors geared up for the evening’s single-car qualifying. Making matters sketchier was Arizona’s notorious monsoonal weather, which could change from dry and sweltering to wet and humid in a matter of seconds. Luckily, Mother Nature was a nonfactor in qualifying.
Burkett ended up qualifying tenth, with a high score of 82 – good enough to advance to Top 16. With one giant monkey off his back, an even bigger monkey awaited Dan the next day.
SATURDAY, OCT. 1ST
It all boiled down to this, one last tandem eliminations to decide whether or not Burkett and the RAD Industries squad would be in Pro or Pro 2 in 2017. The pressure was palpable in the team’s paddock HQ, but they knew what they had to do. During the day, the guys dropped the transmission to install a fresh clutch and flywheel. Then as day turned to night, Dan hung out with fans as they came by the team’s booth – possibly trying to distract himself from the critical job ahead.
Under the cover of darkness, driver intros and the national anthem marked the beginning of the end of the event. Dan’s first opponent was the plucky Matt Vankirk, who qualified seventh in his 2JZ-GTE-powered widebody Nissan S13 240SX. Vankirk, a Pro 2 rookie, put up a good fight, but wound up going off track on his lead lap, necessitating a competition timeout so his team could replace a belt that had worked its way off. But the damage had been done – with a zero score on his first orbit, there was little he could do to upend Burkett.
In Top 8, Dan kept the momentum up, this time getting past Kasey King in his Lexus SC; it seems King was having rear end issues with his car, problems that led to an untimely complete failure right as the pair lined up for their first tandem. Burkett’s final foe of the night was Nate Hamilton in the Enjuku Racing S13, and while the two matched up well, Hamilton was deemed the winner, thus ending Dan’s night.
While Burkett may not have gotten the podium finish he was looking for, he still made it to the event semifinals and cleared an important hurdle: advancing to Formula D Pro. He finished the Arizona round in fourth place, earning enough points to close the year fifth in the Pro 2 standings. It was a long, tiring, stressful journey, but Dan and the RAD fam kept their eyes on the prize and emerged with something big to show for it: a future in professional drifting.
While Formula DRIFT Pro 2 on many levels can serve as a reasonable facsimile of Pro, it’s worth noting that (A) at eight events per season, Pro’s twice as long as Pro 2; and (B) with 32 qualifiers per round for tandems, the path to advancing at a Pro event becomes still more difficult. In a sense, for as hard as Pro 2 is, Pro is arguably twice as hard.
So you wanna be a pro drifter? We’ve shown you what it takes to get your car up to snuff. And now you know just how much commitment – both time and money – it takes to get a pro drifting program off the ground. As much as this seems like a warning, the truth of the matter is an opportunity like this is only what you make of it. So before you go down that path, learn as much as you can, stay focused, and remember that setbacks are inevitable, but with the right attitude there is nothing that can’t be overcome. Understand the opportunity, and you should come out of it in pretty good shape.