My apologies for borrowing a line from an episode of I’m Alan Partridge for the title of this blog post but it’s a sound-bite that I felt was extremely relevant as I sat in the grandstand at “Round 1: the Evolution” of the British Drift Championship at Rockingham Motor Speedway this weekend. By the end of the weekend I certainly felt like I had witnessed a revolution but, having now had time to look back on the event, it’s quite clear that carefully the considered evolution of an existing formula resulted in what I’m sure most would agree as being the best round of the British Drift Championship to date.
Many are under the impression that I’m not a fan of competition drifting at all and, while I could understand how one would reach that conclusion based on my previous blog posts and social media commentary, it’s not strictly true. Granted, competition drifting with poor organization, bad driving, ugly cars and no vibe can often make me feel like the soul of this sport built on freedom of expression is slowly being crushed, while watching fun-loving grassroots drifters adopt the mentality that their drifting can only be validated by spending thousands upon thousands of pounds in order to compete before subsequently losing their love for the sport is painful and all-too-familiar.
On the other hand, I find competition drifting done right hugely addictive and thoroughly enjoyable. I must have watched the same old YouTube videos of D1SL events in Japan hundreds of times now, regardless of the language barrier, purely due to the high standard of the driving and entertainment factor at what isn’t even Japan’s premier drift series.
At the beginning of 2016, it was announced that the British Drift Championship was under new management, with David Egan and his small yet dedicated team who also run the Irish Drift Championship taking the helm. With limited time prior to the start of that season and with all of the round dates already booked in, the guys were limited with what they could do to reinvigorate a series that was beginning to look inferior in comparison to the aforementioned IDC that David and co had already transformed in recent years. That’s all changed for 2017 though, with the team having spent months putting their seemingly endless list of ideas into action.
I arrived at Rockingham Speedway on Saturday morning with an open mind and the hope that I could sit back and enjoy the event while also trying to remain critical of it.
Saturday was dedicated to the Pro-Am class, with practice, qualifying and the Top 32 battles only being interrupted by an hour of practice for the Pro class. In all honesty, the overall vibe of the event at this point didn’t feel all that different to any other BDC event that I’ve attended in the past. Sure, the sharp end of the battles were absolutely fantastic, with drivers such as Oliver Evans, Mike Walton, Matt Denham and Lee Barker putting in phenomenal efforts (with the crowd getting fully involved and extremely vocal), while visually there were improvements in terms of presentation and professionalism for the event as a whole. However, at no point did I feel that everything I had come to expect from the BDC had been turned on its head.
That was all to change on Sunday.
The grandstand was full, the big TV screen was erected and everyone was ready to see how the new battle format would play out in the hands of some of the best drifters in Europe. The Pro class battles would run with a Top 24 format, while the “One More Time” rule would now be replaced with a single Sudden Death run, with the higher qualifying driver opting to either lead or chase.
The five minute rule had also seen some changes, with drivers only allowed to call for a five minute break once during the entirety of the battles, as opposed to the old rule of being able to call it once during each individual battle. Calling for five minutes would also result in a championship point being docked.
All of these changes were introduced with the aim of preventing the battles from being a long, drawn out affair with numerous interruptions and a lack of flow that has previously led to many a spectator (myself included) becoming bored. I can safely say that the desired effect was achieved, with almost every single Pro battle being highly anticipated and a roller coaster of emotion. I loved every minute of it and, by the sound of it, so did every other spectator in the grandstand.
Crucially though, you could see that the drivers were enjoying it too. Even when they had been beaten, each competitor would leave the makeshift circuit with the biggest smile on their face, thoroughly ecstatic that they’d been able to play a part in such a show. The enthusiasm from the drivers was electric and this only helped to increase the level of palpable excitement in the crowd; if you’re not having fun on track, not many people are going to be having fun watching you either. I myself have never experienced anything like this before at a professional level competition.
Ah, there’s that word: professional. Previously, I found it hard to stomach the term “professional drifter” in a competition where 99% of the drivers using it would be returning to their mundane jobs the following day. Don’t get me wrong, these same drivers haven’t been transformed into fully fledged full-time drifters overnight in the wake of 2017’s championship changes but, crucially, at Rockingham you could actually believe that these guys did this for a living.
Regardless of the standard of driving from a technical point of view (which was, nonetheless, outstanding), the mix of raw aggression and thirst for victory combined with fantastic sportsmanship and professional demeanors resulted in spectators getting behind their favourite drivers. There was shouting, cheering, endless rounds of applause and even people on their feet. I found myself willing on drivers who I had never met before and even supporting some who I had taken a bit of a personal dislike to in the past. None of that mattered here; all I wanted to see was these guys enjoying themselves while they put on the best show possible.
Sure, some drivers need to work a little on their skills in front of the cameras to match the enthusiasm of the commentators and interviewers but I’m sure this will come with time. On the other hand, there are those who are natural born entertainers and clearly relished every moment in the spotlight, with it showing in both their driving and off-track demeanor (Marc Huxley and Oliver Evans are two drivers who immediately spring to mind in this respect).
Something else that became apparent was not just the standard of the cars, but the sheer quantity of money-no-object builds. In the Pro class at least, super sticky tyres and huge horsepower were the norm and, while this has obviously caused some drivers’ expenses to skyrocket, the sheer number of drifters who have stepped up to this level ensured that there were very few (if any) “David and Goliath” style battles.
Normally, I would take this moment to express my disappointment that semi slick tyres and 600 horsepower or so have become de rigueur but, you know what? This was the Pro class at the UK’s premier drifting championship and I didn’t pay £32.50 for a spectator ticket to watch a bunch of cars with 300bhp or less slowly burn through no-name cheapo eBay tyres. I wanted noise, smoke, speed and proximity and, while it sounds clichéd, that’s exactly what I got.
After months of online hype, I went to Rockingham ready to pick apart the new-look BDC and was fully expecting to come home to write a blog post critiquing bad driving, a lack of atmosphere and ugly cars with front wheels poking at least three inches out of the front wings (I’ll save the latter for the next blog post!). At the same time though, I wanted this to work. I could see the faith that David Egan and his crew had in British drifting. They saw a glimmer of hope that many couldn’t and have worked tirelessly to turn around what was quickly becoming a stagnant series into a championship that deserves its title as the UK’s only professional event.
For the first time in as long as I can remember, I‘m excited about the British Drift Championship. I was excited to write this post and I’m even more excited about the next round at Teesside Autodrome.
Don’t get me wrong, the wheel hasn’t been reinvented here. The main ingredients are all still present and correct in the form of rear wheel drive cars, clipping points and judges. Crucially though, the formula has been changed. In the words of Tony Hayers from the aforementioned episode of I’m Alan Partridge: “evolution, not revolution”.
I’ll see you all at Round 2.