Its a hot summer night, you just sat down with your family after picking up a few chilli cheese dogs from the food vendor. Two jet cars are spooling up their massive engines creating enough heat to melt little Timmy’s ice cream cone. Time seems to slow down as the drivers and spectators watch the tree… yellow…. yellow… yellow… GREEN.
Since its opening in 1965, Raceway Park of Englishtown New Jersey was home to some of the most notable drag racing events in the United States. Petrol heads from across the nation would gather to witness ten-thousand horsepower finely tuned pieces of machinery launch themselves down the drag strip. Some with enough force to knock the wind out of your chest. Many looked forward to events such as the Summernationals, tuning nights, and monster truck mayhem.
After decades of operation, drag racing at the facility eventually came to an end. With its closing came an onslaught of theories as to why and how such a prestigious facility could end an era. During this period, a new breed of motorsports was brewing in the background.
What many might not know is that E-Town Raceway Park is home to the oldest drifting association in the United States: Club Loose. It is here that the younger generation started to plant the seed for many more to come. From its birth in 2003, Club Loose acted as a home for drivers who wanted to learn about drifting and its robustness. In the early days, Wednesday night drift events were held in a coned off parking lot. Eventually they made their way to the more luxurious road course to find a forever home.
After gaining more and more traction it was time to expand further. Formula Drift, which was previously held at New Jersey’s Wall Stadium, came to an end. There was only one rightful place for it to be held next. Back home. Raceway Park’s drifting seed has now sprouted into something unimaginable by its pioneers. Accompanying Formula Drift is a brand new series.
Raceway Park’s: The Gambler.
On the surface level, drifting can be done by almost anyone with a rear wheel drive car and the ability to break the rear tires loose. Some might say “ehhh… it’s just a rolling burnout.” While they are not wrong, another level of technical driving skill and spatial awareness is needed for competition. These two in combination are what separates your average Joe parking lot skidder from the participants of The Gambler.
With high reward comes high risk. The Gambler claimed its first casualty. During a fierce practice run between Michael Wallis (lead) and Ricky Hofmann (chase), Michael ever so slightly slipped down The Stadium track’s rain gutter. This is a transition from freshly paved asphalt to smooth concrete. Once you fall past the concrete, all that remains is slippery grass. Wallis’Boss kit S14 did exactly this which propelled him into the rugged concrete safety barrier. From this point forward, the tone was set on how unforgiving The Stadium drift track was going to be.
What never ceases to amaze me is how compassionate the drifting community is. For many, after suffering a crash such as what Wallis endured that would be the end of the competition. “Pack up everything and let's go.” Instead it was time to assess, rebuild, and push forward.
By the time I had gotten back to pits, the passenger front suspension was already mostly apart. No time was being wasted in getting back out there for qualifying the following day. Through the help of Drift HQ supplying the exact lower control arm, Nate Richards offering his coilover, and a group effort, the Boss kit S14 was back on all fours by the end of the night!
Friday: Temp Gauge
This is where things began to get very serious. Drivers headed into day two knowing by the end of the night, many would be cut from qualifying. It was time to crank up the heat and get in the zone.
Spending time on grid allowed me to connect with the drivers in a way I didn’t really expect. The atmosphere was very odd. It was easy to tell that some drivers were very loose and felt relatively comfortable with the track layout. On the other hand, some seemed to be in a state of meditation. It was just them and the track. Nothing else. As soon as their run was over and they’d make their way to the back of the line for more. Not saying much, just watching the other driver’s runs. Every ounce of information that could be drawn from your own experiences as well as others would prove to be detrimental.
All day long, duo after duo, the cars continued to launch. With every pass a new piece of knowledge was acquired. Limits were clearly being met by all drivers. After a day of nonstop adrenaline something had to give.
When limits are met something has to give. In a battle between Adam Daniels (lead) and Maximilian Kimlin (chase), Daniels slipped down the track’s rain gutter similarly to Wallis the previous day. Only this time it was on the course’s first turn. Both managed to make it out with minimal damage to their cars. As both got back onto the track, Kimlin continued finishing his trip around the track. On the final turn he went too wide which pulled his Vette’ into the last concrete safety barrier. The damage was enough to render his car immobile, but luckily fixable. Both drivers made it out alright.
The night continued on. Drivers were beginning to hone in on their initiations and perfect their lines to the absolute best of their abilities.
With progression came more carnage from every driver pushing their limits.
Finally, it was time for the chopping block. At this point of the night everyone was worn down from a full day of driving and media coverage. The TireStacks team worked nonstop to provide drivers with the tires needed to continue through all their jam sessions.
As names were being called, one caught my attention. “Wallis!” After everything he and his crew went through to get their Boss S14 back on track, Wallis managed to snag himself a top 32 spot which enabled him to participate in the competition that would come the following day. Stories like this are what many of us in the drifting community live for. With many other sectors of motorsports, you are out on your own. You either have a team, or you do it yourself. Help can be scarce. What draws myself and many others to this amazing community is the positivity and raw sportsmanship. Instead of seeing your competition go up in smoke, helping hands are extended to give everyone that last fighting chance for a fair competition. This might be a grassroots thing, but at the end of the day everyone is there to lay down rubber and has been there at one point or another.
The night before Saturday’s event, I laid awake in my bed thinking about the events that had just unfolded and have yet to. It was a very similar feeling to picking up a new video game and playing it all day long. When the time comes to rest your eyes for the night it's almost as if you’re still playing. The sound of V8s were still screaming in my head, different angles and shots were being imagined. What the drivers were thinking about I am unsure of, but it had to be very similar to what I experienced.
The morning of day three, we were delighted with the unveiling of Steve Misko’s new S14.75 chassis sporting its newly applied ruby red vinyl wrap (by: jokerthis Designs).
The photos don’t do the car any justice. It was truly a sight to see. Keep an eye out at drift competitions in the future.
Walking around, you could see many teams scrambling to repair any damages lingering from the previous day.
After spending some time in pits it was time to dig into the nitty gritty. Top 32 was quickly approaching. Over the loudspeakers, every few run groups you would hear of another accident. First was Thomas Miata’s LS swapped Miata. He clipped the rear of his car on the final turn’s safety barrier which pushed in the entire driver side rear quarter panel along with the nitrous bottle, fuel lines, and battery, almost into the passenger side wheel well.
After talking it over with his crew and sharing some much needed laughs, it was decided that the best course of action was to not attempt a fix in a haste.
At this point, top 32 was only about thirty minutes away. Time was of the essence. It was time to get back on track. Walking away from Thomas’ trailer, the loudspeaker mentions another crash. This time involving Ricky Hofmann. While walking to the far entrance onto the track, Ricky is seen walking away under his own power. He had just suffered a crash similar to those before him. The rain gutter was turning out to be a bigger challenge in comparison to the other drivers. Ricky’s car slipped down, and was sent head first into the same spot Wallis crashed.
In the heat of battle, there is no giving up. Ricky and his crew managed to repair the vehicle just in time for his next battle. Only this time, with an unbreakable look of determination on his face.
So much determination in fact, that he grabbed an inner clipping point with the passenger fender of his car and let it go halfway through the track. While underneath the building at the farside of the track watching this battle go down, everyone was cheering for another go. “ONE MORE TIME! ONE MORE TIME!” Sadly this was not the case, and Ricky was eliminated from top 32 in the most adrenaline inducing event seen thus far from The Gambler.
Battles ensued, slowly knocking drivers out…...
one by one….
It was time for an intermission. Top 32 had been cut down to the top 16. Drivers have been at it all day long and needed to recharge. Back in pits there was urgency and calmness yet again. Vendors are set up by this point, many people are checking out what they have to offer. Drivers who made it to top 16 catch the first break of the day knowing they still have much further to go.
After some much needed downtime…..
It is here. Top 16 starts now!
So far we have gone from qualifying to top 32, top 16, top 8, and now top 4.
The sun has set, lights have turned on, the setting has changed immensely. Those who have made it this far have been pushing it the entire weekend and have no desire to stop. The moment everyone has been waiting for is finally here.
With these final battles, it was very easy to tell everyone was giving it their all. I was witnessing some of the most mind blowing battles i've ever seen . Coming from Club Loose where the stakes are low and things are more about fun, this was in another realm. With money and bragging rights on the line it was now or never.
The End Game
Inevitably, something had to give. In the top 4 battles, namely between Kenric Meyer and Dmitriy Brutskiy. Both were on each other’s doors for the initial run. They reset. Meyer is in front with Brutskiy the chase position. A roar comes out from under the Raceway Park archway and each car roars towards turn one. Into Turn two. Turn three. Door to door, the drivers must make quick decisions. Entering the fourth and final turn, Meyers overshoots his entry. The dreaded rain gutter claims yet another. Not one this time. Meyer and Brutskiy in tandem get sucked into the wall. Everyone goes silent.
Coolant is spewing out of the rear mounted radiator on Meyers car. Brutskiy rushes out to check on Meyers. Both leave their vehicles unscathed.
Meyer’s car is pulled out of the pileup, and Brutskiy’s is driven away on the fork truck.
In a devastating and unexpected way, the competition has ended.
For many, The Gambler was an event of firsts. For Raceway Park, it was the handing off of the motorsports torch if you will. Much of their heritage comes from drag racing and it’s closure does not mean that motorsports as a whole will be shut down forever. For TireStacks, it was a proof of concept and test for countless drift competitions in the near future. With the initial startup coming in the time of a global pandemic, they have endured and will prosper. The Gambler is just the first stepping stone. For drivers, it was an opportunity to put their skills to the test on one of the most unforgiving and unseemingly technical drift tracks on the east coast. Maybe the United States. For myself, this will go down as my first ever attendance at a drift competition after spending nearly two years learning the ropes with Club Loose. Something I am certain of is that this won't be an event of lasts. There will be much, much more to come.
Congratulations to Jonathan Nerren for taking home first, Dmitriy Brutskiy for taking home second, and Steve Misko for claiming the third podium spot at the first ever Englishtown Raceway Park: The Gambler
Thank you to The Napp family for providing us with a location to compete and create moments like these with each other and the amazing community. Thank you to US Drift and Drift HQ for providing everything necessary to keep the event running as smooth as possible. Last but not least, thank you to TireStacks for providing exceptional tire services for everyone at the event ,and for allowing me to shoot with your crew. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store!
For more photos from this event, check out my Flickr album at the link below: