The car goes from zero to hauling ass before I can suck in a breath, engine whining hard and hot like an animal bearing down. Front wheels cranked and rear wheels spinning, we get sideways. Then it’s gas pedal, knifing into position and sliding through the next corner with creamy white smoke pouring off the tires like dry ice. Rubber shrapnel coats the air. Seconds stretch inside the chaos, so I can see Danny George’s hands and feet and sheer will methodically making this Mazda Miata do things that should be impossible.
“Isn’t it so awesome?” he asks when we stop, and it might be the only time I use the word the way it was intended. Not for a taco shell made of Doritos—for an emotion described in the dictionary as a mix of dread, veneration and wonder.
This is drifting, where a driver breaks the back wheels out of traction while maintaining control through a gracefully violent slide. This is the second time I’ve experienced it inside “the beast,” car No. 7 on the pro circuit known as Formula Drift.
FD is one of the rare competitions on the track where speed isn’t king; in fact, it’s only worth 10 points. A 100-point run is about the perfect line (25 points) and mad style (40 points), kissing the wall with maximum angle (25 points) and showing your personality without ever showing your face. In the qualifying round drivers run solo, followed by tandem eliminations where two cars drift side by side.
Born in Japan’s illegal street-racing scene, the larger sport of drifting is blowing up worldwide, and Danny is doing everything he can to pile on the dynamite. Handpicked from the field at a national pro-am championship (where he qualified fastest and in third place but didn’t make the top eight), he was granted his pro license in 2010 and joined the ranks of Formula Drift as a rookie in 2012. Without any big sponsors, he pieced together a budget for fees, parts, gear and sunflower seeds on hauls from his home in Las Vegas to events in Washington and California, New Jersey and Florida. He ended the season ranked 34th, in the middle of the pack. But he qualified for one of FD’s seven events in 11th place, the highest ever achieved by a Miata in the organization’s decade-long history.
His team stormed every track with electric-orange T-shirts printed with a cartoon outline of his face around the words, “Who’s Danny George?” And he made it his mission to connect with the fans, whether in the pit or on social media. He didn’t come close to winning the championship, but he won perhaps the most coveted award FD gives, the Spirit of Drift.
This year, Danny’s goal is to crack a final round in the top 16. Each driver is announced, and he’s waiting for that moment when the crowd will either clap politely or go totally bonkers when they hear his name.
I first heard Danny’s name last summer, in the sweep of news around the FD event at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The rookie was offering ride-alongs, and he took me for a practice lap the night before the qualifier. Veteran driver Odi Bakchis had just obliterated his car. I held my breath from the starting line through the first turn, then felt myself grinning inside my helmet as centrifugal force and the hammering motor and the smoke and the night sky had their way with me. The sensory overload lingered for days.
We talk about that ride on our way to Rosamond, an eye-blink town in the California desert with an international raceway called Willow Springs. This is where Danny and his crew will work out the kinks in the car’s performance before heading to Atlanta for the second round of the 2013 FD season. After April’s Streets of Long Beach opener, he’s ranked 25th. He has momentum heading to Road Atlanta’s track, though he almost failed to qualify there last year. It came down to a final desperate run, and he nailed it.
“That was the first super-drain of emotion,” he says. “I just sat for like three minutes just crying my eyes out. All the pressure of you’re not gonna qualify and it’s your first year and you’re gonna suck—it all just released.”
Behind us on the highway is a chase car packed with Danny’s crew: Julian Lucas (the meticulous one), Steven Heck (the one who loves welding so much he doesn’t care that he’s allergic to metal) and George Kiriakopoulos (the one who flips us off every chance he gets). Riding shotgun with Danny is Kyle LeBlanc, his crew chief and closest friend. The way Danny gushes you’d think Kyle was the car whisperer, from chassis fabrication to motor tuning to wiring. Kyle’s auto shop, DDS Performance, is where the crew pretty much lives, pouring their skills and longing into a shared childhood dream.
“Everybody when they grew up wanted to drive like that,” says Danny, who describes his team as a “super-underdog.” Of course they want the podium, but they understand that there are other ways to get the glory.
“We’re in the least developed car; we have the least seat time; we have the least budget," Danny said. "You know, we’re so small in the scheme of things. There’s still that chance that you do well, but for sure you can go out and be awesome and build the fan base, which is, for me, the raddest part.”
At 30, Danny is still breaking into the elite level. He’s been an amateur drifter for half his life and a junkie for anything with wheels forever, but the race car-driver fantasy always felt out of reach. He works full-time doing sales and delivery for his parents’ wholesale seafood company, the Crab Broker, as well as raising his 3-year-old son Jack with longtime girlfriend Jennifer Thompson. Even with their support, finding the time and money to put together a strong program is a constant battle.
FD officials say operating a top-tier team costs $150,000 to $250,000, chump change in the traditional racing world, where budgets are estimated around $7 million to run a top-20 NASCAR team. As a privateer, Danny has put about $25,000 into the Miata and runs a full season for about $35,000, so finding an extra $500 to make a video takes some doing. Heading into 2013, his budget was severely short. He could have sold his everyday car (and his plasma) or begged his parents for a loan, but he decided instead to call on the people.
A video on savedannygeorge.com shows him in pink-spandex pants with an enormous fake bulge that’s somehow less alarming than the sexy blond wig and shimmery lipstick on his bearded face. He turns to the camera: “Some say the Miata can’t drift ’cause it’s a girl’s car. But this girl—is packing heat.” Backed by sad-violin music, another video explains what the team was up against: This year we’re goin’ big—we got a new chassis, motor with more power and the passion and dream to make this the best season ever. This offseason has been super-tough, trying to find the sponsors, trying to find the money, and it just hasn’t worked out the way we wanted, for whatever reason. So we have five days. … If we’re in, we’re in; if we’re out, everybody gets their dollars back, and we ride off into the sunset.
In five days, fans from here to Europe and Australia gave $16,000 for T-shirts, bearded bandanas, virtual high-fives and a few inches of real estate on car No. 7. Even Tyler McQuarrie, who competes against Danny on the FD circuit, threw down to help him get there. That’s classic drift mentality. Competition is fierce, but if someone needs a part and you have an extra, you offer it every time.
Today, Danny’s car has a digital-camouflage wrap covered with supporters: faces smiling and zombiefied, hair wearing sunglasses, a cat in reindeer antlers, a kid in a Darth Vader helmet, a guy hugging a giant sandwich—all clustered around a decal that says, “We Are Danny George.”
Fans relate to Danny’s tenacity, especially when it comes to his beloved beast. Being so tiny, the Miata has more balance issues and less space for mechanical upgrades than other cars in the field. The chassis doesn’t have as much steering angle. The wheelbase is made to grip, not slide. Danny counters with the Porsche-like mechanical harmony, the agility. But the feel is the thing. He’s 5 feet 4 inches tall, so the compactness works. He says even if Ford offered him a Mustang (the car driven by FD legend and current No. 1 Vaughn Gittin Jr.) he would have to say no.
“The normal for drifting is the Nissan S-chassis, the 240SX,” says Kyle, explaining that as car platforms go, its affordability, availability and aftermarket support make it hugely popular. The setup makes it easier to feel the car and predict its reactions during drift. Someone in a speedhunters.com forum on the S-chassis went so far as to say that those who don’t use it call it the “cheater chassis.”
“If you just jump into one of those—they’re like the universal drift car—and you do good it’s like, you’re doing good just like everybody else is,” Kyle says. “If we do good in [the Miata] it’s like, wow, we really overcame some obstacles to get there.”
Half the drive to Willow Springs is devoted to talking about drifting. The other half covers Howard Stern, twerking, life insurance, Jersey pork rolls, Love & Hip Hop, pink slime, NASA, the real Tom Cruise, relativity, women, the capitalization of education and, of course, Danny’s crew. “You need the team or you’re just not gonna succeed,” he says.
George has an attitude, but when you have two weeks to build an entire car, he’s the one who stays up with you for 10 days straight. He left Florida and FD driver Kenneth Moen’s crew to work with Danny after seeing his rookie performance and bonding with his “little leprechaun.” Julian and Danny have been friends for six years. Julian has a way with all things mechanical, as well as some demons mixed in with his passion. Steven is a new recruit, and the 19-year-old still has major stoke from wrenching on a pro drift car. They work for Kyle by day, but when it comes to being on Danny’s crew, no one is getting paid.
“We all got into drifting originally out at the illegal street races just messing around,” Kyle says. “That’s what keeps bringing us together about it, that it’s still just messing around and having fun.”
The posse rolls up to Willow Springs with the sun right overhead and the air thick with the essence of sunscreen and exhaust. Danny gets his own loop at the back of the raceway, and the ritual begins. A tent materializes. Gear hits the pavement. The crew swarms the car, which has shed 150 pounds from last year. E85 race gas and a nitrous tank cranked the horsepower to 600. And switching to Hankook tires upped the stickiness and that beautiful “cakey” smoke. I recognize the Chevy LS1 V8. It sounds like it’s alive.
I ask Danny if he does anything for luck before a run. He says he always puts his left glove on first. Then I ask George.
George: “Before Danny runs, I put on my beige speedo, rocking a camel toe, and then put my cowboy boots on, and I just keep him calm.”
Julian: “It’s the moose knuckle.”
Me: “Why beige and not orange?”
George: “’Cause it looks like you’re not wearing anything at all. You’ve got the package bulging out of the side of your thigh, and it makes everybody extremely uncomfortable.”
These guys joke around nonstop, but when I ask George what pushed him to leave his former crew to work with Danny, he actually gives me a serious answer.
“He’s a good kid. He’s got a great personality. … A lot of people judge him like, ‘Oh, he’s got a new trailer; he’s got a new truck.’ No. It’s old. ... There’s always gonna be people that are gonna talk down and be jealous or whatever, but he’s got a good heart,” George says. “He’s a good driver.”
Formula Drift has an open-pit policy, so spectators can get to know the drivers, but George says too many of them hide out in their air-conditioned trailers. Danny barbecues with fans, lets their kids sit in the beast, gives out swag and shoots the sh*t. He’s created a strong brand, and no one on his team can figure out why a big sponsor hasn’t bitten. If he could build the sickest car and quit his job so he could drive full-time, who knows what might be possible? If he knew he could wreck the Miata and just buy another, he says he would go even harder.
“We just need one dude who’s like, ‘Just do what you do. Keep doing it, and here’s more money to make it more awesome.’ I know they’re out there. And they’re sittin’ in Vegas in a hotel room. … Are you about to go lose $4 million on a roulette table tonight? Okay, so give this dude 100 grand,” Danny says, laughing.
Danny has his critics in the sport, but he’s easy to root for. Speedhunters.com dubbed him “the people’s champ.” When awards were being decided for the 2012 FD season, from Hardest-Charging Driver to Best-Looking Car, all he wanted was Spirit of Drift. The vote is restricted to FD drivers and crews, who get what that honor means. To Danny it’s the fun, the pure love of driving and sense of community. He actually gets tears in his eyes when he tells me what it felt like to accept the award, high-fiving everyone in sight.
Jim Liaw, co-founder and president of Formula Drift, chuckles at the memory. He says Danny exemplifies the idea of crowds connecting emotionally to a driver. “He’s not winning the championship, but he’s out there, he’s putting it all out, and you get fans that support that,” Liaw says. “It’s a great story of somebody working hard to do it.”
Liaw understands how it feels to be an underdog. FD has a diehard following online and can draw 20,000 fans to a weekend event, but getting traction with major sports media and sponsors is tough. He thinks drifting might still be too new, even though FD’s first series was in 2004. It broadcasts on NBC Sports after the season wraps, so FD has maximized live webcasting, social media and organic, viral YouTube tributes made by talented fans. “I feel that we’re doing our best with what’s been given to us,” Liaw says. “In a way, we’re kinda like the Danny George of racing series.”
A lifelong car enthusiast, Liaw remembers the first time he went to an underground drift party in SoCal. He was 15. Kids caravanned from a roadside Denny’s through an industrial area and under the freeway to a scene straight out of The Fast and the Furious.
“As we come around this bend, literally, there were just hundreds of cars lined up on both sides of the street and people everywhere. So you’d go from darkness to just, what the heck is going on here? … I was in awe,” he says. That visceral energy translates in FD. Liaw says the hurdle is getting more people in front of it. Then it’s up to the drivers to keep them riveted. Some of the fan favorites have never won a purse. “Fans will be into you because they’re into you,” Liaw says, “not because you came with a big logo on the car and you win.”
Danny is counting on that. Despite his goofy-daredevil veneer, he’s a strategist. In addition to building a grassroots brand, he chose to sit out his first season of eligibility so he could have time to prepare the car and himself. Liaw says the sound of the Miata reveals how committed Danny is. “Committed meaning you are full throttle, not holding back coming into your turns, not backing off or breaking too hard. You’re literally calculating how much speed you need; you’re going as fast as you should be going in order to initiate into drift as aggressively but as calculated as possible.”
Aggressively calculated. Comical. A guy who spends hours answering every fan online then pisses off his girlfriend by leaving socks on the floor for the millionth time. If FD allowed music he would make his entrance to Hulk Hogan’s anthem “Real American.” He dreams of buying the 5-acre lot next to his house so he can turn it into a community track for anyone who feels like he does, that cars are their soul. That’s Danny George.
His family hosts a dinner for him the night before the crew leaves for Atlanta. Danny overcooks the steaks and shoots tequila with anyone who’s willing, toasting the challenge to come. His son Jack is cackling with glee as his mom races him around the backyard on a souped-up trike. Jack was at the Speedway when I drove with Danny, yelling “racetrack” at his grandpa until they were standing with their noses right on the fence, feeling the Miata whip past.
Danny has a good feeling about Atlanta, like maybe it’s his time to break into the top 16. The car, crew and vibes are all clicking. Whatever happens, seeing orange in the stands will feel like a win. “I wanna be bigger in the scene than the champion is and win the people’s vote, not the points vote,” he says. “It would be cool to be a champion, but I really don’t give a sh*t about it.” As Kyle says, it doesn’t matter yet.
In Friday’s qualifier in Atlanta, Danny made the top 32 in 14th place—one spot above Daijiro Yoshihara, the No. 1 driver going into the event. Then came his head-to-head runs with Ryan Tuerck. Danny looked dominant in the first run but clipped a cone, resulting in a zero. In the second run Tuerck spun out and called for a review, saying it was because the Miata hit his Scion. Danny admitted to a light touch, though he says the damage Tuerck presented was done before their battle and that video didn’t show anything. The judges ruled that Danny was at fault and gave the round to Tuerck, but the crowd apparently didn’t. When he was announced for the top 16 some people booed, and Danny’s Facebook page was flooded with notes of support, saying he was robbed. At the end of the thread, Danny commented: “We didn’t win, but we Won. Know what I mean?”
If I had an extra 100 grand, I might give it to Danny. Not because it would guarantee that a decal of my face would be on the hood of a championship car. Because I think he would do the most with it of any driver in Formula Drift. And he would make sure the good times rolled downhill to the fans that call him a hero.
“I’m like, dude, I’m like nobody. Do you not know what I do everyday?” he says. “Fake it to make it.”
Before we left Willow Springs, weeks before he got “Tuercked” in Atlanta, Danny drove his truck to the top of a long hill and busted out the drift trike, also known as the “hundred-dollar-awesome-fun-package.” It’s a BMX bike frame chopped at the neck with a fat seat, pegs and rickety wheels. George went first. He didn’t really jack the handlebars to get a good skid going, but I didn’t blame him. The wheels looked like they were about to fall off. Then it was Danny’s turn. He went balls out, sliding the trike like someone was scoring the run. The motorcycle racers at the bottom of the hill scratched their heads as he passed, this maniac on the tricycle from hell, standing on the pegs and waggling his backside as the wheels started to slow. Whatever he’s doing, Danny George isn’t faking it.