JR Hildebrand is no stranger to The BLOCK. In fact, we’ve chatted quite a few times with JR over the last year, both about his open-wheel exploits as an IndyCar Driver, as well as his outlook on the 2013 season. But this time we’re putting a bit of a different spin on things. A whole new angle if you will. In 2013 JR is taking on a second gig – this time running with the tire-smoking set in Formula DRIFT – the immensely popular and ever-growing racing sport that focuses on the art of controlled chaos.
Unlike traditional racing, you don’t win a drifting race by crossing the finish line first. Champions in Formula DRIFT are true masters of their craft, having the unique technical capability to control their vehicles as they literally drift around the corners of a racetrack. Racers first qualify in solo runs, where they’re judged on how closely they adhere to the track’s racing line, how fast they enter corners, how well they maintain that speed through a turn, and how much control they command over their drift. After qualifying, racers compete in pairs, taking turns leading the runs to see which driver can follow the lead driver as closely and accurately as possible. The winning driver is determined by the panel of judges and moves on to the next round of eliminations.
If it sounds technical and intense – that's because it is. And yet, when we sat down with JR to get his thoughts on what it's like to be slightly out of control, he walked us through the experience like only he could.
How did you get into drifting?
Well, I’ve been a good friend of Tyler Mcquarrie ever since I went through the Jim Russell Racing School then won the Russell Championship Series in 2004. Tyler was one of my instructors at the school; after I graduated we worked together as instructors there. This was all right about the time that professional drifting was coming over to the States. Tyler’s background is in road racing, but he jumped into the drifting scene right away and has been competing ever since. I always thought it just looked like a ton of fun, and is really a cool way to build and drive some badass cars.
How does a professional IndyCar driver even make his way into the drifting scene?
It definitely wasn’t an overnight decision; it’s been years in the making for sure. I got really interested when guys started drifting the new Camaro a few years ago. Then Tyler picked up the Mobil 1 sponsorship to run a Camaro himself and that opened the door for an opportunity I just couldn’t shy away from. It’s totally different than IndyCar, but honestly that’s a big part of the draw. I’ve always been a huge car guy, so the fact that it’s loud, fast, and sideways, all using a platform that could be driven on the street or the track, makes it especially cool.
So you've taken a Camaro and transformed it into a track-ready Formula DRIFT competition car. Not bad, huh?
Not bad at all! I think it’s almost ideal to be honest. It’s got a relatively long wheelbase without being excessive which helps drivability, it’s got good weight distribution, and it’s burly enough to take a beating. On top of that, it’s got a bowtie on the grille, so that means it has a bitchin’ power plant, sounds awesome, and looks pretty darn sinister.
What’s it like having one of the most powerful COPO Camaro engines powering your drift car? How insane is that? What is it about the Camaro and the 427 COPO engine that attracted you?
You know, I wasn’t expecting to end up with the COPO motor but I was sure hoping we’d get a shot at it. I mean, just think about the history behind that name, the pedigree in it, and especially the 427. I really do think that drifting is along some of the same lines now as drag racing was back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s in that it’s captured the attention of the youth audience, so it’s a pretty cool fit. But the fact that we are able to run this combination, and really be the first to do so in something other than the drag cars, is very special.
Give us a glimpse behind the steering wheel when you're running this car hard and taking a turn sideways.
Man, it’s an awesome feeling when it’s right. Initiating the drift is the most technical part of what you do in the car because you set not only the angle, but also the speed and trajectory of the drift all at once. And usually it’s coming off of another corner where you’re flat-out going the opposite direction. So either just by manipulating the momentum of the car or using the hand-brake for a moment, you set yourself up for the corner and then the fun begins – the car takes a quick ‘set’ so you kind of know it’s not going to over-rotate, and you just lay into the gas.
When you open up that COPO motor it revs incredibly fast, so you have this instant response from the engine to the rear wheels. You can literally feel the rubber shredding off the tires as you punch the thing to full-song. The sound, the smell of burning rubber, the feeling of the car loaded up past 1g, but totally sideways and pouring smoke off the tires… It’s really hard to beat.
Tell us about the differences in preparing for and IndyCar race vs. a Formula DRIFT race.
Actually, in a lot of ways I look at them pretty similarly from a driving standpoint. In both disciplines the margin for error is very small, so you have to be well prepared for what you’re about to do before you practice, qualify or race. I take a fair bit of time reviewing videos and planning my runs before doing them so that when you get out there it’s not all just reacting. Racing is too competitive these days to get away with that.
If you had to drift against another IndyCar driver who do you think would be the toughest competition?
Ha! I think Will Power would be tough, he can definitely drive a loose racecar, and I think he’d have fun with it. I know he quite enjoys the V8 Supercars, and those things aren’t exactly full of grip compared to what we do.
Which Formula DRIFT driver do you think would have the most potential for an IndyCar career?
If not Tyler with his road-racing background – dude is legitimately super fast – I’d say Matt Powers, based solely on the fact that he has the sickest driving suit I have ever seen. If he can pull that suit off, he’d better be fast!
What Formula Drift event are you most looking forward to?
It looks like I can feasibly run at Seattle, Texas, and Irwindale this year, so of those I’m definitely excited about Irwindale, but Texas sort of stands out as one that I think could be really cool also.
How far do you think you can go with drifting? Do you think you’ll be competitive enough to win an event?
Well that is certainly the plan, to become familiar enough with it that I can put myself in a position to win events. Having said that, I can definitely recognize that it isn’t going to be easy and it may take some time. In a general sense, I very strongly believe that drifting has a real future in the motorsports and automotive industries, so it’s a long-term commitment to be involved.
Talk to us about the skills of some of these professional drifters. Are they real racers? Do they actually have racing skills?
I’ll start by saying the simple answer is ‘Yes’, and ‘Yes’, but it’s a little different. So in drifting, there are no stopwatches, there are no checkered flags, and there generally isn’t passing unless someone totally screws up their run. Now I know that's concerning for the traditional race fan because it begs the question: "Are these guys really racers or are they just professional hooligans?" Well I can tell you that they are ultra-competitive when it comes to their craft, but it just so happens that the competition, and therefore the "racing", is just as much against the fans, judges, car, track, and tires as it is against the guy in the car next to you because of how you advance through an event. So it’s just a slightly different breed of racer. I would, however, almost guarantee that if these guys can learn how to deal with oversteer as well as they do, they could certainly do it with understeer and everything in-between equally well in a more standard setting. The driving ability is no joke.
What has impressed you the most about drifting?
I think what has impressed me the most has been the sheer ability of some of the drivers. To see how close they are to each other on track at all times, and still very aware of their surroundings and their car’s attitude is very impressive.
Did you know that Tony Stewart jumped behind the wheel of a drift Car last year for a little fun? If you and Tony ever crossed paths on a track, who do you think would be a better drifter? Now be careful young man, Tony is an accomplished Dirt Track racer as well…
Well I’ve actually heard from a pretty reliable source that I was definitely better my first time driving a drift car than Smoke was, but Tony is for sure a bad dude behind the wheel. I’d love to get out and do some tandem or better yet, three-wide action with him and Tyler. Surely he’d feel right at home with how Daytona and Talladega work these days!
JR, as usual, it’s been great catching up with you. When’s the next time we can see you going sideways in a COPO-powered Chevrolet Camaro? You have our full attention now!
The plan is Seattle in June, but for sure Texas and Irwindale later in the year. But you never know, my right foot gets a little itchy now and then, so if you hear what sounds like a screaming banshee flying by at about 100 mph outside your office window, don’t be totally surprised.
You can catch the full Formula DRIFT schedule at FormulaD.com, and you can learn more about the COPO 427 engine from your local Chevrolet Performance dealer.