By Eric Colby
Chris Stewart was walking out of a concert in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2003 when a lowered white Honda Civic ES hatchback caught his eye. He was running a car club for import-car owners out of the house he rented while attending college and thought the car’s owner could be a good fit.
The self-taught Formula Drift champion racer Chris Forsberg (and his 2,000hp, Valvoline-sponsored Nissan Altima “Altimaniac” drift car) is among the big-name heroes of car culture to be found at GRIDLIFE events.
“I left a note on this white Civic, and every January we would borrow a buddy’s dad’s stake truck and drive from Grand Rapids to bring imported motors into Michigan,” said Stewart.
It turned out that the owner of that white Civic was Adam Jabaay, who joined Stewart’s club called West Michigan Honda. The two shared a love of modifying and racing import cars and got into road racing and autocross. In 2004, they rented the GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, for the first time, inviting their friends to come out for a day at the track. “If you were trying to get into track racing or autocross, you didn’t have many paths forward,” said Stewart.
They attended other track days held by more “traditional” organizations, but “it didn’t “feel like our people or our scene,” explained Stewart. “We started to organically grow a group of younger individuals to get into the track scene.”
In addition to being car enthusiasts, Stewart and Jabaay had moved to Chicago while working for an advertising agency. Stewart spent many evenings at local clubs enjoying a variety of musical performers.
Oftentimes the simplest ideas can lead to the greatest success. Stewart and Jabaay started talking about how to bring together three elements: young people who enjoy various auto-racing disciplines, car-culture enthusiasts and those with similar musical interests.
The result is #GRIDLIFE, a grassroots racing organization that invites car and music enthusiasts to a track for weekend-long festivals and track days. The events feature a diverse collection of on-track competition, car culture and sometimes a Saturday-night concert all in one place. Think of it as Lollapalooza meets Nitro Circus.
“GRIDLIFE was birthed out of the intersection of my passions,” said Stewart. “How do I create a community that glues together all my friends,” he asked. “It’s not just a track event with drifting in the corner. Our mission statement is motorsports inclusion.”
Overall, GRIDLIFE had 14 events around the country last year, mostly at road courses where drifters get a unique opportunity because they run on the same track as the sporting categories.
“The barrier between road racers and drifting has been there for a long time,” said Stewart. “A road-race driver can look at the brake marker and see where they initiate the turn.”
You can’t deny that the group is growing—and introducing a fresh demographic of enthusiast consumers to the racing-performance and specialty-equipment industries. Last summer, GRIDLIFE celebrated the 10th anniversary of its flagship Midwest festival, and the company held events around the country in 2022. Partners include some of the best-known names in motorsports, car culture and the aftermarket, including MOMO, Valvoline, Falken Tires, eBay Motors, Sta-Bil, Advance Auto Parts and more. The organization has also exhibited at the recent SEMA Show and Performance Racing Industry Trade Show.
GRIDLIFE is the largest time-attack organization with more competitors than any group in the United States. GRIDLIFE held events in California the last two years and another in Texas. In addition, 2022 was the first year that GRIDLIFE held an event in New England, at Connecticut’s legendary Lime Rock Park. The Midwest Festival drew 2,200 people 10 years ago, but last summer 20,000 people attended with well-known EDM performer Kaskayde entertaining the crowd Saturday night. Other noteworthy musical guests have included rappers Waka Flocka and T Pain and alternative-band Taking Back Sunday.
Drift car racer and Youtube influencer TJ Hunt (center) has gained a huge following among the young crowds at GRIDLIFE events.
“Almost all of our events are sold out,” said Stewart. The GRIDLIFE website encourages guests to spend the weekend camping onsite for the full experience. The average cost for a weekend is $550, including track time and the concert. For smaller events, a single track day can cost as little as $110 per day. “We punch above our weight in terms of experience within the category of club racing,” said Stewart. “We’re looked at and compared to a Formula Drift or an IMSA—that’s not what we are.” Between on-track racing, drifting, interactive experiences and the concerts, GRIDLIFE has 17 hours of programming per day during a festival weekend.
Falken has two time-attack classes that GRIDLIFE wrote the rules for, and Stewart said the corporate sponsorships are evolving. “We’re still trying to figure out partnerships. It’s kind of an ever-flowing thing,” he said. “We don’t do a lot of presented-by or series titling.”
Cheralyn Smith, director of motorsports marketing for MW Company, the parent of MOMO, Weld and other brands, called GRIDLIFE the best of both worlds. “One of the things that’s really unique is the motorsports festival,” she said. “It’s nice to have car enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts at one event.”
For MW, which is based in Gardena, California, GRIDLIFE events present the possibility to revive interest in the MOMO name, which is well-known to sportscar enthusiasts, as well as Forgestar, a newer company.
“MOMO is a brand that’s been around 60 years and GRIDLIFE lets us relaunch the brand in the United States to many different consumer bases,” she said. “We’ve seen growth with Forgestar through partnerships with events like GRID.”
Through Forgestar, the company is reaching a new customer base with the drifters. “One of the things we can make is wheels to the spec they need without spacers,” she explained. “We’re finding traction within that area because we offer a product that makes sense to them.”
In addition to product, companies like MW and Valvoline can put their professional drivers in front of their fans in the informal environment that GRIDLIFE provides. Beyond the racing and product displays, there are also other attractions and activations, including ride-alongs and iRacer simulators.
The simulators represent an especially novel immersive-racing concept also aimed at stoking grassroots enthusiasm. According to Stewart, the simulator competitions open motorsports to a gaming audience while instilling valuable track skills. Ultimately, that can build newcomer confidence to join in the racing lifestyle at live GRIDLIFE track days and programs.
Names known to the car-culture world who appear at GRIDLIFE events include Robert Thorne, who also just won the Pro Drift championship, Chris Forsberg and Rob Dahm, who is one of YouTube’s best-known influencers with his quad-rotor Mazda.
There are no membership charges for GRIDLIFE, but drivers must be licensed. The lack of a membership fee is by design; it ensures the racing remains affordable. Stewart said there were 1,600 licensed competitors in 2022 and most ranged from 23–36 years old.
Don’t let the casual atmosphere and the weekend-capping concerts make you think the competition isn’t serious, though. Pro drivers come in to compete in various classes and everyone wants to win. “If you look at any of our events from 20,000 ft. in the air, it would still look like cars going around a racetrack,” said Stewart.
Because Stewart spent time in advertising, he understands the importance of social media and a variety of outlets for people who can’t attend in person. “We livestream and present and broadcast six races per year,” said Stewart. “These aren’t IMSA teams. They are people building their programs. We bring in partners so we can do that broadcast so they can bring in sponsors and continue in the hobby.”
In addition to welcoming myriad racing disciplines, GRIDLIFE is one of the most inclusive motorsports organizations. More than 25% of the attendees and competitors are women, and the group works with LGBTQ organizations like Racing Pride and Out Motorsports.
“We just try to be allies to groups to make them feel welcome,” said Stewart. “It’s not just general acceptance, it’s celebration of those groups.”
Perhaps no one can fully understand the value of the audience that GRIDLIFE draws more than Patrick Daugherty, associate brand manager/sponsorships at Valvoline. In addition to bringing in influencers sponsored by the lubrication giant like TJ Hunt, Forsberg and Dahm, Daugherty gets the viewpoint of GRIDLIFE racers because he’s one of them. Daugherty competes in Street Class with a ’21 Honda Civic Type R. “It’s fun to be one of them and see things from a different perspective,” said Daugherty.
He’s been competing in sports cars since 2008, starting in Autocross, and he has run a time-attack car.
“When we first started sponsoring GRIDLIFE, I was already in time attack and I started competing at the events I could drive my car to,” said Daugherty.
Valvoline kicked off its sponsorship with GRIDLIFE in 2012, and Daugherty says the group “renewed a lot of excitement around car culture and motorsports.” He added, “Their concept to marry music and these automotive festivals is pretty awesome.”
From the Valvoline side, Daugherty said GRIDLIFE events let fans interact with influencers like Hunt and Forsberg. “There will be a huge line to meet with T.J. and he’ll spend however long the fan wants to chat with him,” said Daugherty. “They’re not only getting the GRIDLIFE experience, they’re getting content.”
GRIDLIFE iRacing simulator competitions open motorsports up to a gaming audience, instilling newcomers with the confidence to join real-life track days and other events.
The influencers also give attendees the chance to experience the crazy machines they see on YouTube. Hunt is building a quad-rotor Mazda for time attack and has a huge following on the video-hosting site. Forsberg built the Valvoline-sponsored Altimaniac, a 2,000hp four-seat Nissan Altima drift car. Show attendees can enter a lottery to go for a ride with him at a GRIDLIFE event.
While he couldn’t put a number on the “value” of Valvoline’s participation in GRIDLIFE, Daugherty did say, “Event-wise, it’s the best place for us to gain exposure and brand awareness with our influencers. The events tick all the boxes. It’s engagement, reach and their content is the best.”
Moving forward, Stewart said that GRIDLIFE is looking at electric propulsion and Mountain Pass Performance that caters to vehicles that compete in events like the Pikes Peak Challenge.
“We have so many facets to our world. The competitors make the series,” said Stewart. “All we do is provide structure, experience and friendships.”