Smoke, Sun, and Speed: GridLife invades the Midwest

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Cameron Neveu

What started as a ragtag meetup of Michigan gearheads (and their angle-parked Hondas) has evolved into a fully baked festival series featuring a wheel-to-wheel racing, drifting exhibitions, and enough live musical acts to rival any concert lineup. If you’ve ever doubted the future of automotive enthusiasm, look no further than GridLife. It’s what the youth call a “total vibe.”

The first-ever GridLife was held at GingerMan Raceway in 2014. Since then, then event-turned-cultural-movement has spooled into a year-round slate, replete with two music festivals (Midwest and Alpine Horizon in Colorado Springs).

In anticipation of this year’s event at GingerMan Raceway in western Michigan, I packed my camera bag for a day of soaking in the energy of the ever-popular GridLife Midwest Festival. For one summer weekend, the 11-turn, 2.2-mile road course outside of the lakeside town of South Haven transforms into a neon dream of speed and smoke. Thousands of participants converge on the grounds’ undulating pastures, rolling low and loud in Miatas, 3 Series, S2000s, Integras, and other tuned, stanced, and slammed imports. Turn your head and you’re sure to take in some exotics, even the occasional muscle car. The gathering is one of 14 other GridLife events held throughout the year, as the organizers ping-pong around the United States delivering on-track action and off-track entertainment.

Cameron Neveu

“Our mission statement is motorsports inclusion,” says founder Chris Stewart. “We do a lot of different things—touring car racing, time attack, high performance driver education (HPDE), drifting, eSports—with the intention of bringing people closer to motorsports.”

The group of event goers is incredibly diverse and youthful. Upon arriving at the track, the first thing you’ll notice is the average age of GridLifers, which must have been far younger than 30 years old. Unlike other budget-friendly events, which have been hijacked by cosplaying 40- and 50-somethings with deep pockets, GridLife is safely with the kids. The cars, mods, hairstyles, apparel, tattoos, music, food—all supremely authentic and eclectic—give no indication of posers in the pudding.

“This will probably go up on IG, as a blog,” explains one fresh-faced teen, pushing his camera lens in the face of an equally teenage-looking racer. In addition to being seen and heard, car-showers and event-goers are hungry to be liked and subscribed to, and the resulting dialect of this desire makes for a unique style of car-show interaction ritual. Each race car is plugged with more GoPros than a fleet of Aspen skiers, and a swarm of drones chase them around the track. Posting on social seems as necessary as breathing, and the GridLife crew smartly harnesses the content as a form of crowd-sourced marketing. The hashtag ahead of their moniker, splayed all over the event, sets the tone.

The passion is a different flavor, but just as contagious. Watching a group of high school studs drool over a lightly-modified 2022 Toyota GR86—with a diffuser and confident crackle tune—like it was a Ferrari 250 GTO is also a reminder of how our aspirations change over time. As they swarmed the paddock, kids wriggled under propped hoods, waltzed along the vendor midway, or densely packed the spectator hills on lawn chairs and beach blankets.

Friday to Saturday, the track is hot with racing in several different disciplines. After a mid-morning session of HPDE, the burgeoning GridLife Touring Cup (GLTC) series took to the track. The close-quarter combat series boast a rather eclectic mix of participants, thanks to sanction 7a in the GLTC rulebook, which states: “Any production vehicle (mass produced, VIN tagged, or intended for street use) of any year that is sold in any market without major modifications to the chassis, frame, or body is allowed.”

A field of GLTC cars race through GingerMan’s third turn. Cameron Neveu

There are, of course, other calculations to decide how heavy the vehicle is and what type of tire it rides on. “We had been kicking it around the formula for a while,” says Stewart. “We wanted to somehow get a Corvette, a Porsche, a Miata, and a Civic to battle one another, and find a sweet spot between affordability, accessibility, safety, and speed.” Mission accomplished, as more than fifty cars diced for the wins throughout the afternoon session.

Following GLTC, time attack cars took to the track to race the clock, rather than one another. GridLife’s TrackBattle series is the largest time attack series in North America, and frequently sells out the 150-car field each weekend. Unlike Touring Cup, the racers are spread across seven classes from the entry level SundaeCup group to the plus-800-horsepower aero warriors in the Unlimited class.

Just after Y2K, Chris Stewart, a college student in Grand Rapids, Michigan. and his group of buddies started the West Michigan Honda Meet, which was really just a group of friends with homebuilt rides traveling to state parks in the surrounding area. “It all changed when we found out that we could rent a race track,” says Stewart, as the group pooled their money to move the yearly gathering to GingerMan.

Stewart moved to Chicago but never lost the urge to promote events or hang out with his fellow gearheads. “I had so much segmentation among my friends,” says Stewart, who also developed close friendships with those involved in Chicago’s bustling music scene, while he worked as an advertiser. “I was like, how can we get everyone to hang out together?” GridLife was Stewart’s solution.

Rob Dahm’s all-wheel-drive four rotor RX-7 races in front of the GridLife concert stage. Cameron Neveu

Peppered through the racing are drifting exhibitions that showcase the world’s top drift talent. For years, GridLife has lured the Chris Forsberg-types away from the Formula Drift slog for a weekend of laid-back tire-slaying, mixing with the amateurs, delivering ounce of opposite lock to whooping multitudes. Unlike most drift events which only use a portion of the respective track, GridLife’s drift sessions make use of the entire 11-turn layout. Supplying the “same canvas” to drifters and touring cup racers, according to Stewart, allows drivers from each discipline to appreciate on another respective braking zones, approach angles, and apexes. The fans benefit, too, they may take in the spectacle no matter where they are on track.

Once the sun sets, though, those fans rush to the concert stage for hours of live music. “There’s always music at car shows, but it’s either corny or comes across as an afterthought.” says Stewart. “I wanted to change that.” Stewart used his connection in the Chicago music scene to hit their crowds with big name acts from the get-go. The rich roster of talent skews toward electronic and hip-hop. Acoustic acts will have to wait on the bus. No matter. DNMO, KTRL, and other producers with a hatred for vowels, deliver an equally edgy feel to accompany their thrillist fans; electronic bass wobbles rattling the cars’ window in the campground. At night’s end, each Lifer retires to their temporary domicile. And in the morning, they’ll do it all over again.

Cameron Neveu

Sunburnt and sweating, I pack up for the day. GridLife’s culture and community—its “vibe”—are hip and fresh. It’s a track day masquerading as a music fest, and it’s completely, totally invigorating. As the GridLife brand grows, Stewart and crew are cognizant of this automotive atmosphere. They keep a watchful eye on the needle, making sure they don’t scale out of the authentic, inclusive environment they set out to create. Returning to the original site of the first GridLife festival is a good start.

Click through the gallery to see shots from this year’s Midwest gathering.

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