The North American Formula Drift Series celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. It has arguably become the world’s top drifting series, attracting competitors from the far reaches of the globe along with big dollar corporate sponsorships from likes of Ford, Mobil 1, GoPro, Falken Tire and the U.S. Air Force. GSR Autosport enters its fifth year in the Series with a brand new car based on the BMW E46 M3. I sat down with President of GSR Autosport, Nick Richards, to discuss their experiences in this fast growing motorsport.

Why run a BMW in Formula DRIFT?

Somehow, I knew that would be your first question. In all honesty, we’ve run road racing programs in the past, such as Grand Am, but marketing exposure for those mid-tier series has really dwindled. Although our roots are in road racing, we’ve found a nice niche with a bit younger and… well… let’s say “hip” demographic that really connects with the drifting culture. The series is as much about appreciating cars for what they are as it is the competition. Since our core tuning business is mostly German cars, BMW made the most sense for us. We’ve had far better marketing success with our Formula DRIFT program than we ever achieved with any of our road racing programs.

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Anyone who follows the series knows that automakers such as Ford, Scion, Mazda and Nissan are all providing factory support in Formula DRIFT. Has BMW offered any support to your team?

Well, no… not yet [smiling]. BMW is a conservative company and they see involvement with drifting as risky to their brand. In a big company like that, risk is not rewarded. As you know, we have some fans within BMW… and they support our efforts… but we can never seem to generate much momentum internally before the idea gets shot down. The reality of the situation is that the drifting fans of today are likely potential BMW customers tomorrow. The drifting fan demographic shows strong future earning potential, so when these fans have the means (say… after graduating from college), many are moving away from imports and into some sort of higher-end performance or luxury European vehicle. We are already seeing this in our core tuning business, as customers coming out of something like an Acura RSX or Subaru WRX and into a tuned BMW 335i or Audi A4. I think the imports are seeing this as well and really working to keep these customers as they move up in price and performance. There is a good comparison between snowboarding in its early years, and drifting today. Snowboarding was somewhat of an outcast sub-culture back when it started, but today’s snowboarding culture is huge, and I bet drifting follows the same path because it is fun and accessible – it’s also much less expensive than most any other motorsport.

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You’ve run three different BMW chassis’ in Formula DRIFT, why all the changes?

It really comes down to necessary adjustments to compete at the highest levels of the sport. We started out in 2010 with an E92 M3 with an M5-sourced power plant, the 5.0-liter V10. It was one kick-ass car featuring one the coolest engines BMW as ever produced. At the time the rules didn’t allow us to move suspension pick-up points so we couldn’t engineer out the anti-squat designed into the five link rear suspension. This limited our ability to get weight transfer onto the rear wheels. As grip and horsepower escalated in the sport we couldn’t engineer the car to be competitive. Recently the suspension rules have changed but we were stuck back in 2010. Engine development north of 600hp on the S85 V10 proved to be pretty expensive as well.

Our second car was the E85 Z4 with a bullet proof M3-sourced S54, 3.2-liter inline-6 with Garrett forced induction. We made a lot of good technical progress with this car but with Diago (Diago Sato) coming over from Japan last year, he redefined what a following run should look like which in turn changed the judging – being close when following become critical to win. Keeping in close proximity of the lead car requires the driver to constantly adjust the angle of the car to control forward acceleration and deceleration, the short wheel base of the Z4 made the car a lot twitchier at low angles and that made it really hard to drive. Of course, that visually doesn’t look as good for the judges. People don’t realize how much grip these cars have, they constantly want to grip up but that’s how we get the speed out of them. The new-for-2013 E46 gives us about 10 more inches of wheel base but shares a lot of mechanicals with the Z4. This should leverage our development efforts with the Z4 but give us a more stable and competitive car.

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What is happening to your old BMW drift cars?

The retired E92 is being reborn as a road racing car that should launch early this summer. In a nutshell, it’s becoming the halo product for GSR Autosport’s E9x Performance Upgrades program. We will also be offering a track day build program we’ve coined “The Ultimate Track Day BMW” – BMW E92 chassis, tuned S85 V10, sequential gearbox, big AP Racing brakes and a good aero package. It is going to be frickin’ awesome! [Laughing] We’ve already got some well healed customers lining up for builds which is filling up fast because we can only produce about four per year within our current facility.

The retired Z4 is being developed to run as a time attack car. We’re targeting about 600 wheel horsepower, which is in essence a de-tuned version of our S54 drift motor and we are working on bodywork in the spirit of the new BMW Z4 GTE ALMS cars. Realistically we are probably looking at a launch sometime early next year.

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What are some of the biggest challenges you face in Formula DRIFT?

Well, money of course — after all, this is racing! Now that we are knocking on the door of the top 10, the competition is relentless. With factory support competitors are really upgrading their programs. We’re seeing big horsepower NASCAR motors and fairly sophisticated testing programs. The financial requirements have really outgrown our ability to support the program out of our day-to-day tuning business. Without a title sponsor and some solid engineering support it might be difficult to continue the program in its current form. We want to stay true to our core European tuning business but it is sure tempting to throw in a thumping American-sourced 800 horsepower V8.

What should we expect from this years’ car?

With any new car one expects some teething pains, regardless of who you are. The engine program basically continues where it left off in 2012, but we are doing some new things with the suspension. We’ve brought on BILSTEIN this year to help us with our suspension development program. Thankfully, their U.S. tuning headquarters are just down the road from us, so we expect things to progress a lot faster than in years past. The car delivers much more steering angle this year, and a bit more front grip, which we hope to balance out by dialing in more rear grip. Thanks to some BILSTEIN engineering support, we’re capturing shock potentiometer data this year which we’ve done as part of our road racing programs but never as part of our drifting program so there will be a learning curve there. We’ve also switched to Yokohama tires this year… and that’s another variable, even though we have a good track record with Yokohama with our road racing programs. I’m hoping by mid-season we can exceed what we are able to achieve with the Z4… and BMW would acknowledge our accomplishments. Yeah, that would put a smile on my team’s face.

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UPDATE: Shortly after this interview, the GSR Autosport team deputed their new car and competed in the first round of the Formula Drift series at Long Beach. This event kicked off the week long string of activities and races that comprise the Long Beach Grand Prix. The GSR Autosport team had a promising first showing, qualifying third and finishing  seventh in the points. Next weekend, they will be competing as one of 16 invited teams to compete for $25,000 in the Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge run as part of Long Beach Grand Prix weekend. Catch Part II of this article when I sit down with Michael Essa, driver and Director of Motorsports at GSR Autosport, to discuss the technical details of the #101 GSR Autosport Yokohama Tire BMW M3 drift car.

[Photos by Larry Chen]