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Pro driver Danny George drifts big—in a Mazda Miata

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Las Vegas local driver Danny George goofs around with fans while sitting in his 1994 Mazda Miata prior to running his qualifying races during the Formula DRIFT After Dark event Friday, August 25, 2012, at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Photo: Mona Shield Payne

I’ve never heard anyone call a Miata badass, let alone “almost as badass as you can get.” But the more Danny George talks up the awesome chassis and Porsche-like philosophy behind its perfectly harmonized mechanics, the more I believe. Maybe this radioactive-orange ’94 Mazda convertible with a 400-horsepower Corvette LS engine is that good.

It’s the night before the qualifier for After Dark, the sixth of seven events in the Formula Drift championship series. The Miata is the smallest car in the field, its short wheelbase also making it one of the hardest to drift. And George, a confessed “short kid” at 5’4” and 150 pounds, is the smallest driver. This is his rookie season as a pro, and the local boy intends to blow it up for the hometown crowd at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But first, he intends to take me to the moon.

That’s how his friend Seth Wright describes being in the Miata, going over 70 mph into a curve, rear wheels spinning and smoking as you drift at an extreme angle right at the wall before ripping into the next curve. Wright, who grew up pulling stunts and street racing with George, says the ride I’m about to take gives him the chills.

“The car you’re going to ride in is dramatically lighter than every other car, so the horsepower doesn’t need to be as high,” he says. “My personal car makes half the horsepower of this, and there are moments where I’m like full pucker, scared to death. And then I ride in Danny’s car and it feels like the moon.”

He’s not the only one who warns me. George’s dad/mega-fan Rob, who bounced back from a heart attack (and subsequent surgeries) literally a few days before this, tells me George doesn’t even go easy on his own mother. And the emergency lights are still flashing while a crew cleans up a hard crash by Odi Bakchis, whom I’m told is one of the most consistent drivers in the pool of 54 going into tomorrow’s qualifier.

The only bright side of the crash is that the other drivers are cued up waiting, a perfect opportunity to talk to the man himself. He’s in a custom trucker hat, jumpsuit unzipped. On the walk from the gate, Wright had explained that while George is technically a pro, he has yet to find a major sponsor that would allow him to focus on driving full time. He gets by with support from his dad’s company, the Crab Broker, and a handful of others who believe not only in his skill on the track, but also in his ability to connect with fans. With a coordinated marketing effort called “Who’s Danny George?” involving neon orange shirts and glow-bracelets and a full suite of social media sites, George is on the warpath to let the world know that he, and his sport, are here.

Formula Drift After Dark

“It’s always been a thing, even riding the three-wheeled plastic Big Wheels as a kid,” he says when I ask what prompted him to push the limits of safety and sanity on the asphalt. Of course, my next question is about the car. I mention something about it being the douchey faux-sports car of the ’90s, one the Camaro lovers out there can’t quite stomach. “Those people just skipped the boat because it’s a way better car every day than a Camaro. … It’s not fast, but each gear is matched perfectly with the motor and the steering and the brakes. It’s kind of like Porsche’s philosophy. It’s the package,” he says.

The body of the No. 7 car, at least parts of it, is from the first Miata George bought. He was living in Seattle at the time, driving a Porsche 911. He had always liked Miatas because he appreciates anything fast and compact, so when he saw one for sale online he had to go for a test drive.

“As soon as I hit second gear it was done,” says George, who had the car for years before getting his pro license for Formula Drift in 2010. His wife Jennifer says he spent all of last year getting it in shape for the 2012 series. “I decided to build the baddest Miata ever. It had a different motor and tranny and stuff back then, but it’s now almost as badass as you can get,” he says. “It’s Miata on steroids. … You put sticky tires on that thing it will take out 911s and Corvettes at the local track because they just haul balls.” To be fair, it does have a Corvette engine, but George says that shouldn’t stop Mazda from throwing its weight behind No. 7.

“I’m trying to get Mazda because I have such love and passion for that chassis. And it’s like, ‘Come on, guys. Give me a little bump. I’ll take it to the Promised Land,” George says. “I’ve got so many great ideas—just give me that opportunity to blow it out.”

One reason he may not be getting traction with big-dog sponsors is that drifting is still somewhat under the radar. It originated in Japan and started blowing up in the U.S. about nine years ago. The profile was considerably raised for the general public with the 2006 film, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, but this is the first year Formula Drift events will be broadcast on NBC Sports. The sport is much more of an art form than NASCAR or Formula 1, as runs are judged not on speed but on showmanship and execution, from drift angle and closeness to the wall to the amount of smoke pouring from the tires and extras like light-up wheel wells and headlights flashing in wicked colors. I ask George if it involves a lot of strategy, sizing up a track and calculating.

“It’s kind of more of a feel. This is our first year, so every track is totally new to us. Even Las Vegas, I ran this last year and it’s completely different this year. So the first couple runs are like, let’s just drive the track and putt around and see what’s going on and you start building up. You kind of feel it out,” he says. “As we get more into the season, we’re looking at more things and we’re taking logs of more items, kind of keeping a mental record of what’s going on, what changes—when the track gets 20 degrees cooler at night, what does the chassis do? Is it slick or is it grippy? It’s like NASCAR; the longer you go on that same track the cars get faster because it’s more rubber laid down.”

The time has come for us to lay down some rubber. I’ve always loved roller coasters and going fast, but I’m really hoping George will tell me this is no big deal, that there’s no reason to be nervous.

“Could we go out there and get seriously injured right now? Possibly. I mean, it could happen. I’m not joking. The last guy just smashed his whole car. He’s done,” George says.

“Should I just watch you?” I ask.

“No.”

"Formula DRIFT After Dark"

And that’s that. He straps me into the harness, and we wait. I can feel the engine thrumming, from the soles of my feet up to my neck. The dash has a bunch of glowing buttons I don’t recognize, and right before we pull up to the light someone from George’s crew splashes water on his gloves, which he rubs together and uses to slick the wheel. He tells me to keep my arms inside, just in case.

Five, four, three, two, one. The seconds that follow are a literal blur. Blasting down the straightaway. Pitching sideways. Centrifugal force hitting hard as white smoke and tiny bits of tire fly. The wall. A flash of George’s hand on the shifter. Again. Again. Again. It’s pucker-worthy, but I can feel his control, the soul connection between this pint-sized man and his pint-sized chariot, which does indeed “haul balls.” Lesson 1: Respect the Miata. But it isn’t until I see it from the other side of the wall that I realize its full intensity. No matter how many runs I watch, I can’t quite believe that the cars don’t flip or hammer into the concrete every time. It’s raw guts and raw spectacle.

I sit with George’s wife Jennifer in the stands. Their 2-year-old Jack is with his grandpa as close to the barrier as the Speedway will allow, where a chunk of tire smacks me in the arm before I run for higher ground. She knows the cars and the guys, yelling for them as they drift by. George’s team is a true family affair, but Jennifer tells me the greater drift community is a family, too. The drivers hang out together, share parts when they’re needed and don’t do a lot of posturing. They respect each other. I ask if she ever rides in the Miata.

“As much as I can,” she says, reminiscing about the first time Danny drove with her. “He was totally sideways off one of the intersections. It was the coolest thing ever, and I knew: That man’s the one.”

The next day, George ended up qualifying with the 11th best score, an 82 compared to the 89.5 earned by No. 1 qualifier Fredric Aasbø. But on Saturday, the main event, he didn’t make the next bracket.

“We would have liked to make top 16 … but we qualified higher than any Miata ever, out-qualified a lot of big-name drivers/teams and didn’t throw away the match-up vs. Walker Wilkerson,” George says. “Badass lead run, tapped the wall without crashing and followed well. Just wasn’t enough.”

So it’s back to work, looking ahead to the Formula Drift Title Fight at California’s Irwindale Speedway in October. After that George will have until spring to fine-tune the Miata, though fans can keep up with his adventures through his website. He loves signing autographs and letting little kids sit in the car and start it up. The joy on their faces. During the practice night, his son Jack got restless when we left the stands, tugging on grandpa Rob’s hand and repeating one word over and over: “racetrack.”

So who is Danny George? A guy who does things the hard way because it’s more satisfying. A guy who says, “I want to go huge or nothing,” and means it. A guy who wears Superman undies for luck. Almost as badass as you can get.

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