When Michael Essa was 16 years old, he entered his first autocross race and set the fastest time of the day. Since then, much of his life has been dedicated to studying drivers on and off the track while learning as much as he can about mechanics. The end result was him founding two motorsport companies that not only build championship cars for other drivers, but for himself too.
Last year, Michael built a powerful BMW M3 at his shop, Essa Autosport, which propelled him to win the 2013 Formula DRIFT Championship Series. His automotive knowledge, coupled with a sincere do-it-yourself attitude, aligns perfectly with Newegg’s tech and automotive community – which is why we are proud to sponsor him as he defends his title in 2014.
This year, Michael is chasing his second Formula DRIFT championship and Newegg will be there every step of the way. He finished strong in the first round by placing third overall and will try to do even better this weekend in Braselton, Georgia. I spoke with him earlier this week to talk about the event, the sport of drifting, and why he enjoys being sponsored by Newegg.
First of all, can you explain drifting for our customers who don’t really understand what it is?
Basically, it’s a form of motorsport because we use cars. But every other form of motorsport is timed and a faster car is going to most likely win the race. Drifting is more about style and it’s a judged sport. We’re running through a track and we’re using a race car, but it’s more of a freestyle/X-games type deal. It’s completely different than a race.
We’re out there trying to impress the judges during qualifying by driving the best run that they have described that they want to see from us, which is running the proper line through the course with as much angle, as much throttle, and style while still maintaining speed. They don’t want you just driving slowly through the course. They want you to drive as fast as you can but still put on a show at the same time.
How fast do you usually drive while you’re drifting?
It all depends on the track. Texas is the fastest track in our series right now and the entry speed on that track is about 105 miles-per-hour.
Wow! That’s really fast. How long have you been drifting?
I’ve been drifting for six years, five years competitively. I started driving by doing road racing when I was 15.
What made you transition into drifting from road racing?
Well, I love road racing but it’s very inside-the-box. It’s all about getting around the track as quickly as possible for however many laps you need to do for the race. It’s very different from drifting. It’s more mental over a long period of time, hitting all your marks and braking points, and if you’re behind somebody, trying to pass them. You’re kind of just playing out scenarios in your head of what corner they’re not doing well in so you can set up a pass. You have a long period of time to get it all done.
Drifting is very intense for a short period of time. Usually, our runs are only about 45-seconds long, maybe a minute. Everything has to happen NOW. If you make one mistake, you’re done for the weekend. So, it really puts the pressure on and forces you to perform. Even without much practice, you just go out there and lay it down. I like the challenge and it’s a lot of fun.
It took you five years to win the Formula DRIFT Championship series. After winning, do you consider yourself a marked man by the other drivers? Are you the man to beat?
Yeah, I was the first privateer to ever win the championship so there were guys that thought it was a fluke. They’re all competitors who are all gunning for me. Other guys definitely want to take that title back and become two-time champions. But, I like the pressure. I like being in this position. I feel like it forces me to do my best when I’m out there because when I do well, I prove that it wasn’t a fluke and that I deserve a championship.
Well, you did great in Round 1 by finishing third overall. That’s pretty good!
Exactly, it was a great way to start the season by getting back on the podium.
What’s your strategy going into this next round in Atlanta?
My strategy has been not to overthink it. With drifting, you have to make changes during the run depending on the track condition or what the car in front of you is doing. You also have to pay attention to what the tires feel like because they are basically melting and we’re spinning them so fast. When you start the run, the car feels one way, and when you finish the run, the car loosens up a bunch and wants to spin out everywhere. You’re constantly using your experience to force the car to do what you want it to do but make it look smooth for the judges.
With 750 horsepower powering your BMW M3, you have a really fast vehicle. What’s it like driving that thing?
Driving that car is awesome. It’s the most powerful racecar I’ve ever driven. I’ve driven a lot of racecars but most road-race cars don’t have over 500 horsepower. Drift cars are pretty insane, especially in the Formula DRIFT series. This is the pinnacle of drifting around the world so we got competitors from all over Europe, Asia, South America, and Canada. We got this crazy mix of all the best drivers from all around the world that come down to compete. It’s a pretty great series.
Did drifting originate in Japan?
The sport of drifting, as far as being judged, did originate in Japan. They actually started a series out there. I don’t know exactly when drifting started but it was probably the day after they invented the car. Somebody probably slid around a dirt road and thought it was fun. But yeah, the Japanese guys did turn it into a sport.
Are most of the drifting vehicles Japanese or are they German like yours?
When it started here in the U.S., I’d say 99% of them were Japanese. In Japan, all of them were Japanese cars and Nissan’s and Toyota’s were the most popular ones. When drifting came to the U.S. it was the same. The U.S. adopted the Japanese style and tried to make their cars look like their heroes in Japan. Almost all of them were Japanese but then some American cars started showing up in the series because they were easy to get.
A lot of American cars have V8’s from the factory so they are pretty powerful and balanced cars. It made sense to run an American car in an American series so there were a handful of those. Just recently, the BMW’s have been starting to get more popular. They’re already very popular in Europe for the same reason. They’re easy to find out there and it costs a lot of money to import a car from the U.S. or Japan into Europe and vice versa. That’s what makes them popular where they are.
Out here, no one was doing it before and nobody thought it would be a really good drift car or they didn’t want to take the chance building them. You don’t want to build a $150,000 dollar car and not have it be competitive — it’s a big risk to take. If you had a Japanese car, most of them had suspension parts developed for drifting and you could just buy parts and bolt them on and go out there and do really well. With the other cars, you would have to develop them yourself which is just another challenge that puts more weight on your shoulders.
You built your car entirely yourself, correct?
Yes,I built it at my shop.
That’s a very similar work ethic to Newegg’s customers who like to build their computers themselves. Why do you think it’s better to build it on your own and not let another mechanic touch your car?
For a few reasons. I enjoy building cars and anything mechanical. I like starting with a bunch of parts, then modifying them and assembling them in the way I want them to be assembled. I enjoy that part. I enjoy knowing how every piece of the car works so when I’m driving, if there’s something going on, I can say “hey this part’s loose” or “this part’s wearing out” or “if I change these settings I can get more grip and make it more drive-able.” You can’t trust anyone more than yourself. You don’t have to put the blame on anyone else’s shoulders if you build it yourself –it’s your own fault.
Your shop, Essa Autosport, is located in Anaheim. There’s not a lot of places around there where you can race a car or even drift. What attracted you to this area and are there a lot of drifting fans in Southern California?
Yeah, I think in the greater L.A. area there are a lot of drift fans. We have two events down here. The first one in Long Beach and then we finish off the series in Irwindale. Both events are always sold out with over 15,000 people in attendance so it’s great! There are a lot of local fans. In LA and OC, there are no tracks and there’s nowhere to go out and practice. We drive up to the Lancaster/Palmdale area and there’s a racetrack out there that’s inexpensive and friendly to racers and drifters.
Do you ever find yourself wanting to drift on the freeway or streets? Is it weird to drive normal?
I always have thoughts like “Oh man, this a cool road, it’s five lanes wide and has a big sweeper.” If the road was closed, it’d be awesome. But as far as just street drifting, I could see it happening if I was 15-years-old. But the fun doesn’t outweigh the risk.
How do you like being sponsored by Newegg Automotive?
I was really excited talking to Newegg and getting this deal going. You guys have a great company over there and it’s very hands-on. Starting the new automotive side was a great idea and I think it’s going to take off. So far, we’ve had a really great response from the fans out there. A few of them knew who Newegg was and told me they bought hard drives and a bunch of other electronics from Newegg and they were excited to know that you guys were bringing on an automotive side. The feedback has been really great so far.
Do you have any advice for other drifters out there that want to get sponsored like you and possibly turn pro?
For anything you do, whether it’s drifting, BMX riding, or skateboarding, or road racing, it just takes a lot of persistence. It takes a lot of dedication. You can be an amazing athlete and be very good at what you do, but getting sponsored isn’t all about your finishing results, you have to be personable, you have to understand that the sponsors want a big return for either the product or the money that they’re giving you. Working closely with your sponsors — to help them get good results — says good things about yourself and your team. Eventually, the word gets around and other sponsors will hear that you’re a good guy to work with. You also have to be nice to the fans. Even if you have a bad day out there, you still have to go shake hands and sign autographs. At the end of the day, the fans are what allow you to do well in the sport you want to do well in. There’s a lot that happens outside of the competition.
So I guess it just comes down to being a good guy!
Exactly! And if you’re not a good guy, you have to at least play nice when you’re out there! [laughs]
Alright Michael, thanks for your time and good luck in Atlanta. I’m going to go in the parking lot now with my Volkswagen Jetta and practice some donuts.
Schedule of Events
Friday, May 9, 2014 – Practice / Qualifying
8:00am – Venue Open: Competitors & Vendors Only – Main Paddock
8:00am – 6:00pm – WILL CALL: Open for Vendor/Sponsor/Team – Will Call
10:00am – 10:30pm – GATES OPEN TO PUBLIC – Venue
2:00pm – 2:30pm – FD: Mandatory Drivers Meeting – FD HQ
2:30pm – 3:00pm – FD: Mandatory Safety Meeting – FD HQ
3:00pm – 3:30pm – MEDIA: Mandatory Meeting for ALL ‘Hot Area’ Access Credential Holders – FD HQ
3:00pm – 4:00pm – FD: Autograph Signing – GoPro Area
4:30pm – 5:25pm – FD: Open Practice – Group 1 – Track
5:35pm – 6:30pm – FD: Open Practice – Group 2 – Track
6:45pm – 9:00pm – FD: Qualifying – Track
6:45pm – LIVE STREAM: Live Stream Begins – Online
9:15pm – 9:30pm – FD: Mandatory – All Drivers Meeting; Qualifying Results – FD HQ
10:00pm – 11:00pm – FD: Open Practice – Top 32 – Track
12:00am – 8:00am – Clear Grip (Noise Ordinance, No Revving Engines) – Venue/Track
Saturday, May 10, 2014 – Main Event
8:00am – Venue Open: Competitors & Vendors Only – Main Paddock
8:00am – 7:00pm – WILL CALL: Open for Vendor/Sponsor/Team – Will Call
10:00am – 10:30pm – GATES OPEN TO PUBLIC – Venue
1:00pm – 1:30pm – FD: Mandatory Drivers Meeting – FD HQ
1:30pm – 2:00pm – MEDIA: Mandatory Meeting for ALL ‘Hot Area’ Access Credential Holders – FD HQ
2:30pm – 4:00pm – FD: Open Practice – Top 32 – Track
2:30pm – LIVE STREAM: Live Stream Begins – Online
4:00pm – 6:00pm – MAIN COMPETITION: Round of 32 – Track
6:00pm – 7:30pm – “Halftime Break”
7:30pm – 8:00pm – National Anthem / Opening Ceremonies – Track
8:00pm – 10:00pm – MAIN COMPETITION: Round of 16 to Finals – Track
10:00pm – 10:30pm – Trophy Ceremony & Closing – Main Paddock