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Drift Dreams: A young man, a car and days spent ruining good tires

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
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Drift racing dreams
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Drift racing lives on the edge of motorsports
  • Steve Angerman hopes to join the ranks of drifting pros
  • Landscaper during the week, Angerman races semi-professionally on weekends

Summit Point, West Virginia -- At first blush, it appears Steve Angerman doesn't know the slightest thing about driving.

For starters, he approaches a curve way too fast. Then he sends his Pontiac Solstice into a suicidal slide and the car vanishes in a cloud of smoke, dust, rubber and asphalt.

But before you can punch even the first digit of 911, Angerman seizes control of the car through a deft combination of throttle and brake, shifting and steering and, quite possibly, prayer.

"Dear Lord, Help me in my time of need."

And his car emerges intact, throttle up, headed for the next turn.

Amen.

At age 20, Steve Angerman is a drift-racer with one foot in the sport's shade-tree roots and the other foot in its professional future.

A year ago, Angerman was drift-racing his own car -- a beater -- which friends joke was missing many essential car parts such as windows and fenders. But after a successful race, Angerman was approached by Gary Gardella, owner of Gardella Racing, and was invited to join an organization that has all the accoutrements of a NASCAR racing team -- big-name sponsors, fully stocked parts trailers, mechanics and brand new cars, complete with windows and fenders. Angerman signed on as a "developmental driver," but in a few years, Angerman could be headed to the pro series, Gardella said.

Angerman pinches himself.

"Last year at this time, I was telling a bunch of my friends, I never thought I would be where I am right now -- like a (parts trailer) rig behind me, a car. It's insane" he said.

Welcome to the weird world of drift racing.

To outsiders, drift racing is road rage on Ritalin. Every two-car heat looks like nothing less then a highway duel between two enraged, psychotic drivers drifting maniacally through turns who -- at the next stop light -- miraculously lose their venom, jumping from their cars not to brawl or exchange gunfire, but to deliver high-fives and man hugs.

To insiders, drift racing is "driving reckless," said Gary Gardella, owner of Gardella Racing.

Reckless, but with a caveat.

"These guys are completely driving reckless 100 percent, but they're in control," he said. "If some (traditional race car driver) spins out, he can't save it. If you put one of these drifters into something like that, they're going to save it instantly. It's just amazing to watch these guys drive."

"I've been around all kinds of racing my entire life and I feel they (drift racers) are the most talented drivers in the world," Gardella said.

To Angerman, drift racing could be his future.

Born into a family of racers (his father still competes in Motorcross), Angerman first competed in dirt bikes at age five, then raced go-carts and cars.

"When I was like in sixth grade I saw a (drift racing) video that was on the internet. My friend showed me at school. I was like, that's pretty cool. And (I) saved up my money from then on. I knew I wanted to do it. So I saved my money, got a real old Nissan 240SX, went from there," Angerman said.

A resident of Egg Harbor, New Jersey, Angerman started drift racing when he was 16, getting parental permission because he still didn't have his full driver's license.

The sport stuck.

"A lot of people think it (drift racing) is racing. It's definitely not racing at all. It's like a judged sport," Angerman said. "You throw the car, I guess you call it 'out of control,' and just kind of correct from there and hold your line."

Judges determine winners based on their car-handling ability, their speed through turns and audience reaction. This is a sport that aims to please the crowd.

At the same time, safety is a concern. "There's definitely some bumping. The judges like you to be close, but if you're going to be hurting someone else or really smashing their car, that's not really called for. They'll control that," Angerman said.

One of the advantages of driving for a team: free tires. Drift cars can go through a set of tires every three to four laps. In a recent weekend of drift racing, Angerman's Pontiac went through 24 tires. As a independent driver, Angerman bought used tires; as team driver, tires are on the house.

For the record, Angerman has no tickets, no points, no accidents on his driving record, he said. He said he is a cautious driver on the road, suppressing any urges to fishtail on highway exit ramps.

When he is not racing or preparing for a race, Angerman works for his father's landscaping firm.

After Angerman finished fourth at a recent Hyper-Fest race at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia one recent weekend, crew chief Mike Whitney was upbeat about Angerman's future.

"Steve did excellent today," Whitney said. "This was his first weekend out with the car. Before today, he probably had a total of about six hours of seat time behind this car, and he managed to finish fourth. I'm very happy for his first time performance and how he was able to really handle that car and really put on a show for the fans today."

So, despite the twists and the turns, or perhaps because of them, Angerman said he knows what he wants to do with his life.

"I wanna say I'm a full-time drifter," Angerman says.