Formula D's Ryan Sage and Jim Liaw are the masterminds and brains behind the highly successful Formula D series. They are both pioneers in their own rights and have been involved in the sport compact automotive industry long before drifting was even born. We had a chance to catch up with them to receive some insight on what they've gone through, what they are doing now and where they plan on heading in the near future.
Tunerzine.com: Hey guys, how did you all get into the industry and what were your first cars? What were your first jobs within the industry?
Ryan Sage: My first job in this industry was had by running into one of the founders of Hot Import Nights on the slopes of North Lake Tahoe where in 1999. I was living there, just snowboarding and having fun at the time. I had met him before, but when I ran into him in Tahoe it provoked my first job which was a marketing position at Vision Entertainment (Parent company to HIN). I moved to So. CA and took position there and started what has now been close to 10 years in the industry. My first car, like a lot of us, was a Honda Civic. I was a proud owner of one of the first Civic's with a conversion front end. Boy that was a long time ago.
Jim Liaw: Saw a 1991 BMW M3 (E30) when I was 15 and fell in love with cars ever since. My first car was a 1989 Accord DX. no, really. I guess my first "real" was a '93 BMW 325i. Before I graduated UCLA, I looked for cool internships and got one at McMullen Argus (now Primedia) working on Sport Compact Car and European Car.
Tunerzine.com: Where did the idea come for both of you to team up and to bring drifting to the States?
Ryan Sage: Well I met Jim while working at Vision. Jim is a genius! He is one of great minds we have in this industry. Jim had been recruited by Vision to come and help them develop a motor sports division. We met and were assigned to a project within the company. It was at Vision that Jim and I developed a relationship. It was a year or so after that that we left Vision and started Slipstream Global Marketing which became the company responsible for bringing the first D1 Grand Prix to the US. That was our first taste into the drifting world.
Jim Liaw: We started a small marketing company and came across the opportunity to bring drifting here. We had known about it and started to get into it but it was just good timing that we were capable of doing and the opportunity was there.
Tunerzine.com: Give our readers some insight on all the trials, hurdles and headaches that you guys underwent in your first year of trying to promote drifting on the stateside
Ryan Sage: Geez, that was a crazy time! Speaking for myself, I was just a naive kid that was willing to do anything to accomplish goals and create a work environment that I had passion for. We dealt with a ton of hurdles. From language barriers to different business practices to simply just different ideas of how drifting should be in the US. 2003 was a crazy year for the both of us. We both aged many years in my opinion.
Jim Liaw: Where do I begin. We got crap from people in the tuner scene and outside the scene. So it was just us and a few true drifting enthusiasts taking on the country. People in the scene thought it was a fade. People outside of the scene like traditional racing guys thought it wasn't really racing or that it was easy to do. We had to do a lot of educating about how drifting is a combination of action sports and motor sports and its appeal to the masses. On top of all that we were a new sports league and dealing with the growth of a small company; from finances to technical regulations.
Tunerzine.com: When did Formula D finally get established and what convinced you guys that it was the right time to bring a complete drifting series to the States?
Ryan Sage: Formula Drift was established in 2004. We saw the need to continue the momentum of the first D1GP and since D1 didn't believe that an American series would work and we did, we decided to start the FD brand. We knew American drifters could be supported and could quickly grow their skill to the Japanese level.
Jim Liaw: Formula D was officially announced at SEMA 2003 and our first season was 2004. We produced the first ever D1 competition outside of Japan in August of that year. That event is now in the Tuner market history books. We nearly sold out, go had tons of media coverage and tons of sponsor support. Immediately after the event we went to D1 and offered ideas to extend our relationship and not this enthusiasm and opportunity pass us by. We offered to form a joint venture, partnership, franchise, anything with them. They did not take any of the offers and stated that they are not ready to commit to the US marketplace at the time. So why would Ryan and I let this all slip by. We spent almost a year to make that August event what it was and we intended on continuing to spread drifting. so Formula D was created.
Tunerzine.com: What tactics did you guys have to use to interest the manufacturers to get them involved with Formula D? How difficult was it to convince some companies to come on board?
Ryan Sage: At first it was challenging, but because the original D1GP was so successful, it became known to manufacturers that we could put on an event or series that would return a great investment. Most companies wanted it just as much as we did so they are to be thanked for their foresight and belief in our vision. They are just a responsible for what FD is today, maybe even more than we are.
Jim Liaw: Two main ways. 1. We focused on safety and professional sanctioning. We knew that we were in a "sue happy" country and that we had to work to protect ourselves and our sponsors/partners. I think our over cautiousness made companies feel more at ease when signing on with FD, especially year one. And a testimony to that were us bringing on big corporations like EA Games, Circuit City and Mazda. 2. Our pseudo motto to teams and sponsors "to help promote products sold here with drivers and teams based here". Having unique content is great for a one-time show but to create a foundation for a new sport and to create business opportunities for all, we had to make it make sense here. For example, cars in FD like the Mazda RX8 can be bought here; Castrol Syntec motor oil is used in the cars and can be bought here; tires used on the cars are DOT/street legal and can be bought at places like Tires.com. Why would US based companies participate when the cars they sponsor are not sold here, the drivers that driver them cannot communicate with the media or fans to promote the product and the products on the cars are not sold or available here. Not to be cliché, but we need to make it "win-win" for all parties involved in FD.
Tunerzine.com: What are your thoughts on the additional drifting series throughout the country? How do you guys feel about the grassroots events?
Ryan Sage: Well the fact is the there are not two NFL's, not two NBA's, certainly not two MLB's so there should not be two professional, high level drifting championships. History has shown us that two of the exact same thing results in dissent, confusion, dilution and ultimately death. The constant battle between Champ Car and IRL is a great example of this. Equally, the destruction of import drag racing has shown everyone in this industry why that formula will not work. I think Formula Drift has benefited greatly from people having learned from the mistakes of others. Grassroots events are great! You need to have a ladder to reach the top.
Jim Liaw: We really can't do anything about other people trying to do business; it's capitalism. But for the health and the long run of the Sport, one and only one top series can exist. Look at open wheel racing and how much it has suffered, to a point where the Indy 500 is not "the" ultimate racing event any longer. Look at import drag racing, it is definitely not where it was 6, 7, 8 years ago. Look at the sports leagues that thrive like NFL and NASCAR. They are the pinnacle, the focal point of their respective fields. The best signal of that is when an athlete is referred to by the media, Jeff Gordon is not a stock car driver he is a NASCAR driver. At the end of the day, we are not wasting our time trying to plot against any competitor but instead we are spending out time making Formula Drift the worldwide leader in drifting.
Grassroots is our future. We have been working hard to establish a ladder system. We have had many discussions with groups like US Drift, Daily Drifter, and Drift Association to develop such a program. I think we are all headed in the right direction but there is still a long way to go.
Tunerzine.com: Do you guys feel that Formula D is slowly becoming unobtainable for the smaller guys to compete in? How are you guys proactively working to keep it fair and competitive for everybody?
Ryan Sage: FD is not becoming unobtainable. What is happening is that the level of drivers with in the series is growing so the gap in competition is widening from the grassroots level to the pro level. However, the ability to obtain a FD license and compete at our events is still very obtainable and accessible. We have events across the country that are ground to get your license and we are seeing new drivers jump to new levels in the ranks all the time. Joon Maeng is a great example of this.
Jim Liaw: It is getting to be more costly, but it is definitely not unobtainable. Look within the field; Hubinette's team budget versus Chris Forsberg's versus Joon Maeng's. It's like night and day. Look at our licensing program; some good examples are Bill Sherman, Tommy Suell and Joon Maeng. Drivers and teams cannot enter FD or drifting with a mindset that, "hey it's new so my chances of success will be higher". You still have to bust your ass and be fully committed to have any success and even then you will still have your bad days. FD's rules are kept as close to "street level" cars as possible. Tires have to be able to be bought in any store. Windshields have to be factory. No full-tubed cars. No chassis mods. Hopefully we are able to balance the "spirit of drifting" while making for a competitive and safe professional environment.
Tunerzine.com: Where do you guys anticipate drifting to be a year from now? How about three years from now?
Ryan Sage: A year from now we will be growing our existing events, strengthening our position on TV, adding more prize money, more media opportunities and bringing higher level of production to the venues. Three years from now fifty percent of our field will be drifting for a living, not a hobby.
Jim Liaw: The next year will be about quality not quantity; building a better fan experience and building more incentives for the teams & drivers. Our job is to build a solid foundation not to make a quick buck and run. We can very easily run a 15 race season but how many teams are able to jump from 7 to 15 events? We have to foster good steady growth. We have to deliver the same show to the fan at Wall as we do to the fan in Seattle or Long Beach.
Then next three years will be about steady expansion, international affiliations/alliances, bigger events, and creating full time career opportunities for drivers and teams.
Tunerzine.com: Can you give our readers some insight on what all happens during the off season? We know that just because there aren't any events going on that you guys aren't out vacationing. What do you guys do during the off season?
Ryan Sage: In the off season we are planning all of the events, recruiting sponsors and developing our marketing campaigns that carry us through the season. It is a non-stop job. Our entire staff desperately needs a vacation! Since I have the opportunity, I just want to say that our staff namely Andy Luk, Bryan Olfert, Steve Choi, Casidi Tanaka, Fred Chang and Medium Giant, Victor and John at ID Agency, Daryl and Belle One, the Judges, Randy Hembrey, Formula Doug and Ryan C are one of the reason FD is where is it at today.
Jim Liaw: You would think the off-season is full of days off and vacations, but it is definitely not the case. We re-evaluate the season from top to bottom. We look at ways to improve. We begin planning for the next season (actually we have already started); everything from venue contracts to sponsorship sales to host hotels and rental car discounts. If you think about it, we end in mid-October, but we have SEMA in early November, then Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years are dead times and now you are back at January, only 3 months from the first event of the 2008 season.
Tunerzine.com: Lastly, what do you guys expect to see from our sport compact automotive industry in the upcoming years? How do you foresee its growth?
Ryan Sage: I think the growth of FD and the sport compact market go hand and hand. As we grow it will grow and vice versa. I see no slowing in most if not all aspects of the industry.
Jim Liaw: I hope our introduction of drifting to the marketplace has brought some spark into the sport compact industry. The sport compact scene like drifting will be growing further and further out a very specific niche and the boundaries will become more and more blurred. This is a good thing. Modifying 240s and Civics will be just as accepted and natural as skateboarding and X Games.
Thanks for your time Ryan and Jim!