Chris Stewart had a striking vision for the next step in motorsports events with a youthful bent: a Coachella kind of weekend gathering that features fast cars – including on-track competitions – dance-centric music and camping.
It’s called #Gridlife, and if you haven’t heard of it, you will.
In 2018, #Gridlife launched its third fest location, in Colorado. Its largest location is GingerMan Raceway in South Haven, Michigan, designed to reach the Chicago/Detroit/Grand Rapids areas. Atlanta is the festival’s third site.
Founder Chris Stewart describes #Gridlife as a “mash-up of all my individual passions and my professional career. I’m an advertising agency ‘expat’, and I was creative director in digital and experiential for some pretty big brands; as a side hobby, I was producing track days.”
Stewart’s automotive enthusiasm began when he was 18, producing a Honda-specific track day in 2004 with current motorsports director Adam Jabaay that organically blossomed into #Gridlife. Founded in 2013, the company currently has four full-time employees, and three part-time. At festivals, it scales up to 160 staff members.
He describes himself as being a “strategic thinker” who observed people enjoying different types of cars and car events: racing, drifting, car shows and more. At the same time, Stewart took note of the beginning of “modern festivalization,” ranging from music fests to food.
“I thought, what if I threw a big party and put the race track at the center, and gave all the different auto enthusiast communities equal footing. That’s a prescriptive look at the #Gridlife concept,” Stewart explains.
While best known for its three large festivals, the fests bring together elements from a wide variety of other events that #Gridlife produces. “The core of what we do is motorsports experiences,” he says. This includes full beginner drivers school High Performance Driving Events, using in-depth classroom instruction and the company’s cutting-edge pioneering observational instruction, designed to “build consistency in the curriculum, so that people really learn at their own pace.”
With beginner, intermediate, and advanced sessions, Stewart says, “We want to show younger enthusiasts there are additional paths forward if they want to remain an enthusiast, in a welcoming environment. We want to make it easy for people to have guided instruction and get on the track.”
According to Stewart, the HPDE instruction “ladders into our competition, the Time Attack Track Battle.” Time Attack has individual racers battling other competitors’ times. “Multiple competitors are on the track, but it isn’t about who gets to the finish line first. It’s about celebrating different grassroots builds, and using the clock as a measure of your performance.”
Time Attack is broken into different classes: the Sunday Cup for slower vehicles, which are almost-stock; street cars with minimal modifications; Street Mod; and the newest addition, Street GT—modern muscle cars. Above these levels: the track modified class, and the top tier, unlimited.
Stewart also introduced the #Gridlife Touring Cup last year, his first wheel-to-wheel series and a growing category. “It’s one big classification…a little bit of a rethink about how grassroots racing can be classed and presented.” #Gridlife livestreams the event, presenting grassroots drivers with pro-level media.
At its festivals, #Gridlife adds drifting into the mix. “Typically, drifting was thought of by hardcore enthusiasts as like figure skating, a bit of an outcast in motorsports. But we believe people only think of it like that when they don’t have context for it. So, we put drifting on the same race track the road racers use, not in a parking lot. It was a big lightbulb moment to bring these communities together.” Today, he sees a lot more overlap between fans of drifters and road racers.
Stewart says the festivals include full music production featuring national touring acts; a full arcade with digital versions of #Gridlife motorsports products – including racing simulators and multiple car shows. There is also the camping experience, and a vendors’ midway, as well as a partners’ program that allows brands to partner with the drivers that can best represent their products.
“We cater to a lot of different audiences at the festivals, with 17-hours of programming per day,” Stewart says. The longest of the three is the Midwest event, which runs Thursday-Sunday; Colorado and Atlanta start Fridays.
Musical acts are primarily electronic and hip hop; the event has hosted other genres including punk rock. At GingerMan, there are three stages and up to 25 artists.
Racing drivers have exceeded the events’ capacities, and are now cut back to a maximum of 320 in the Midwest. At track day events, Stewart sees about 220 participants, with the drivers’ wait list getting longer annually.
#Gridlife intentionally doesn’t offer prize money because “it can tarnish the fun-first attributes of our events.” It does offer elaborate winners trophies. “We focus on the idea that ‘there is no us and them.’ We have a ton of pro drivers, especially on the drift side, but everyone’s together, there’s not a pro paddock and a ‘Plain Joe’ paddock. We’re cognizant of presenting things as attainable.”
In terms of attendance, the Midwest is at capacity; Stewart feels the Colorado Springs event, held at Pikes Peak Raceway, will be his next big push. “We believe we can grow double digits, year after year, there.”
The company just wrapped year-four in Atlanta, and is undecided as to whether to continue in that market, with opportunities to explore in the Northeast and on the West Coast.
“We’re going to take some festival elements and apply them to some of our track experiences,” Stewart says. “Maybe a car show or camping element becomes a part of the non-festival events.” Other plans include continuing to build the Colorado event, adding off-road to the format. In 2018, off-grid/off-road excursion day trips were a success, as were a geocaching digital scavenger hunt, and an overland camping section. And finally: “We’re looking at bringing more of our comprehensive events to the West Coast, maybe not in 2020, but soon.”