I was standing by the barriers at the Inside Clip 1 turn during Formula Drift Long Beach qualifying on Friday when I heard it. A high-pitched, banshee-like shrieking was ripping its way toward the hairpin turn, wafts of acrid tire smoke floating lazily above the stands announcing its progress. All day, I’d heard nothing like it, nothing like the furious, trebly scream that sounded like metal itself was being shorn apart. What the fuck was that?
A second later, the answer screeched into view. It was Darren Kelly’s 2022 Heart of Racing Aston Martin Vantage, arguably one of the coolest cars at last weekend’s race and perhaps the most exciting one on this season’s grid. Though mechanical issues ultimately kept Kelly and the Aston from making the top 32 in order to compete the next day, it’s a car you don’t easily forget.
This was absolutely on purpose.
For Kelly, standing here in Long Beach, California, at the opening round of the FD 2022 season, was a dream come true. “It is very cool to be standing here and driving on the streets that we’ve been watching for over a decade,” he told me in an interview on Saturday.
Though FD here in the United States considers the 32-year-old New Zealander a rookie, his racing credentials are anything but. Kelly’s been drifting competitively for 10 years and he was the 2013 D1NZ Pro2, 2015 D1NZ Pro, and 2019 D1NZ Pro champion behind the wheel of a Nissan Skyline R32, Nissan Skyline R34, and Nissan R35 GT-R respectively. He broke briefly to drive in the 2020 NZ GT3 series—where he was the endurance champion—in an Aston Martin Vantage GT3. And in 2021, he was the D1NZ Pro champion, again in a Nissan R35 GT-R.
It probably goes without saying, but doing circuit driving and drifting are two very different forms of motorsport. “The GT3 stuff is very focused on going as fast as possible, keeping the car as straight as possible and smooth, whereas drifting’s all about driving as hard as you can on the absolute edge in a short course,” Kelly said. “What you’re focusing on as a driver is very different, so none of it seems to catch you out in transitioning between the two.”
But drifting is always where Kelly’s heart has been. He and his team have been planning on attending FD in the U.S. for about three years and tried to get a plan together for 2020, but then you know what happened there. So rather than do nothing for all those months, Kelly and his team “decided to build a new chassis,” he said. “We decided on 2022 being the year that we tried to attend it and that gave us enough time to work out what we could do with this car. Something unique that we could bring up and come out with a bang.”
With my words alone, I cannot adequately explain to you how this thing sounds in person. The noise speared straight through my earbuds and directly into the part of my brain that gives me goosebumps every time I watch the Rohirrim mounted cavalry charge across the Pelennor Fields. It was spectacular.
This Instagram video will have to suffice.
To Kelly and his team’s credit, the Aston was almost a complete surprise to everyone. We’d all assumed he would roll up to his first time at FD in the R35 Nissan GT-R. But, no. Instead, he stayed mum about the car until announcing it on his personal Instagram page on April 1—the same day as Long Beach qualifying. I don’t even remember the last time an Aston Martin raced at FD. For years, amidst the sea of Nissan S15s, BMWs, Chevy Corvettes, Toyota Supras, and Ford Mustangs, only Federico Sceriffo’s Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano “Fiorella” stood out as the lone exotic. Not anymore.
Unlike most of the cars on the grid, Kelly’s Aston Martin began life as a race car and not a production car that was later converted to a drift car. The whole thing is built on a GT4 chassis—one that had sustained a small bit of damage when the team bought it used. (Kelly wouldn’t say how much they paid for it but imagines it wasn’t cheap.) But FD-prepping a GT4 chassis was more affordable, easier, and faster than starting from scratch with a road car, according to Kelly.
Aside from sourcing a road car, which would have been a challenge by itself, the GT4 Aston already came with a lot of fabricated parts—like the doors, door panels, bodywork, and ducting—the team could still use. Additionally, there’s actually a lot of crossover between GT4 and FD requirements; the team could rely on the same suspension mounting points and just had to make sure that the majority of the chassis stayed intact.
And the fact that it already had a roll cage helped massively. “The whole chassis is aluminum, so it’s not like we can just make a cage and weld it in and it’s done,” Kelly said. “So being able to use the factory roll cage has made our job a lot easier in that aspect.”
Still, the conversion wasn’t without its challenges.
“We had to create the steering kit or the geometry kit for the rear, and all the suspension and everything had to be built from scratch because none of that stuff would transition from the GT4 car,” Kelly said. “Then once we built the steering kit, we had to adapt the GT3 front, so it had the bonnet and the guards and the bumper and everything off the GT3 car because it’s so much wider.”
Then there was the bodywork itself. A lot of it is carbon fiber, which is expensive, so the team can’t just change it or cut it up and re-weld it. (Also, it still has to look good.) Nissan S15 panels are probably pretty common; Aston Martin Vantage ones are not. And it’s not like FD is a contactless sport.
“We have built that into the design a little,” Kelly said, meaning the team has looked into how to make things easier and cheaper to repair. “We have a decent amount of area in the front that can be crushed in, and it’s got areas that are weaker than others so that [when] it does crash, it doesn’t do damage to the chassis. We’re going to have to get molds and everything of the bodywork so we can have backup panels because getting [that] stuff repaired or getting replacement parts is impossible.”
Hitting something at FD—whether it’s another car or a tire or concrete wall—is inevitable. It’s not a matter of if but when.
“That’s something that we’ve sort of had to be aware of from the beginning and especially over here,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of tracks with concrete walls that are extremely dangerous, like Irwindale’s high speed and big banks that require massive commitment. It’s not something that I’m worried about, but it’s definitely something you’ve got to be aware of for repairing the car and making sure that we don’t end up out of competition because we can’t run a bonnet or something.”
Drivetrain-wise, the Aston uses an RTS sequential six-speed transmission in the back so the team can alter gear ratios and final drives.
And then there’s the engine. Kelly said when he and his team first hatched the idea of coming to FD, they didn’t want the normal, twin-turbo V8. They wanted something crazy. So they came with an Aston Martin-sourced, 6.0-liter, twin-supercharged V12.
“I said it’d be cool to do a V12,” Kelly said. “We were trying to do that with the [naturally aspirated] engine, but trying to get the horsepower required for Formula Drift, we really need to be up around the 1,000-horsepower mark. Trying to get that out of a naturally aspirated engine is near impossible for reliability. So we decided to go twin-supercharger on it, which allows the exhaust flow to remain the same.”
Twin-supercharging the engine, in addition to the very favorable side effect of being awesome, gives the car “rapid power,” as Kelly put it, and said it even has low-down throttle response because they could tune the boost down from 2,000 rpm. Right now, the engine is making under 700 hp, which, in Kelly’s eyes, is “on the low side.”
But the team has a plan. By the next round—which will be Formula Drift Atlanta on May 6 and 7—it hopes to have a new engine ready to go. That unit will be a 6.8-liter, twin-supercharged V12 that’ll put out between 1,000 and 1,100 hp. “We made a custom crank for the bottom, which strokes the motor to 6.8 liters,” Kelly explained.
It was due to manufacturing and shipping snafus that the team didn’t have that engine ready for Long Beach this past weekend. Leading up to the race, they didn’t get the test time they wanted and didn’t get to finish the car to the level that they hoped for. They got it to a driveable point and then spent the remaining 10 days working 22-hour days to get it race-ready.
“Hopefully we can get it done within the next round or two, but we’ve also got a lot of testing and development to do on suspension and steering,” Kelly said. “If the car’s running and we can put more power into this engine once we get it on a chassis donor, we can turn it up a little bit more. So if we need to run [the 6.0-liter] engine in Atlanta, we’ll do that, and then we’ll have the [6.8-liter] engine in as soon as we can—hopefully, by round three.”
At minimum for the 6.0-liter, though, Kelly and his team want 800 hp out of it and even that would be very demanding. But that’s what he needs for Atlanta because there is a “very steep hill up the track, so it’ll be a lot better there,” he said. “And we’ll have some more seat time, time setting up the car and getting a bit more with suspension development and steering. So [it’s] hopefully going to be a lot more prepared for that round.”
Obviously, drivers participate in FD to win. But a huge part of the series is for the fans. (It’s why all the drift cars have passenger seats.) The spectacle of it all isn’t lost on Kelly; it is undoubtedly why he opted for an Aston Martin-sourced twin-supercharged V12 instead of merely going with a V8 and some nitrous. “A big part of drifting is the presentation of the vehicle and just the freedom to get creative and build something that’s out of this world,” Kelly said.
There are a lot of ways to slide your car in this series—and many of them are likely cheaper and simpler than in an ex-Aston Martin GT4 race car—but this is the path Kelly chose. How this season will shake out for him remains to be seen, but if he set out to make a splash with fans, then I’d say mission already accomplished.
Wanna nerd out about Formula Drift with me? Email [email protected]
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