• Will Kriss

Gridlife Midwest 2019 - Truly the Best Yet

The sixth annual Gridlife Midwest Music and Motorsports Festival may have just been the best installment yet. Thanks to several continuing improvements, the premier automotive event in the region continues to outperform itself, even in the face of extreme weather conditions. It was yet another wild kick-off to the festival season in Michigan for both racers and music fans alike.

Background for the Unfamiliar -

Several Gridlife events take place in different areas of the country throughout the year, with the Gridlife Midwest installment being the most iconic.

Taking place at the beginning of each summer at Gingerman Speedway in South Haven, MI, some of the best drivers in the country and beyond compete in different categories of drift racing and time attack battles, while a curated selection of artists provide the soundtrack to the madness. Generally, the lineup consists of local and big-name electronic and hip hop artists who perform throughout the day and long into the night.

Some famous returning drivers returning to the track this year included Ryan Tuerck, who was driving a new Toyota Corolla Hatchback with 1000 Horsepower this year, as well as Vaughn Gittin Jr., who drives a Monster Energy Drink Mustang, and is my personal favorite driver to watch at the festival.

Meanwhile, a massive car show is on display, where drivers are able to show off their custom-built rides. Just about every make and model is lined up and down the grounds, making it a cornucopia of eye candy for automotive enthusiasts. All of this is rounded out by the different stages, where DJs and artists pump out sick beats and hot jams throughout the day.

As I’ve written before, this festival is unique to any other on the circuit, as the focus is predominantly on the motorsports and racing, whereas the music is more of a bonus, taking a backseat to the daily drift battles.

What’s New?

The biggest new addition this year was the installment of a classic arcade and console gaming lounge. After hosting different “GameNight” events in both Chicago and Los Angeles, the decision was made to bring the event to the festival this year. All games available were free to play.

The selection of games was excellent, both modern and old-school. Consoles available to play included the Nintendo Switch, which had games like Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart, while classic Super Nintendo games were also available. There were also full seat-and-steering-wheel setups for the new Forza game, which multiple players could compete in at one time. It proved to be the most popular through the weekend, as there were hardly ever any seats unfilled.

There was also a superb selection of arcade cabinets available to play. They ranged from the classics like Galaga and NBA Jam to other favorites like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mortal Kombat 4. Having the fourth game in the series available was a nice touch - in my own experience, arcades usually only have Mortal Kombat 1 or 2 on display, and rarely 3 or 4.

Improved Bus Stage

Last year, one of the features of Gridlife included a Silent Disco stage built out of an old school bus called the “GoodBus Stage.” This year, the bus had been fully upgraded, completed with a whole extra stage added to the top.

If you don’t know how a Silent Disco works, participants are given a pair of wireless headphones with multiple channels. Different DJ’s spin music into the channels (blue and green) without creating external noise, which is ideal for after-hours dancing.

The GoodBus is ran by the Chicago-based electro-funk duo GoodSex, who also performed on the main stage that Friday. Gridlife isn’t their only stop on the circuit - the GoodBus travels to multiple festivals far and wide, setting up their own renegade stage all over the country.

I briefly met the pair last year, who gave me an impromptu tour of the bus. This year, however, I was able to sit down after their set and have a full interview with Joe Domingo, one half of GoodSex, to find out the story behind the bus and the GoodSex philosophy.

Interview with Joe Domingo from GoodSex

“Good Sex is the one thing we all agree on. It’s black, white, tall, old, gray, doesn’t matter who you are, you enjoy good sex,” Domingo said in an interview that Friday. “It’s love, it’s the one thing we can all agree on. Our mission statement breathes from that ethos - it is better to be good to people, you get a better return. Life is easier when you’re nice.”

While the group plays mostly electronic funk music, each set is specially catered toward the setting and the crowd, depending on the festival.

“Tonight, I knew SoDown would be playing after us, and we’d have more of a dubsteppy sound after us, so we were transitioning that sound,” Domingo said. “I think our set was indicative of that, in the way that it transitioned the flow from a heavy dubstep bass sound to a funky feel-good throwback sound, and it left room for the remaining artists to build it back up.”

The GoodBus serves not only as a fun after-hours stage, but also as a full-on vehicle for getting the GoodSex message out to people.

“As GoodSex, we decided to figure out a way of getting our message out to a mainstream audience,” Domingo said. “We bought a school bus, gutted it, decked it out with birch wood and steel, sound and speakers and love, and turned it into a mobile soundstage. So now we parade from festival to festival, utilizing it as a tour vehicle and also a sound stage.”

The GoodBus has already been to festivals like Summer Camp this year, and will continue onward to Electric Forest and other festivals.

“The GoodBus is our embodied brand,” Domingo said. “It’s how we get our music and our word and footprint out there. It is a culmination of everyone on the team coming together, doing what they’re good at, and showcasing that GoodSex vision and embodying it into a personable form.”

As previously mentioned, the GoodBus received some upgrades this year, mainly in the form of a better and safer stage on the top.

“We had the roof last year, but we did not have railings up,” Domingo said. “When you’re on top of a bus, you don’t feel safe. Now it’s fully projection-mapped and everything is enclosed, it’s officially another level of the bus.”

Other Musical Highlights (Friday)

Besides the funky sounds of GoodSex, other highlights from Friday night came by way of Houston, TX-based rap duo Blackillac. The pair provided plenty of hyped-up rap songs interlaced with funny banter to an enthusiastic crowd as the sun was beginning to dip, setting the bar for the events of the evening.

Second to last for Friday night was EDM DJ Luca Lush, who provided the crowd with several dubstep and hardstyle remixes of popular songs, both in the world of EDM and beyond.

Following Luca Lush was headliner Ghastly, whose sound is difficult to describe in words. His set took elements of different genres and presented them alongside bizarre visuals, creating a visceral audio and visual experience. I was mostly transfixed by his presentation, and the set was over before I even realized it.

He ended his set by encouraging the fans to come to the Silent Disco, saying that he’d be happy to hang out and talk with fans, and to not be shy. I found this to be a classy touch of showmanship.

Saturday Night Shenanigans

It’s impossible to explain the events of Saturday night without first discussing the weather situation.

Gridlife 2017 was marked by extreme heat, while Gridlife 2018 saw its fair share of storms. Gridlife 2019, however, was characterized by both extremes of good and bad weather. While the temperature was very comfortable and ideal throughout the weekend, Saturday evening was ravaged by a storm that rolled through.

Around 7 PM, one of my neighbors ran by my tent. When I popped out to say hello, he was getting inside of his, and yelled “See you tomorrow, dude!”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“Look behind you!”

When I turned around, a MASSIVE black cloud was rolling in FAST. Text messages began coming in on my phone from Gridlife, advising patrons to take shelter. I hunkered down back inside my tent, and wisely so. If I hadn’t, my tent would have blown away, like several others did.

Here’s a video that someone else took of the storm rolling in.

After a while, I emerged from my tent to survey the damage.

Much of the campground now looked like the entrance to Mordor from Lord of the Rings - everything was gray, wet, and muddy. Tents and canopies were strewn from being blown around, most of the attendees were honking their horns and hollering, and several carts were driving up and down the aisles, checking to see if anyone needed medical assistance. It seemed like complete chaos, though it had not delved into anarchy.

I was very impressed with how well the staff were handling the situation. Thanks to the live update text line, we were able to stay informed on when the racing and other attractions would open back up, and it was nice to see the medical staff double-checking with patrons.

In the aftermath, the sun once again broke through the clouds. It was very surreal - it was now very cold, despite the sun, and it seemed like we had experienced all four seasons in the span of just a few hours.

Of course, this led to some main stage schedule changes.

Dubstep producer Dogma had been scheduled to play that evening, but needed to be bumped to get the main stage back on track (remember this for later).

I joined up with some friends to go check out Oliver Tree, the second-to-last main stage performer of the weekend. I had absolutely no knowledge of what his music was like, only being previously informed that he was sort of a “weird rapper.” I guess that’s one way of putting it.

He was certainly weird, dressed in JNCO’s and a 90’s-era Styrofoam-print tracksuit with a bowl cut, but his sound reminded me a lot of that poppy MySpace style in the late 00’s (3OH!3, etc). I was personally not a fan of his performance or his music. I wouldn’t even call his genre rap, but I guess I wouldn’t know how else to describe it.

I was confused as to why he was on before Getter. Even though they do have a song together, I felt that this was the furthest thing away from Getter as possible. Maybe it was an effort to have more variety on the lineup, but it left me feeling more perplexed than anything. It was certainly the “wild card” performance of the weekend, but in my opinion, that wasn’t a good thing this time around.

That isn’t to say that the large crowd that had gathered wasn’t into him. Clearly, this guy is WAY more popular than I realized. The crowd of (mostly younger) fans were all screaming his lyrics with him word for word, while also responding to his performance with wild cheers. So obviously this guy has a big fanbase, and that’s great. It just doesn’t include myself.

Furthermore, Oliver Tree has since announced that he is going on his farewell tour later on this year, so it is cool that the fans who got to see him at Gridlife were able to experience this opportunity. It very well could be the last.

Getter, meanwhile, was arguably the set with the most anticipation for the weekend. It’s no secret that the last few months have been tumultuous on his end - after revamping his style on his latest release, reports began coming in of fans booing him at his own shows, which lead to him cancelling his entire tour. Questions were raised on whether that cancellation included Gridlife, but fans were assured that he would still be playing.

And he DID play.

I have very fond memories of seeing Getter at Electric Forest in 2016, which was an all-dubstep set, but I haven’t actually heard much from him since then. I decided to approach this one with a fresh, open mind, and make my own call on it.

If my understanding is correct, the previous tour was mostly new material, but his set at Gridlife seemed to include a little bit of everything. It was one of the most diverse of the weekend - incorporating and chopping many different styles of Electronic music, he delivered a very lively set that was hype at times, lower-tempo at others, and all-around bizarre.

As far as the crowd reception goes, they were LOVING it. When Getter announced that he was going to play a new song, the crowd responded with enthusiastic cheers, just as they did when he first took the stage. It seemed he had hit that perfect balance between both old and new material.

Getter ended his set with many thanks, vowing to the audience that he would learn how to drift and come back next year to drive and race, with the crowd screaming for more, even after the lights came on and Getter had left the stage.

Although the main stage closed for the weekend after Getter, the GoodBus would still be going strong for the remainder of the night.

Remember how I mentioned Dogma earlier? Well, he was able to play a set after all. He took the top stage of the Bus (Green Channel) and delivered a very heavy meat-and-potatoes dubstep set.

Like I’ve said before, the best sets you’ll ever see are the ones that revive you, even after a whole day of festival activities. I was about to leave the Disco for the night, but figured I’d stick around for a minute longer to see what it was about. Needless to say, I ended up staying and rocking out for the duration of his performance. He ended up being the final set of the Bus that night, and my personal favorite set of the weekend.

Interviewing the Drivers, Part 1 - Levi Brown, Kalamazoo

During the races Saturday, I was able to speak with local Kalamazoo-area racer Levi Brown, who drives a modified 1991 Honda Civic about his history with Gridlife.

“I’ve been coming to track events probably since I had my license back in 2003, 2004,” Brown said. “I started doing some Autocross stuff and then I started coming out here to Gingerman. I started getting more into it when Honda Meet came around, and I've been following Gridlife since day one. Once they started doing the whole time attack thing, I started doing time attack.”

Brown has been using his Honda Civic for almost 10 years.

“I actually bought this car before the Gridlife stuff started going on,” Brown said. “I’ve had the car for about eight and a half, nine years now. Kept it pretty simple, I put a different motor in it, tweak some stuff on it here and there. Simple stuff, I keep it manageable and fun.”

The Civic that Brown drives was number 420 in the competition. Unlike Kalamazoo-area driver Trent Meister, who chose 666 as his own number, Brown’s number was chosen by an unknown staff member as a joke that stuck.

“This number was actually chosen for me the first time they started doing the banners and door cards,” Brown said. “I never figured out who picked it for me, but they gave it to me. Since the first Gridlife that they started doing the time attack stuff, the number stayed with it. I just rolled with it. It’s become part of the car more so than anything.”

Brown also spoke about his performance that Saturday.

“The track felt really good my last session,” Brown said. “It rained earlier, I didn’t go out midday, so this one was the last chance I had to put down another good time. I didn’t get down to my personal best, but I got back to about where I’m usually at. I don’t change much on the car, so I’m right where I usually am, so I’m happy with that.”

Despite not beating his own personal best time, Brown said that he had gotten closer than he had in quite a while.

“About a year and a half ago at the Fall Gridlife event, I got down to 01:39.0, and I was consistently in the 39’s that weekend,” Brown said. “This weekend, my fastest was only at 01:40.5, so I’m a little over a second off my fastest pace. It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve been down even into the 39-second range.”

Interviewing the Drivers, Part 2 - Richard J. Hixon, Georgia

Tyler KO Photo

One thing I haven’t been able to do in my three years of attending Gridlife is to interview an out-of-state Pro Driver. After the festival was over with, I had an opportunity to interview Georgia-based driver Richard J. Hixon, who was racing in a streamlined 1989 BMW 325 is, about his experience with Gridlife and his origins as a racer.

After competing at the Gridlife South event in Atlanta, Hixon made the decision to apply for his first Midwest event this year.

“The cool thing about Gridlife is going to these different race tracks,” Hixon said. “You get the opportunity to drive the big tracks that otherwise would be [really far away]. To be apart of it is an honor, and it’s super special to go out there and rip this stock E30 with the big boys. It’s a crazy feeling.”

Hixon first became interested in motorsports-related activities when he was a teenager, at which time he was still living in his home state of Texas.

“Me and my buddy had some go-karts, I just had one of those flat ones with a sort of lawn mower engine on it,” Hixon said. “I would go as fast as I could and try to keep up with the guys on the trails. I didn’t really do anything motorsports related for a long time, that was just an exciting period in the summer. In 2014, there was a car meet for a shop that I worked at and helped promote. One morning, we showed up in the lot, and it turned out that if we blocked off local traffic, we could do whatever we wanted in the parking lot to an extent. We decided to put on a little show late at night, doing drift stunts around cones. Two guys thought it was cool, and told me to check out Lone Star Events and to try an actual track. I started driving those. I did two months out of that year, and continued to 2015.”

After a career change, he moved from Texas to Georgia and began participating in races at Road Atlanta, at which time he began participating with Gridlife.

“Gridlife started coming around for 2018 at Road Atlanta for Gridlife South and applications were opening up, so I decided to apply, and I got in,” Hixon said. “I went to Road Atlanta for South last year, and that was a blast. It was fun to drive my first real big track like that in an open environment where you can just drift however you wanted to. It was completely crazy, the crowd went nuts, it was like a basketball game every time I ripped it through the Horseshoe with my hands out the window. So of course, After all that, as soon as I heard about the Midwest opening applications open up this year, I applied and got in.”

Although Hixon didn’t start drift racing until 2014, he has his car for almost ten years. After a series of blown engines and other car issues, Hixon was gifted the BMW he races with today.

“My wife’s parents used to live out here in Georgia, they had this BMW that her father had bought to daily drive and take to Road Atlanta for track events, but he realized very quickly that racing wasn’t for him. So they ended up giving the car to us. I daily drove all over Houston. It was just an A to B car at the time. In 2012 or 2013, my dad offered to fix the car for me.”

Speaking about his experience with his very first Gridlife Midwest experience this year, Hixon spoke about his performance over the weekend with excitement.

“I think my best session was on Saturday when it rained,” Hixon said. “I did spin more than usual, but I was able to link some high-speed sections, and after doing it in the wet, it made me realize I could do it in the dry if I try a little bit harder.”

However, he cited his Sunday performance as the highlight of the weekend.

“The last two sessions on Sunday,” I was chasing the high-power guys, and started grip running several of the sessions just so I could chase them at high speeds,” Hixon said. “That was honestly the best part of the weekend.”

Another highlight of the weekend for Hixon was being able to perform drift tricks for the crowds who had gathered to see the races.

“My favorite part was whipping those third-gear Manjis [swinging the car from one side of the road or track to the other, along a straight section of road] down the straight,” Hixon said. “Just to get the car wide open like that was pretty fun, there’s not a lot of opportunities or tracks where you can safely do that, where there’s room for run-off if you do make some sort of error. That was interesting to just be able to hit it from side to side, kind of like some real-life Forza.”

Hixon thought that the crowd needed more of a show than was being displayed.

“It just seemed like the spectators got so excited that someone was giving them a show on that turn,” Hixon said. “The way I see it, Gridlife gets you full course for the weekend, and if you aren’t driving every turn that’s out there, then you aren’t really taking advantage of your driver fee. So if your car will do it without overheating, I say why not?”

Speaking about the overall festival experience for the weekend, Hixon was impressed.

“It was a blast,” Hixon said. “I walked through the campground area after checking out the music briefly, and there was a little group of six or seven E30’s all squaded up. I ended up chatting with those guys, it was cool meeting regular stock E30 dudes from that area and seeing what mine used to be like. If you get in my car now, it’s not a stock E30 anymore. On track, there was a lot of good etiquette, I didn’t really have any problems that I might have had at previous events, so that was nice. Everyone just went full send out there.”

So What’s the Big Deal, Anyway?

In my opinion, the big draw for Gridlife Midwest is its ability to bring together different types of crowds over one weekend. You have racers, music festival types, and people that are in it for both, like myself.

But that seems to be the general consensus of the festival population, anyway. Everybody I talked to said something to the same effect, more or less.

“I like the whole thing just because of the variety of stuff that’s out here. For any automotive type person, they’ve got the time attack battles, wheel to wheel, drifting, show car stuff. All the people that you get to hang out and see, the whole festival side of it, the music people that come in, it brings a whole different perspective of people in here. Just different varieties of people, and it’s way more than a lot of events I’ve been to, so it’s just the variety and the amount of stuff to do, it keeps you busy. You go out for a session, come back in, and there’s something going on.”

  • Levi Brown, Kalamazoo-area racer.

“It’s gonna help the motorsports to grow, because you’re gonna get people that come for the music and [stay] for the drifting. Your hardcore race fans and global time attack guys, they are there for that reason, but then you have your drifter and music people, and your campers that are there for the party. Then, they leave and follow your instagram and keep up with drifting, and next thing you know, they’ll go to a formula drift event or something just to check it out. You really never know where it’s gonna go or how people’s mindsets are gonna change after their first event, and an event like Gridlife with the music festival is a really good open-door opportunity to bring all those different crowds together and give the motorsport a little more exposure.”

  • Richard J. Hixon, Georgia racer

“I think the best part of Gridlife, part of it is the car community and seeing people with everything under the sun all coming together to hang out and party, a whole bunch of different types of events in one place, that’s what really does it for me. It’s eclectic, but it’s a real good time.”

  • Eric Woodward, Attendee from Ann Arbor, MI

“It was not what I was expecting. I thought I knew what would happen based on last years Gridlife, but this year overall, I really liked it. It was very unexpected. I can confidently say I had a good time. I would probably just explain it as camping, the first half of your day will be watching looking at cars, seeing them drift or race, or just checking them out, and the second half of your day is music festival vibes. It’s a nice little getaway, you just meet new people and get to have a lot of fun. I think I’ll come back.”

  • Claudia Danowski, attendee from Orland Park, Chicago, IL.

“It’s really the grouping of demographics. Typically at festivals, you’ll see a bunch of festival people, but it’s a closed door. They were at the last festival, and it’s the same people you see throughout the summer. [Gridlife] is a branchout, you can reach so many more people in different places from this festival, because it is a hub of talent. Whether it be music, cars, whatever it is, there’s a lot of cool talent around here, and that’s what makes it different.”

  • Joe Domingo, Performer, Goodsex

The past two years, I’ve seen Gridlife continue to grow and flourish as it carves out its own niche on the festival circuit, and this year is no exception. For auto enthusiasts, this is the premier automotive event of the midwest, and for live music and festival fans, this is an excellent way to kick off the festival season, and a great alternative to other festivals such as Summer Camp.

I can definitely say that, despite the weather, this truly was the best Gridlife yet. It only continues to improve on itself in ways both big and small. Now that I’ve been able to attend three years in a row, I think that it’s safe to say that, no matter what year your first year attending will be, chances are it will be the best Gridlife to that point.

Here’s to many more years on the Blacktop.

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