Stephan Verdier is a very busy man. In the past several years you’ve probably become familiar with Stephan through his participation at Formula Drift, Rally America, Summer AND Winter X Games (Rally and SkierX, respectively), and more recently in this years debut season of Global Rallycross. On top of all of that he can also be found in your living room, beaming across the Hi-Def airwaves as a precision driver in many of the automobile adverts we see every day.
It was clear to me the moment we began our conversation, that this guy is really enjoying his life. And why shouldn’t he? Lets run down some of the reasons why this man seems so happy:
- Precision Drives in commercials and gets paid for it.
- Drives in the Global Rallycross series.
- Has been a competitor in the X Games.
- Do we really need to list anything else? Those points alone make his life cooler than ours.
I had a chance to catch up with Stephan last week and talk to him about his involvement with Global Rallycross and his recent announcement that he’ll be returning to Pikes Peak.
ML@S: You just announced your plans for returning to the Pikes Peak Hill Climb. Tell me about the ride you’re bringing up for the race. Is it your Global Rallycross car?
SV: No, we are running my car in the Rallycross event the week before the Hill Climb, and then for Pikes Peak I was hired by Zenkai from Las Vegas Subaru to drive their car, which I think is a 2010 Subaru.
ML@S: Are they bringing a team to work with you?
SV: Yeah. Zenkai, they’ve been doing Time Attack for several years now, and their car was actually at the Ken Block invitational. Anyway they’re co-sponsored by Crawford performance, which is my sponsor for Rallycross. They do all the engines for their car, too. They have always wanted to go to Pikes Peak, so they asked me to drive the car. So they are working very hard on the car now to update the cage and on making it look really cool. It’s going to be a very exciting two weeks in Colorado.
ML@S: When was the last time you were at Pikes Peak?
SV: 2005. We ran the Rally car in the Open Division. That was my second win. My first was 2004 in the Rally division. We drove against Tanner that year…I whooped his ass, by the way (laughing)! It was fun. There was definitely much more gravel than there is now and that was the fun part. I’m against the new paving. I think that the hill was the best when Rod [Millen] drove it…when it was 100% dirt. I think that’s when it was the s**t! Now it’s kind of just another hill climb. It’s lost some of it’s appeal, because there’s not so much dirt there, but it’s still going to be pretty cool, it’s just going to be different. There is an advantage to going full tarmac, though. In any given weekend in Europe, especially in France, there are thirty different hill climbs going on somewhere. When it goes full tarmac I think you’re going to see allot of European drivers coming over and you might even see some F1 showing up. DTMS cars, ALMS cars…all of those road course cars are going to show up and they’re going to go for it. So, I think you might see many factory’s coming back. You could see this thing come back to where it was many years ago.
I’m pretty excited to be coming back to the Peak. Every year since 05 we’ve wanted to come back we just haven’t had the budget. At first I wanted to come back this year with my car, the Rallycross car, and just take the restrictor off, which would have been super-fast. But I didn’t have the budget. Then the guys over at Zenkai asked me to drive for them. Their car is not as fast or as light as mine, but it’s a really good car. And it’s a good thing…they have allot of development in the car on the road course, so we’ll just soften up the car a bit and we should be pretty good on the setup. They’ve done allot of Aero…it should be quick. And Crawford is doing the engine so that’s pretty good.
ML@S: You mentioned that since 05 you’ve been trying to get back. Is Pikes Peak pretty addictive?
SV: It’s so unique. you only get one shot! Even practice is unique. You practice in sections, and not even in the right order…the top, the bottom, then middle…and we practice so early in the morning so it doesn’t really prep you for the race. The History is great and it being the second oldest race in the country, it’s a pretty sick race. And that record stood for so long, and to my eyes, because of all the tarmac, Rod still has the record. (laughs) I mean, look at all the crazy cars. Too bad Petter wont be here, but that Frenchman with that crazy car, and Rhys and Tajima…the record is definitely gonna drop. If the weather is good and everything we’re gonna see a new record this year. But yeah, it’s so unique and you only get one shot to do it and you have to be so perfect for such a long time. It’s not like a regular track where you can mess up a corner and say to yourself, ok I can make it up next lap. No, you have 156 corners that you have to remember first, which is the hardest part. 156 corners and maybe 100 braking points that you have to remember. Not like a regular race track where you say, “oh yeah, I’ve got nine braking points”. And you never know, you might start off sunny and then get rain, hail, snow or whatever…you don’t know what you’re gonna get. It’s that thing where you have to beat the mountain first. You could be 110% ready. The car never has an issue and then for no reason at all, five minutes before the race, the car stalls and won’t start up again. Or you get on the hill and that stupid 50 cent part breaks for no reason. So, there’s always some weird thing. And people say that the hill has to let you go to the top, and that’s true. It sounds pretty strange when you say it but on the Hill…Not only do you have to be perfect, but you have to have allot of luck and the Hill is going to tell you if you’re going to make it to the top or not. Or whether or not it’s going to make your life a nightmare! (laughs) The place is so mystic. People work on their car all year long for that one race. I think the whole thing is so cool. I really like it. In every race environment you’re friends with your competitors, but I think at Pikes Peak it’s so different. People are so happy when they just make it to the top. It’s almost like at the Dakkar. People go to the Dakkar and the number one thing people want to do is finish it. They don’t really care where they finish. And i think Pikes Peak is almost the same thing. First thing is to get to the top and the time is second. That’s what makes it different from any other kind of racing.
ML@S: Do you ever get scared on the Hill?
SV: It’s not as scary as people think it is. I mean, a rally road is way scarier. It’s just the look of it and everything…the History. People think, oh yeah, the big cliff, but the road is pretty darn wide. you got allot of room. It’s not impossible to go off, but to go off you gotta make a pretty good screw up. It’s not impossible, don’t get me wrong. Even the top guys get caught making a mistake. But otherwise, look at a rally road. You get the same speed you do at Pikes Peak, but you have one lane and trees like, three inches from the road! (laughs) The first time I went to Pikes Peak people kept saying that hill is so crazy,and yes, there’s some big cliffs, but you never look at the cliffs when you drive. And if you just look at the road, yeah, its a nice two lane road. It’s super-smooth…nothing very crazy (laughs). It’s not as bad as people think it is. I mean, there’s rally road where I think, s**t, I’m gonna die. But on Pikes Peak I’ve never been scared on the road. I’ve always been worried about remembering which turn is coming up more than anything else. But the road itself is not that big of a deal.
ML@S: Do you think you would ever try it on a motorcycle?
SV: No. On a motorcycle I’m sure it would be scarier. The guys on the motorcycle, they’re pretty insane. If they went by themselves that would be one thing…but they’re fighting each other…five at a time! That’s a whole different story. I don’t think I’d want to go up there on a motorcycle.
ML@S: You’re going to be very busy that week with two major events back to back.
SV: Yeah, but I’ll get allot of seat time that way!
ML@S: So, lets talk about how you’re doing in the Global Rallycross. You get a chance to beat up on your good friends Rhys Millen and Tanner Foust don’t you?
SV: Well…Maybe Rhys, but not Foust (Laughs). I’m just behind Tanner and right in front of Rhys in the standings. No, I mean, we knew we were going to be competitive in the Rallycross, I think the big shocker was at X games last year when I went to the X Games with my drift car, I just put it back in four wheel drive, and we didn’t do anything to the engine, just put the rally suspension on it and went to the X Games. I was shocked. I think we qualified second in front of all the Fords. I was, like, whoa…the car is fast! Thats when I figured we could do the Rallycross with that car.
ML@S: Did you think you could compete against the Hi Dollar teams at the X Games?
SV: I thought we were gonna get killed! Compared to the Ford and their Monster car and Subaru, who had a crazy car, too, so we thought we were gonna get killed. Actually on the dirt I think they couldn’t put the power down. We were lower on power than them but we were good enough to keep up with them. So that was kind of the beginning and we thought well, s**t, when they announced that they were gonna have a series next year, we thought maybe we should do it. At the worst we could use my car. It was pretty competitive. So over the winter we just focused on making it lighter. And we took about 250lbs out of it. I mean, we cut the car into three sections and we just emptied everything out of it until all we were left with was just the cage, pretty much. Crawford put some massive engine in the car and we thought, well, the car is as light as theirs and we have as much power as theirs, so i think we have a shot to keep up with these guys.
ML@S: Do you do allot of your own work on the car?
SV: Yeah, except for allot of the major fabrication like the cage and all that stuff, because I’m not a good welder. So, yeah I work on my car right in my driveway. I have a big driveway and thats where the car stays, right outside. All the prep between the races, I do it myself. Even at drifting for years I was my own mechanic. It was me and myself at the races. Actually like two years ago in Long Beach, the first race of the season, me and Rhys got paired together and I do my burnout at the line and I break an axle. So I drive the car back to my pit and I have five minutes, according to the rules, to get back to the line. So I went back to the pit and with my helmet and suit on I change the axle in five minutes and get back to the line just in time to race Rhys, and I actually beat him! (laughs) It was the big drama, because people see me in the pits and the other mechanics around couldn’t understand what I was doing in the pits and not on the starting line, and secondly why I was under the car with my helmet on! (laughing) Just a typical privateer. I do love working on the car, but right now it’s almost too much. Especially when you see these teams at the races, I mean s**t, you see Rhys and the Ford Team and the Subaru Team, they have like four mechanics per car! It’s a bit stressful when you have to do all the work yourself and drive at the same time.
ML@S: You do get more satisfaction when you do it all yourself, don’t you?
SV: I think you get the most satisfaction when you do good, like at Irwindale when I was about to stand on the podium and I thought, s**t, I guess all that hard work and those long hours paid off. I mean, for that race we worked our asses off. We did a full wiring harness for the car and we were on Rhys’ dyno, Crawford has their own dyno but it broke during our tune up, so we were on Rhys’ dyno and were on there all night till, like five in the morning, and we showed up that Thursday morning before the Irwindale Rallycross after just a few hours sleep and then went right out to go drive the car on the track.
ML@S: How did you get here to GRC? How did your career lead up to this moment?
SV: I started my career in open wheel and then went to Rally, and I loved Rally. In Europe open wheel is really popular, especially with F1, but Rally is AS popular. It’s a big, big thing. I came and did Rally here in the US for like five years and won Pikes Peak in my class two years with the Rally car. Rally was definitely my favorite motorsport. Later we went to drifting, which is where I got to know Rhys and Tanner. They’re the ones who really got me to switch to drifting full time because Rally was dying…nothing was really going on there. But it was allot of fun. I always told the guy from Rally America, you’ve got to do some special stage style competition or Rallycross style competition…anything. So it was like three or four years ago when we started talking about it and people were like, eh, you have to bring those super-fast cars, and their really expensive and I don’t think anybody in the US is gonna do it. They don’t have the money…so I mean, it was pretty hard to start. The good thing is that Global Rallycross, when they announced the series, they had the backing of ESPN. So that was the excuse to bring the big cars and that’s really what got the ball rolling.
ML@S: Do you think we’ll see more European stars coming over to compete in the series?
SV: Well, Andreas [Ericsson] has allot of connections in Europe and he can bring more European drivers over which they are trying to do. Which I think is great because they’re some of the best drivers there are and they have fast cars, but unfortunately nobody knows who they are here in the US. So there’s no real importance to have these guys over, but, it’s somebody! But obviously if they stay a couple years, they’re going to become somebody, but if you can bring in something like a NASCAR guy or something, I don’t know, for about the same money…I mean, it’s great to have the cars like Citroen and Skoda here, but it’s hard for the teams to say, yeah, lets give you a bunch of money to go race in the US when they don’t even sell their cars here. For a guy like Michael Jernberg, who races the Skoda, its all out of his own pocket. He’s not getting any help from Skoda…nothing. Right now we’re getting great exposure, but so far it’s not paying anybody’s bill. But, I think it’s a perfect setup for next year. That’s when we’re gonna see some major changes. I think the series will be more professional, everything will be done better. We’ll have something we can go to the sponsors with and get more money and more cars and even better drivers to come to the events. I think next year is going to be a big, big year for the series. But even for the first year, I think, s**t, this thing kicked ass! It has been fun to watch and definitely fun to drive.
ML@S: Where do you think the series goes next year? Do you see an expansion of the schedule?
SV: Oh yeah, I think so. I’ve heard talk of going to six events in the series. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw the cars at the winter X Games next year in the snow. That’s the thing…Everything revolves around the X Games and Dirt 3, the video game. I mean that’s how they want to play it, so they’ll want to bring those cars on the snow eventually. Especially when we have both the summer and winter X Games here in the US it’s kind of logical that we would go to the snow in the winter one. Aspen has a track already there and we could use that or we could do it on the slope. And thats the thing with Rallycross you don’t need a three mile long track. You just need not even a mile long track. Nothings been said, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that happens…and if it doesn’t then they should think about doing it! (laughs)
The racing world needs heroes we can all identify with and Stephan is a prime candidate. He gets his car from the driveway to the podium, scraping his knuckles and shedding plenty of his own sweat along the way. If you’re a fan of racing and the good people involved, you should know Stephan Verdier.