Stephan Verdier has been racing for 15 years, starting out in open wheel, winning the Bridgeston driver search in 1991, he started rallying in 2001, won Pikes peak hill climb in 2 different class', won the WSRC championship in 2004 and finish 3rd in the 2007 Rally-America Championship for production class. He got into drifting through a couple of friends, Tanner Foust and Rhys Millen. He drove in 2006 for McKinney Motorsport as his first year in drifting, then in 2007 drove for his own team. One thing you need to know about Stephan Verdier: He doesn’t fit any demo anywhere in the unique tuner motorsports world but that’s where he’s battling his way into the spotlight anyway. First, he’s 37. He’s from Nice in the South of France on the Mediterranean coast. For the unaware, Nice is a place you go to drift the time away. It’s not a place where you come from to drift the tires away.
Verdier spent three weeks in the French military – to begin his compulsory one-year service -- before they realized he had a screw in his knee from a childhood injury and was sent home. He came to the U.S. in 1991 and learned to fly helicopters. But before he began that career he went to the Jim Russell School, where he launched a semi-successful open-wheel career which included a full-season scholarship running Formula 2000 cars in Canada. After bumping around Europe trying to get that career off the ground, he returned to Southern California and ended up roadside at a Rim of the World Rally where the lure of the dirt and roar of the turbo bit him and he was hooked. The weirdness doesn’t stop there, though. He bought his first rally car from Endless Summer filmmaker Bruce Brown (Stephan said he had several) and the rest is becoming history.
Currently, Verdier is fourth in the Production GT standings and ninth in the overall Rally America championship after winning his class at the 100 Acre Wood Rally last month, his only event in 2008. He said he finished third in class last year after two wins in New England and Oregon. He’s also moving up the ladder of experience in drifting and in the emerging time attack competition. “Rallying is pretty much my first love,” Verdier told me. “There’s a lot of drifting in it. In drifting you only drift for 30 or 40 seconds but in rally you pretty much drift all the time. “That’s why I like drifting a lot, because there’s a lot of rallying to it as well. You put the car sideways and get close to the wall like you get close to the trees. The only thing in drifting, you don’t race against the clock.” Two friends, Rhys Millen and Tanner Foust, got Stephan into drifting. “Tanner got me in contact (in 2006) with McKinney Motorsports. They had the tough job to teach me how to drift.” He said he got his own Subaru a year later. Millen’s shop built it with a WRC cage and other rally engineering. Stephan said he was prepared to use the car in rallying, drifting and time attack.
“It (takes) me two hours to change the gearbox myself,” Verdier said. The gearbox is at the core of switching the STi from all-wheel drive to rear-wheel drive, a necessary evil for drifting where AWD is not allowed. The Subaru WRX’s legendary AWD technology is advantageous in rallying and time attack but not in the tire-boiling drifting arts. But as he was rolling up his sleeves to start last season, Flat Iron Subaru in Colorado stepped up and offered Verdier a Production GT rally ride leaving his personal car for everything else; and far fewer AWD to RWD to AWD conversions. Much of the car prep is done at Millen’s shop, where Verdier does some part-time work between competitions. But he’ll be back on the road this summer where he earns his biggest paychecks as a driver at manufacturer arrive and drive programs and new car demonstrations. He not only does some coaching, but he also gives rides for people who might have purchased a new GT3 or M6 or R8 and need to know how to make the car work as it was designed. “I’ve worked for Porsche and BMW, but most of my work is with Audi,” Verdier said. He laughed when he told me about getting too aggressive with a new Audi R8 last year and found himself off the track in the grass for a bit. “I thought I was going to get fired that day. I made a mistake driving it and kind of slid the car off into the grass. But I didn’t break anything. I only got it muddy so I had to wash it and detail it.” He returns to the Audi traveling show this year, so they must not have been too disappointed in his overall performance last summer!
Verdier is part of a new breed of Tuner professionals who not only drive in competition but in movies, commercials, manufacturer demos, even driver training in snow and ice regions of the country. Obviously, car control in drifting and rallying is crucial in other forms of the automotive culture. “I told my mother I wanted to be a stunt driver when I was five,” Verdier said. “It’s a dream of mine. I hope I can get my SAG card and get on with that this year too.” My first conversation with Stephan a year ago at the Long Beach Formula Drift round was a unique one. I’d seen the name connected with rallying but here he was throwing his unsponsored Subaru around hoping someone would notice. They were noticing. They especially were noticing the crowds gathering around his Subaru, a rare commodity in the RWD world of drifting. After a year of showing up all over the country in all sorts of competitions, Verdier is now fielding calls from people who want to be seen by the crowds he’s gathering.
Verdier’s intensity is best described in this anecdote. He came to the U.S. when he was 21 with French as his native language. Remember, the goal was to learn how to fly helicopters, a career that took Stephan’s heart as well as his father, who died in a crash when Stephan was only 18. But when Verdier started racing here in the U.S., he had to learn the language of racing just to talk with the engineers and the other racers. “All the car terms such as A-arms, strut, anything that related to the car, I learned here in the United States. All the technical terms for racing I know in English but I don’t know them in French. I never raced cars in Europe before I started racing here.” So, when I asked Stephan how many languages he speaks, he had this unique answer: “Only two: three-quarters French and three-quarters English." He said he’s still learning English but he’s forgotten some of his native French, because he’s had to immerse himself in English to continue his racing career here in the U.S. “The way it is now, I think in English. I don’t think in French anymore. When I talk with someone in French, I almost have to think in English in my head and translate it to French.” He still has family in France, including his mother, so reunions must be difficult!
So, you see, Stephan Verdier isn’t your garden variety Tuner guy. Maybe the final straw is his interest in rock music instead of hip-hop. He’s a U2 guy instead of Jay-Z or Snoop. In fact, if you push him he’ll admit that music just isn’t his thing. Racing is Stephan Verdier’s Jones. Maybe that’s the one thing that puts him square in the middle of the Tuner demo. He’s committed.
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