"The trickiest part in drifting is just slowing it all down in your head. You have to do so much in the car at one time, and it feels like everything is happening so fast. If you're going 40 miles an hour in a straight line, it doesn't feel that fast, but if you're going 40 miles an hour into a turn sideways, it makes things feel way faster than they are."
FORT WALTON BEACH — Just two years after getting his regular driver's license, Nick Castleberry is already building a career in the 500-horsepower ballet that is drift racing, the art and science of competitively sliding a rear-wheel-drive cart through a series of corners.
"It's all about style ... and commitment," Castleberry said on a recent morning in the Jet Drive warehouse where 311 Racing, and an associated clothing and merchandise business, Klutch Kickers, are headquartered.
Castleberry's current drift car, a white 1991 Nissan 240SX powered by a Chevrolet LS V-8 engine, is a focal point in the warehouse, which also includes a handful of other cars the team is building. The current racing car was built with considerable help from Full Lock Automotive, a local automotive performance shop.
"It's like no other racing," Castleberry explained, launching into a brief tutorial on drift racing.
"It's not Point A to Point B, or who's the first to the finish line," he said. In drift racing, only two cars are on the track, a "lead car" and a "follow car."
"The point of the follow car is to follow that lead car wherever it goes, no matter what ... and get as close to them as they can, like up on their door," Castleberry explained. After an initial run — lasting around 30 seconds, as both cars work through a couple of turns, the lead car becomes the follow car, and the first round of competition is completed.
Drivers' performances, a precision dance of hands on the steering wheel and feet on the brake and clutch, are assessed by judges, and scored on the basis of a number of driving criteria.
"Literally, every leg and arm is taken up at once," Castleberry said. "You're doing it all at the same time."
Ironically, though, the trick to being a successful drift racer, Castleberry said, is taking things slow — mentally, at least.
"The trickiest part in drifting is just slowing it all down in your head," he said. "You have to do so much in the car at one time, and it feels like everything is happening so fast. If you're going 40 miles an hour in a straight line, it doesn't feel that fast, but if you're going 40 miles an hour into a turn sideways, it makes things feel way faster than they are."
Castleberry comes from a family with a long racing heritage. Back in the day, his dad, Michael, was a truck driver for stock car racer Harry Gant, a fixture on the NASCAR circuit in the '80s and '90s. It was that heritage, combined with technology, that steered now-18-year-old Castleberry into drift racing.
"Video games and YouTube videos got me into cars when I was like 14 or so," he said. "So this (drifting) was just another racing avenue,"
These days, as his drifting career has shown considerable promise, Castleberry spends about 20 to 30 hours a week on the racing simulator installed in his bedroom. The simulator, a far cry from video game equipment, represents a $5,000 investment in Castleberry's budding career.
For now, Michael Castleberry, a mortgage banker, is putting money into 311 Racing and Klutch Kickers, but he's made it clear to his son and the five other members of the team that he's expecting the enterprise to be running on its own within the next two years.
"It took a pretty substantial investment up front to get all this up and going," Michael Castleberry said, as he recalled the beginnings of the drift car team with his son just 14 short months ago.
"We sat down and had a conversation, and I asked, 'Are you going to get into this to just be a 'backyard builder,' something you just want to do yourself? Or do you really want to get into this and do something with it?' When he made that choice to do something with it, I said, 'Well, let's go at it.' "
As a result, there's an interesting business model behind the racing enterprise, which in addition to Nick Castleberry includes team manager and car builder Zachary Polof; crew chief Kyle Bourg, who oversees the race team's travel from event to event; and Austin Palermini and Matt Midyette, who handle media and marketing. Some of the five young men knew each other in the days before 311 Racing and Klutch Kickers, and some joined the team after meeting at drifting events.
While it might not initially seem so, Palermini and Midyette play a critical role in the enterprise. Their jobs are to get the word out about 311 Racing and Klutch Kickers via social media. The goal is to drive traffic to the Klutch Kickers merchandising website, which also includes videos featuring the racing team's activities. In turn, Klutch Kickers sales revenue is used to fund 311 Racing.
One recent video attracted 100,000 views, Michael Castleberry said. His best guess today is that attracting 100,000 steady social media followers to Klutch Kickers would translate into $15,000 to $20,000 monthly in apparel sales. Currently, Klutch Kickers and 311 Racing have somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 social media followers, he said.
"The media guys have been incredible with design work and Instagram and Facebook and everything," Michael Castleberry said.
There are also a couple of other revenue streams that either now or soon will be funneled to the racing enterprise. The Klutch Kickers website includes video of other drift cars being built by 311 Racing in the Jet Drive warehouse, with the ultimate goal of auctioning off those vehicles in a raffle.
"Five dollars a person adds up very fast," Michael Castleberry said.
The team also is opening a drift car facility at Emerald Coast Dragway in Holt, where plans call for a drifting school as an additional revenue stream, along with a Klutch Kicker Drift Series racing program.
Given their already impressive online reach and growing reputation, Michael Castleberry is optimistic about the future of 311 Racing and Klutch Kickers.
"It's really surprised me. I know how hard it is to create a business," he said. "Their notoriety across the Southeast is pretty strong."
"And," he added, "it all comes from Nicholas sitting back with a video game two or three years ago."
Aside from his obvious enthusiasm for driving, Nick Castleberry has a keen business sense. The team, he acknowledged, chooses the drifting events in which they participate on the basis of crowd size, in hopes of fueling merchandise sales.
"We set up booths, and we sell product on-site at the events, right out of the trailer," he explained.
Nick Castleberry was courted by a major NASCAR team earlier this year, including a trip to the Daytona 500. But driving around a track making only left turns doesn't hold that much appeal, he said.
"It's way more of a challenge to do this," he said of drift car racing.
And then there's the satisfaction of gaining an even footing with the drift car drivers whom he and his team had idolized before beginning his own career.
"Now we're meeting them at these events we go to, and they already know who we are," he said. "They already know the Klutch Kickers name before we even get there. That aspect of it is super cool."