By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
The hills are alive with the sound of…horsepower.
Last week, the hollows of Pluto Road in Raleigh County (located at the top of Sandstone Mountain) sounded like the setting for a NASCAR or Formula 1 race. With deep echoes of roaring engines and screeching tires bouncing off the mountains, professional drivers were “drifting” their supercars back and forth across country roads.
Drifting is a motorsport where the driver intentionally oversteers in curves to produce a controlled slide of the rear wheels (and often all four wheels at one time). If your back wheels have ever slid sideways in a snowy turn on a country road, then you’ve drifted.
The sport was popularized in Japan during the 1990s, though its roots date back to the 1950s in Europe. Now for the first time, professional drifting has come to the backroads of West Virginia.
“It’s a dream come true,” says Jedediah Smith. He is a resident of Greenbrier County who works for Backroads of Appalachia, a non-profit dedicated to motorsports-driven tourism and economic development. “It’s a true testament to how amazing our roads and our mountains are.”
Pluto Road takes center stage
At the top of Sandstone Mountain, you’ll find the Pluto Road exit. It leads to a two-lane, country road that weaves amidst houses, farms, and businesses. It’s normally a quiet road used exclusively by locals.
But last Friday and Saturday, it roared. Backroads of Appalachia partnered with Drift Appalachia to operate the first-ever professional drift event in the West Virginia on a public, mountain roadway.
Right there on Pluto Road, three miles off Interstate 64 at the top of Sandstone Mountain.
“We usually drift on tracks,” Edgar Sarmiento of Drift Appalachia told RealWV as we interviewed him by the starting line. “Our sport began in the mountains of Japan.”
But it has never been done in American mountains. Until now.
“Today we have 30 drivers from all over the United States–Texas, South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and more,” said Shawn Allgood, of Drift Appalachia who was there to video the event to promote future races in Appalachia.
He said the roads drew them here. “We picked this area because the roads are fantastic,” he offered. “They lend well to spirited, exciting driving.”
In order to close the road and drive safely in a controlled environment, organizers worked with the Department of Highways for several months leading up to the event. Police, fire, and EMS were all on scene in case of an emergency. But the entire event went off without a hitch, and they hope to return for a series of professional drift events in 2024 on other sections of West Virginia’s country roads complete with spectator seating, concessions, and parking.
“We may be looking at utilizing drones that fly with the cars and relay video to large projector screens in spectator areas at the start and finish of the race,” says Jedidiah Smith. He says the mountain terrain makes for terrific drift conditions, but less than ideal conditions for internet access, parking, and bleachers. “The most important thing to us is getting people involved and celebrating our natural beauty.”
And if you’re wondering, “Who would come out to watch the motorsport?”, consider this. Organizers say the economic impact of the two-day event with no spectators was over $1 million. Erick Hubbard runs Backroads of Appalachia and estimates the economic impact will be much larger once it’s an open competition with additional drivers and spectators. And they plan to host multiple events throughout the year.
While covering the event, RealWV saw multiple residents along the road watching from their porches and videoing with their cell phones. The racers were the talk of the mountain.
Wheel man, Geoff Stonebeck
Geoff Stonebeck eight hours to Raleigh County from just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He’s been drifting for 20 years and is part of the well-known and respected Front Street Drift Club.
“I actually got my start racing at Summit Point Motorsports Park (Jefferson County),” he said. “It’s a beautiful state with awesome scenery and amazing people.”
Geoff gave us a window into how he and the other professional drivers adapted to the wet and cold road conditions. “With the rain today, we change the suspensions, swaybars, tires, pressures, the alignment in the rear,” he said. “The tough part about rain is once you hit the paint it’s like ice. There’s a lot of experienced drivers here that can overcome these obstacles. We’ve all done it before.”
A local take
Zachary Meadorm, left, lives on Pluto Road towards Daniels. He’s a 23-year old EMS technician and volunteer firefighter who’s starting medical school soon. He was on hand to provide fire and EMS support to the event.
“I’m extremely happy we have something like this on our backroads,” Zachary told RealWV. “People in my age bracket leave WV at higher rates than any other state. Things like this are paramount in keeping my generation here. I love it.”
He gave the drivers and staff high marks for operating a safe and secure event. “Everything has gone smoothly,” he said.
“I’ve been out on Pluto Road a million times for fire, EMS calls, or just visiting friends,” he reflected. “Now this little road is going to be viewed millions of times internationally with videos from today. It’s insane.”
‘Dream come true’
And it’s only the beginning. Shawn Allgood sees a whole series of drift events on Appalachian roads as soon as 2024. “Right now we are shaking the dust out and working the bugs out,” he says. “The drivers we’ve selected are the cream of the crop.”
“This is a dream come true,” Edgar adds with a smile the size of the mountain. “These mountains have been under our nose the whole time. Now, we’re here.”