NZ's Maddest and Raddest sportsperson: Meet 'Mad Mike' Whiddett
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Pick your favourite New Zealand sports star and just know that their social media following will be a joke compared to that of Mad Mike Whiddett. He's got more followers than Indianapolis 500 and Indycar champ Scott Dixon, more than Formula 1 gun Brendon Hartley, more than NBA star Steven Adams, more than routinely-shirtless parenting heart-throb Sonny Bill Williams, and far more than recently engaged man Beauden Barrett.
Mad Mike Whiddett is a professional drifter. Drifting is a technique whereby drivers force their cars to lose traction in the bends, sliding — rather than driving them — smoothly through the apex of the corner as, say, any normal person would.
In 2016, the last time he competed in the prestigious Formula Drift series in the United States, he finished 19th. The winner was Chris Forsberg and second and third were former champs and legends of the sport Vaughn Gittin jnr and Fredric Aasbo — three of the most famous names in international drifting.
Nevertheless, if you put all their Facebook followers together, they come to 700,000 fewer than follow Mad Mike Whiddett.
He has twice won individual rounds in the Japanese Formula Drift series, but his best finish in the series as a whole is last year's fifth. The winner was Andrew Gray, who has a barely-worth-mentioning 86,000 followers.
He claims to have a bigger social media following than all the All Blacks put together, which is a claim more interesting for its existence than any truth it might contain. But still, two million followers on Facebook and 564,000 more on Instagram ain't just whistlin' Dixie.
The incredible custom-built drift cars he drives in competition have featured twice in major international video games, including in the smash hit franchise Need For Speed. Several of his cars have also been made into mass-produced miniatures by Hot Wheels. The high-end video shoots of his wild drifting demonstrations in beautiful, outrageously dangerous locations like Otago's Crown Range Rd have collected tens of millions of online views.
Competitive drifting is a bit like boxing, in that it is made up of a confusing collection of international titles vying for prestige, and it has an opaque, often-criticised judging method at its heart. The primary format is the "battle", in which two cars drift through three or four corners together and the winner is judged on a combination of speed, style, the line they take through the corners, and the angle at which they take them.
The established international drifting series are D1 and Formula Drift, and take place in both the USA and Japan. Red Bull has also had a crack at creating a one-off world championship, and last year the international motorsport body FIA did something similar. It's hard to extrapolate from all this to say exactly who's the best in the world, but one thing's for sure, it's not Mad Mike, who has won none of them.
Last month, on an unpleasantly hot day at the Hampton Downs track in North Waikato, where he currently has both his immaculately orderly car-filled workshop and a temporary apartment — he's building a home a short drive away — he put on the second edition of Mad Mike's Summer Bash, an all-day extravaganza attracting New Zealand's best drifters.
It's mostly hard work for him, months of organisation for an event he puts on to give back to the drifting community, so it was no surprise he didn't win it, but has anyone outside the New Zealand drifting scene ever heard of Gaz Whiter, the drifting genius who did, and who has less than 1 per cent of Mad Mike's social media following?
The Summer Bash was not just about the competition though. There were opportunities for ordinary punters to cruise the racetrack or go for a skid, there was entertainment and hospitality and Mad Mike was displaying his prime competition cars RADBUL, BADBUL and MADBUL but not HUMBUL, which was in Japan, ready for this year's Formula Drift season.
"People look at me and go, 'You've got a lot of frickin' cars, mate,'" he says, "but my cars make money."
Drifting at pro level is an expensive sport. The act of skidding a car sideways through a corner creates a cataclysmic screeching, a lot of smoke, and the evil smell of dying rubber. During a typical competition, a driver will end the life of around 40 tyres, at a cost of about $500 per tyre.
The only way to pay for all that and everything else is to have sponsors. "The prize money is not huge in drifting," Mad Mike says, "So yeah, nah, it's all in the partnerships we form."
He had three new cars on display, one of which was his 2-year-old daughter Jett's ride-on replica McLaren race car, which he initially set up with radio controls but that she can now drive by herself. His 9-year-old son Lincoln was also ripping round in his mini truck, which he races competitively. Lincoln, who is sponsored by GoPro and Hot Wheels, has a bigger Instagram following than Gaz Whiter.
His fiancee Toni Cook's new red sports car, MUMBUL, was also on display. The highlight though was the unveiling of MADCAB, the 1980s sedan which Mad Mike has rebuilt to look exactly like a Japanese taxi, complete with rooftop sign and full Kanji signwriting, but which is also a fully amazing 420hp drift car, which he can chuck sideways into corners at 200km/h while carrying up to three passengers.
He designed MADCAB himself and the authenticity extends to the card-sized taxi licence mounted on the dashboard, with a photo of himself in crazy glasses, with text written entirely in Japanese.
Translated, the licence reads: "Fake Driver Licence — issued by stray cat Ministry of Transport."
Address: "Under the table of Bancho Cosplay Cafe."
"Expires when someone has made a fool of the licence holder."
"Conditions: Do not play with wipers. Do not do quick catlike hits on the horn."
"Licence holder may drive: carts, wheel-barrows, bicycles, space shuttles, tanks."
A rough estimate of the number of people at Summer Bash who could read this licence is zero, and the licence was so small and inconspicuous that many who admired the car would not have noticed it anyway, but this is the level of detail you're competing with if you want to overtake the greatest empire-builder in international drifting.
Mad Mike says, "The whole building side of it for me is just as fun as the competition, if not even more so, especially with social media now, teasing: 'These are the new wheels that we're going to put on.' A little tease here: 'And here's a fender, and here's the colour," and then BOFF! — revealing it at the event.
"So Summer Bash for me was the taxi and Toni's MUMBUL and Jett's little McLaren. So to have those three there, that buzz, the electricity it creates and everyone like, 'Ohhhhh mannn! Look at the wheels' as everyone looks around the fine details. And then the next day [claps] I just want it to [clicks fingers] happen again. I'm just like [clicks again] 'What's next? What's next?'"
His understanding of how to work social media, as someone who came late to technology, has allowed him to exploit and grow his fan base, attracting sponsors as big and deep-pocketed as Red Bull and Mazda. He estimates he's one of only about 10 full-time professional drifters worldwide and he's savvy enough to know that being good at driving has been only one small part of getting to that point.
"You've got to think outside the box. You're not going to make a living out of trying to win championships. You need to be forward-thinking and doing stuff that no one else is doing. A world first — doesn't matter what it is, world records or video clips or car-builds or championships — you need to be creating cool content. And for me it just comes naturally."
When he finished his signwriting apprenticeship in his early 20s, his daily schedule looked like this: from 5.30am to 5.30pm working in his uncle's arborculture business, from 5.30pm to 8.30pm working on trucks in his uncle's fabricating shop, and from 8.30pm until past midnight working in his own signwriting business Cre8Grafx.
Then on Sunday mornings from 1am until 5.30am, he'd work pruning trees on the motorway. "You'd be in the pouring rain cutting trees down with the usual drunks crashing on the motorway," he says.
He did this for about five years. Gradually, the work changed until eventually it was 100 per cent about the business of being Mad Mike, the world's most famous professional drifter, but the work ethic, he says, has never changed.
Mad Mike Whiddett celebrates winning with his son Lincoln Whiddett. Photo / Michael Craig
"Still do those hours right now," he says, aged 37. "Still do those hours to this day, man."
"When people say, 'You're lucky', I say, 'Man I worked my ass off to get where I am."
He says his fiancee, who is also his manager, works just as hard. "Man, I don't think I've seen Toni go to bed before midnight for five years. Seriously. And that's just what it takes to live this dream."
Cook believes Mad Mike's success comes down to the fact he works extremely hard, has a huge amount of energy, is true to himself, is charismatic and always has time for the fans, which has helped him build his enormous following.
"He is always the last driver at a driver signing session and will stop and talk to fans anywhere and everywhere," she says, "including an elevator in hospital while I was bent over in labour pains!"
He is ambitious. They are ambitious. He has no plans to stop driving in the foreseeable future but the end goal is to build the Mad Mike Motorsports brand, with him at the head and others, preferably his children, doing the actual driving.
"You look at all these huge motorsports names — Penske, Richard Petty Motorsports — they were one guy who's just built this legacy and left the trail behind him."
Painted on the wall above the TV at the couple's former home in East Tamaki was the following quote from Formula One motor racing legend Ayrton Senna: "And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct and the experience as well, you can fly very high."
Mad Mike used to be a semi-professional freestyle motocross rider, which led to him breaking many bones and even once receiving a diagnosis of permanent paralysis. Then one day he and Cook found themselves at a New Zealand drifting competition. He said he reckoned he could do it and she agreed. Straight away, they sold pretty much everything they owned, including treasured cars, to fund his first drift car.
He had done plenty of driving, had won some burnout competitions and had spent plenty of time building cars in his spare time, but he had zero experience in competitive drifting and had, in fact, only just discovered it.
I asked if it seemed crazy to him now that he had taken this leap with no evidence that he was going to be any good.
"Yeah but it's the determination and the belief," he said. "You have to believe in a dream. If you've got it, you have to believe that you can do it. If you can't believe you can do something, you're never going to accomplish it."
He believes that hard work is responsible for getting him to where he is. He's got a saying: "Dreams don't work unless you do." He told a journalist a few years ago that his and Cook's shared motto is "under promise, over deliver". "That's what we do for all our partners and sponsors."
He told me: "I always think, 'Man, when we fall asleep and we're sleeping, everyone else is catching up.' It's like, 'Man, what's next? What's next? What's the next craziest thing?'"
I asked him: "Are you aware that this is a strange level of drive?"
"Seems pretty normal to me" he said.
"But others must tell you …"
"Yeah," he said, "I mean, that's what this screw here is." He grabbed at his left ear, which had a long black screw through it. "People say that I've definitely got a few screws loose."
The most viewed of his online videos, (nearly 7 million views on the official version alone), shows him drifting at high speed up the Crown Range Rd, which was closed to the public while the massive Red Bull-backed production took place with its army of crew, chase cars, drones, a helicopter and others. On some of his shoots, which he routinely refers to as "activations", there can be up to 100 people involved.
He enjoys the danger. "That's what I love about the driving part, is the fear element. And just that edge, man."
In another Red Bull activation filmed on a mountain pass in South Africa (3.6 million views), he ratcheted the car up to 248km/h before throwing it sideways, to the very edge of roads ending in sheer drops that, had he missed his timing even slightly, would have meant certain death.
He needs to have 100 per cent trust in everyone that touches his car on a shoot like this, he says. "If a wheel came off or an arm came loose or something wasn't done right on the car, I can't be thinking about that sort of stuff. Because at those speeds, you do hear different things, you feel vibration, you're on roads, you hear all this other stuff, you've got no time to be thinking, 'What's that?' That's when stuff goes wrong and will become game over."
Competitive drifting judges don't much care for life-threatening manoeuvres or wild car builds or video activations. There are no points for charisma, showmanship, exuberance or an innate understanding of how to tap directly into the deepest desires of the average car enthusiast via social media.
"It's a judged sport," he says, "It's not actually first across the finish line, so politics and natural human error, all that become involved in it."
"That's why when I get to do these film shoots like Conquer the Crown and Conquer the Cape and RADBUL Conquers Highlands, these amazing film productions, we get to express my style of driving, my version of drifting, the crazy, wild, big backwards entries and the crazy style, and the driving element, the fear element. For me the danger is much higher but yeah, I enjoy it the most, definitely. Definitely enjoy that the most."
"I think for me, well for anyone, with the investment of time and money that goes into any championship is huge, so it is very easy to lose the fun side of it and get frustrated with it."
He tags many of his social media posts #keepdriftingfun and he's started a few events designed to help others in the drifting scene. Along with Summer Bash, he stages a regular grassroots event called Drift Force and he's planning Mad Mike's Summer Camp, which he describes as "a motorsport school" where youngsters can come to learn to write sponsorship proposals "for $50 or $500,000, whatever it is, social media management, car setup, all the stuff which me and Toni have taught ourselves and learned and figured out over these 15 years."
He still wants to win competitions, don't get him wrong, but competitions are not the only measure of success, in drifting, or in life.
In the documentary about his life, Mad Life, which was released just over a year ago, he's riding in a car with Nobushige Kumakubo, a legendary Japanese drifter who was the king of the sport when Mad Mike first started out.
They're just out for a casual road drive, nothing wild, and the now-middle-aged Kumakubo is at the wheel.
Kumakubo says he was not there when drifting started 30 years ago as a way for young Japanese men to get the attention of young women, but he was part of the second generation.
"I was a bit shy so I started driving as close as possible to get attention" he says, lifting both hands from the steering wheel to indicate just how close he would get.
He spent seven years as a professional drifter in the sport's then-premier competition, the D1GP, but he quit in 2009, while still one of the best in the world. Mad Mike, in the passenger seat, asks him why.
Kumakubo laughs. Mad Mike laughs. "Easy answer. I love drifting. I think drifting not competition. Drifting is fun."