The story behind Import Intelligence, a West Chester-based auto repair shop and professional drift team
FOR the everyday driver, it’s a nightmare scenario – that instant when your wheels break free from the pavement and your car starts to spin, slide and drift out of control. Matt Waldin thrives in this moment. He guns his Nissan 350Z toward the corner and slams on the accelerator, throwing up a cloud of smoke behind him as his wheels spin viciously just above the asphalt. His momentum carries the back end of the car outward toward the wall and he over steers, keeping the now sideways car moving along the track. Coming out of the turn he taps the brakes, swings the wheel around and mashes the accelerator to the floor again, sweeping his car back the other direction. Inches behind him another car mimics his every move in a dangerous dance as each driver tries to outdo the other in head-to-head competition. Welcome to Formula DRIFT, America’s largest-grossing professional drift circuit.
Drivers from as far away as Japan and South Africa compete in Formula DRIFT. Their website lists 60 drivers. Sorted by rank, Matt Waldin is the 24th person in that list. True, 24th puts Matt outside of the big sponsorship dollars and media spotlight, but it’s still pretty damn impressive. In fact, thanks to his victories in the Drift Mania Canadian Championship in the 2009 and 2010 seasons, you can now play as Matt in the iPhone game Drift Mania. At last count, it had been downloaded more than 3.3 million times.
Although Matt drives in the world’s premier competition, he’s not exactly a professional drifter – it’s more of a hobby. His day job is running Import Intelligence, an auto repair shop located on Turner Lane here in West Chester. He and his crew from the shop take weekends off to travel across the country for each competition.
Matt isn’t your typical mechanic — his degree is in electrical engineering. “Cars are no longer just complex mechanical machines,” he says, “They’re also complex electrical machines.” After graduating he got a job as an engineer and soon married his wife Andrea, a self-described prodigy (and we’re inclined to agree) who earned her bachelors degree from West Chester University at the age of 19, right about the time the average person enters college. At age 31 she’s now the VP of Marketing for an undisclosed software company. “She’s a marketing genius,” Matt says.
While working as an engineer Matt spent his free time fashioning custom car gauges. When he realized how popular they were becoming, he started selling them online. It was only a few months later that he decided to quit his engineering job and produce car equipment fulltime. “We had only been married a couple months when he came to me and said, ‘I’m quitting my job,’ and I remember thinking, ‘Oh great,’” said Andrea. “But, fortunately I was already out of school and working, so we were able to do it.”
Also around this time, while in the market for a car, Matt stumbled across a 1992 Nissan 240SX. The 240SX has become synonymous with drift culture – it’s the most commonly driven car on the drift circuit – but Matt didn’t know that at the time. “I just thought it was a cool car,” he said. He started taking his 240SX to the track in Englishtown, NJ, where he fell into a crowd of car lovers with similiarly rear-wheel-oriented interests. The names of his cohorts from those days now read like a who’s who of drifting: Chris Forsberg, the number three driver in Formula DRIFT from the 2011 season; Tony Angelo, labeled on Wikipedia as “an American drifting pioneer”; and Vaughn Gitten Jr., who Matt and Andrea refer to as “J.R.” Gitten Jr. is one of only three men to have ever won events in both Formula DRIFT and D1 Grand Prix, the top competition in Japan where the roots of today’s drift culture were sewn.
In 2000, Matt performed an engine swap on his 240SX, subbing in a more powerful, turbocharged SR20DET engine for his car’s stock KA24DE. Since drift culture has grown, and with it the popularity of the 240SX, this swap has been performed countless times and mastered, but Matt was one of the first on the East Coast to do it, and certainly the first in the greater Philadelphia area. He started building cars for his friends from Englishtown, developing a great reputation as a performance car builder working out of his garage. “I built J.R. the first drift car he drove in competition,” Matt proudly claims.
Matt’s friends started their pursuit of a drifting career back in the early 2000s, but he had other plans. He expanded the garage at his home and continued to build the performance business. Besides, he was a married man who had no business pursuing that life. “Those guys were living in a garage,” he says. “I don’t mean they spent all their time in one, the two of them [Forsberg and Angelo] actually lived in a garage for a while when they were getting started. They were showering under a hose.”
The performance business continued to grow so that by 2006 it was no longer feasible to be running the business out of the Waldin’s home garage. In 2007 Import Intelligence opened their doors on Turner Lane. Matt realized early on that it wasn’t feasible to run an auto shop that solely did performance work, and the market crash the following year solidified that. “People weren’t spending money on making performance upgrades to their cars,” Matt said. “We knew right from the beginning we would have to target everyday drivers if we were going to make this work.”
Today Matt estimates that only 10% of his business comes from performance work. The rest is everyday maintenance, which he has really taken a shine to. “If you had told me five years ago that I’d be doing oil changes every day, I’d have laughed,” Matt says, “but now I love it.” Really, it’s not so much about the work as it is about the people. “Taking your car to the mechanic is not fun. Nobody likes doing it. So, we try to make it is painless as possible. One of the things people hate most is that they feel like they don’t understand what’s going on, what the mechanic is doing to their car.”
Matt’s solution to this problem has been to be as accessible as possible. “He goes and gets the printout and shows the people what Ford is recommending he do for their Focus,” says Andrea. “Then he tells them what he thinks is essential, what’s fluff and explains what needs to be done in as simple of terms as possible.”
It’s Import Intelligence’s dedication to service that has put them in the position they now find themselves – able to shut down the shop for the weekend and take off in pursuit of a dream. The surprising thing is that those same guys who tune Matt’s professional drift car are the same ones who do all the work during the week at Import Intelligence. “My bare minimum race weekend team is two of the guys from the shop – Tony Martin and Brian Gaughan – and Andrea who is my spotter,” says Matt. “I won’t race without her.”
Sure, Matt Waldin isn’t a household name. Red Bull doesn’t sponsor his car, and import models and teenage boys don’t flock to him for autographs. Most of you reading this article had no idea there was a pro driver here in town. Still, when asked if he could do it all over again, to go back and follow Forsberg, Angelo and Gitten Jr. off to fame, Matt’s answer is straightforward, like everything else about him. He stares at Andrea for a moment, smiles and pauses while she smiles back. “Nah. Absolutely not. They ain’t livin’ the life, dude.”