August 28, 2012

The Drive Effect.


Entertaining car journalism video as we know it was born in Britain with two "founding fathers": Jeremy Clarkson and Tiff Needell.

Most auto reviews in the US were in 80s MotorWeek mode, Clarkson a brilliant snarker who never minced words, blew the genre open  and created the entertainment behemoth that is Top Gear,.  For real tracktards though, Tiff was the man. While we suspect JC is a much better driver than his persona allows him to show, Tiff was always the king of sideways,  ripping around tracks he's the man who made it essential for every car reviewer to include a sideways shot, no matter how inappropriate the car.

Then, somewhere around 2007 or so Chris Harris popped up on the radar as sort of a blend of Clarkson and Needell. He had driving cred and could write with a tinge of that Clarkson irreverence. His clips for Autocar were always "the cool ones".

Late in 2011 Axis contacted Harris, CG was going to be racing in the 24 HRS of Daytona and there was an available seat in the car. We thought Evo, where Harris had moved to after a missed opportunity with the internet only magazine Driver's Republic, might be interested in covering the 50th edition on the Daytona, from the inside. But it was not to be, Harris told us he had just left EVO for a secret project that was going to be huge!

That project turned out to be Drive, a YouTube only publisher of long form automotive culture videos. By any measure, the success of Drive has been phenomenal.  From scratch, Drive has gained about 130,000 subscribers in just eight months and in the process changed the way everyone does internet videos.  Motor Trend re-launched their six year old YouTube channel with a familiar multi segment format, Car And Driver launched their version in May. Content on both of these historic publishers is quite different from what you might have seen just a year ago.

Who better to discuss the "Drive Effect" than with its creator and producer J.F. Musial.

AXIS: Tell us where the idea for Drive came from, how was it born?

J.F. MUSIAL:  In late 2006 at around the same time my good friends Alex Roy and David Maher set the transcontinental speed record from New York to Los Angeles, I met Emil Rensing. Alex had introduced me to Emil as someone that could help build the Automotive Division of the newly formed Next New Networks. I took the job working under the wings of the legendary Mike Spinelli. For those that don't know, Next New Networks was the parent company of Fast Lane Daily and Garage419. Next New Networks was eventually acquired by YouTube at the end of 2011 while at the same time I was building my own production firm, TangentVector.

Fast Lane Daily was always designed for a younger demographic. While we demonstrated the value of online video, in my opinion we were too early to the game. Our audience grew, but it was difficult to gain the trust of the automotive manufacturers and advertisers. No one at the time understood such a strange business model with a core competency focused around online video content. I always had ideas for producing something to reach a wider demographic, but it wasn't until the middle of 2011 when we had something on paper that looked feasible.

Emil and I initially had the working title of DriveIT; we never actually thought we could get the name DRIVE. Obviously should have done our due diligence earlier. Come October 2011, I started figuring out how we could financially make DRIVE work and how we could define the brand as being something unique.

Although Fast Lane Daily was not the car cult I wanted it to be, the knowledge we obtained from the show's production was undoubtedly valuable. We had produced over 1200 episodes by the end of 2011, plenty of time to learn how to make cheap car videos that looked expensive. Also with TangentVector's rapid growth, we had the expertise and equipment to produce the high production value we wanted for DRIVE. One of the most important aspects we discovered from Fast Lane Daily was the idea of routine programing schedules; training the audience to expect certain shows at certain times, much like TV.

By November 2011, I had a plan put together, a list of shows I wanted to produced that knocked on the door of all the different types of gear heads in the industry. Come December 2011 we had the most important element of DRIVE put together: The branding/graphics package. We were a small team but we needed to look big. My best friend Josh Vietze, a graphic designer, branded DRIVE in under two month. We knew we were going to have all these different shows under the DRIVE umbrella, but we needed to make sure they all felt part of the DRIVE family.

AXIS: Give us a bit of an outline of the various segments

J.F.M.:  As stated previously, we have scheduled programing. Some shows run every week of the year, while others are quarterly. Shows like SHAKEDOWN, Road Testament, and Chris Harris On Cars run every week. These are time sensitive shows. SHAKEDOWN covers motor racing while Road Testament is our op-ed section. Chris's job is to review a new car ever week. Most of the time those cars are new, but sometimes we have to default to the industry classics. E30 Rally Car anyone?

The rest of the lineup involves content not as time sensitive. TUNED with Matt Farah covers the aftermarket industry, Alex Roy's Live and Let Drive is our road trip show, RIDE APART is for our two wheeled friends, Big Muscle is the obvious muscle car show, and then we have things like DRIVE CLEAN which aims at educating the audience on how to detail their cars properly.

AXIS:  Harris is your biggest draw, how did your connection come about?

For the record, our biggest draw is our great content, not just Chris Harris. But to answer your question, I met Chris for the first time while we were filming our 24 Hours of Nurburgring Special in May of 2011; a special originally designated for Fast Lane Daily.

Prior to meeting Chris at the race, we had exchange a few e-mails but it wasn't until September 2011 that things started to come together. I had shared my ideas with him on how I wanted to build an online automotive video brand.
The biggest problem was something called the Atlantic Ocean between us and we were doing everything via email and phone calls.
During the last VLN race of 2011, a race Chris was participating in, I made the decision I needed to go finalize everything with him in person. I flew to Frankfurt on a Thursday morning, met with Chris at the Nurburgring Thursday night. Over beers we figured out how we were going to do this, then Friday morning I was on my way back to New York to figure out the rest of the DRIVE portfolio. My friends all thought I was nuts for flying to Europe for a three hour meeting with a guy named Monkey, but I think it paid off.

AXIS:  Looking at your twitter feed, it seems like you are never home....

J.F.M.:  I'm normally home in New York one week a month. No doubt the travel has taken a toll on my health at times. It all comes down to balancing the work load. Luckily, we've built out a fantastic team; I truly consider them a family.

AXIS: What is your background, when did you start in film/photography?

J.F.M.:  I went to school to be a Mechanical Engineer; that obviously didn't work out.Throughout my childhood I had always had a passion for photography. As a teenager I'd go up to Lime Rock Park and spend hours trackside taking photos of race cars. I still consider myself more of a photographer than videographer.

AXIS: How is Drive produced, can you share some tidbits for our tech savvy readers?

J.F.M.: First and foremost, it comes down to the team. All told, there are 19 people involved with DRIVE, but only ten of them are editors and shooters. You can have the badass equipment, but if the team sucks, nothing gets produced. We usually only have about 8 hours to shoot a new episode for DRIVE. Remember, we're publishing nearly three to four hours of content every week. You've got to keep the machine oiled and operating at full capacity. That means making sure team members don't burn out.

But in terms of gear we use, the typical stuff. No trade secrets: Panasonic HPX and HVX, Canon 7D and 5D, Nikon D800, Sony NEX5, and Contours for mounted shots.

AXIS: Speaking of, what would be your top tip for good video at the track?

J.F.M.:  Don't walk with your back to the traffic. All to often I see people turning their back to 180mph race cars. I was across the track from where Allan McNish went off at Le Mans in 2011. We are lucky no photographers were killed in that accident. A VERY lucky day for all parties involved.

In terms of shooting, my tip is to remember that the car is only half the story. Don't just pan with the car, establish the environment and atmosphere. Panning a car on the track with no reference points makes the car look slow. Adding trees and fences as perspective makes it all come to life.

AXIS: What has been your favorite episode so far?

J.F.M.: Spending the day with my two good friends Will Barber and Marc Urbano with the Carrera GTS in the Colorado Rockies. A day with a 911 on snow tires and my two good friends, beautiful scenery in the frigid cold with a Porsche.. Yes, awesome. More please.

AXIS: Do you get to drive, race or generally play with cars?

J.F.M.: I've driven rental cars on nearly every race track in North America. I'm a master camera car driver I'd like to say.  But to be honest with you, I wish I got more track time. I spend maybe 3-4 days a year actually in a proper car having fun on a track. I want more. I also dedicate 3-4 days a year to a fun, non-work road trip.

AXIS: What's ahead for Drive?

We've got things in the pipeline we're not ready to announce. More motorsports coverage. Bigger events. New shows. Ultimately, we're here to change the industry and the things we've got planned will do just that.


  1. I agree. Drive is the best thing that happened after top/fifth gear. And forced others to improve. Great piece.

    About "it's the content": yes, and fortunately Chris just provides the most popular pieces of it... and keeps people from unsubscribing at the next Alex Roy piece of "content" monologue. Without Chris on board, Drive would've suffered some serious "unfollowing".

    1. I confess I watch Harris and the trackside features. I tried watching Leo but I got too mad about his asinine comments about F1. Harris too was a tool with his Ferrari hissy fit but I'm guessing he was partially goaded into it. Not totally sure that Toyotaroo vid was 100% on the up and up. But he's good at finding many interesting machines and making it look fun. Tuned reminds me of every Internet car forum I have ever read.

    2. I didn't mean to say "it's just Chris". Just saying he IS the most popular and the biggest (individual) reason for this success. Chris has the gifts of driving skill, know how and communication. He can capture the attention of the hoonigan and the motorhead savvy, the "ricer" and the racer. Leo, I think he should have a live commentator job on tv. I'd like that. Much better than what he does now dissing everything!

  2. Drive is the first and only Youtube channel that I regularly watch. JF's point about a regular publishing schedule is certainly a big factor. But the best part about Drive for me, and probably for most others, is that they don't dumb down the car and the driving a la Motorweek: "This week, 550 horsepower!! [burnout]"

    Harris' segments are good, but so are the ones about tuner cars, muscle cars, and Alex Roy. These guys actually make thoughtful, well-reasoned, well-informed statements about cars. I never thought I'd enjoy a video about a 700hp Supra, but the one earlier this week was actually pretty good in that it explained the car's origin, how it got to where it is, and its current relative advantages and disadvantages.

    I don't watch the op-ed pieces because I don't care to look at talking heads. As to so many people's dislike for Roy, they probably don't understand that the guy is a walking example of tongue in cheek. That he doesn't take himself seriously is what makes his shows enjoyable.

    Really best wishes to the Drive team. Hope they can continue to produce quality content.

  3. Drive - the best thing that happened to me since Top Gear.

  4. Use the space while u can. Fifth gear starts again this September but there is still some room left until the silverback gorilla comes back in January.

  5. While I find some things interesting on Drive, over all I think the reviews are boring for the following reasons:

    If I'm watching a car review I want to see a car, not a man for 15 minutes Drives segments more often than not are way too long without enough content to keep me thoroughly interested along the way.

    Watching a documentary about the Huayra for 20 minutes where you see all the departments etc and hear Horacio talk (can't remember the name) is interesting. Watching a guy who is a mediocre driver who has a vague technical understanding of the equipment isn't entertaining to me.

    Personally I found the Drive review of the Ferrari 458 with Matt Farah to be one of the most boring and uninteresting reviews of one of the most interesting cars on sale today.

    Just my opinion and I come from a technical background behind the wheel and in shops. I tend to prefer a magazine like Race Car Engineering to something like Drive. Nothing wrong with either, just stating my opinion and why I don't find the network entertaining.

    1. there lies the conundrum ... Gratuitous shots of cars shredding tires sell more than discussions about suspension configuration, or so they say, nobody really tried the other way probably because you could never get ad sales... vicious circle sort of thing

    2. The Ferrari 458 review is not from Drive, it's from The Smoking Tire

    3. AC- I think any time you are appealing to the masses you have to dumb down your content. This is not to say the guys on drive have the ability to go super tech on viewers and choose not to. I honestly don't think a lot of the guys on Drive have a strong technical grasp on technology or even some of the basics of automotive setup and construction.

      Look at Race Car Engineering or Competition Engines (I think thats the publication). Their staff would kill anyone on Top Gear, Drive, Autocar, Car and Driver in terms of technical descriptions of education of whats really going on with a car / engine. They charge a premium for this service because they realize it's value.

      When ever something is free you are going to appeal to the masses, but suffer a loss of solid education. The most extreme example of this is the public internet car forum. Loads of "experts" to be found on even the best forums, many of which don't understand thoroughly what they are teaching to people.

      PLIDEX- The 458 review was done by Matt Farah who is now part of the Drive network...guilty by association on this one I'm afraid. One of the worst reviews of a 458 I've ever seen.

  6. The Harris stuff is great. The rest is typical US, shallow, personality devoid crap.


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