Drag Racer-Turned-Hollywood Producer Ali Afshar is Having a Blast
Ali Afshar is supposed to be on set right about now. He’s shooting the third of four movies he’s slated to produce in conjunction with Forrest Lucas’ non-profit organization Protect the Harvest—a film about the plight of wild horses in the drought-stricken American West—but there’s a small problem: he and his prized 1980 Chevy 4×4 that’s made a cameo in each of the five feature films he’s produced are still at the race track. Even as film crew members file onto the set near Glen Ellen, California, to begin shooting establishing shots of the area’s notoriously beautiful landscape and prominent set locations—meant to include Afshar’s red-and-white pickup parked next to a stable—the star of the scene is still hooked to an open trailer carrying a 2015 Chevy COPO Camaro in the pits of Sonoma Raceway.
“I really didn’t think we’d still be here this late in the day, so I didn’t worry about rescheduling the shoot,” Afshar says with a laugh, referring to the 8 a.m. start time of Stock Eliminator round-one eliminations. “These guys are killers; I knew the car would run the number, but I didn’t think the driver gave us much of a chance today.”
In truth, however, Afshar is more than confident in his abilities behind the wheel, but it’s this entirely new world of sportsman drag racing, full of unfamiliar intricacies like dial ins and handicapped starts, that felt like cause for concern.
He may be due on set 30 miles from the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, but Afshar looks more drag racer than movie producer today. His blue jeans, red-and-white Chuck Taylor high tops, black, short-sleeve t-shirt and cattleman-style Stetson somehow seem to fit the image of a 43-year-old California car guy. The wisps of gray hair showing ever so slightly under his hat, salt-and-pepper five o’clock shadow, Cartier watch and $400 Tom Ford Aviator sunglasses, though, scream Hollywood.
“I had my moments,” says Afshar, grimacing a moment as he tightens the final ratchet strap holding his virtually brand-new COPO Camaro onto the flatbed trailer. In the opening round he survived a .601-second reaction time when Tony Hewes went .006 red, but advanced from the second round after going .017 on the starting line and running a near-dead-on 8.881 against an 8.88 dial. With Super Stock and Stock ace Jimmy DeFrank in the opposing lane for the third round, though, Afshar left early (-0.110 red), marking the end of a brutal introduction to the high-speed chess game that is championship-level sportsman drag racing.
“I figured we’d go up there first thing this morning, get hammered by one of these guys, be loaded back up on the trailer and headed to the Napa Valley to film a movie by lunch at the latest.” Within minutes of pulling out of the race track, however, Afshar’s coming clean. “Who am I trying to kid?” he asks, smiling. “You go to every race expecting to win—it’s part of being a racer; it’s part of being a competitor.”
That inherent expectation isn’t surprising considering Afshar’s past. Despite having made a name for himself in Hollywood as both an actor and producer—perhaps most famously to automotive enthusiasts as the writer and producer of the Born to Race movie franchise (2011 and 2014) that tells the tale of an illegal street racer turned professional drag racer—Afshar is actually one hell of a racer himself, and has been for a long time.
Though Afshar consistently points to luck when it comes to the line items on his résumé, it’s seems more an effort to downplay the many hats he so successfully wears than an admission. For someone so deeply entrenched in legitimate Hollywood filmmaking, particularly the required self-promotion and ballyhooing, the humility is impressive.
A chance encounter in 2002, however, may have something to do with Afshar’s luck theory. Having made a name for himself in the turbo Buick community as a builder and racer of some of the west coast’s quickest, fastest and most streetable Grand Nationals and T-Types, he was intrigued by the import racing and sport compact car craze that came in the wake of the monumentally successful The Fast and The Furious movie released the previous year.
“I had already embraced the intercooled-turbocharged deal, so I bought a Subaru WRX STI with a fuel-injected, intercooled, turbocharged four-cylinder that made 300 horsepower and was all-wheel-drive. It seemed like the perfect platform for a fast street car,” he says.
The four-door Subaru was capable of 12-second quarter-mile passes off the showroom floor, but within a few months Afshar had transformed it into a 10-second, 800-horsepower monster while keeping it a daily driver with all the factory-offered creature comforts one would expect from a late-model performance car. That, and winning street-legal import drag races, scoring magazine covers and features and generally creating a lot of buzz.
Then one afternoon at a car show/track day, Afshar let a stranger he knew only as “someone from Subaru” drive his car. “We pulled back into the parking lot and as we were getting out of the car I told the guy, ‘Hey, bro, I hope you had fun, but you have to admit that you kind of drive like a girl.’ He laughed, I laughed, we shook hands and that was it. Another guy there—I think he was part of the group that was putting on the show—he asked me if I knew who the guy was and I told him I didn’t. He goes, ‘That’s Tom Doll, the president and COO [chief operating officer] of Subaru America.’ I didn’t know what to think—I’d just told him he drives like a girl!”
Regardless, within a week Afshar received a certified letter from Doll, introducing himself and hoping to arrange a lunch meeting at Subaru’s corporate headquarters in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
“When something like that presents itself, you don’t do anything other than buy a plane ticket and go,” says Afshar, deadpan. “My girlfriend and business partner in my shop at the time and I roll in expecting to have a casual chat with this guy over lunch, but it’s nothing of the sort. We walk into this massive corporate meeting room, packed full of all these different executives and Tom [Doll] asks me to tell the group what I’ve been doing with my STI out on the west coast. So, I stood up and just started talking.”
That marked the beginning of a 12-year relationship between Afshar and Subaru America, at various times a multi-million-dollar annual program that carried him to 18 NHRA national-event victories, two NHRA world championships and multiple world records in his all-wheel-drive Subaru STI and other Subaru-sponsored rides, including a seven-second, 1,400-horsepower, back-halved, rear-wheel-drive Subaru BRZ.
“It just kind of happened,” Afshar says with an innocent shrug. “Before I knew it we were doing 25 to 30 races, 60 events, dealer shows, grand openings, you name it. We had 28 employees, our own Hot Wheels die-cast cars. We were literally on tour. We became like this powerhouse motorsports marketing operation for them. Subaru was already strong in a lot of places, but we helped them penetrate the market in the Sun Belt, especially southern California. But it was a fluid deal. Some years were major and you were racing all-out, and other years you were racing more of a street car. It was all dependent on the goals of the marketing team at Subaru.”
And while the all-encompassing role of full-time race team owner/operator/driver was a part Afshar had been more than happy to play; things were changing.
“It was getting to be too much,” he admits. “It was a lot, but it was what we did and I think we probably could have kept it going and continued to be successful, but the marketing guys changed at Subaru. The new guys, well, they aren’t into drag racing and they don’t understand the popularity of drag racing in the United States. They’re into rally racing—almost exclusively—and they’re just missing the boat.”
Born in the Middle Eastern country of Iran, Afshar was just three years old when his mother, Leila Kasra Afshar, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shortly thereafter, in 1977, his father, Eskandar, moved him and his two older brothers, Pasha and John, to London to seek more advanced medical treatment for their mother.
“In a weird way, the whole situation was a blessing, at least at the time,” Afshar now realizes. “While we were in London, the Islamic Revolution happened. The Shah of Iran was overthrown, these new crazy people get in there and, honestly, they would have probably killed my dad if we had still been in Iran, just for trying to leave. My mom getting cancer and us having to leave for London, it kind of saved our family.”
Unfortunately, leaving Iran also meant starting over. The Afshar family left everything behind. “We were broke,” Afshar remembers. “The doctors told my mom she had six months to live in 1978, so my dad decided to move us again—to America—to find a new hospital and keep battling.”
Afshar’s mother fought the illness until 1989, outliving her original diagnosis by over a decade, but the battle consumed the three boys’ childhoods. “It was tough,” he recalls. “We traveled from hospital to hospital constantly. My mom had 17 operations. It was hard on all of us, and being the youngest of three brothers—from Iran—now living in small-town America during the whole Iran hostage crisis didn’t help matters.”
Before Leila’s passing, the Afshar family had settled into Petaluma, California, a town of just under 35,000 at the time, about 40 miles north of San Francisco. A month shy of his 16th birthday when his mother died, Afshar says his father promised to buy him a car if he could keep his grades up, maintaining at least a 3.5 GPA. The morning of June 16th, Afshar’s birthday, his dad followed through with a 1967 Chevy Camaro RS, but with the car came news that his dad was going back to Iran for the first time since they had arrived in the United States and would be staying for three months.
“The plan was for me to stay at a friend’s house until he got home, but it never really turned out,” Afshar says. “Three months turned into six, turned into a year, and he was never able to come back home. He got stuck over there. They had taken all of his land away; they kept him at the airport with a gun to his belly and wouldn’t let him come back.”
In the meantime, Afshar crashed at one friend’s house after another, continuing high school in Petaluma and drag racing his first-generation Camaro on Wednesday nights at then-Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma. Representing Casa Grande High School, Afshar won the High School Challenge at the track before graduating, setting in motion his lifelong love affair with fast cars and drag racing.
Without their father, though, the three Afshar boys watched as the family once more lost everything. The home their parents had bought near Los Angeles, where his mother had been receiving treatment at Century City Hospital, was foreclosed on. “My older brothers tried to keep the mortgage paid, but they just couldn’t afford it,” he says. “They were in their early 20s and I was 16. Basically, we all had to just start from scratch.”
For Afshar, the dream had always been to get into acting, so after high school he relocated to Los Angeles to get closer to the action, but also to fulfill his parents’ wishes of studying medicine at California State University Northridge. Pairing what money he make street racing and flipping cars, along with whatever odd roles he could get working as an extra or leading in a commercial, Afshar put himself through college and ultimately graduated with a Bachelors of Science degree in Environmental Biology.
That wasn’t the dream, though. The dream was to make it in the movies and on television, which started to become reality in 1994 when he landed a major acting role as “Grease,” a racer-mechanic on the popular NBC show Saved By the Bell. “It was a huge moment, and seemed pretty fitting at the time,” Afshar says. “Hell, it still does.”
The workday starts early for Afshar when he’s shooting. He’s up at 5:30 each morning, bouncing off the rev limiter the moment his feet touch the floor. “I’m totally high strung,” he says. “I can hardly get myself to sleep at night and when I do it’s only for a few hours.” He’s in jeans again today, with a red, white, and blue-plaid button down shirt, a dark brown designer leather jacket and, of course, red Chuck Taylors. “I don’t drink coffee; I don’t need to, and I don’t think anyone would want me to.”
By 6 a.m., with ‘80s classic rock blaring on the stereo in his GMC Syclone—an ultra-rare turbocharged 4.3-liter, six-cylinder, all-wheel-drive S-Series pickup produced only in 1991—Afshar is zipping through the canyons on his way to one of the locations for Running Wild, deep in the heart of California wine country.
“I’m working as the producer/executive producer on these films with Forrest Lucas and Protect the Harvest,” he explains. “So, my role is making sure that financially we’re OK and that we’re on schedule. Having experience as an actor, I like to sit and watch the takes, and kind of provide some input and feedback for the director, Alex Ranarivelo.”
Though Afshar spent nearly every weekend at a drag strip or car dealership during his tenure with Subaru, he’s admittedly slowed his pace very little since turning his focus back to Hollywood, where he currently resides. Going from race car driver to brand ambassador and from actor to writer to director has always been a bit of a whirlwind for him, but it’s a role in which he truly shines.
“I do think I’m good at this,” he says. “I’ve been lucky, but I do think this is one of my skills, being kind of a chameleon and doing whatever needs to be done to get the job done. But I will be honest; I’m guilty of being Gemini and stretching myself a little too thin. I don’t know for sure that I’ll be able to keep this up forever and I would like to get to a place in life where I could be a little more focused, a little more stable if you will.”
It’s almost noon on Wednesday after the Sonoma Nationals and Afshar’s been running non-stop since stepping out of the Syclone this morning. Superstar actress Sharon Stone is on set today and it’s got the place buzzing–much like Afshar on the 50-cc Honda dirt bike that he rides from spot to spot, talking with actors, Ranarivelo, production staff and generally overseeing the operation.
Afshar’s longtime friend and newfound business partner, Forrest Lucas, has shown up, too, but can’t stick around for long. His private jet is waiting at a nearby airport to take him and Afshar to Los Angeles for an afternoon meeting with the CEO of Warner Bros. The plan is to discuss business opportunities between Warner and Lucas and Afshar’s ESX Productions, but the two can hardly stop talking racing.
“I’m just lucky you’re on board,” Afshar says with a laugh to Lucas. “I’m lucky that you’re supporting this deal and, thankfully, people—fans, other racers—they love the car and they love what we’re doing because I don’t think you’d be too thrilled if it was all about results.”
The car, of course, is the red 2015 COPO Camaro that Afshar drove the past weekend to a third-round finish in Stock Eliminator, a class populated almost entirely by world-class bracket racers. Afshar admits that after the parting of company with Subaru he thought he’d be able to satisfy his need for speed with his stable of street cars, but a calendar year hadn’t passed before he once more felt the itch to compete. Turns out a longtime friend at Subaru had taken a top-tier position at General Motors and Afshar had heard all about the modern-day factory race car Chevrolet resumed producing in 2011, offering just 69 of the specially-equipped Camaros each year since.
“Just trying to buy one of these things is a challenge,” Afshar says. “But I knew that I had to have one. It felt like an opportunity to kinda’ go back to where it all started, in a Camaro, but this time with a blown small block. It was like this opportunity to go back home and to do things differently, to go drag racing because I love it and to have fun.”
Still, he wasn’t quite aware just how different it would be. For Afshar, going sportsman racing was a decision made in the name of simplification and surefire good times, but when he rolled through the gates at Sonoma Raceway—the same place he’d won the high school drags in a red Camaro over two decades prior—it quickly became abundantly clear his idea of grassroots drag racing didn’t coincide with modern reality.
“My plan was to do this lean and mean,” Afshar says. “Me and my buddy Brian Friday that has been racing with me for 15 years, my jacked up 1980 Chevy, an open trailer and this badass new eight-second Camaro. Dude, we parked next to a f#$%^&* million-dollar Prevost bus hooked to a stacker trailer! I can’t say that we knew what to expect, but this wasn’t what we thought sportsman drag racing was going to look like.”
Afshar figured, at least initially, he was going to be well positioned merely having as serious of a Stock Eliminator car as possible, but he was introduced to an entirely new world of drag racing when he pulled into the lanes on elimination day. “All of a sudden you’re looking around, taking special note of like a flat-black Vega with contingency decals up to the roof line,” he says, “because you know that guy is probably a 10-time world champion. That’s the guy that’s sending you home. It’s a dramatic departure from the sport compact scene where cars are notorious for looking faster than they are, but it’s as much of a challenge as anything I’ve ever done.”
So it’s a new role, but one that Afshar thinks he can play.
“I can hardly imagine cutting a ‘double-oh’ light with a footbrake car,” he says, shrugging. “You can bet your ass I’m trying, though. It can take a little while to get into character.”
This story originally appeared in Drag Illustrated Issue No. 101, the Sportsman Issue, in July of 2015.