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Here’s the Real Story of The Drive’s YouTube Channel, and How We’re Bringing It Back

We're proud to announce we're running it back on YouTube—but first, we've got some explaining to do.

It’s one of the most common questions we get. What the hell happened to /DRIVE on YouTube? The short and easy answer is that it went supernova. Just burned so damn bright, it collapsed. It took real brilliance to launch the first major independent automotive channel over a decade ago, when doing high-quality car videos online wasn’t a thing. That energy can’t be contained, or protected, forever.

The long answer… well the long answer just got a bit longer, because today, The Drive officially returns to YouTube! And we’re starting by explaining the real story of the channel: its meteoric rise; its chaotic, painful fall; and how we’re bringing it back. Check it out below—and stay for the preview of our first new series at 6:30.

It’s called Carisma. Each episode will profile of one enthusiast and their car to explore how it defines them and their place in the culture—and how we’re all a lot more alike than individual tastes might show. Beautiful visuals and deep conversations at a moment where we enthusiasts need to be looking out for each other. The first episode drops tomorrow, and then we’ll have weekly videos on Fridays.

Of course, you’re reading this on thedrive.com, so hopefully you know we’ve built a pretty great daily site for car enthusiasts out of the diffuse nebula left by the channel’s original run. But we always wanted to get back to YouTube and carry on that incredible legacy.

It’s been five years since our last regular uploads, and even longer since the original hosts were all together. Is there anything more frustrating than when something you love just slips out of your life as mysteriously as it arrived? I think we owe you this explanation, with the generous help of some friends: JF Musial, Mike Spinelli, and Matt Farah.

A Star Is Born

Mike Musto, Chris Harris, Matt Farah, and Mike Spinelli in /DRIVE Hosts Read Comments From Trolls

The story is, at its core, defined by money (what else). What many people still don’t know is that our channel was literally funded by YouTube at the beginning, part of a $100M investment it made in developing original content in 2011 and 2012. The Drive would have never existed without YouTube cutting some giant checks back then.

How we ended up with a slice of that cash is interesting and important. Back in 2008, when “streaming” was barely a whisper on the industry’s lips, Musial and Spinelli worked at an online production company called Next New Networks that developed and distributed TV-like shows for video platforms, including Fast Lane Daily and Farah’s first show Garage 419. It was co-founded by Emil Rensing, a talented media executive and car enthusiast. 

Both guys left by 2010, but a year later YouTube bought the company. As part of that original content push, it approached three automotive outlets about participating. Two said yes, one said no, and YouTube executives asked Rensing if he could figure out a replacement.

“Emil immediately said yes, and then didn’t have any idea how to do it, and came to me and was like, ‘okay, if you were about to get a couple million dollars, what YouTube channel would you make?’” Musial says. “And I designed /DRIVE. Like, on a back of fucking piece of paper.”

It was a series of shows celebrating car culture, squarely aimed at dethroning Motor Trend and Car & Driver as the premier storytellers for automotive enthusiasts.

His first call was to Spinelli. “We met in Bryant Park. I was like, where are you? He was over at the Intercontinental working in the fucking lobby. I’m in the city. We’ll just go,” Spinelli says. “So we met up at Bryant Park and he laid all this stuff out, and I was like, Jesus Christ, this is amazing.” 

Next up, Matt Farah and Alex Roy. Chris Harris, though he wasn’t Top Gear-famous yet, was a huge get. Musial flew to Germany to corner him at the 2011 Nurburgring 24 after Harris made an offhand promise to sign a contract if he showed up. It worked.

After a frantic three-month development period and a final pitch to YouTube, /DRIVE launched in January 2012. The channel immediately found an audience and grew alongside its following. Shows like /DRIVEN, /TUNED, /CHRIS HARRIS ON CARS, AFTER/DRIVE, /SHAKEDOWN, /ROAD TESTAMENT demanded attention. After a successful first year, the universe expanded even more in 2013, adding hosts like Mike Musto and Larry Kosilla and ambitious projects like our /INSIDE KOENIGSEGG series, and absolutely wild videos like Chris Harris hammering a Ferrari F40 and F50.

“I mean, it was a really, really good time. I got to make videos I wanted to make with the people that I wanted to make them with, which is not a given,” Farah says. “Everyone who worked on the YouTube channel and the TV show was just really good at their job. Long story short, some of the most fun I’ve ever had making car videos was doing the /DRIVE stuff.”

It felt like a true cultural epicenter had formed. But it wasn’t going to last.

The Troubles Begin

At the end of 2013, YouTube finally had enough of paying creators and shut down its content funding program. This was an existential threat—no one was getting rich off the channel anyway, and now it was losing money. To survive in 2014, the channel had to pay for itself, somehow.

One effort was the NBC Sports show, /Drive on NBC Sports, which came about when NBC approached us to essentially make more of what was already on YouTube for TV. That helped with the bottom line, but because NBC owned the content, it couldn’t run in full on YouTube.

Far more infamously, we also tried out our doomed subscription plan. Today, asking people to pay creators for content they like—$3.99 a month for ad-free, full length videos in this case—is normal. Back then, it was cause for a riot.

“People were not used to paying for content. There was a major backlash. And in the same way that the hosts get all the credit when the films are good, the hosts get all the blame when financial decisions are made that don’t seem to work out,” Farah says. “Harris and I were called greedy and all this crazy shit, even though both of us took major pay cuts just to keep working. I don’t know why it wasn’t very obvious, but nobody really understood why it would take money to make highly premium content. We were just too early.”

This promo guide is a little painful to share, but it’s indicative of how complicated everything was getting.

Everything was splintering, as the above image shows. It suddenly became very complicated to watch our videos, the hosts were taking heat from viewers, and the audience began to drift. Though ironically, the Drive+ math worked; Musial says enough subscribers signed up. The views just weren’t there anymore to sustain the rest of the operation and maintain high-level access with car companies.

“The problem was that the OEMs didn’t like it. They didn’t want the content to be behind a paywall because the videos were getting so few views in comparison. It meant no exposure for them,” Musial says. “We just didn’t have enough time to figure it out.”

This whole time, Emil Rensing was a semi-silent partner who owned 33% of the /DRIVE brand, involved mainly in the YouTube contracts and other business matters. He was also the chief digital officer of Epix, the old pay-per-view channel, and as we now know he was in the middle of stealing millions of dollars from them. Rensing was arrested by the FBI and charged with wire fraud and identity theft in 2016, pled guilty, and was sentenced to four years in prison in 2018.

To be clear, the channel was never funded with any stolen money, as the FBI investigation confirmed. In any case, with Rensing unraveling and the business side of YouTube falling apart, the channel needed a new owner.

“Towards the end of it, we were all like, we want to get away from Emil,” Musial says. “We just need to get away from him. And we were doing everything we possibly could to get away from him, including… we just got to sell it.”

“We were at the forefront of doing a full-on produced automotive network. And it really is a bummer,” Farah says. “It’s a bummer because if YouTube didn’t pull the plug, if Emil didn’t steal the money, if we could have continued it for another year or two, it probably could have sustained.”

Adventures in Time Inc

In 2015, the crew entered into talks with Time Inc. The legacy giant was struggling to adapt to online publishing, so it set up a sort-of blog incubator to spin up new digital-first outlets. It wanted an automotive site, and it wanted the /DRIVE brand for it. What it didn’t really want was a YouTube channel.

After a tortured negotiation process in which Rensing, who also owned Fast Lane Daily, lumped that channel into the deal, and Time Inc launched thedrive.com before the deal technically closed, forcing the name change, it was all done in February 2016. /DRIVE became The Drive. Now we had a site and a YouTube channel, a lot of talented people working on both, and a deep pocketed corporate owner. Stability?

Of course not. Things were more tenuous than ever. Time wasn’t prepared to spin up or directly fund a big video operation right away, so Musial signed a contract to produce one more run of shows for eight months in 2016 before exiting for good, along with most of the original hosts and crew. “I couldn’t be there as the creator of the thing,” he says. “I love /DRIVE, I love what we did, but I couldn’t be taking orders from someone else.”

Spinelli was the only guy to sign on full-time at Time Inc, and he ran a small, super hardworking video team to keep things going through 2017 and 2018 as budgets kept shrinking.

In early 2018, Time sold itself to Meredith, another publishing conglomerate. I was working here as a staff writer at the time, and I remember getting on the conference call when some executive informed us that Meredith was just not interested in The Drive or cars. They planned to shut us down completely in nine months unless we could find a buyer. Meanwhile, one of the few things we had to put on the channel was trailers for the NBC Sports show, which kept getting renewed to everyone’s amazement and joy—but we couldn’t put the full clips on YouTube because NBC owned them. People loved that.

Amazingly, we did find a buyer—a group of private investors swooped in and saved us. We spent 2019 retooling as a small independent media company, fixing a lot of Time Inc’s mistakes, setting up the site for growth, and preparing to dive back into YouTube in a big way. We started testing the waters that fall, confident that 2020 would be our year. The world had other ideas.

Once again, the timing just didn’t work out. The site was the business by that point, and the channel went dormant save for a few random uploads. Overall, our story is littered with just an incredible amount of missed opportunities and what ifs. Sliding doors, as they say. But the past is the past. The present is calling.

Today: The Relaunch

Our mission has always been to explore, chronicle, and celebrate car culture. In the five years I’ve been running The Drive, I’ve watched the poles shift; new cars themselves, with some big exceptions, don’t really drive car culture anymore. Whether it’s because they’re too expensive, too techy, too crossover-y, too electric, too overstyled, you name it—people aren’t as stoked about new models anymore. Tech and design can be fascinating, but it doesn’t pull like the old stuff.

When we launched in 2012, the industry was in peak internal combustion, the average new car price was around $30,000, and screens were still decently sized. Today, it’s convulsing with change, that average price is nearly $49,000, and screens are your whole dashboard. 

Which is fine, if you like that! But it’s not producing car culture. No, car culture today is being rebuilt and defined by enthusiasts doing their own thing, finding their own joys, and finding ways to connect with others over the shared passion. It’s starting to feel a little like us against the world out there, right?

So that’s what we’re here to celebrate with our first new series called Carisma. Produced by the talented Tom Gorelik, each episode will profile an enthusiast and their ride to explore how their car defines them and their place in the culture. Beautiful visuals, deep conversations. The car world can feel tribal, and you may not think you can just go up to someone with wildly different tastes and talk about it. But given the chance to step into the mind of another car nut, you’ll see we connect with our machines in the exact same ways, if not over the exact same things.

We’re also going to launch a series built on the incredible longform feature storytelling we’ve done here, visual explainers breaking down some of the best tales from the last century-plus of cars and transportation. We’ll revisit some of our favorite stories published here and mix in new ones as we go.

This is just a start. I want to thank you for reading, watching, and hopefully trusting what I’m saying. We’re building something new on the defining legacy of /DRIVE and trying like hell to do right by it. It’s daunting, but the moment demands the same spirit that turned us into a pioneer all those years ago. Let’s do this.

What do you want to see on YouTube? Let me know: kyle@thedrive.com