MotoGP and Formula One are just a couple of the numerous professional motorsports programs that run their events no matter the weather conditions; it’s considered a mark of excellence if the driver can compete given a wet or treacherous environment. Among these competitions where all-weather events are the standard lies Formula Drift, the series that pits two drivers sliding sideways in tandem around a specified number of corners on a professional racing circuit. Formula Drift is now in its 13th season, and the 2016 season opener on the Long Beach Grand Prix circuit entertained wet weather action all weekend long, which continued up to the final battle for a rain dance unlike any other we’ve seen in recent times.
Last year’s FD champion, Fredric Aasbø, returned to FD competition for 2016 with the same 1000-horsepower Rockstar Energy tC from 2015; it’s branded SR by Toyota to cope with the now-defunct Scion marque. The entire field of competitors looked to bring down the reigning champion and part the seas of Long Beach in their quest for a championship.
As each driver lined up alongside the towering buildings, they stared down the straight of Seaside Way visualizing their entry into the slick Turn 9. Southern California hadn’t seen rain in over two months, which trapped the oils of consumer cars in the tarmac of the publicly-used roads that make up the racetrack. The timing of the weekend’s rain could not have been worse, as it brought the slick oils to the surface, mixing them amongst the puddles of rainwater for a slippery consistency that threw almost every driver for a loop.
The usual plumes of white tire smoke known for filling the gaps between the high-rise apartments were nowhere to be found. Instead, the dark storm clouds present over the marina unleashed their precipitation intermittently throughout the weekend, causing patchy track conditions that produced grip in some areas while mimicking a Slip’N Slide in others, illustrated here by Daijiro Yoshihara in his right-side-drive Turn 14 Distribution Subaru BRZ.
For a sport that involves the skill of sliding a car sideways, grip is extremely important in order to point the car in the right direction and pull off the ideal angled drift. In between the brief rainstorms of the weekend, the track would dry up just long enough to squeeze in a few practice runs, granting the drivers access to test and tune their dry weather performance.
Unfortunately, the onslaught of Mother Nature continued to be the fiercest competitor, causing wreck after wreck. After numerous collisions with the wall, Shengjun Zhang transformed his Get Nuts Lab S14 rental competition car into a pile of moving parts. Near mid-day Friday, when the emergency vehicles had seen more track time than the cars, practice was called to a close. Formula Drift drew upon a provision in the series’ Sporting Regulations, which omitted qualifying due to inclement conditions. Each driver’s finishing seed from the previous season instead determined the starting order for the following day.
The dawn of race day granted comfortable dry conditions to start, with the threat of poor weather slated to hit the area later in the day. Contenders like Ryan Tuerck in his Gumout Toyota 86, and ‘Mad Mike’ Whiddett in his ‘RADBUL’ Red Bull Mazda MX-5 Miata lined up in anticipation of the 9:00 am start time for the practice sessions, looking to take advantage of the dry conditions while they were present in order to finally dial-in some of their new modifications performed since last season.
Mother Nature’s indecisive weather plan caused problems for the teams, as the practice on the morning of competition saw some rainy conditions, although this time the drivers were more prepared for the sudden climate changes while they attempted to complete tandem runs of the full three-turn course. They approached each turn gingerly and at much slower speeds yielding a slow spin when the grip ran out, rather than a costly collision with the surrounding barriers.
By the time the Round of 32 started, the mix of conditions had created a mess of the now smoke-engulfed track. With deep puddles and slick patches throughout a mostly dry track, it would be up to the drivers to keep their car planted without getting into the greasy obstacles sprinkled throughout the course.
Sure enough, the skies opened up once again, forcing the first round of eliminations to finish on an increasingly soaked track.
Competitors like Geoff Stoneback in the CFR/Hankook Tire Nismo 370Z couldn’t throw in the towel because of a few spins. He fought with a car looking like The Terminator through a tough opening battle against Chelsea Denofa in his BC Racing BMW, but failed to progress to the following rounds.
The nervous energy at the event was palpable before the Top 16, as all attendees and teams could see the dark clouds looming overhead of the temporarily-dry ground.
Kristaps Bluss in his HGK Motorsport E46 BMW and Matt Field in his Falken Tire Nissan S15 squared off for an incredibly-close battle, which moved the competition steadily through the Top 16 and into a dark, yet dry, Top 8.
Forrest Wang’s stylish entry threw his 2JZ-powered Nissan S15 Silvia within inches of the wall, scraping his wing plates on the barrier ads. However, too much angle would seal his fate in the competition. His unforced over-rotation error on his lead run allowed Ken Gushi to advance into the final four in his GReddy Racing/Nexen Tire Toyota 86.
After taking down former champion Chris Forsberg in the Top 16, Chelsea Denofa now faced another previous title holder, Vaughn Gittin, Jr. and his new Monster Energy/Nitto Tire Ford Mustang. Gittin’s inexperience with the new chassis and Denofa’s undying desire to win saw the BMW edge out the Ford to progress into the final four.
An intense final four round saw veteran Ken Gushi lose to Chelsea Denofa in a tandem battle of aggressive angle and lots of tire smoke. In the other semifinal matchup, returning champion Aasbø progressed to the finals over Aurimas ‘Odi’ Bakchis in his Feal Suspension/ARK Hyundai Genesis.
A slight drizzle began to sneak its way back into the atmosphere. In a panic, the Formula Drift fans started the wave as a makeshift collective rain dance to ward off the incoming inclement weather. It appeared to work, as the remaining final battle was held on a reasonably dry track.
Prior engagements with the wall had rendered Denofa’s rear wing and bumper useless on the BMW, but the damage was no match for his unrelenting aggressive attitude.
In the final battle, Denofa faced yet another former champion in Aasbø, and the Norwegian’s Rockstar Energy tC looked as solid and consistent as ever. The purple and gold BMW attacked every corner with ferocity; entering and exiting with more angle and speed than its black and yellow counterpart.
Following the heated final battle, the top three competitors assembled for the announcement of the winner, with Ken Gushi taking home another podium for this third place finish.
The grandstands full of attendees all stood in anticipation, while the media surrounded the two final drivers. Could Chelsea Denofa take down three former champions in one event to achieve his only first place Formula Drift finish ever?
The announcement rang through the speakers that Denofa had completed the challenge, and he leapt atop his car to celebrate his first win.
Aasbø may not have won this round, but with such a solid showing he’s still the reigning champion everyone is trying to dethrone in the next round at Road Atlanta on May 6th – 7th. Look forward to Front Street Media’s coverage, as it guarantees to be a dramatic continuation of an already exciting season!