Photos via John Zhang and Nicole Mcentee / 1013MM
Thirteen years after the inaugural American drifting event at Irwindale Speedway, the sport has changed, the cars have changed, and the layout has changed, but the setting remains the same. The Southern California oval course with an uncertain future hosted the 2016 Formula Drift season closer under the scorching hot sun – and eventual fluorescent lights – which pitted 32 of the sport’s top competitors against each other in the battle for drifting supremacy.
Similar to previous years, the attrition rate for this event was high – maybe it was the white wall awaiting drivers and their cars after the course’s first transition. It’s been known to remove multiple competitors throughout a drift weekend.
Much like the Wall of Champions has a knack for eliminating the world’s top Formula 1 drivers at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Canada, the final turn of the Formula Drift layout at Irwindale Speedway has eliminated some of the most elite drift drivers. This swooping stretch of concrete has no mercy for anyone who miscalculates their speed, regardless of their championship points.
However, Irwindale’s own Wall of Champions wasn’t the only source to remove drivers from the fray. The outrageous ambient temperatures on track tested not only the mechanical integrity of these professional drift machines, but also took its toll on the drivers who pilot them.
The high static temperatures push numerous fluids in the cars to their boiling point once they are in use, sacrificing the advances of modern technology and forcing the hydraulic-assisted pieces of the cars to malfunction. To alleviate this issue, the cars are equipped with finned coolers – think mini radiators – throughout the chassis for every liquid from engine oil to rear differential fluid and everything in between. Unfortunately, the coolers aren’t enough when the cars are being pushed to their limit in the heat of competition, and critical assists like power steering fail.
These types of failures are illustrated here by Ken Gushi in the Greddy Racing SR by Toyota 86. After his power steering system failed, he lost control of the car and wrecked, damaging crucial elements in the front end in the process. Several members of his crew dispersed into the vendor area to remove similar functioning pieces from the Evasive Motorsports/Mackin Industries Pikes Peak 86 racecar located at the Turn 14 Distribution booth. Do anything it takes to win, right?
With so many moving parts and so much heat being generated by these machines at full blast, the temperatures inside the car reach well above the 130-degree mark. With no finned coolers for a human to outlast the fatigue from the heat, drivers need to be in peak physical condition or be equipped with a Cool Suit – a garment worn under race suits equipped with passages of cool liquids designed to flow over and around the driver’s torso.
Amidst the harsh conditions, both man and machine continued pushing throughout the practice sessions as the sun fell in the sky. The Round of 32 hosted an all-BMW matchup between Kristaps Bluss in the HGK Racing E46 and Michael Essa in the Loud Mouth Exhaust E46. On his lead run, Bluss would end up leaving Essa behind to progress into the Top 16.
A spike in form pushed Pat Mordaunt in the DriftPaddock 350Z past the Round of 32 against a tough contender in Vaughn Gittin, Jr. and his Monster Energy Ford Mustang. Gittin’s loss in the early stages would make the title race interesting later in the night.
After the Round of 32 had concluded, the sun had set and the drivers lined up under the lights for Top 16 driver introductions in front of the packed grandstands.
Some drivers like Justin “JTP” Pawlak in his Roush Performance Ford Mustang even put on a show for the fans and littered the oval track with clouds of tiresmoke.
With Top 16 competition underway, it was an all Turn 14 Distribution-sponsored tandem as number one qualifier Dai Yoshihara in the full Turn 14 Distribution-livery Subaru BRZ faced off against sponsored driver Geoff Stoneback in the Chris Forsberg Racing Nismo 370Z. Yoshihara carried his momentum from qualifying to progress past Stoneback and into the Great 8.
Leading up to the penultimate event of the season, there were only four Formula Drift drivers in the running to win the Pro Championship after the Irwindale event: two-time previous champ Chris Forsberg, last year’s champion Fredric Aasbø, 2010 champion Vaughn Gittin, Jr., and Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis. With Gittin being eliminated in the Round of 32, the Top 16 competition contained only three potential drivers in the running to be crowned Formula Drift Champion.
Unfortunately during Chris Forsberg’s Top 16 battle against Pat Mordaunt, Forsberg collided head-on with the final wall, giving him a zero for the round and rendering his car unfixable, while Mordaunt moved on.
This crash also had serious implications on Forsberg’s chance to win the Championship; he was still the overall points leader, but the reigning champion Fredric Aasbø was still in competition. Aasbø would simply need to progress through the next couple rounds to dethrone Forsberg.
In a turn of fortune, during his tandem against Matt Field in the Gears of War 4 Nissan S14.5, Aasbø suffered fate similar to that which befell Forsberg. Aasbø pushed a little too close to Field’s Nissan, making contact, spinning and giving himself a zero. This officially removed Aasbø from competition and granted the overall points win and championship to Chris Forsberg, who was watching the remainder of the action from the paddock where his wrecked car sat.
The action of this round continued even after the overall points champion had been crowned. As Tyler McQuarrie in the Mobil1/GoPro Chevrolet Camaro battled head-to-head against Ryan Tuerck in his O’Reilly Autoparts/Nameless Performance SR by Toyota 86. The two fought valiantly in their respective lead and chase runs but Tuerck was able to stick on McQuarrie’s bumper granting him the win.
To continue the tally of DNFs, Tuerck’s chariot decided to shut off as it crossed the finish line, then refused to roar back to life before his Final 4 bout against Matt Field. This placed Field in the Finals by default, and put Ryan Tuerck on the podium in third place as a result of his second place qualifying position.
The final battle of the night saw Dai Yoshihara against Matt Field. Yoshihara’s BRZ accelerated a gap on his lead run to Field’s Nissan, until the final turn of the course where Field made up a ton of ground and got in tight to the BRZ’s door. However it ended up being a little too close, as the Nissan made contact with the Subaru giving Field a zero on that run, and easing the pressure off Yoshihara to take the win.
On the duo’s second run, all Yoshihara needed to do was complete a reasonably solid chase run to score points and take the win; unfortunately the BRZ suffered from the same issue as Ken Gushi earlier in the day, and once the power steering failed, Yoshihara was unable to initiate his drift behind Matt Field. The respective zeros scored on each run meant this tandem would go One More Time to decide a winner.
The two lined up at the start line, with Yoshihara leading again. In a display mimicking that of his previous lead run, Yoshihara got off to a staggering lead, until the final turn when his power steering issue made itself known again, straightening Yoshihara’s BRZ and sending him into the wall. With a swipe of his hand across his throat, he signaled to his crew that the car was done, and Matt Field was given the win.
With back-to-back wins finishing off the 2016 season, Matt Field has established himself as a serious contender and a racer to watch once the 2017 season starts up in Long Beach next spring.
In the end, I thought it was kind of ironic that the league’s most consistent points earner – Chris Forsberg – was crowned champion on a night when his consistency lacked the most, showing that anything really can happen in motorsports. We already can’t wait for the start of next season at Long Beach in 2017, and we’ll be there camera in-hand.