A Challenger Appears: Formula Drift’s Street Fight In Long Beach
The nation’s premier vicious battle between grip and style, the Formula Drift Pro Championship, is back for its fourteenth season. The first stop on the schedule is the perennial season opener, which is run in the streets of Long Beach, California on the iconic curves of the Long Beach Grand Prix track.
The 2017 first round unfolded beneath clear skies and beautiful golden California sunshine, a stark contrast to the gloomy, rain-saturated opener of last year.
Riding shotgun for the new season is a new driver lineup, with participants from all over the world taking their place in the FD hierarchy. Formula Drift’s policy grants access to their Pro 1 Championship for any previous year’s international drift champions or those from its own Pro 2 league. The most familiar new driver is former Formula Drift competitor James Deane who is accompanied into competition by his Worthouse teammate Piotr Wiecek. The duo arrived to Long Beach in a matching (yet slightly different colored) pair of 900-horsepower, 2JZ-equipped, custom widebody Nissan S15 Silvias.
Another newcomer this season is Pro 2 rank-climber, “Rad” Dan Burkett, who not only brings a different flavor to the championship with his interesting hairstyle choice, but also via his revival of the neo-classic Toyota Supra in FD competition.
The remainder of the field stayed relatively similar to last year, with some new liveries on competitors’ cars – like Ken Gushi’s GReddy Performance/Nexen Tire Toyota 86 – and the resurgence of the Falken Tire scallops on Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis and Matt Field’s Nissan 240SXs.
One big change was the move of last year’s Round One winner Chelsea DeNofa to the Nitto Tires-backed RTR Mustang team of former Formula Drift champion Vaughn Gittin, Jr. The pair’s collective rugged attitude offers an aggressive display of driving skill when the Fords take a sip of their potion, and hit the three-wheel motion…
Morning practice on Friday gave the lot of drivers an opportunity to break in their newly-revamped machines in the competition atmosphere. Last year’s championship runner-up, Frederic Aasbø, wheeled his new 1,000 horsepower Rockstar Energy Drink rear-wheel-drive-converted Toyota Corolla iM around the course.
A new ruling in place for qualifying states any major steering correction, collision, or non-drift would result in an “incomplete” score, meaning the drivers had to exterminate all evidence of season opening bugs and lay down at least one solid run to put them into competition the following day. With so many of the competitors taking their virgin runs in completely new setups, it was a real challenge for each to stay consistent throughout each run. For example, former Formula Drift champion Daijiro Yoshihara, in his right-hand-drive-converted Turn 14 Distribution Subaru BRZ scored an incomplete on his initial run. This forced Yoshihara – and others with similar opening runs – to exhibit a rather conservative second run in order to secure any score to put them into Top 32 competition on Saturday.
The most shocking scene of the day came not when Pat Goodin unfortunately stuffed his Nissan 240SX into the tire barrier, but when technical Formula Drift rookie James Deane displayed a nearly-perfect run on his opening trial through the course, which initially slotted him into the pole position before he settled into second ahead of Saturday’s action.
With the remaining qualifying runs dwindling, the day finished and the drivers switched out of their respective cockpits for their seats at the autograph table, where an insanely long line of spectators waited patiently for the chance to get up close with their favorite Formula Drift star.
The following morning open practice occupied the track as the festivities’ spectators filed into their seats for the upcoming competition.
A barren Top 32 fielded just 27 drivers, leaving five extremely important spaces vacant to start FD’s first round. This was due to technical difficulties with cars, lack of entrants, and some who unfortunately scored two “incomplete” runs in qualifying.
Action got underway with last year’s Long Beach winner Chelsea DeNofa in his new RTR Mustang against the newcomer Piotr Wiecek in his Worthouse 240SX. DeNofa hit his marks in the early stages of the runs, but the judges’ ruling would go Wiecek’s way, as DeNofa still has some hiccups to iron out in the new chassis.
Michael Essa and his Achilles Tire/Essa Autosport E46 M3 faced off with Daijiro Yoshihara in the Rocket Bunny-widened Turn 14 Distribution Subaru BRZ. Yoshihara’s technical difficulties from his first qualifying run the day before resurfaced in the opening run of this battle, as he straightened out and stopped mid-drift amidst massive smoke plumes. This misstep heavily weighed into the judges’ ruling toward Essa going into the second run, and Yoshihara needed Essa to make a mistake for any chance of advancement. Unfortunately for Dai, Essa stuck to his bumper and progressed to the next round.
Moving into the Top 16, the drivers and their cars lined up in front of the sold-out crowd for driver introductions in the world’s coolest traffic jam. All eyes were on James Deane, whose seven-year hiatus didn’t seem to affect his performance at all, as he recorded an incredible P2 showing during qualifying and advanced into Top 16 competition by way of a very important bye in the Top 32.
The Toyota Racing duo of Ken Gushi and Frederic Aasbø traded tiresmoke with one another in an asthma-inducing display of horsepower, which excited the crowd and readied the atmosphere for the upcoming tire-shredding slated to run deep into the afternoon.
Another recipient of an ever-so-important bye was Vaughn Gittin Jr., who would be facing his Formula Drift kryptonite Dean Kearney in the Oracle Lighting Dodge Viper as his first opponent of the day. However, it would be Kearney who accessed the Great 8 ahead of Gittin, proving that a number-one qualifier spot and a bye into the Top 16 doesn’t guarantee much in Formula Drift.
Piotr Wiecek collided with Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis during his chase run, handing the round win to Bakchis. Wiecek would spend the rest of the day cheering on his teammate Deane in hopes of a successful afternoon for the team.
This brings us to a regurgitated discussion from last year, only with a different matchup used as an example. Accel and Decel Zones are something the judges create dependent on each track. These are areas of the course where drivers should be accelerating or decelerating in order to coincide with what is thought to be a fluid run through the turns. They are put into place in an effort to keep drivers from essentially brake-checking their opponent behind them to cause a collision in a usually high-speed area of the track. Illustrated here, Frederic Aasbø was able to open a large gap on his trailing opponent Kristaps Bluss entering Turn 10 (the second turn of the Formula Drift layout), at which point Bluss took the turn quicker in an attempt to close the gap. This is a portion of the track where Aasbø should have still been gaining speed, however Bluss was not only able to catch the slowing Norwegian on corner exit, he locked up his brakes to avoid hitting him and spun. Unfortunately, this trickery went unnoticed by the judging staff, which ruled Aasbø the win due to Bluss’ spin.
Despite excellent showings from Ken Gushi and Michael Essa in their lead runs, their respective opponents Chris Forsberg and James Deane advanced further into the afternoon.
In Great 8 competition, Aasbø’s string of victories ran out against 2016’s Rookie of the Year, Peruvian-national Alex Heilbrunn, behind the wheel of his Nitto Tire BMW E46.
Ryan Tuerck and Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis also advanced against their opponents Matt Coffman and Dean Kearney.
James Deane continued his incredible – and improbable – display in the Final 4, as his form could not be broken no matter the opponent, in this case Ryan Tuerck’s Gumout/Nameless Performance Toyota 86.
Deane and Tuerck’s matchup was followed by one of the most intense tandem battles of the night, between Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis and Alex Heilbrunn. Both drivers threw their vehicles within inches of approaching barriers (and one another) in an effort to outrun their competitor. Their first set of tandem battles was too close to call and resulted in a “One More Time” ruling from the judges.
As the duo entered their “One More Time” battle, each continued to show the form that brought them to the Final 4 of the night. An error by Bakchis in the final corner of the course allowed Heilbrunn to advance into the Final battle of the night, where he’d face James Deane.
A pair of solid lead and chase runs between Deane and Heilbrunn finished 2017’s inaugural Formula D event off with very little drama. The judges had come to a decision and the drivers returned to the track with their vehicles to hear the ruling.
The winner was clear. His unrelenting persistent attack on the course was evidenced in every pass he made through the course of the weekend. James Deane had not only returned to Formula Drift after seven years to win his first-ever FD event, but had put on a clinic to the veteran drifters of the series on just how to drive.
While he celebrated his first event win with fellow Irishman Dean Kearney and teammate Piotr Wiecek, the rest of the Formula Drift field were packing up and getting themselves mentally prepared for the next challenge in Orlando in just a few weeks’ time.