The tour of sideways automotive action known as Formula Drift—now halfway through its 2017 calendar of dates—returned to Wall Stadium Speedway for its fourth round of the season. The attrition rate normally associated with the weathered track held true, but not because of the infamous Armco surrounding the oval. Competitors, whom all survived detrimental factors to their performance, challenged deep into the evening until the final battle.
I still remember driving into Wall Stadium Speedway back in 2007 for my first Formula Drift event ever. The atmosphere was unlike any other motorsport event I’d attended to that point. As I pulled into the gravel parking lot, my ears were assaulted by the audio of multiple screaming engines bouncing off their rev limiters in unison just a few hundred feet away. A combination of my senses was teased, as not only could my ears pick up the anticipated action, but my nose and eyes as well.
The oval speedway surrounded by thick forest captured the emitted tire smoke and slowly displaced it vertically away from the track like a boiling pot of water. My ringing ears paired the engine’s noises with the dissipating smoke rising from the track. As my car crept forward through the traffic in the parking lot, my nose began to smell the exhaust fumes, the burnt oil, the aforementioned tire smoke, and just a hint of some race gas. It was an emotional delight that has not been topped one decade later.
Think of some enticing experiences in your life; they’re always magnified by the display to your senses of what you’re about to experience. Whether it’s smelling the popcorn before you enter the movie theater, hearing the waves cresting on the shore at the beach before you’ve cleared the dunes, or seeing your vehicle staring back at you as your garage door slowly opens; your emotions are always triggered, which enhances the experience from the start.
In this way, Formula Drift is unique. It is the only motorsport event I’ve been to which begins its practice regimen while the audience hasn’t fully entered the arena. Most professional racing series hold their scheduled practice sessions on days prior to the event—some not even open for public viewing. They might have a paddock walk to meet drivers and see the cars up close in an effort to entice the dedicated onlooker, but for the most part attendees of other motorsport events arrive to silence, and it’s an eerie silence.
While Formula Drift does hold practice in the days leading up to their main events, they also offer additional practices just hours before their competition starts for the day. In this case, we’ll start with Friday, their qualifying day.
The competitors lined up in anticipation for the start of practice, under perfect fair conditions, which are rarely exhibited at the New Jersey round. The occasional cloud cover only meant that a little extra heating was required of the tires to compensate for the momentary lack of track temperature.
Each line of drivers in their cars filed out onto the tarmac for their supplementary testing. The challenge at Wall is for the drivers to figure out the limits of their vehicles and the track in an effort to perfect their route through the tricky banked turns and chicanes of the frail oval racetrack.
Some practiced solo, while others preferred to test in tandem with another car for a closer environment to that of normal competition.
The fairytale story of James Deane’s return to United States soil looked as if it would be extended throughout this weekend, as the Irishman’s 2JZ-equipped Worthouse Silvia seemed to hit all of the marks around the intense circuit.
Finnish driver Juha Rintanen surprised many when he skimmed the dangerous guardrail and managed to come away unscathed, while also accumulating one of the highest qualifying scores at the time in his STR Racing Wheels Nissan S15 Silvia.
The jagged edge of the surrounding barrier was unable to claim a single victim throughout practice and qualifying on Friday. However, with an engine failure in Taylor Hull’s Nissan 240SX, the 32-entrant qualifying field dropped to a measly 27 competitors by the end of the day, which granted the top five qualifying positions a free pass from the Top 32 into the Top 16 the following day.
“Haters will say it’s photoshopped”… Three-wheeling is one thing, but hovering a static wheel over the moving ground is another. The left-foot-braking number-one qualifier Chelsea DeNofa was the recipient of the first bye-round in his BC Racing Ford Mustang.
Qualifying ended as the sun began to set across the track, giving fans the chance to get the signature of their favorite Formula Drift driver—or their daughter—at the autograph table.
The entire mood shifted overnight to a serious tone, as it was officially game time for the drivers and there was no time for anything short of excellence.
Drivers poured onto the track in groups of two, desperately attempting to get their allotted practice and testing in before the main event.
With a limited amount of time before Top 32 competition started, having a wreck in practice is never good. Chelsea DeNofa lost all momentum heading into the first inside clipping point with far too much angle, while his trailing competitor Jhonnattan Castro couldn’t slow his speed in time, which caused a massive collision and rendered both vehicles immobile.
Shortly after the track was cleared for more practice, the Mustang camp would find themselves in even more deep water, as Vaughn Gittin, Jr. spun and collided heavily with Juha Rintanen’s S15 just minutes before competition was slated to start.
The track was then cleaned again, and Top 32 battling was underway. The opening matchups illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of the entrants, as most were decided after only one standard battle—a single lead and chase run per driver.
Three-time Formula Drift World Champion Chris Forsberg’s Nismo 370Z might appear a little cleaner looking on the outside—that’s because he debuted a completely new engine setup in New Jersey. The NOS Energy Drink Nissan is now equipped with a twin-turbocharged Nissan V6, ridding the need for the open hood and air intake display of previous rounds—and years. Unfortunately for Forsberg, the setup just wasn’t as dialed-in as he’d hoped, and he failed to advance past Frederic Aasbø in the rear-wheel-drive-converted Rockstar Energy Drink Toyota Corolla iM.
Just prior to the Mustang wrecks earlier in the day, Alec Hohnadell initiated too close to the unforgiving guardrail, which immediately sucked in his Nissan 240SX and forced his team to work frantically to return the car to working order just before their battle with Robbie Nishida. Unfortunately, something must have still felt wrong, as Hohnadell stopped his drift and waved to the crowd as he left the track and handed the win to Nishida.
The halftime break and Top 16 driver introductions was a very relaxed atmosphere filled with smoke as Matt Coffman shredded a set of Nexen tires to hype up the crowd.
In the opening pairing of the night, Dai Yoshihara in his Turn 14 Distribution Subaru BRZ faced off against the number one qualifier Chelsea DeNofa. On his chase run, Yoshihara kept on the door of the purple Mustang, as DeNofa pushed the boundaries of angle in the same turn where he lost it earlier in the day. Perhaps it was stemming from issues he accrued from the earlier incident, but he would eventually expire from competition due to the same corner, as he over rotated his Mustang on his chase and handed the win to Yoshihara.
Continuing the attrition of the event, Vaughn Gittin, Jr.’s Monster Energy Ford Mustang must have still had some lingering issues from his own clash earlier in the day, while Nate Hamilton’s Enjuku Racing Nissan 240SX made unfortunate contact with the guardrail. Both limped their respective cars behind their opponents but didn’t progress into the next round.
One of the craziest tandems of the night saw Ryan Tuerck’s Advance Auto Parts Toyota GT86 against Odi Bakchis in his Falken Tire Nissan 240SX. The pairing ran and Bakchis was declared the winner, however due to a missed incident by the judges—which Tuerck’s team contested with the FD officials and won—they would repeat their battle to decide who would progress. Their repeat battle went One More Time, and in their third iteration of the night, the same result was eventually achieved and Bakchis would move on.
Michael Essa progressed into the Final 4 after Dai Yoshihara unfortunately straightened out during his chase run behind the BMW.
James Deane couldn’t outrun the immense pressure of Latvian Kristaps Blušs in his HGK Racing BMW, which knocked him out of the final four contention for only the second time this season.
Matt Coffman outpaced Jeff Jones to earn himself a spot in the Final 4, while Odi Bakchis claimed his spot after taking down Frederic Aasbø.
Moving into his Final 4 battle, Matt Coffman drove up to the starting line ready to compete for a podium—but his car was far from ready. An FD official noticed fluid leaking from underneath the car. It was determined it was fuel and he would be forced to take a competition timeout to fix the issue before he could be out on track. Once the five-minute timer started, his team diagnosed a bad injector, and they desperately tried to resolve the problem before time ran out. While the clock counted down to about thirty remaining seconds, the injector was in, the hood was shut, the car was on all four wheels, Matt Coffman was seated in the car ready to go.
On the jumbo screen overlooking the track and the grandstands, it appeared like they would get the car started with plenty of time, but the car still wouldn’t start. The shock on Coffman’s face was mirrored across the faces of everyone observing. The kill switch—a safety precaution on almost all professional racing cars—was mistakenly still engaged. Coffman figured out the issue, flipped the switch, fired up the engine, and roared his way into the burnout box to warm up his tires. The crowd went wild, they witnessed him and his team work against the clock, and beat it—or so they thought.
The clock had struck zero amidst the kill switch confusion, and because the car was not running in the allotted time, an FD official stopped Coffman on the starting line and forced him to return to the pits. He was disqualified from the Final 4 battle, and the same emotional crowd let out a string of boos to voice their opinion on the matter.
Bakchis took his bye run and moved on.
In the final battle of the night between Essa and Bakchis, it looked like Essa would be handed the win, as he was able to pull a pretty manageable gap on his lead run, and held so closely on the opening turn of his chase run.
Halfway through his chase run, one of his rear tires de-beaded and lost all air pressure, forcing the car to halt its drift and disqualifying him from competition. Bakchis was out in front, and simply continued his lead run without the pressure of Essa’s BMW on his rear bumper. However, in this bottom image, as he rounded the final turn of the course, Bakchis’ engine let go.
He was able to finish the battle and win at Wall with a blown engine leaking fluids all over the track during the podium celebrations. We later learned Odi’s weekend started with a fifteenth qualifying position, at which point he and his team changed his engine, finishing the job at 3AM. Throughout the day, he survived sheered lug bolts, multiple One More Time battles, the judges’ mandated repeat battle with Ryan Tuerck, and constant engine troubles along the way. Running on a very small amount of sleep, he took the round win in New Jersey with one of the hardest fought drives of any competitor this year—a well-deserved win.