Hostile Takeover: Formula Drift Irwindale’s Final Fight
Photography and text by Luke Munnell
Fourteen years ago, organized drifting was first brought to our shores by an exhibition of the D1GP at Irwindale Speedway (prepared by the same people who would become the founders of Formula Drift), and was met by a larger crowd than any other the venue had ever welcomed in its history. Countless drifting events would follow on its grounds as several American series and hundreds of drivers built upon the Japanese motorsport, arguably raising it to heights that today qualify Formula Drift as the foremost drifting series in the world. Today, at the close of the series’ 2017 season at Irwindale Speedway, two monumental moments in the sport have come to pass: A thoroughly European team and driver have won Season Championship honors in the American series, and the beloved House of Drift has given us our final of so many fond memories along the way.
In 2008 we had a preview of what was to come, when 32 drivers and champions from 12 countries traveled to “Pier S” at the Port of Long Beach to compete in the Red Bull Drifting World Championship, organized by Formula Drift. Then 16-year-old James Deane was the youngest driver invited to compete, but having won outright the Irish Drift Championship (IDC) in 2007 and 2008, and the larger European Drift Championship (EDC) in 2008, it was safe to say he knew a few things about throwing his car around in a controlled manner. He’d go on to win more subsequent championship titles than any drifter we know of (2011, 2014, 2015, and 2016 in EDC — 2010, 2013, 2015 in IDC) and ultimately make good on a goal he’d set for himself all those years ago during his first trip to America: to Win Formula D.
After scoring wins in Long Beach, Atlanta, Seattle and Texas, Deane had amassed so many points that once he left the starting line in his Top 32 bye-run at Irwindale (more on that in just a sec), the championship points chase was locked in and for the first time in its 14-year history, a European team had won top honors in Formula D Pro competition — and did it by a bigger margin of points than the series had ever seen since the start of the Top 32 format, and possibly of all time.
But that’s not to say Irwindale was a lame-duck round, by any means. There was still the business of winning the event to attend to, and with such a rich history surrounding the venue in its second life as the House of Drift, fans, vendors, and show entrants this time around weren’t about to let this final event at Irwindale Speedway pass quietly into the night.
Top 26 ½
So what is a bye-run? Simply put, it’s what happens when one half of a tandem battle — in drifting, just as in drag racing — cannot make it to the line for competition. This could happen if a competitor’s car breaks beyond repair, if a driver sleeps through their call to the line, or if fewer than 32 drivers qualify for competition. One driver (Juha Rintanen) faced mechanical issues that kept him out of Top 32 competition, and only 27 drivers even qualified this time around, led by Chelsea DeNofa, Piotr Więcek and James Deane, respectfully.
Daijiro Yoshihara, Chris Forsberg, Piotr Więcek, James Deane, and Michael Essa all paired with no competitors during Top 32 competition, and laid down solo runs to advance onto Top 16. For the others, things weren’t as easy. Vaughn Gittin, Jr. faced down the now-retired Robbie Nishida (thanks for all the great times, Robbie! お疲れ様!), Fredric Aasbø stayed alive against wildcard Faruk Kugay, Alec Hohnadell advanced after two clean runs with Jeff Jones, and Pat Goodin conceded the win to Jhonnattan Castro after encountering some mechanical gremlins in their second run. And then things got weird.
Kyle Mohan and Justin Pawlak (JTP) each spin out in their lead runs, but deemed to have had a better lead run, JTP earned the advance. After laying down a good chase run against Matt Field, Cameron Moore somehow hit the banked wall shortly after initiation on his lead run and took himself out of the running.
Ryan Tuerck got off to a decent start in his lead run against Alex Heilbrunn, but then encountered an apparent mechanical gremlin, as he lost speed and drift in the inner bank. This caused a collision with Heilbrunn, forcing the Gumout Toyota 86 to be towed off course, and forfeiting Tuerck’s second run of the battle and allowing Heilbrunn to advance with a bye.
Eerily following suit was Dan Burkett in his RAD Industries Supra who performed a solid lead run against Kristaps Blušs in the HGK Motorsport carbon Kevlar “Euro Fighter” backup car. The Supra was able to pull a massive gap on Blušs before encountering an ignition problem and slowing drastically just as he crossed the finish line, which prompted Blušs to collide with him at the tail end of his follow run. Blušs seemed to return the favor by taking a slower line around the big bank. Burkett underestimated, collided with Blušs on exit, and packed it in for the rest of the night.
But nothing held a candle to Ken Gushi’s unfortunate carnage. Just when we all thought Gushi’s luck this season couldn’t get any worse, his GReddy Racing Toyota 86 slid out on some oil during his follow run against Kearney and collided with the wall at the end of the inner bank — hard — severely damaging his Toyota 86. Kearney was deemed at fault for the spill, which gave Ken the advance, but the damage proved to be too much for his team to remedy, and left him mechanically unable to compete for the rest of the night.
Driving began to clean up and become more consistent at the start of what should’ve been Top 16 (which we’ll get into later), beginning with a Mustang-v-Mustang, teammate-v-teammate bout when Chelsea DeNofa lined up against Vaughn Gittin, Jr. DeNofa had out-qualified his multiple-Irwindale-winning opponent, but couldn’t surpass the master. After two clean runs by both wheelmen, Gittin moved on.
Justin Pawlak versus Matt Field, Jhonnattan Castro versus Dai Yoshihara, and Chris Forsberg versus Alex Heilbrunn provided fans with some of the cleanest, closest battles of the night, with Pawlak, Yoshihara and Heilbrunn earning advances.
But then came Piotr Więcek against Kristaps Blušs, and things began to change. Więcek’s lead run was smooth, with Blušs fighting to stay close in his all-new. It almost seemed in the bag for Blušs after he pulled a big gap and Więcek got lost in the smoke and went off course coming into the inner bank, but then — for some unknown reason — Blušs went off course himself, leading to a pair of self-inflicted zeros for the run. Keen on pushing a decidedly better lead run, Więcek earned the advance in the next run.
Similar was the battle between Fredric Aasbø and Alec Hohnadell, where the latter bumped into the former exiting the big bank during their first run. On the duo’s second run, Hohnadell couldn’t shake the Norwegian, giving yet another European the advance onto Top 8.
James Deane, who was set to face off against Ken Gushi and his irreparably damaged Toyota 86, exhibited another solo bye run and moved onto Top 8 competition. Sportsmanship is in spades with this young Irishman, admitting it was, “not the way I would’ve preferred.”
And ending Top 16 on a positive note was yet another spotless battle, this time between Michael Essa and Odi Bakchis, where Bakchis emerged victorious.
Top 7 ½
Similar to Top 16, Top 8 began with a Mustang-v-Mustang bout, only this time between Gittin and rival Pawlak. Gittin’s Monster Energy Mustang stuck with Pawlak’s Roush Performance S550 through a baller of a lead run — high and deep on the big bank, and again into the inner bank after the switchback. But after pulling a bigger gap, higher on the bank in his lead run, Gittin earned the win and moved on.
Dai Yoshihara and the Turn 14 Distribution Subaru BRZ met Alex Heilbrunn next, and after a pair of very clean runs between the two, nearly had to do it all over again in a One More Time battle, as one judge saw fit to declare in the night’s first split decision to that point. But alas, we do say “nearly,” because the other two found in Yoshihara’s favor and he moved on.
For me, at least, Więcek’s battle against Aasbø was where the Team Worthouse brand of energy and aggression really seemed to show against the controlled, precise, consistent style of one of the best drivers in the business. From the launch of his lead run, Więcek gapped Aasbø, high on the bank, yet with tons of angle, and maintained a fast and flawless run straight through. Taking note, in his lead run Aasbø initiated with a bit of a gap and immediately scrubbed some speed, but Więcek seemed to anticipate that and stayed in it, closing the gap to within inches around the big bank, and then again around the inner bank to take the win. Killer.
The only mishap in Top 8 competition came at the hand of Odi Bakchis, when he ran into the back of Deane’s Worthouse S15 Silvia during their first run. This wouldn’t normally be an issue, but in keeping with what seemed to be the theme of the night, that wasn’t the case. Both cars would be towed off the course with suspension damage. Since Odi was deemed to be at fault, Deane and his team were given 10 minutes to try to fix the car. He then was forced to use a competition timeout when he couldn’t make it back to the line in time, and when that expired the round was called in his favor without the two men having to drive their second bout.
It was great to see two of the longest-running competitors in Formula D history meet in the last Final 4 at Irwindale, and even greater when it was deemed Yoshihara and Gittin were to go One More Time. The only sour note came when Gittin went a little too deep into the inner bank during his second follow run of Yoshihara, and connected with the wall, ending his run early. The Japanese-native kept his cool, put on a solid chase of the American, and earned the win. Much to the chagrin of Gittin, as his smokey exit-stage-right burnout and disappearing act for rest of the night led on.
Even more sour was the much-anticipated battle between teammates James Deane and Piotr Więcek that never happened. Remember that damage Deane’s car suffered in the previous round? It proved to be detrimental, and they elected to double-down behind Więcek, who advanced onto the Finals with yet another bye run. On the upside, Deane had managed to make it onto the podium without having finished a single tandem run in competition. Luck o’ the Irish, right?
The Final Battle
If I had to pick a driver I wanted to see battle Więcek nearly as much as Deane, it was Dai Yoshihara. Dai is either on or off as a driver, and he was all on this night. One of my favorite tandem battles of all time is still Yoshihara and Ueo at that 2008 Red Bull DWC event, and this looked like it could’ve been another one of those memorable meetings.
First up was Więcek’s lead. He started by pulling a handy lead, but the blue BRZ closed in at the switchback and stayed close throughout the remainder of the run, while Więcek finished with more angle. The next run pretty much mirrored the first but with their roles reversed. Yoshihara took the higher line on the big bank with Więcek lower and straighter. The BRZ gained a bit of ground at the switchback but true to form, Więcek closed in tighter than Yoshihara and stuck to his door through the finish.
Even after a long, long day of drifting and Top 32 competition, fans were on their feet demanding a One More Time run, probably just to wring a little more excitement out of their last night on those hallowed grounds. But the decision was unanimous. Piotr Więcek had earned his first win, Dai Yoshihara logged his second podium finish of the season in 2nd Place, James Deane added a podium finish to go with his 2017 season Championship honors, and everyone else got to bid the House of Drift a very fond goodnight and farewell.
If you haven’t heard and couldn’t gather from the hints above, it was announced earlier this year that Irwindale Speedway is set to close its doors permanently at the beginning of next year, in favor of an outlet mall to be constructed by the facility’s current owners, Irwindale Outlet Partners, LLC. It’s uncertain as of yet where future CA/Southwest rounds of Formula D will be held, but top speculations seem to be Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, or even an interim return to the Port of Long Beach. Any way you dice it, we’re betting Formula Drift will continue to be the world’s foremost professional drifting league, and the talents of those who make it so will only continue to grow faster, stronger, and more exciting.