Text and photography by Luke Munnell
What an event. What a season! A few years ago, as Chris Forsberg and Fredric Aasbø were trading event-winning performances and season championship honors, I made a prediction that the future of professional drifting might get a little … boring. Not that Forsberg or Aasbø are unskilled drivers—completely the opposite. Their drifting grew to be so precise in those years, and the support of their teams was so reliable, that each one of their winning runs seemed predictably perfect and largely uneventful. And if their competitors’ efforts matured to that level, I thought, things could get too perfect for any real excitement or upsets to occur.
Damn, was I wrong.
If the 2018 Formula Drift season has taught me anything, it’s that professional drifting is getting more exciting and uncertain than ever. When Aasbø, Forsberg, and company were winning those repeat championship titles years ago with shrewd, tactical precision, a new breed of drifting was winning its own batch of championships overseas with raw, adrenaline-laced speed and door-slamming proximity—one that would culminate in the Worthouse Drift team’s U.S. effort.
Combine that with the carefree, nothing-to-lose approach to competition by some talented vets who earn their keep today more from drift demos, bashes, or running their own businesses, along with a few past championship drivers hungry to get back on that top step once again, and you’ve got the makings of the 2018 Formula Drift championships.
Some fun facts: Fredric Aasbø won the 2015 championship with a big 99-point lead, and since 2014 hasn’t placed lower than second in the championship running by more than a mere 37 points. Except for last year, that is, when James Deane—after his triumphant return to FD competition—won it by 113 points over Aasbø.
After scoring two wins and a second-place finish this year to Deane’s two wins and two second-place finishes, Aasbø closed the gap of Deane’s 2018 championship points lead to within striking distance heading into Irwindale’s final-round competition. Deane only had to advance past Top 16 to secure the title, while Aasbø would need for Deane to exit in Top 16 or sooner, and still win the event himself. Needless to say, both drivers had to bring their A-game.
No matter what happened, Aasbø would still remain the winningest driver in FD history, a title shared not too long ago by Vaughn Gittin Jr., who recorded some of the series’ earliest and most notable wins at “The House of Drift,” in Irwindale, CA. If there was anything JR wanted to come out of this final 2018 round, it was to reassert himself at his House with an event win.
And then there’s Forrest Wang, who seems to be driven more by competition than anything else. He’s been gunning for all-out wins over Deane and Worthouse teammate Piotr Wiecek for the past two years, and just keeps getting better and better in his professional outings.
In addition to these guys, there would still be the perennial threat of past champions Daijiro Yoshihara, Michael Essa, and Chris Forsberg, as well as 10 other challengers that would survive Top 32 competition and fill out the final Top 16 bracket for 2018 at Irwindale.
After the usual driver introductions, now-annual Irwindale fireworks, and an absolutely soul-stirring, pre-recorded performance of the National Anthem by late Falken Tire model Kelsey Quayle, the show was on.
First up in Top 16 was Forrest Wang with the upset of the event, when he knocked out James Deane with two of the absolute best competition runs I can remember seeing from him at Irwindale. Within the opening moments of main competition, Deane’s seemingly guaranteed championship bid became uncertain, and it was Fredric Aasbø’s to lose.
But Aasbø didn’t lose. He defeated opponent and teammate Jhonnattan Castro in his Top 16 bout and added that much more pressure to Deane’s championship hopes.
Elsewhere in the round Ken Gushi ousted Alec Hohnadell, and Dean Kearney toppled Tuerck …
… Odi Bakchis scored the #2 upset of the round against Piotr Wiecek, while Chelsea DeNofa ousted Michael Essa …
… and champions Vaughn Gittin, Jr. and Daijiro Yoshihara stayed alive against challengers Matt Coffman and Dirk Stratton, respectively.
Not necessarily in the Ricky Bobby sense (thankfully), but Forrest was on fire in Irwindale. He kicked off the round of eight with his first defeat of Gushi, while Aasbø kept his championship dreams alive by knocking out Kearney.
But JR also made good on his hopes of reclaiming the Irwindale throne, as he dispatched Bakchis after some contact which sent Bakchis into the wall (lightly, thankfully).
Dai also proved he wouldn’t go down without a fight, surviving a hell of one with Chelsea DeNofa before falling in a foreshadowing One More Time battle.
Two champions, one “Hardest Charging Driver” and one “Spirit of Drifting” honoree. One in it to reclaim championship glory he’d been narrowly missing for years, one in it to reclaim his historical dominance of the House of Drift, and no one willing to give up the final moments of the 2018 season with anything left to give.
Forrest vs. Aasbø was the fight we all wanted to see. The two had squared off in competition several times before, but Wang has only gotten the upper hand once. And if there’s anything Forrest had appetite for this night, it was taking down giants. But after two more fast and close runs, it was decided Aasbø would move on to the Finals—one step closer to his underdog championship upset!
Presenting the second teammate battle of the round was JR vs. DeNofa. Two times last season the two met each other, but this would be their first chance at a tie-breaker in 2018. After some light contact from DeNofa and two near-flawless runs by JR, the final stage was set.
So just to recap, James Deane had the 2018 championship chase in the bag as long as he could stay in competition past Top 16. Likewise, the only man who could steal championship honors from him was Fredric Aasbø, but only if he could win the event. It was a seemingly impossible set of circumstances, and yet here we were.
The tension was incredible as the two pulled up to the line. Not only for Aasbø and JR, but also for James Deane and the Worthouse team, who stood nearby, helpless as their championship honors hung in the balance. That’s three champions at the mercy of fate. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up.
After two fast and flawless runs between the former champions, it was decided unanimously that two more runs would be needed to decide a victor. Tires were changed, an oil pan was replaced on JR’s car, and tensions mounted. Two more runs after that (with an equal number of minor flaws from each driver), it was decided in a split decision that the two champs would have to again go One More Time.
Bear in mind that this means each of their cars has logged almost double the amount of runs cars would endure in the old Top 16-only days, which is saying a lot especially in the case of the 1,000-horsepower turbo-four engine in Aasbø’s Toyota Corolla. And that doesn’t even mention the amount of pressure and tension building in the cockpits.
After a final two runs—and a painfully apparent straighten by Aasbø—the judges had come to a conclusion.
One thing that should always go hand in hand with championships is sportsmanship, and that was here in spades. The Worthouse team cheered Aasbø on at every round after they were knocked out, and Aasbø’s first reaction to hearing the results was to congratulate his rival on a hard-fought victory. There literally wasn’t a dry eye or an unhappy face in the sold-out venue that night.
So in the end, James Deane earned his second straight Formula Drift championship win, Vaughn Gittin Jr., earned his first event win in longer than he’d probably like us to mention, and Fredric Aasbø added one more second-place championship finish to his resume, this time by a mere four points.
This is normally where I’d say something cliché about how I already can’t wait for the beginning of the 2019 Formula D season, but I think we all know that goes without saying. Even if means proving me even more wrong about my flawed prediction those few short years ago.