A man by the name of Kanye West once said, “they claim you never know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” In the same vein, I never knew I needed to see perfect executions of all of the Formula DRIFT judging standards in regular competition until now.
I understood the criteria the judges looked for, and know the typical areas for scoring, but I never figured out the impact those specific traits had on an event until they were—I’ll say—lacking, at the series’ original birthplace.
This past Formula DRIFT Atlanta event was unique for me. I’ve been attending and photographing FD Pro Championship competitions for so long that perhaps I’ve just always assumed they would deliver complete excitement—and over the years they have. So when this past event didn’t, it caused a significant shock to my system. Here are some of the factors from the third round of the 2019 schedule that every fan—including myself—might take for granted in the current wild era of Formula DRIFT.
As I checked on the forecast for the Atlanta area in the days leading up to the event, it didn’t look promising, with a 70- to 100-percent chance of thunderstorms every hour from Thursday afternoon at 6 pm until Sunday morning at 11 am. That’s an awful lot of rain during an automotive event, especially one that—despite common thought—relies so heavily on grip.
As the day approached, the chances of rain decreased further and further, and the majority of the weekend ended up drenched in sunlight rather than water. The competitors had a full day of practice and qualifying in the bright sunny conditions of Braselton, GA. This produced the usual copious amounts of tire smoke we’ve all come to expect from watching Formula D’s professional drivers.
When the majority of the engines in the series are producing well over 1,000 horsepower, it’s only natural that the vehicles in which they are installed flamboyantly incinerate the rear tires, and create massive amounts of smoke in the process.
I never knew how much I needed to see that smoke, until it disappeared amidst inclement weather during Michael Essa and Alex Heilbrunn’s all-BMW Top 32 bout on Saturday afternoon. I’ve grown accustomed to weather affecting various rounds throughout the calendar, but the sun is usually not far behind to dry up the track and bring the smoke back. It was not the case in Atlanta, and I found myself missing the fluffy white byproduct of wheel spin floating into the atmosphere beneath the fluorescent lighting of the track. From this point forward in the weekend, there would be no more tire smoke.
Without the smoke trail, the action of the battles just didn’t carry the same visceral raw feeling to my brain. Along with that, speeds decreased, throttle input decreased, and proximity to other objects increased, but I’ll touch on those separately.
As an avid fan of grip motorsport and circuit racing, this is a pretty important one for me. I always love seeing cars perfectly nick the apex of turns at certain circuits. There’s something so gratifying about watching a driver take a perfect racing line through a turn. It’s like a freshly vacuumed carpet, or mowed lawn. It just soothes the soul to see.
Just like the disappearance of the tire smoke, I never noticed how important this aspect of drifting was for me until it wasn’t happening during this round. The outer and inner clipping points of Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta’s famous horseshoe (or keyhole) turn were moved in the grass, which caused drivers to dip the noses of their car and front wheels off the tarmac in an attempt at closing the proximity to the inner clipping points, with the same being said of the rears for the outer clipping points.
This slight change really altered how my brain perceives the clinical precision driving skills that are normally associated with FD. I usually watch these competitors pilot their cars to within inches of barriers at other rounds, but found myself witnessing dirt drops more commonly associated with amateur drifting trials—and that was while the track was still dry.
Once the rain came, it changed everything even more. The mud began to pile up on the track, because it was necessary for drivers to go through it in order to be scored proper points. This covered the trailing competitors in fresh Georgia red clay, and surely didn’t help the grip levels, which were already at an extreme low in the wet weather. All of this compounded to alter the typical driving line for this track and made me think back to how much I usually enjoy this aspect of drifting. They execute the proper line at obscene speeds, while sideways and sometimes pointed the wrong way. It’s a wonderful thing!
Let me start by saying, I am not—I repeat, NOT—opposed to hybrid or electric vehicles in professional motorsports. Okay, now that that is out of the way, let me also say, I really never knew how much my brain relied on screaming engines to generate appropriate levels of excitement for drifting.
Travis Reeder’s Napoleon Motorsports Chevy Camaro is a new entry this year. It’s been all the rage since it was unveiled. Powered by a customized fully electric motor setup from EV West, the EL1 Camaro moves in complete silence and is totally badass. The lack of sound creates quite an an eerie feeling as it passes you without any hints or clues that it’s performing a competition run. Even the Nitto tires are such a soft compound that they don’t screech or anything while they’re being abused.
In Atlanta, I witnessed the car in action for the first time, and it’s so quiet that without the help of a fellow media pro yelling, “Hey guys, it’s coming…” I wouldn’t have been ready with my camera. While he laid down an impressive run, to me there was just something missing from the spectacle.
Perhaps it’s not so much that I rely on engine noise, but just that I rely on some form of sound to trigger a reaction in my brain. Things like police sirens strike a feeling into people. Maybe the electric motorsport cars just need their own sound to correspond with their attack. For example, something similar to the warning sirens equipped on all of the electric Pikes Peak entrants, which let onlookers know that a vehicle is approaching while simultaneously giving those vehicles their own distinction from the utter silence of nature.
As I looked back through my photos from this event, the lack of proximity in runs was most noticeable. The door-to-door action regularly associated with Formula DRIFT events simply wasn’t there. Perhaps the rain was to blame, as the competition usually gets closer toward the end of the night, which ultimately leads up to a nail-biter of a final battle. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case this year, as most tandems consisted of solid lead runs and timid chase runs in the damp conditions.
Well, other than when Pat Goodin triumphed up to the Great 8 in his Drift Cave Nissan 240SX. It was an inspiring drive from someone who hasn’t had the best fortune in the series. The fans reciprocated with an ovation each time he progressed, and his efforts were welcomed ferocity in what was otherwise a seemingly tame event to that point.
It really hit home that the proximity was off when I witnessed James Deane and Odi Bakchis battle it out in their all-S-chassis Great 8 matchup. These two competitors wrestled with the aggressive tenacity that was required for drifting to release the proper response in my brain. Seeing them fight for inches on the course was a special moment that made me realize how essential tandem proximity is to my enjoyment.
Rain Or Shine
Although this single-handedly altered the FD event in Atlanta for the worse, it also remains one of the reasons I love the series. Rain or shine, really means rain or shine! While I admittedly have seen the series conclude festivities in hazardous storm conditions, the onslaught of rain itself does little to impede the schedule of FD, and that’s something to admire.
While other series would throw in the towel, the competitors, organizers, sponsors, media, and fans of FD all tough it out no matter the circumstances. The show must go on, and amidst constantly changing conditions, the third round of FD continued into the rainy night. Giving drivers sight runs—a practice lap through the course to test the grip levels in changing weather—created better action on track, and allowed drivers to note any differences in their approach.
Although it made everything more difficult for almost everyone involved (especially the drivers), fans were treated to an exhibition like no other when Chelsea DeNofa and his BC Racing Ford Mustang took on his friend, Pat Goodin, under the lights during a brief-but-torrential downpour. It was the hardest patch of rain that hit the circuit all weekend, and it started and ended within the confines of this single tandem run. The excitement among the crowd was palpable and the treacherous run ended up being one of my highlights of the weekend.
In all, this event wasn’t my favorite example of on-track FD action, but it solidified all of the aspects I really love about FD events. Everyone at certain points in their life can become jaded with the monotony of routine, so it’s nice to have a wakeup call like this event to help put things in perspective. Heck, FD Atlanta 2019 made me realize things I never knew I enjoyed about drifting. It has me on the lookout for finding more of these hidden traits that I didn’t know I held so dear. But most of all, it has me primed and ready to witness some debauchery at the series’ next stop, an hour away from my home at Wall Speedway in New Jersey. For now, check out more from the gallery below, and I’ll see you in Jersey. (fingers crossed for more pleasant weather)