Let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning: I have been what you’d call anti-drifting, for a long, long time. I couldn’t see the appeal of it, other than the fact that it looked like it might be fun to just do what seemed like one long, rolling burnout with a bunch of twists and turns thrown in for good measure. From the very first day I landed here at Front Street, Kyle—who is a massive Formula Drift fan—has been after me to attend an event, and I kept brushing him off.
Earlier this year when we were sorting out our travel schedules, I realized that the Wall Stadium Speedway event didn’t conflict with anything else on my calendar, so I somewhat begrudgingly agreed to apply for a media pass so I could experience FD up-close-and-personal for the very first time. So this won’t be our traditional “what happened and who won” FD coverage. Instead, it’ll be my impression of a Formula Drift event from the inside, from someone who has been on the outside for a long time, along with around 150 of my favorite photos from the event.
Now, I went into the event with some familiarity of the FD racers; since I edit every one of Kyle’s coverage articles before it goes up on the site, I’m aware of who the players are in the series. I’m a Mustang guy at heart, so obviously Vaughn Gittin Jr., Chelsea DeNofa, and Justin Pawlak have crossed my radar a time or three in the past.
I recall some details like the fact that that Fredric Aasbø and James Deane battled it out for the 2018 Formula Drift championship, which was decided in the final round battle of the final event last year when Aasbø just couldn’t get past Vaughn in Irwindale. Even though those details have stuck with me, and I recognize the faces and cars of some of the better-known drivers, many of the technical aspects of drifting are foreign to me.
Once I realized I’d be going to Wall, I started quizzing the drift fans here at the office. On Fridays, we have what we call Fast Friday, where motorsports is on the TV in the afternoon, so whenever Formula Drift was chosen for the day, I’d watch and ask questions here and there about why the drivers were doing certain things. Kyle was happy to explain it to me, but he also mentioned more than once that it would make more sense when I saw it for myself.
I arrived at Wall Stadium Speedway and met up with him to chat for a bit before going into the stadium. Once we entered, the first thing I noticed when I walked into the pit area was that the event appeared to be professionally organized. I think I had a preconceived notion that it was going to be a bunch of kids—I’m 45, cut me some slack—and as I started to walk around, I saw that the drivers were dressed professionally while interacting with their fans rather than hanging back and acting like they were too good to do so. I was impressed with the atmosphere.
One thing that did stick out to me immediately was that most of the cars in competition were wearing plenty of bumps and bruises on the bodywork and vehicle wraps, whereas at the drag racing events I usually frequent, many of the cars in competition would be right at home on the show car field as well. Not so at Wall. The cars in competition were, let’s say, well-worn, as they should be, given that Wall Stadium Speedway is the fourth stop of the season for the Pro cars and they’ve all been through some pretty heavy battle. Just check out our 2019 Long Beach coverage and our Atlanta coverage for evidence.
Once I got my first look at the empty track, I tried to envision the track layout, and how the battles would go off, since I’ve looked at thousands of Kyle’s Formula Drift photos over the years. As the competitors started lining up in the tire warmup area, I got my first whiff of tire smoke and sound of engine RPM climbing, and started to make my way over to the track.
Then the seasoned motorsports journalist part of my brain took over. Many thoughts went through my mind, in rapid succession like the pop of a two-step on the starting line. “Holy S#@%! Did they really just go barreling around the track that fast NEXT TO ONE ANOTHER?! How did they not hit each other going through that transition over there? They changed directions and I can’t see what they are doing but they came out of that cloud of smoke and still, nobody hit each other?! How is this possible?”
This went on for probably the first 30 minutes I was watching the practice session, as the tandems of drivers continued to rocket around the course. When you see it on TV, the sense of speed just doesn’t translate over to what actually happens after the track goes hot. I know—without a doubt—that I definitely don’t have the talent to control a car like that, and even less so when I factor in the part about, you know, the other driver who’s rolling shotgun just inches from your door.
Honestly—and I know the people here at the office are going to roast me for this statement for a long time given my previous lack of love for Formula Drift—I was amazed at the talent of the drivers which was on display. All during this practice period, I had my camera out and was firing off shot after shot, ending up with far more than I expected to shoot leading into the day.
Whittling down the competition brought me a ton of amazing photo opportunities. On Saturday, the competitors were in what the kids call Full Send Mode, and they were much closer to one another as they danced around the track. On a couple of occasions, there was contact—with each other, and the wall.
One thing I learned quickly about Formula Drift is that capturing the action is a bit easier from a photography perspective than the drag racing events I’m used to shooting; once the cars get rolling they aren’t changing speeds across a wide range. On the flip side, at the drag racing events I normally cover, some of the cars can go from 0–200 mph in the span of 4 seconds or so. At FD, I was able to lock onto a tandem and follow them around the bowl until they were too far away, then reposition as they came back to me on the second part of the course and capture a completely different perspective of the run.
Something else I noticed is that the cars are as stripped down as they possibly can be, as function definitely outweighs form in this motorsports arena. While the cars have to remain factory-appearing in most respects, the actual rules package is rather minimal compared to what I normally see on the dragstrip.
There are many rules related to safety and chassis construction, but engine modifications are free and clear up to and including the use of nitrous oxide in conjunction with forced induction. Additionally, there is a tire-to-weight ratio, meaning that cars within a specific weight class have a maximum measured tire width. Of course, there are many other rules in the Formula Drift rulebook, but I found these interesting.
Once practice and qualifying were over on Friday evening, I headed home, energized and ready to see what the actual competition portion of the event brought on Saturday. I did think it was pretty neat to see Justin Pawlak record a perfect 100-point run during qualifying, setting him as the man to beat heading into Saturday’s Top 32 competition. He made it into the Great 8, but ran into Ryan Tuerck and went home after that pairing. James Deane, Fredric Aasbø, and Vaughn Gittin Jr. also made it into the Final 4 with Tuerck. At the end of the day, Tuerck was the last man standing after his hard-fought clash with series points leader Aasbø, as the sun set through the trees on the far side of the course.
I was especially in awe of how the competitors were able to run in chase car mode and navigate the track through the clouds of smoke thrown up by the lead car. On many occasions during the day I couldn’t even see the lead car through the smoke, yet the chase car was right on him, just inches away as they navigated around the course. The displays of driving prowess were nothing short of incredible.
Despite my reluctance over the last several years to attend a Formula Drift event, at the end of the day I can look back and say it’s an experience I’ll never forget. Now, I’m not saying that I’m turning into a complete Formula Drift fanatic, but I’ll say it’s well worth the effort to check out an event if you get the chance. I’ll definitely be going back to Wall next season, and might even add another one to my schedule. Thanks for reading!