As if cramming four months of a pro drift season into four weeks isn't challenging enough, try throwing into the mix a little bit of rain, too. That's exactly what Formula Drift faced heading to Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Wash. for Rounds 3 and 4 of its Pro championship and Round 2 of it Pro 2 title chase. It was heaviest for the Pro 2 comp, and by Sunday's Pro Round 4 it was gone, but the wet stuff always adds an interesting wrinkle to a sport that doesn't stop for Mother Nature like other motorsports do.
Fans were spared the rain because there weren't any at Evergreen. Due to COVID and a Washington state edict, no spectators were allowed in the venue, so for the first time in Formula D history they had no one in the stands (save for staff and team members) to watch the action go down; all viewing was through the FD live stream. Indeed, this has been a season of firsts for the pro drift league, which includes the first time Formula D has started its year in September, the first time it's had back-to-back Pro events on consecutive days, and the first time they've done away with qualifying.
Heading into tandem eliminations, Round 1 and 2 podium finishers Odi Bakchis and Ryan Tuerck were tied for first place in the points, followed by Chelsea DeNofa and Fredric Aasbo tied for third. The Evergreen course map was pretty much the same as last year's with one alteration; the inner clipping point that used to be near the end was changed to a rear clipping zone, a move the judges hoped would keep that part of the track flowing a little better.
Pro 2 Round 2
On and off rain Friday meant the day's Pro 2 Top 32 eliminations started off slick and only got slicker, but mercifully there were only 22 entries and most of those got bye runs in T32, in this case meaning they could skip the opening eliminator (since it was raining, Formula D made an allowance for this event; usually drivers have to at least take a single car bye-run lap). There were six tandems in 32, but none looked all that pretty, with speeds reduced, cars having to compromise the line, and spinouts becoming par for the course. Top 16 later in the day was even more waterlogged after a heavy downpour during the intermission, and in fact was delayed more than an hour because a lake had formed in the infield and track operators had to pump it out.
You'd think with all the wet stuff there would be a ton of crashes and contacts, and while there was a fair amount of that, we'd have to say FD's junior squad and event staff did a fairly good job keeping the action moving along in spite of the challenging conditions. Probably the biggest wreck of Pro 2 came in 16, when Brian Wadman looped his Liqui Moly Nissan S14 in Outer Zone 1 on Evergreen's bank and a chasing Kelsey Rowlings in her own Top 1 Oil S14 had nowhere to go but into Wadman. Both cars sustained damage but Wadman, who was deemed at fault in the incident, was unable to fix his S14 in the allotted time, so Rowlings moved on.
The four to make it to the semifinals included local boy Chase Schmidt in his BMW E36; Round 1 winner Josh Love in the After Hours Autosports E36, who survived a bruising fight (and Round 1 Finals rematch) in Great 8 with Jonathan Hurst's Cash Racing Infiniti G37; Dmitriy Brutskiy in the Essa Autosport E46; and Austin Matta in the Tire Stacks S14. If you're noticing a BMW theme here, you're not wrong; more than half the Pro 2 Top 16 were Bimmer, and 3 of the Final 4 sported BMW roundels on their hoods. Love, Brutskiy and Matta were also in the Final 4 at St. Louis weeks earlier.
Schmidt milked his home track advantage, pulling off the upset win over points leader Love to earn a ticket to the finals. As rain began intensifying again, Brutskiy - who looked the most poised and accurate driving in the bad weather out of all of Pro 2 - was consistently better than Matta, especially in the lead, and landed himself in the Round 2 gold match.
But first the showdown between Love and Matta for third place had to be settled, and while the leads were decent, the chases left much to be desired, so judges asked for a One More Time (OMT) to break the deadlock. On his second lead lap, Love's E36 had a tussle with the Zone 1 wall that knocked him off course only momentarily, but it was still enough of a misstep that judges gave him an incomplete for the run and that was all Matta needed to secure the bottom step of the podium, his second of 2020.
In the all-BMW Pro 2 final, Brutskiy asserted himself and Schmidt looked rattled, especially on lap 2 with Chase in the lead spot. Schmidt's E36 ended up getting into the wall at the end of the bank, which unsettled the car and gave Brutskiy the opening he needed to take the win. After half a season, Brutskiy jumps up into the Pro 2 points lead tied with Love, while Matta is in a very close third just 12 points adrift.
Pro Round 3
Weather wise, Saturday was a transitional day, with much less intense rain that was patchier, too, and it allowed the track to dry somewhat in parts, but that made for tricky wet-dry surface conditions that were constantly shifting throughout the entire day. Practices Thursday and again before Round 3's Top 32 turned out to be a rough start for a few, with guys like Adam LZ in the Enjuku Racing S15 having to replace an engine, and others, like Odi Bakchis, having unfortunate run-ins with the Zone 1 wall. Bakchis's front-end hit in particular was so hard, it looked like something punched in the entire front left corner of his Falken Tire Feal Suspension Silvia; he did ultimately patch up the car enough to make it marginally competitive, but the forward "bash" tubes on the driver side had to be cut off and the plumbing for the supercharger had to be scrapped after the accident, which left Bakchis without forced induction (and down on power) for effectively all of Round 3. Both LZ and Odi made the show Saturday, but not Jeff Jones; he too got in the wall just ahead of 32 but was unable to fix the car in time for his bye lap and had to sit out until Sunday.
Unfortunately, Top 32 didn't get a whole lot smoother for several teams. Faruk Kugay in the SGK Performance S14 blew any chance of beating 2013 champ Mike Essa in the FCP Euro E46 when Kugay was too aggressive in the chase and slammed into his opponent a couple of times, shutting down the run. Tyler Nelson in his Ford Mustang chasing three-time champ Chris Forsberg's NOS Energy Drink 370Z hit the Z34 so hard it went sliding into the wall at Outer Zone 4, with the trailing driver again found at fault and Forsberg awarded the win. Chase drivers Alec Robbins in the Fasetto 350Z and Yves Meyer in the Lattesso F22 Eurofighter both also made contact with their respective leaders, Round 2 winner Chelsea DeNofa in the BC Racing Mustang and Kazuya Taguchi in the UP Garage S15, which cost them their battles. You can lump in Jhonnattan Castro's loss in the Gerdau Metaldom Toyota 86 to Ryan Tuerck and his Gumout Corolla hatchback with those others; the two touched on the bank after Castro's chase was a little too outta control and he bumped into his Papadakis Racing teammate. By most metrics, neither of their laps were pretty, but Tuerck ended up advancing.
On the brighter side of 32, Taylor Hull in the Comp Cams Cadillac ATS-V beat Travis Reeder in his S13, and because Jeff Jones was out of the competition, it meant Hull had a fast pass to the Great 8, the first of his Formula D career and coming just weeks after he got his first Top 16 in St. Louis. Rookie Wataru Masuyama in the Buy Now Japan Silvia earned his first FD Top 32 victory beating Dan Burkett's GearWrench Rad Industries Mk4 Supra, while the internet rejoiced when Adam LZ picked up his first FD Pro win against Ken Gushi's Rowdy Energy A90 Supra, which was something of a big upset considering Gushi is a 17-year veteran of the series and LZ is a Pro freshman.
Top 16 highlights included a couple of solid battles that went to OMT, namely 2015 champ Fredric Aasbo in the Rockstar Energy Drink A90 besting Papdakis teammate Ryan Tuerck in Freddie's former car (and Aasbo did it with a broken rear wheel, no less), as well as Matt Field in the Falken Chevy Corvette surviving the battle of un-chaseable leads against Forsberg. Additionally, Dai Yoshihara in the Turn 14 Subaru BRZ was chasing Round 2 winner DeNofa in his Mustang when they had front wheel-to-wheel contact on the bank, which judges later pinpointed was DeNofa's fault after video showed he slowed outside of one of the course's "decel zones" and Yoshihara had nowhere to go. Dai won that one.
By the time Round 3 reached the Final 4 semis, the only pilots left were past Formula D champions: Aasbo facing Essa, and Yoshihara drawing 2010 champ Vaughn Gittin in the Monster Energy Drink Mustang, who had earlier displaced points leader Odi Bakchis. The round of four came down to better chases and, in particular, tighter proximity, as Essa could not outdo Aasbo and Dai was nowhere as smooth or as close as Vaughn was in the secondary spot. The losses led to a third-place battle between Dai and Essa, one that saw the chasing BRZ driver get lost in the BMW's tire smoke running through the course's "power alley" (the straight section that cuts across the infield) and go off track momentarily. It was enough of a gaffe for Dai to get docked for it and lose the battle, Essa picking up his first podium finish of the season in the process.
During Round 3, Gittin was speaking on the Formula D live stream about how he realized he had been overthinking driving, and how he has been having to relearn to trust himself after doing this sport for decades. He may be onto something there; the guy looked silky smooth on track and pretty unstoppable, reminding us of the Vaughn Gittin of old - he was in top form for the entire weekend. In the Round 3 Final, leveraging that Mustang brute strength, Gittin left Round 1-winner Aasbo in the dust, Fredric needing all the way until Zone 3 to close ranks, and then in the chase JR had better proximity for a longer period of time. And so, for the first time since Irwindale 2018, Gittin stood tallest on the podium, also nabbing a second win for his team RTR Motorsports after teammate Chelsea DeNofa scored the Round 2 W. Fredric Aasbo moved into the points lead, but it would only last a day.
Pro Round 4
Formula Drift received a dry track for the last day of its spectator-less three-day drift extravaganza. Judges tweaked the course map a smidge, altering slightly the first and last decel zones (see the illustration), but the big news to emerge from the time in between rounds was the hurdles Papadakis Racing suddenly had to face just as Top 32 was about to get underway. It began when the 3D-printed intake manifold of the turbo B58 inline-6 in Fredric Aasbo's A90 developed an enormous, gaping crack, which required immediate attention. As the practice session right before 32 ended, Aasbo's Papadakis Racing teammate, Ryan Tuerck, was involved in a wreck with Alec Robbins's Z33 that mangled the front of Tuerck's Corolla. Since Ryan was up first in Top 32, the team had to put aside Fredric's issue and thrash on the Corolla to get it operational. In that effort, team Papadakis was successful, but unfortunately, they were not able to fix the Supra's manifold in time - and just like that, the points leader was completely out of the picture for Round 4.
Indeed, both new Supras in the championship - Aasbo's and Ken Gushi's - had rotten luck Sunday, Gushi's A90 adding to the misery after some bolts broke in the cylinder head and he had to retire. In Top 32 crash news, Tyler Nelson continued to attempt to wreck lead drivers with his Mustang, on Sunday banging up Dylan Hughes's 2JZ Permatex E46 and getting a zero for it, thus ending Nelson's weekend, while Jhonnattan Castro had another tough 32, his 86 getting sucked up into the bank wall as he was chasing Dai Yoshihara's BRZ. The left rear corner of the car caught the wall, which knocked the car straight and caused the nose to slam into the leading Subaru's right rear. In the pits, Castro realized his 86 was too far gone so he had to throw in the towel. One bright spot of Top 32: Dean Kearney finally got that monkey off his back and scored a win in the Oracle Lighting Dodge Viper after what seemed like a pretty long dry spell. Kearney and Essa drove to a OMT, and in his second chase lap Essa could not close the proximity to his opponent's Viper, which was one of the main deciding factors for Dean's win.
In Top 16, Ryan Tuerck's Corolla in the lead spot took a heavy hit from wild man Alec Robbins's 350Z - a hard enough whack that Robbins had to shut down his run; judges gave that one to Tuerck. The hardest and probably scariest wreck of the event, however, came in the Chris Forsberg-Dai Yoshihara matchup. As Dai in his BRZ was set to chase Chris's 370Z, the Subaru hit the bank wall very hard at course entry, which we learned later was entirely driver error, as Yoshihara hesitated a millisecond too long in his initiation and wound up in the wall. The crash reminded a lot of old timers of the very similar wreck Dai had at almost the same spot back in 2009, an incident that pretty much destroyed the Discount Tire Lexus IS 350 he was driving.
Round 4's Final 4 was a Mustang party. Round 3 winner Vaughn Gittin was back in his Monster Energy Ford, outlasting Travis Reeder in 32, Odi Bakchis in 16, and a knockdown drag out OMT fight with Chris Forsberg in the round of 8. He faced his RTR Motorsports number two, Chelsea DeNofa, who was in the semis in the BC Racing pony car that dispatched Wataru Masuyama in 16 and Taylor Hull in 8 to get there. Justin Pawlak willed his Roush Falken Mustang to the semifinals, beating Matt Field in 16 and Jeff Jones in 8. The only non-Mustang of the foursome was Ryan Tuerck's Corolla, which triumphed over Jonathan Nerren's 'Stang in 32, Robbins in 16, and Kearney in Great 8.
As everyone saw in the previous day's final, one of the biggest advantages of the Mustang package is its V-8's sheer strength coming off the launch, and we saw it again in Pawlak's and Tuerck's semifinal matchup. Tuerck on the chase could not close the gap on the Zone 1 bank, the fastest part of the track, and ultimately that seemed to be the deciding factor in Justin's win. On the other side of the eliminations bracket, DeNofa and Gittin both got up into the wall and wrecked out, an incident that was ultimately deemed Chelsea's fault because he got up into the tire marbles first and lost control of the car. While there was no contact between vehicles, Vaughn later confessed he was simply following Chelsea, and that apparently included following his teammate right into the wall. Gittin wound up getting the win there.
The thrills didn't end there. In their third-place battle, DeNofa in the lead against Tuerck ended up de-beading his front left tire near the end of the bank and Chelsea had to shut down his run. Since there's no provision in the rules to allow tire changes in between laps within a battle, the decision went to Ryan, who picked up his third podium finish in four rounds.
The finale may have been one for the ages. Gittin and Pawlak's opening set was insane, with a chasing Vaughn attempting a very rare pass at Inner Clipping Point 1 and essentially failing, the judges finding Gittin at fault for his recklessness. But then Justin chasing dropped two wheels off course at Zone 2, and with two very poor chase runs judges made the pair go again in a OMT to decide who should come out on top. The pressure may have been getting to Pawlak by this point, though, as he initiated late chasing Gittin and then later in the lap had to check up to avoid running into his opponent in Zone 4. Vaughn was cool as a cucumber in the last fight, though, and clinched his second victory in as many days.
After spending just 24 hours as the 2020 points leader, Fredric Aasbo got bumped down to third place with the results of Round 4, as Ryan Tuerck became the new leader but is only 8 points ahead of Vaughn Gittin in second. Believe it or not, the 2020 Formula Drift Championship is now half over, with the next Pro and Pro 2 rounds at Texas Motor Speedway recently getting moved to Halloween weekend, October 30th to November 1st. Make no mistake; this year's title is still anyone's to take, and the event in Texas has every potential to jumble the leaderboard even further. We can't wait; hold onto your butts - this should be an interesting second half of the season.