With qualifying finished, Saturday was all about Formula Drift‘s main competition at Road Atlanta. The narrowed field of 32 consisted of the league’s big stars, including 2012 Atlanta winner Justin Pawlak. Would he be able to repeat as his teammate Daijiro Yoshihara had done in the past? Or would a new name be written into FD’s history books for their 10th anniversary? Read on to find out.
The main paddock area of Road Atlanta was divided into two sections this year, with a second level on the hill being devoted to the Slammed Society car show. It was a very cool event, and allowed fans the chance to see what the locals could do in addition to the pro-level drift machines.
Seeing 350Zs and S2ks is one thing, but I was very impressed at the sheer variety of cars that turned out.
New school Corollas, BMWs, Miatas, even a JDM S15 Silvia came out to play. Not every track has enough space to host this kind of collaboration with the drift series, so it is yet another reason Atlanta is a must-see event.
In the distance beyond the car show clouds were moving in, putting the rest of the afternoon and evening on notice. This was very likely to become a wet event, something that the drivers had narrowly escaped the night prior.
During Top 32 practice the skies decided to let out a few rain drops, but nothing that would halt the proceedings. It gave many of the drivers a feel for what the surface could be like in the damp, which would prove to be valuable knowledge later on.
After practice, the Top 32 competition heated up with a few notable battles. Normally, Top 32 weeds out some of the lower ranked drivers from the top dogs, but on this occasion very few could rest easily if they wanted to make the Top 16.
Daigo Saito experienced this first hand as he was paired up against fellow Lexus driver Pat Mordaunt in the Diamond SC430. The first run looked very good for Saito who pulled out an early lead while Mordaunt struggled to follow. The second pass allowed Mordaunt to turn the tables, putting up a crazy smokescreen as seen above that completely swallowed Saito’s car through the final corners. The judges could not decide a clear victor so they went one more time (OMT)! On the replay Saito was totally smooth, finding the ideal line in both runs to solidify the win, but I’m sure it was a bit harder to earn than he anticipated.
Next up was Joon Maeng vs. Chelsea Denofa. Long Beach was yet another instance where Denofa showed he was not one to be messed with, and at this point none of the drivers are really interested in tackling him, let alone in the first round of competition. Maeng is pretty fearless sometimes and enjoys a challenge, meeting Denofa at his own game with some crazy angles and tire smoke. On the second pass as Denofa tried to follow, he lost drift through the last turn and cut it too close, dropping both of his right wheels off into the dirt momentarily. This constitues an automatic zero in Formula Drift, and sealed the win for Maeng to move on to the Top 16.
The Top 32 also brought one of the more controversial calls of the day when Ryan Tuerck faced off against Danny George. In their first run, George lead the way and both drivers did an excellent job of dancing through the tight course. When Tuerck lead for the second attempt, George came in too hot on the long downhill run to the first turn. His front wheel collided with the side of Tuerck’s car, and in what felt like the blink of an eye the two had spun. Many spectators did not see the hit – it simply appeared that Tuerck’s momentum had taken him all the way around. George admitted to the judges afterwards that he had caused the incident, and there was solid proof on the side of his Wreckhouse Miata. Also, take a look at Tuerck’s gaze in the photo above. Professional drivers don’t look back at their opponent mid-corner, they are always looking forward. To me, this is a clear indication that Tuerck had just been hit, and had to do a double-take back at George as if to say “did that just happen?!” In the end, the judges made the right call and Tuerck advanced to the Top 16 without a broken ride.
Last up for the Top 32 that is worth a look was the battle between Conrad Grunewald and Daijiro Yoshihara. Yoshihara was leading the overall championship points coming into Road Atlanta after a close win in Long Beach. Grunewald is always a tricky battle since he rarely has much to lose, lacking the pressure that comes from being at the top of the standings. It’s unclear if Yoshihara was having some mechanical issues, or if it was just an off day, but in the first lead run he couldn’t seem to initiate drift very well after the first corner. I chose the photo above to illustrate how little smoke his Falken Tire Nissan S13 was putting out as they went through the final corner, compared to Grunewald who was still hot in the rear during the transition. The judges could see Yoshihara grabbing the e-brake more than once at each of the clipping points, struggling to keep the back sideways. The second run was much the same way, as Grunewald put on a clinic in his Megan Racing Hankook Chevrolet Camaro SS, hitting every part of the track perfectly. Yoshihara tried to keep good proximity, but he did this at the expense of angle, fighting the car and wiggling multiple times without getting much smoke down. All of this was enough to make the decision clear for the judges, and Grunewald knocked Yoshihara out of the Top 32, a huge blow for the overall championship.
I encourage you guys to watch the runs for yourself on youtube here. Formula Drift was kind enough to post the video from the livestream up so you can examine each run in detail for yourself, and watch in real time as the judges gave their scores to one driver or the other.
As the Top 16 introductions began under the lights, the heavens decided it was time to spice things up even more. You can see the wet track reflecting the headlights of the Drift Alliance crew as they lead the field out for the introductions.
In the fading light with water drops falling the umbrella girls actually had a job to do for their drivers. Nice to see those umbrellas going to some functional use for a change!
The wet track surface made things difficult for the first few drivers that went out. It wasn’t even through the course, meaning some corners had more grip than others, a fact that was impossible to know until it was being felt in a run. As some time passed, the sky abated, drawing open a glorious window right as the sun was setting over the grandstands.
This is where we pick up the story with Conrad Grunewald going up against Mike Essa in the Top 16. Both runs were very clean, but Grunewald gave up a little bit more in his line to keep pace with the GSR Autosport BMW M3.
When it was Essa’s turn to follow, not only was he able to stay nice and tight on Grunewald throughout the entire run, but he mirrored the ideal line as he chased. This detail was the deciding factor for the judges as the track was too damp to allow much tire smoke to make the horsepower a factor. Essa moved on to the great 8.
On the same side of the bracket Chris Forsberg met up with Matt Powers to do battle under the fading light. Right after I grabbed this shot, Forsberg over rotated his NOS Energy Nissan 370Z and stalled out in the horseshoe, allowing Powers to slip away and take the win.
That left Matt Powers up against Mike Essa for a chance to be in the final four, a position Powers seemed overly eager to reach. As the two transitioned from the first turn to the second apex, Powers misjudged the traction and goosed his Nitto Tires/Fatlace Nissan S14, looping him around.
All Mike Essa needed was a clean follow run to move on, and that’s exactly what he laid down, grabbing a spot in the final four.
Back in the Top 16, Ryan Tuerck and Justin Pawlak were making the tarmac look more like an ice skating rink than an actual circuit. Both cars slid wide around the planned route, struggling to keep a smooth line. As they entered the horeshoe turn, Pawlak couldn’t keep his Falken Tire Ford Mustang in line, plowing into the cone area and giving Tuerck the win.
After that, Tuerck would meet Darren McNamara, now driving Falken Tire’s new Nissan S14. McNamara had already Odi Bakchis in the Top 16, and seemed to have a better handle on the track as it continued to dry out. Tuerck ran over part of the dirt in the transition from the first turn to the second (near where Matt Powers spun in the photo above), but the effect wasn’t immediately apparent to those of us watching on his passenger’s side.
Then the cars swung by us and the problem was clear – Tuerck’s off-road moment had caused a severe puncture of the right rear tire and it was being forced right off the rim with each nudge of the throttle.
Tuerck was unable to finish the run as his car’s rear sagged and his exposed wheel began to drag across the pavement, signaling defeat with a few sparks along the way. McNamara took the win, and was off to the final four.
On the other side of the bracket, Nexen Tire stablemates Joon Maeng and Kyle Mohan were paired up in the Top 16. On both runs Maeng underestimated the amount of grip available on parts of the track, losing a lot of angle and nearly coming to a halt during his chase run. Mohan may not have been able to put out as much smoke, but his runs were both smooth on angle, keeping very good proximity to Maeng through the horseshoe turn to take the win.
Once Daigo Saito had survived his encounter with Mordaunt in the Top 32, it was back to business as usual. There seemed to be no one that could challenge him as he quickly dispensed with Forrest Wang, and then Mohan in the great 8, positioning himself in the final four.
That leaves only one slot left to fill, and Vaughn Gittin Jr. was determined to find his way to another podium after a strong 2nd place in Long Beach. He reunited with early-round rival Matt Field during the Top 16, but the battle was short lived.
In the great 8, Gittin met up with Fredric Aasbo, and things got interesting…
I’ve been covering Formula Drift at Road Atlanta for 7 of its 10 years now, and I’ve never seen a run like this before. Aasbo lead the first lap, and used a little Scandinavian flick to get his Hankook Tires Scion Racing tC in line for the first turn. The early nature of the flick caught Gittin totally off guard, and he quickly tried to hit the brakes to maintain a gap before his own initiation point. The track was still wet, and the Monster Energy Ford Mustang locked up the front, fishtailing desperately to find a way out before the inevitable happened.
Gittin made contant with Aasbo’s front end, his over-reaching front tires grabbing onto the Scion and literally riding up over it like a monster truck (cheers KDF!). It all happened in an instant, but the craziest part was yet to come.
When Gittin’s Mustang landed back on terra firma, he quickly yanked his e-brake and went about his run as if nothing had happened. Aasbo’s front bumper had been completely ripped off. Luckily, this cosmetic touch meant relatively little to the Norwegian, who decided to set his car back in line as well and follow Gittin out of the turn!
The photo above is from the same run! These two guys would not give up, finishing out the course as if it was just another day in the park. Unfortunately for Gittin, the move he pulled was an illegal pass of a driver that was still on-line, thus giving him a zero for the run. After some work to Aasbo’s car, the pair lined up for the second pass, but this time it was Aasbo who seemed to be suffering mechanical issues. He was forced to stop midway through the run, scoring no points and throwing the whole thing into a OMT.
On the second set of runs, Aasbo’s car seemed visibly weaker, unable to keep pace with Gittin’s 800hp beast. From a fan’s perspective, it seems like slightly back fortune for Aasbo to get crippled by his competitor, yet not move on to the next round. Sometimes that’s racing though, and Gittin was above to fight through to the final four.
There Gittin would have to try his luck with Saito, the man that had beaten him to a championship at the end of last season. Adrenaline still pumping as they went out for the first run, Gittin did the same thing that Tuerck had done earlier in the evening, cutting straight through the second corner as he aimed for a tight follow run. He got too close, and actually clipped the rear of Saito’s Achilles Radial Lexus SC. Amazingly, Saito didn’t miss a beat, staying on the power and pouring out even more smoke as he entered the horseshoe.
Gittin got bogged down by the contact this time, and was unable to keep up with his opponent. He lost drift completely entering the horseshoe, parking it for a zero that put him out of contention for the final.
That left only McNamara and Essa to complete the bracket. McNamara absolutely loves the allure of Road Atlanta, knowing every inch of the track and his car’s wheelbase. He placed the Falken Tire Nissan S14 perfectly for both runs, riding the edge of the tarmac in textbook fashion to put a stamp on his victory.
In the battle for third place, very little separated Essa and Gittin on the first run as Essa lead the pair around the course. When Gittin took the lead for their second pass, things were different, and the track had dried out enough to let the horsepower war rage on. Gittin took no chances, running away from Essa’s M3 with a visible gap by the end of the run. The winner was clear, and Gittin came away with third place, putting him at the head of the standings for the 2013 championship.
The final tandem match of the night saw more drama as fifth seed Saito lead sixth place qualifier McNamara in their first set of runs. McNamara made the same mistake as Gittin, but this time the consequences left far more scars. The red light in the photo above illustrates that McNamara was hard on the brakes trying to avoid contact with Saito even at the moment of impact. Saito’s car is right hand drive, so it must have been a pretty scary moment to have a wheel nearly coming through the door at him.
The pair both spun out, unable to complete the run. McNamara’s team tried to repair his car’s suspension and steering arm, but the damage was too extensive. The mechanical forfeit of the second pass gave Saito the official win, taking his first victory at Road Atlanta.
Despite the many incidents during the night, the three competitors were all very fair on the podium. McNamara admitted that he made mistakes, and Saito was equally pleased to be standing on top with no hard feelings to show.
As McNamara and Gittin popped their champagne bottles for the celebration, one person was left standing defenseless. Perhaps someone had messed with Saito’s champagne or he was just tired from the insane competition, but the bottle failed to open when he tried to force the cork out! Another first for a Road Atlanta podium.
Again, Saito took the whole thing in good spirits, and was positively beaming when the bubbly had run out for the other two. It was the first time that I had seen Saito smile uncontrollably the whole weekend, letting down his Japanese demeanor for a few brief moments to share some fun with the other competitors he has such respect for.
Thank you for taking the time to enjoy our coverage of this year’s second round of the Formula Drift Pro Championship from Road Atlanta. This weekend the series heads to Palm Beach, Florida for the third stop on the seven race calendar. Drifted will be bringing you the livestream as always, so set your browsers here for more sideways action!
Final Round 2 Results from Road Atlanta:
1. Daigo Saito – Achilles Radial Lexus SC430
2. Darren McNamara – Falken Tire Nissan S14
3. Vaughn Gittin Jr. – Monster Energy Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR
Formula Drift Championship Standings after Round 2:
1. Vaughn Gittin Jr. – 172 points
2. Daigo Saito – 161 points
3. Darren McNamara – 156 points
4. Michael Essa – 141 points
5. Daijiro Yoshihara – 137 points
6. Fredric Aasbo – 136 points
7. Chris Forsberg – 135 points
8. Ryan Tuerck – 125.5 points
9. Kenneth Moen – 120 points
10. Matt Powers – 119 points
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