The Formula Drift series once again made its annual stop in Wall, NJ for Round 4 of the 2012 championship. This not only marks the halfway point of the season, but it is also the final event of the East coast. Many of the drivers consider New Jersey to be their home stomping ground, and it always fuels their desire to win. The consequences of getting it wrong can be brutal though as the steel guardrails lining the track take no prisoners. The gauntlet was waiting, but who would step up to tame it this year?
As I noted in Part 1, Friday’s qualifying session was a mix of hot sun and light rain, not the easiest conditions for a drift event. Those skilled enough to make it into the top 32 bracket were rewarded with clear skies and a nicer temperature for Saturday’s main event. The tandem battles got underway in the afternoon and would finish as the sun began to dip below the horizon. For those of us in the media pit this meant a mix of clear light on the East side of the oval, partial shadows to the North and South, and direct light occasionally obscured by the trees on the West. As you read on you’ll see what I mean, and it’s important to note that the drivers were heading straight into the sun for the first corner’s entry. It is hard enough to flick a drift car sideways on a steep bank, and it was even tougher with Monaco-tunnel like light shining straight into the pilot’s eyes.
Top qualifier Odi Bakchis made short work of Nick D’Alessio in the top 32, but would come under fire from one of the toughest chase drivers in the field during the top 16. Daigo Saito had his usual foot-down-now/ask-questions-later game face on and didn’t mind tearing off the front clip of his Achilles Tires/Bridges Racing Lexus SC more than once as he stalked Bakchis’ Drive M7/Nexen Tire Nissan S14. Saito’s combination of high speeds and immense smoke trails were too much for the Lithuanian, and Saito took the win.
In the quarter final Saito went up against Conrad Grunewald in the Hankook Tires Chevrolet Camaro. Grunewald got a break in the top 16 when Ken Gushi spun, handing over the win, but Saito would not be as easy. Saito put on another exhibition on Grunewald’s first lead run, keeping really close proximity throughout the whole lap. When they switched places, Saito was not able to pull away as expected, Grunewald able to keep up with good angle. The judges ruled that it was too close to call, so the pair was asked to make it an One More Time (OMT)!
In the repeat, Saito again would not lose any ground on Grunewald and did a perfect follow run. This time around, Grunewald was not able to do the same, unable to close the gap as Saito lead for the second pass. Daigo Saito moved on to the final four!
2011 Formula Drift champ Daijiro Yoshihara had what looked like the closest battle of the day in the top 16 when he faced Rhys Millen in the RMR Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Somebody forgot to tell these two that this wasn’t the final because they sure drove like it, smoking up the whole circuit no matter if they were chasing or following one another. From my vantage point this looked like an OMT would be needed to decide this match. The judges saw it differently however, choosing to advance Yoshihara to the next round. Millen was not pleased with their decision, immediately driving his Genesis to the front of the track with a hand out in protest. There are no appeals in Formula Drift, so all he could do to ease his frustration was let loose a huge burnout that took him all the way out of the bowl and up the access road to the paddock again.
On the same side of the bracket, another firestorm was about to erupt as fan favorite Chelsea Denofa lined up against Tyler McQuarrie. Unless you’ve been living under a complete rock for the past week and a half you may know what is about to happen next. Let me go through the action as it appeared on track. In the first run, Denofa lead and used a slightly unconventional technique to initiate his drift around the banking. The drivers were instructed to use the same entry during the competition that they had during practice to make things even for the chase cars, so this threw off McQuarrie a little bit as he tried to keep up.
I can understand that the judges might look less favorably on Denofa for that at the start of the lap, but the other 80% of the run was absolutely flawless. He had tons of smoke and a great line through all of the turns that didn’t try to shortcut anything. He kept it out wide, taking what is recommended but ultimately a slower way around the course. In theory this should have allowed McQuarrie to catch back up after the transition to the flat-bottom of the track, but he did not. He wavered, and was not able to cut off the necessary angle to pick up speed and suck back up on Denofa’s BC Racing BMW. To this spectator it seemed clear that Denofa had the advantage going into the second run.
When they switched places and McQuarrie lead the second pass, things all went wrong on the banking. McQuarrie and Denofa both came in too hot and landed up in the guardrail. McQuarrie even did a 50-50 grind for a few feet, scaling the wall and slowing up so much that Denofa nailed the back of him after an initial tag to his rear end. Somehow McQuarrie was able to keep driving and left the scene of the crime to seek repairs in the paddock while Denofa’s car was rendered limp at the top of the first turn. This brought out a long repair period, and raised many questions about who was at fault and who should move on to the next round.
In the end, McQuarrie was given the victory and allowed to continue on to the great eight round to face Daijiro Yoshihara. Testimony from both drivers afterwards has shown that the second run was essentially a scratch – neither one was at fault for the other’s crash, so they would each get a zero on the score card there. The part that I scratch my head about is claiming that McQuarrie out paced Denofa on the first chase run. The chase driver’s main job is to keep up with the lead car, and McQuarrie simply didn’t do that.
Regardless of who won, Denofa’s car was in a bad way after the meeting. There’s no word on whether or not it will be fixed by the next round of competition. Here’s to hoping he can source the right parts, or a replacement chassis to continue racing for the remainder of the season.
The quarter final between Yoshihara and McQuarrie was less dramatic. Both drivers were clean without any contact, but Yoshihara stood out with a closer follow on the second run. The judges advanced Yoshihara to the final four.
On the other side of the bracket, second place qualifier Vaughn Gittin Jr. met up with Robbie Nishida after Nishida bested Joon Maeng in the top 32. Gittin pulled out a good lead in their first run, showing the difference in horsepower between the two competitors. When it was Nishida’s turn to lead, Gittin didn’t give him an inch, keeping close proximity to secure the win.
Matt Powers may not have qualified well, but he was very focused for the tandem battles. He held a good line against Kenneth Moen who had trouble on both runs at the transition off the banking, losing drift momentarily each time. Powers took the win and advanced to face Gittin in the great eight.
Gittin showed true resilience during his battle with Powers. On his lead run, he tapped the wall early in the first corner, but managed to maintain his sideways angle and ride it out. Powers kept a safe, close distance but didn’t exhibit nearly as much angle during his drifts. Gittin moved on to the final four.
About that tap of the wall, Gittin’s Monster Energy/Falken Tire Ford Mustang decided that he wanted to leave the track a souvenir for that kiss. The rear clip was wedged tightly into the guardrail and it took a few marshals a few minutes to dislodge it. The media pit that I was standing in racked up quite a few of these bumpers during the course of the afternoon, including McQuarrie’s from the earlier crash.
So where did that leave current points leader Justin Pawlak? He got a slightly unlucky draw and was pitted against Fredric Aasbo in the top 16. The two faced one another in the final back at Road Atlanta for Round 2, and Pawlak was able to come out ahead then. At Wall, Pawlak put on two spectacular runs with tons of smoke and angle. Aasbo was quick, but shorted up in a few areas to try and gain an advantage over the teal and blue Mustang. The judges noticed, and Pawlak took the win to advance.
In the final match of the top 16, Chris Forsberg went up against his Drift Alliance bro Ryan Tuerck. Tuerck had to give chase in the first run, and ended up losing control of his Retaks Nissan 240SX at the transition off of the banking, causing a spin. Forsberg by comparison ran two clean runs, and moved on to the great eight against Pawlak.
As you can see in the photo above, Pawlak and Forsberg could not be separated in their battle by more than a few feet. Both put on a thrilling show with solid runs, and the judges needed an OMT to make a decision.
The repeat saw Pawlak get a little bit too enthusiastic on his lead run. He made contact with the wall midway through the long first right hander. Could he hold on to it like Gittin had in the previous battle?
Half a second later you can just see Pawlak thinking to himself: “I got it, I got it!” The fans were on their feet, willing him to keep the car under control.
Sadly, the damage was done as Pawlak’s car was already too close to the wall. He tapped the guardrail again with his rear and this sent the front end up towards the fans and into a spin. Forsberg had kept enough distance to avoid an incident, slotting in on the regular racing line below Pawlak and on to win the round, advancing into the final four. This could prove to be a significant turning point in the title fight as it allowed Daigo Saito to move on to a higher level of the bracket than Pawlak, and close the gap between them in overall points.
In the first of the semi-final matches Daijiro Yoshihara and Daigo Saito clashed to see which of the Japanese transplants could reign over this American soil.
Saito may have had a momentary lapse of memory when he underestimated the speed of his 1200hp Lexus SC during the follow run, actually closing the gap to Yoshihara so far that the two locked front wheels together for an instant! Despite otherwise good runs, this mistake lose points for Saito with the judges and they asked for an OMT to find the victor.
Saito and Yoshihara needed to take the allotted 5 minutes to make some minor repairs to their cars, and fit up some new tires for the OMT round. Instead of waiting around with a cold track, Gittin and Forsberg were allowed to do battle in the other semi-final in the meantime.
Gittin had a great lead run, but Forsberg was close behind. The difference came when they switched places and it was Gittin’s turn to apply the pressure. He mirrored Forsberg’s line perfectly, and the NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z lost drift just before the finish line as he tried to escape. This mistake was enough to make Gittin the clear winner, advancing him to the finals.
With some more zip ties and gaffer tape in place Saito and Yoshihara were ready to lay down their OMT laps. This time it appeared to be Yoshihara with special energy infused in his rubber – despite the crazy smoke screen that Saito put on in front, Yoshihara did not relent and displayed one of the best chase runs of the whole event. Yoshihara’s aggressive nature was rewarded by the judges and he advanced into the final against Gittin.
The consolation round to decide third place showed how much the damage on Saito’s car seemed to be affecting its handling. The transition off of the banking requires a robust suspension and steering rack to make the turn cleanly, and Saito was unable to get back into a good drift as he tried to follow Forsberg in the first run. To top things off, Saito ended up spinning soon afterwards as the pair went through the next sweeper!
On the second pass, all Forsberg needed to do was keep up with a solid run to win. It’s a little tough to see in the photo above, but Forsberg is actually right on Saito’s tail as they pass by (or rather smash into) the clipping point on the transition down from the banking. Saito came in too shallow and lost a lot of speed here, causing Forsberg to catch up very quickly and almost nail Saito in the back. As they continued through the course, Saito lost speed again right at the final turn, and this time Forsberg did tap him and spin himself before the pair could cross the line! It seemed as though Forsberg might have just blown his chance at an easy 3rd place, but upon further review the judges determined that Saito was at fault for the contact, having lifted off the throttle while the two were sideways. Personally, I would like to give Forsberg serious props for not giving an inch during this 3rd place match. As a spectator, I would have given him the win simply for being the harder pursuer in the chase run even if that did mean he was close enough to risk a spin.
The final battle left Vaughn Gittin Jr. to duke things out with reigning champ Daijiro Yoshihara. Gittin lead the first run, and established a clear lead right away that lasted throughout the lap. When the pair switched places, there was no denying Gittin’s skill as he kept perfect pace with Yoshihara at every point on the track, giving even better angle at most of the clips without scrubbing too much speed. After the run was over, Gittin parked his Monster Energy/Falken Tire Ford Mustang front and center for the fans, knowing that he had given this event everything he had.
That left no question as to who the winner would be: Vaughn Gittin Jr. was announced the victor in this year’s Round 4 event from Wall, NJ! It’s his first win of the 2012 season and he was totally pumped to be back on the top step of the podium.
The race was very emotional for Chris Forsberg as well who had never stood on the podium in front of his home crowd before. The third place was a welcomed achievement after all of his years competing in the series.
The win jumps Gittin up in the standings to 4th place overall. Yoshihara’s second place also marks his third podium finish of the year, putting him even closer to points leader Justin Pawlak. With only 3 rounds left in the season it looks like it will come down to the wire to see whether or not Yoshihara can hang on to defend his title for the second year in a row.
Thanks for checking our our coverage of this year’s event from Wall, NJ! Next, the Formula Drift series heads back out West for round 5 of the championship at Evergreen Speedway outside of Seattle on July 20, 21st. Keep your browsers firmly planted here as Drifted will once again be bringing you the live driftstream to see every minute of the action.
Below are the top 10 points standings in the championship after Round 4 of 7 in the 2012 Formula Drift season. You can see the full standings, as well as results from past events on Formula Drift’s official website.
1. Justin Pawlak – 342 points
2. Daigo Saito – 329 points
3. Daijiro Yoshihara – 291 points
4. Vaughn Gittin Jr. – 279 points
5. Chris Forsberg – 265 points
6. Odi Bakchis – 243.25 points
7. Rhys Millen – 240 points
8. Ryan Tuerck – 239.50 points
9. Fredric Aasbo – 238.50 points
10. Matt Powers – 212.50 points
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