EVENT: Formula D Road Atlanta: Battles Under the Lights
Time to take a look back at the highlights from Formula Drift Road Atlanta’s main competition. We’ve shown you what it is like for drivers up at the starting line, and given a rundown of how Top 32 qualifying faired in the wet conditions. Now, follow along as we go through the key tandem battles under the lights in the dirty south!
Chris Forsberg and Vaughn Gittin Jr. have always been friends both on and off the track. Forsberg’s win in Long Beach makes him the current favorite for 2014, but Gittin has a few tricks up his sleeve. The season is far from over, and the battle between these two is sure to heat up with each successive round.
Falken driver Justin Pawlak won in Road Atlanta back in 2012 as part of his sweep of the first two events. He is very capable on this track, and looked ready for the main event to begin despite the dark clouds overhead.
Kicking things off with a recap of the notable Top 32 matches, fan favorite Chelsea DeNofa was looking forward to a fairly straight forward round with rookie Alec Hohnadell. The duo had some drama coming into the first turn, and Hohnadell spun off course. Meanwhile, DeNofa’s left rear tire got de-beaded during that first entry, making the remainder of the run a sketchy affair. DeNofa suffered through it to get the win, moving onto the Top 16 where he would eventually lose out to Kenneth Moen. Hopefully DeNofa will have a much less eventful time (as far as car troubles go) at the next round in Florida.
Looking at the Top 32 draw, one battle caught my eye as a case of irony. Pat Mordaunt’s main ride was on the disabled list for Road Atlanta, meaning he was left to pick up a replacement for the round. He was fortunate enough to get a seat in Ryan Tuerck’s old 2012 car, the Retaks Nissan S13.5. He was then pitted against Tuerck himself, now driving the Retaks Scion FR-S.
Mordaunt is no slouch, and didn’t give his rival an inch throughout the downhill/uphill course. In the second pass as Mordaunt lead, Tuerck seemed to have a mechanical issue with his newer car, causing him to shut it down with only one corner left. This loss of drift would be scored a zero, giving the win over to Mordaunt, who in fairness may have won out right anyway.
One of Fredric Aasbo’s issues in Atlanta of late has been the competition’s underestimation of his first corner entry. Flashback to 2013, and Vaughn Gittin Jr. got it all wrong, smashing up and over the front end of Aasbo’s tC when he realized he could not stop in time. 2014’s mistake was less costly for Aasbo, as the yellow S14.5 of Matt Field slid into him on the first run. Field’s love tap was not enough to break Aasbo’s drift, but it was enough to stall himself out at the clipping point, missing the whole run and losing the round as a result.
Fredric Aasbo and Conrad Grunewald have similar entry techniques in Atlanta, involving a feint flick to a slightly exaggerated drift. Grunewald’s is most pronounced, aiming for a backwards drift that looks almost physics-defying the first time you witness it. On this occasion, his entry was not enough to sway the judges, as Aasbo put on a better showing of tandem proximity along with tire smoke while in the lead to take victory. I mean… just look at that smoke trail in the photo above!!
Luckily, things would be smoother after this encounter and the coming together with Field. Aasbo was gifted a bye in the Great Eight round when Daigo Saito failed to get his car repaired in time to run. Aasbo moved on as the first man safely into the final four.
Elsewhere in the Top 16, Chris Forsberg faced off against returning international drifter Charles Ng. The new Speedhunters Infiniti G37 is looking better and better all the time, but Ng’s precision with the large coupe still needs work. He dropped a couple of tires into the dirt during his lead run, losing points with the judges while Forsberg excelled. In the end it was no contest, Forberg moving on with the win.
2013 Champion Michael Essa’s season was off to a good start in Long Beach where he finished in third place, along with top qualifying honors. Things didn’t go quite as well in Atlanta, meeting up with Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis in the Top 32. Bakchis was solid throughout both runs, but Essa dropped two tires on the wide entry to the horseshoe, meaning he would not advance. Later, Bakchis would continue his good run, taking out Pat Mordaunt in the Top 16.
Chris Forsberg’s Great Eight match with Bakchis showed the difference between two fast drift cars. Forsberg lead, and at the flick of a switch (or in this case pull of the hand brake) immediately lit up his tires, leaving a plume of white stuff around the whole track. Bakchis was close on proximity, but seemed to have left his smoke machine back in the pits, unable to set his Nitto tires ablaze. Forsberg moved on to the final four.
In the first semi-final match, Fredric Aasbo did the unthinkable. In our interview with Ryan Sage last year, an overtake manuever was called a “kill shot.” Chris Forsberg ran wide on the first entry, opening the door just enough for the Norwegian Hammer to take advantage, slotting his Hankook Tire Scion Racing tC through the gap. The image you see above should be Forsberg’s lead run, but Aasbo is ahead, storming on towards victory.
Forsberg did everything he could to claw back an advantage, and hope that Aasbo made a critical error to zero out a run. He ran close in the follow run through the entire track, but it did not phase Aasbo. Forsberg was defeated, left to wait and see if he could still claim third place on the podium, while Aasbo moved on to the finals.
Mustang vs. Mustang, old teammates Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Justin Pawlak were at it again, this time paired together in the Top 16. Ironically Pawlak has the advantage when you look at the historical numbers, so Gittin had his work cut out to even the score in Atlanta. On their first pass, both looked a little bit on edge, dropping tires or going off line to make the most of a poor performance. Resetting the stage on that double zero, and the second pass went better, but a victor could not be decided. The judges asked for a One More Time (OMT) battle to decide it.
On the first OMT, both drivers were determined to correct their previous mistakes, and put it all on the line. Pawlak’s line and smoke screen was textbook, but Gittin’s chase through the cloud was unwavering. The judges still needed more, and to the delight of the fans, they called for yet another OMT!!
Finally, during the second OMT, the pressure became too much for Pawlak. On his chase run, he came into contact with Gittin on the first entry initiation, causing both drivers to wipe out into the dirt. Then, as he led the second lap, he spun in the midst of the horseshoe turn, giving the win conclusively to Gittin. For many of the fans, this Top 16 match was their best show for the night
I’d like to write how Kenneth Moen put on a good show to make it a tough battle for Gittin in the Great Eight… but that just wasn’t the case. Gittin stomped it, and moved on easily, shades of the old 2010 JR (or older Tanner Foust-style knockouts). For Gittin, it probably came as a welcome relief as he wanted something easier than his battle with Pawlak leading into the final four.
On the last quarter of the bracket, things were off to a heated start. Dean Kearney’s match up with Ken Gushi was anything but straight forward. Off the line, Gushi stalled or held up twice, an option that chase drivers have if they feel the lead driver got an unfair launch. Kearney’s Oracle Lighting/Achilles Radial SRT Viper has a rumored advantage on power, rated an an even 1,000 based on car stats, but probably putting out quite a bit more torque as a V10 vs. Gushi turbo-powered 2JZ.
Gushi on the other hand should be the more experienced driver, so why balk at the chance to run with a tough driver? Ultimately he stopped with the Gittin-like shenanigans and pushed on, giving the fans the show they were waiting for while Kearney led on. What was not expected was the second follow run. Kearney navigated the long wheelbase Viper beautifully, keeping a very close line with Gushi and showing that he has risen to the challenge this season.
Kearney’s original lead run was the decider however, showing too many mistakes on that instance, including shutting down his drift a few meters before the official finish line of the course. The judges ruled that Gushi had raced harder, but this one was certainly controversial from a fan point of view, and may have been better off with a OMT.
As the sunset’s warm glow began to bathe the track’s drying surface, Irishman Darren McNamara prepared to battle another international competitor, Japanese native Robbie Nishida. Neither made perfect runs, their right hand drive machines struggling on the semi-slick surface. McNamara’s entry during his follow run was perhaps the worse of the two evils, slowing down considerably and nearly losing drift as he aimed for the apex of the first corner. This goof up seemed to make the difference, giving Nishida the advantage as he moved on to the next round.
Nishida and Gushi’s match was a good pairing, the two running similarly throughout the evening. Were we in for another set of OMT runs? Not so much… while Nishida was on target in his Achilles Radial Lexus SC, Gushi began to falter. He dropped a tire as he chased after the black/green/purple coupe, struggle to maintain his drift line for the full track. The judges caught these mistakes, giving Nishida the win and advancing him into the final four.
For Robbie Nishida, his semi-final match with Vaughn Gittin Jr. was a do or die moment regarding the podium. Formula Drift no longer has a consolation round, so a loss here meant he would not go against other semi-finalist Chris Forsberg to decide a victor. The new criteria is based on qualifying results. Whichever driver qualified higher would get the podium, and in this case that meant Chris Forsberg would immediately be awarded third place. On the other hand, if Nishida won, third place would immediately shift to Gittin, who himself out qualified Forsberg.
No matter what, Gittin was in a good place, and it is often in no-pressure situations that drifters can excel. Gittin went all out, having already previewed what a battle with an Achilles Lexus SC could feel like via his match with Moen. Nishida gave it his best shot, but that simply wasn’t enough to overcome the Monster ‘Stang.
[Side Note: Third place on the podium is only really good for a small trophy and some champagne. Both third and fourth place finishers receive the same 64 championship points for the event. In past years, third would get 9 points more than fourth.]
On their first set of passes, Gittin and Aasbo were inseperable, each displaying the perfect amount of angle and smoke. This was going to be a grudge match, and despite their difficulties in past battles, each looked ready to go the distance. The judges, and the fans, demanded more. A one more time was announced, meaning that the evening would continue until a winner could be decided.
How did things go in the repeat? Gittin turned things up a notch, taking his lead run as an opportunity to show what he could do. Pedal to the floor, Gittin attacked the course, putting enough of a gap between the pair to take an advantage into the follow run.
On the second pass, Aasbo was unable to shake Gittin from his tail, the Monster Energy Ford Mustang RTR mimicking the Norwegian’s every move. It was enough to give the judges a definitive answer about the winner of this race: Gittin had taken the match, and the overall victory in Atlanta.
I have been covering drifting for a long time, and Vaughn Gittin Jr. never seems to take his success for grated. Maybe now more than ever, he seems happy to be a part of the sport, and very happy to get this win in Atlanta, eager to thank his whole team of mechanics who helped him get there.
Mechanics/team members are not the only ones allowed to celebrate with the drivers after the event has concluded. Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s wife was also present, making sure Gittin didn’t have any stray tire dirt on his pretty mug before he went up on the podium. What a couple!
Congratulations to Vaughn Gittin Jr. for winning Round 2 of the 2014 Formula Drift Pro Championship, presented by GoPro. He certainly earned it this time. Stay tuned to see if Forsberg can hold onto the series points lead as the circus heads farther south to Miami-Homestead this coming weekend!
Thanks for reading!
Final Formula D Road Atlanta Results:
1. Vaughn Gittin Jr.
2. Fredric Aasbo
3. Chris Forsberg
Formula Drift Pro Championship Standings after Round 2:
1. Chris Forsberg – 173 points
2. Vaughn Gittin Jr. – 145.5
3. Fredric Aasbo – 137
4. Kenneth Moen – 135.5
5. Justin Pawlak – 103.5
6. Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis – 102
7. Forrest Wang – 93
8. Michael Essa – 91.5
9. Darren McNamara – 84.5
10. Robbie Nishida – 83
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Words & photos: Andrew Jennings