EVENT: Formula Drift Round 2: The Road to the Championship
With Friday’s open practice sessions all wrapped up, it was time to qualify for Round 2 of the 2012 Formula Drift season at Road Atlanta. The session started in the afternoon and would finish under the cover of darkness with only the track’s few spotlights to give the final runners a clear view. Who would come out on top and claim valuable points towards the championship standings? Read on to find out.
Before we dig in and see how the notables faired with the new course layout, it’s important to note the way in which Formula Drift’s judges score each qualifying run. A total of 100 points are up for grabs, 90 of which were a subjective combination of line and angle, while 10 of those points are determined objectively the car’s entry speed. If a car exceeded 32mph entering the horseshoe bend, they had a shot at the 10 points. If they were slower, it was a flat out 0. Seems like a simple enough rule, but it yielded some interesting results, and a bit of controversy. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.
Firstly, Rookie Corey Hosford in the Ksport Nissan 350Z put on a valiant effort to place 32nd on the grid. Atlanta was his first time out in the new chassis, but I’m sure the supercharged Chevrolet LS3 engine putting out over 800hp made things a little easier. Hosford’s 350Z was one of the 7 Z cars on the roster, the most that I can recall from any Formula D event. I think that it signals the beginning of the end for the ever popular 240SX as the go-to car for drifting in the USA – only time will tell if I’m right.
Another unlikely driver in a 350Z was Darren McNamara. After his Saturn Sky got a face full of the wall at Long Beach, he was left with the Team Falken 350Z coupe left over from Tyler McQuarrie’s departure. The team did not have time to make any major adjustments to the car before the event, so DMac was stuck piloting from the left side of the cockpit instead of his usual right hand drive layout. The new car proved to be a struggle, and a competitor who we are used to seeing in the top 10 only managed to squeeze by in 31st position.
Robbie Nishida’s car was also all-new for round 2. When he arrived at the track on Friday the team was still putting the finishing touches on his Achilles Tires/Bridges Racing Lexus SC300, so no suspension or engine tuning had been done to prep the car for this particular circuit. His many years of experience paid off, and allowed him to qualify 30th for the main event.
Rookie George Marstanovic got a hang of the track quicker than many of the other newcomers, turning out some sick runs in his Runaway Fun Mazda RX-7. You gotta love the car’s ultra low stance, basically scraping the pavement with each lateral load transition. He qualified a respectable 26th.
Tyler McQuarrie parted ways with Team Falken over the offseason to pilot the GoPro Chevrolet Camaro, a reincarnation of the car Ryan Tuerck piloted last season with Gary Gardella.
Tuerck put this car into the no. 1 qualifying spot last year, but McQuarrie was only able to land 20th position as he continues to learn the heavier coupe.
Those watching the Livestream and keeping up with Drifted will no doubt have heard Jordan Butters going on a small tear about Chelsea Denofa’s runs. The former XDC champ was putting on a clinic when it came to tire smoke, lighting up more rubber than anyone except Daigo Saito in qualifying. His runs weren’t as fast, or as smooth as the judges were looking for, so initially he was only awarded a score of 78. Later, the judges decided to retract the rule I mentioned at the beginning, having determined that the speed tracker was mis-calibrated! This lead to a bump of 10 points for any driver who failed to hit the required speed during their qualifying runs, and gave Denofa a solid 88 points (like his car’s number), which was good enough for 18th place.
One driver who was not pleased by the turn of events after qualifying was Rhys Millen. He was able to meet that speed requirement in his RMR Hyundai Genesis Coupe, and with a score of 92.5 would have been one of the highest qualifiers. However, he was dropped to 11th place as the cars around him got a free 10 point lift.
2011 Formula Drift champion Daijiro Yoshihara put on one of the more entertaining qualifying runs when his Discount Tire/Falken Tire Nissan 240SX’s rear suspension was damaged mid-run. The car quickly sank onto the rear tires under its own weight, causing the exhaust pipe to rub over the track and light up with sparks. Yoshihara was undeterred, and pulled off a clean finish to the run to qualify 9th overall.
Matt Powers managed to avoid excessive damage this year after breaking one of the wheels off his Team Need for Speed Nissan S14 last season in Atlanta. He qualified 7th for the top 32 bracket.
After all of the new cars and driver transfers, Conrad Grunewald was keeping things consistent in the same Hankook Tires Chevrolet Camaro he had last season. His always aggressive style netted him 5th place in qualifying.
4th place went to Chris Forsberg, whose NOS Energy Nissan 370Z has been given new smoke outlets behind the rear wheels, or as I like to call them chimneys. It’s a pretty cool effect when seen from the rear like this.
Matt Powers’ teammate Fredric Aasbo in the Team Need for Speed Scion tC was one of the few drivers who was eager to into the new track layout. He described it as a track you could navigate by merely jamming the throttle wide open and steering to keep the car on line. Not only does it sound like fun, Aasbo was able to put his technique to good use and qualified 3rd.
2010 FD champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. was also among the drivers who supposedly failed to meet the required speed to earn 10 points. Seeing his qualifying runs wouldn’t have lead to that conclusion for an onlooker though as the Falken Tire Ford Mustang looked as quick as anything out there, qualifying 2nd overall and earning valuable points towards the 2012 campaign.
Mike Essa’s GSR Autosport BMW Z4R may be a little heavier now that it is sporting a hard top, but that hasn’t stopped it from being insanely agile. He stood out by having a crazy, near backwards entry (similar to Grunewald’s tail-first technique from 2011) to his run along with copious amounts of smoke across the whole circuit. It was a great way to set the tone for the night qualifying session and lead as the number 1 qualifier.
The stage was set for the main event. Round 1 had shown that last season’s form was no fluke when Justin Pawlak powered his Team Falken Tire Ford Mustang to the top of the first podium. How would he do in Round 2, at a track that has historically not favored those who did well in Long Beach. Would no. 1 qualifier Mike Essa step up to the challenge, or would Daijiro Yoshihara go for the three-peat after coming through victorious in 2010 and 2011?
The top 32 competition began in the afternoon. The skies were looking a little bit fierce with dark clouds rolling in from the west. There had been a small sprinkle about two hours before the first tandem battle was set to roll off, so no one knew if it would come back to disrupt the proceedings. Add to it the nerves that come with competing in front of over 10,000 fans, and you could cut the tension with a knife. Seeing the cars lined up kind of reminds me of the movie Gladiator – there’s a scene right before they enter the area, and all they can hear is the sound of prior battles and cheering fans. It makes me glad to be a photographer, and gives me great respect for the drivers who have to deal with the emotional stress of awaiting their next appearance on drifting’s biggest stage.
One of the most anticipated match-ups of the day came early when Ryan Tuerck faced Daijiro Yoshihara in the first round. For Tuerck it was yet another chance to show the sponsors that he had what it takes to run with the big guys even without the backing of his former Mobil 1 team. He maintained a good line and put up a much better display of smoke than Yoshihara through the first run.
Yoshihara’s follow run was also clean, but not quite as aggressive as Tuerck’s. The advantage went to the Retaks 240LS, and Tuerck was able to pull off the upset, knocking Yoshihara out in the first round. As the season progresses, this could well be seen as the turning point where Yoshihara’s defense of his title came to a halt. Only 24 points drops him down the standings from 2nd to 7th!
On the same side of the bracket Justin Pawlak was looking unstoppable. He easily dispensed with Ken Gushi in the first round before coming to face Tuerck in the top 16.
Although Tuerck’s Retaks Nissan 240LS is no slouch, it just wasn’t enough to hang with the power of Pawlak’s Falken Tire Ford Mustang. Despite the noticeable gap between the cars in the first run as Pawlak lead, the crowd was clearly on Tuerck’s side and disagreed loudly with the judges decision to promote Pawlak to the next round. The livestream feed was displayed up on a big screen, and the producer was kind enough to run a replay of both runs. Jared DeAnda tried to make sense of it all for the fans, pointing out where Tuerck had even lost drift briefly in the second of runs.
After that Pawlak came up against Mike Essa in the GSR Autosport BMW Z4R. As you can see in the photo above, Pawlak didn’t give Essa an inch in the first run, staying right on his rear bumper throughout the entire course. In the second pass, Pawlak’s superior car again showed as he was able to pull away with a gap and take the win, advancing to the final four.
Back to the top 32, another battle of the titans came as Tyler McQuarrie went up against Joon Maeng. Their first run was close, but a problem on McQuarrie’s GoPro Camaro brought things to a halt. His team was able to use the five minute rule to make the necessary repairs, and once the tandem action got under way again, it was just too close for the judges to call. That mean a one more time was in order!
The second match was one of the most bizarre battles I’ve ever seen in the history of Formula D. Maeng lead the first lap, but got slowed up in the horeshoe section, allowing McQuarrie just enough room to pounce and actually pass Maeng’s RX-8 for the lead! Usually that would mean game-over for whoever got passed, the most embarrassing thing that can happen in the sport. Maeng was undeterred though and drove the next chase run like a man possessed! The aggressive nature of his speed, combined with his insane angle and smoke brought the decision back his way, allowing him to advance into the top 16.
Maeng would go on to beat last year’s underdog Toshiki Yoshioka, and then come up against Walker Wilkerson in the great eight. His super aggressive nature had taken a slight toll on the car against Yoshioka, damaging the low-hanging exhaust pipe which skidded across the track in a means of escape. It may have hurt his engine’s output, and his runs with Wilkerson were sloppier.
Unfortunately things went from bad to worse during the chase run for Maeng. He got too close on the inside of the horseshoe, and the two came together right at the clipping point, sending Wilkerson into a spin. Maeng’s RX-8 had sustained more damage, leaking oil across most of the track as he unknowingly drove the car back up to the grid.
Wilkerson was awarded the win, putting him up in the final four, but the event got stalled as the track staff had to come out with lots of drying agent to clean up the racing line. Ryan Tuerck and Ryan Kado, both knocked out of the competition at this point, were kind enough to help out by doing a few twin 360’s over the area where the fluid had spilled, drying off the surface and giving the fans a great demonstration of car control in tight quarters.
What of the Japanese invader Daigo Saito and his Achilles Tires/Bridges Racing Lexus SC430? In the first round he was pitted against Chelsea Denofa in the BC Racing BMW E36. Denofa was one of the few cars able to put up a smoke screen on par with Saito, but it is much harder to find the track’s line when you’re stuck in the cloud. As you can see, he simply couldn’t keep up with the mean chop-top, and Saito moved on easily to the top 16.
There he met the more experienced Vaughn Gittin Jr. in the Monster Energy/Falken Tires Ford Mustang. Gittin lead the first run, and put his big V8 to use, taking a clear advantage over Saito. During his chase in the 2nd run, Gittin was again on a charge, keeping close proximity to his rival. All he needed to do was finish the lap, but as the pair transitioned their drift down the hill his luck changed. Gittin didn’t give Saito enough room to swing the back of the car out and got clipped, causing him to lose traction at the front and go into a spin. Saito held on despite this interaction to finish the run and take the win. After that, Saito also advanced into the final four when he battled past Odi Bakchis. It was another insane set of runs, leaving the whole track in a huge cloud of smoke. The crowd was really getting behind Saito’s style, and I can’t blame them.
In the last part of the bracket Fredric Aasbo and Rhys Millen duked it out for honors in the great eight, each having gotten by without much trouble in the top 16 and 32. Millen has always loved the flowing course in Atlanta and he knew just how hard to push to keep Aasbo in his sights during the first chase. Despite this, the judges looked more favorably on Aasbo’s deeper angle at each clipping point, unfazed by Millen’s pressure. The second pass was a similar story: on the surface Millen’s speed and line looked good, but Aasbo kept up and did so with even more flare. It could easily have been called to a one more time, but the judges were satisfied that Aasbo deserved the win, advancing him into the final four.
The semi-final played out under the track lights, making smoke an even more valuable asset for drivers who were leading. Justin Pawlak had this down to a science, knowing just how hard to push his Falken Tires Ford Mustang to get a nice trail without losing speed up the hill into the horseshoe.
Walker Wilkerson was simply outclassed in this fight, and while he put on a good set of runs, there was no doubt that his stable mate would move on to the final.
The other semi-final was harder to call. Saito seemed untouchable after his battle with Gittin had gone his way, but like Pawlak before, Aasbo’s angle and line was totally dialed in. Aasbo couldn’t match Saito’s smoke, but in one of the most rubber-burning runs of the night he was able to stay on pace with the black Lexus, almost being pulled along within the fog. Aasbo’s follow run gave him the advantage in this contest, and he moved on to the final.
That left Wilkerson to go up against Saito in the consolation round for third place. As Saito followed during the first run his aggressive nature was evident, wanting to seal the win before Wilkerson would even get a chance to blink.
Something went foul however as they exited the horeshoe. Above you can see that Wilkerson was able to escape Saito’s grasp, the Japanese driver totally losing speed and almost coming to a complete halt at the transition point. A mis-shift? Slip of the pedal? We may never know the cause, but the impact meant that Wilkerson got an advantage on the first heat, enough to give him another shot as the battle went to a one more time. There were many in the crowd who didn’t approve of this decision – a loss of drift usually results in an instant loss, but the judges seemed to be looking overly favorably on Saito, giving him another chance to make up for his mistake.
Saito didn’t disappoint in the repeat, flying to a huge lead out of the gate in their second battle and leaving the circuit in yet another cloud of Achilles rubber. Wilkerson just couldn’t match this display of tire carnage, and although his lines were cleaner and he had good speed, it simply didn’t look as impressive. For all that Formula Drift claims to be with car control, it’s still a spectacle, and Saito is milking this for all he can, taking his second podium in a row.
Each time that Saito would unless the smoke on us, I would turn away in a reflex that is so familiar after years of photographing the sport. Road Atlanta puts the media closer to the fans than at any other venue, and they were absolutely loving every second of inhalation. Contact high? You bet.
The final between Pawlak and Aasbo came down more to nerves than to driver flamboyance. They were even through the first run with Pawlak in the lead, but the second run decided things with Aasbo at the helm. His entry technique throughout the competition was to take a more central line down the hill, and then use feint motion to flick the back side of the car out and hold on with the go pedal. Unfortunately the flick didn’t work this time, and his front tires understeered, sending him straight off through the clipping zone of the first corner. Aasbo recovered and finished his lap in a composed manor as the photo above shows, but the damage was done. Pawlak put down two clean runs, reason enough for the judges to rule in his favor.
Daigo Saito is not a very outward guy, rarely showing a lot of emotion when he is out of the car despite his energetic driving style. On the podium he showed how pleased he was with this result however, solidifying his place on the American drift scene.
Justin Pawlak had a lot to celebrate too, taking his second consecutive win to put himself just over 50 points ahead in the standings. Mathematically it is still possible for anyone to win the championship, but if JTP keeps up this form he will join Gittin and Yoshihara as the third member of the Falken squad to make his name in the history books.
Thanks for following along during our coverage of this year’s event from Road Atlanta. Stay tuned for more from the Formula Drift series as the circus heads to Palm Beach, Florida for Round 3 on June 1st and 2nd. Drifted will be bringing you the live stream once again, along with more coverage from every moment of the season.
What did you think of the new layout at Road Atlanta?
To see the full top 32 bracket from Road Atlanta, check out Formula Drift’s official blog post.
Formula Drift Pro Championship top 10 standings after round 2:
1. Justin Pawlak – 209 points
2. Daigo Saito – 157.5 points
3. Fredric Aasbo – 152 points
4. Rhys Millen -127 points
5. Matt Powers -126.5 points
6. Ryan Tuerck -120.5 points
7. Daijiro Yoshihara -118 points
8. Odi Bakchis -117.25 points
9. Ryan Kado -114 points
10. Kyle Mohan – 109.5 points
Kenny Freeman contributed photographs to this post, written by Andrew Jennings.