EVENT: Monochrome Thoughts from Formula D NJ
By now you’ve certainly heard/seen the results to the fourth round of the Formula Drift Pro Championship. Fredric Aasbo did his thing for the second year in a row, and is on pace to take the overall title this year (steamrolling through Seattle in round five). As is always the case, the podium positions only provide a small part of the story. Let’s take a closer look at this snippet of the American drift scene as seen through the lens of the fans, teams, and drivers alike. Although New Jersey’s Wall Stadium is one of the smaller venues on the Formula Drift calendar, its numbers continue to grow year in and year out. The long lines at the gate are made possible by overflow parking and shuttle service to a nearby airport since the on-site lot reaches max capacity very early on Saturday for the main event.
That line is mimicked for the driver’s autograph session, which fortunately occurred on Friday before any of the wet weather could arrive. Part of the fun of this sport is not only the close engagement that fans can have, but also the personality that they bring to meeting their heros. Tires are an easy option to get signed by the whole field, but there are always more creative choices, such as turbo chargers, and even interior trim panels that will be re-installed into their daily commuter cars later on.
Speaking of commuter vehicles, the year 2015 is significant for US citizens. It marks the passing of 25 years since the first productions Nissan R32 GT-Rs, meaning they are officially legal to import. A handful have already made it across the Pacific, and rumor has it there are a few dozen in negotiations as demand picks up. This specimen was in prime form, the classic black color blending in nicely as if straight out of Initial D.
As rain fell at the start of Saturday morning’s open practice session (just as predicted) it was time to find some cover, or erect your own.
Formula D didn’t stop practice, knowing that the drivers would likely face similar conditions later during the top 32 competition. When the show goes on, the umbrellas come out, and FD probably made a nice profit from their own branded merch. this round.
Despite a rocky start to the season, the mechanics at the Achilles pit were in good spirits for this round. Both Robbie Nishida and Daigo Saito’s cars have come a long way, and Dean Kearney’s driving is starting to live up to the capabilities of his Viper.
It is inevitable at every drift event that Saturday’s paddock is full of used tires, ready to be given away to the fans after Friday’s practice/quali runs. Simply writing “Free Tires” on the side is old hat, so the Hankook guys got a little more creative and took it a step further. The Hankook logo, coupled with an outline inspired by NYC’s nearby bridges easily takes my best-in-show for artistic character.
Just a few feet away stood the weapons of choice. I can just picture the tire mechanics sitting around the night before, thinking “What if we ran down to the local paint shop, grabbed a few cans, and went crazy!”
Moving over to the drivers, things have changed in the name of safety recently. HANS devices, and bucket racing seats that feature profile head protection elements are now mandatory for the sport. Many drivers, including Ken Gushi whose HANS device is pictured above, were already taking some of these initiatives on their own before the change, but it’s good to see that the organizers want to elevate the expectations. If the drivers are safer, they can push harder out on the track and get more from the show. (Ken Gushi wasn’t only among the first to wear this kind of protection, he also promoted it internally to the other drivers during pre-race meetings)
As the cars take to the grid, each driver has their own rituals to get prepared for the action ahead. Here, Chris Forsberg got to share a kiss from his wife, and a bit of attention from their pooch.
Brandon Wicknick and his crew also got in on the lovefest with an over the helmet make out for my lens. It may not seem significant, but Saturday June 27th was the first day after the US Supreme Court had ruled that gay marriage was legal across the entire nation. For these two, it may have been in good fun, but also served as a sign of their approval for the political shift that has been taking place. (Note: this isn’t a political blog, and this author is not giving a stance on the issue. In terms of news and historical significance, it was certainly a talking point at the event)
Further down the grid, Matt Field was also posing for the cameras, taking in a few puffs of vape to ease his mind.
The grid tends to get crowded at the back, leaving some time for drivers to hang out together before cars need to advance closer to the starting line. Admiring (or inspecting) one another’s vehicle is the inevitable consequence. Here, rookie FD driver Masashi Yokoi and Daijiro Yoshihara were both impressed by Conrad Grunewald’s AE Megan Racing Chevrolet Camaro. Grunewald was very open about the car, giving them a quick rundown of how the digital dashboard meter worked, and how the rear wing’s angle was fine-tuned for each event. Not pictured, Ken Gushi was also along for the lesson.
Before each vehicle can make it onto the track, Formula Drift outfits them with a set of GoPro cameras, courtesy of the series’ main sponsor. The footage isn’t used for the livestream online, or for the judges instant replays, but all that video is collected to use on the US television broadcast a few weeks later by CBS Sports.
Many media also bring their own POV cams to the events to capture some unique video angles. Some are also braver than others, running along beside the cars during their pre-race tire warm up.
Wall Stadium’s narrow entry to the track means the cars have to line up single file, and get paired as they enter the bowl. All they can do at this stage is try to stay cool, running the track’s layout in their mind with helmet on tight.
The last few feet must be the most pulse-inducing. Each driver has to sit at the track entry for one full lap, observing their fellow drivers attack the course, before it is their turn to take the line. At some of the other venues, such as Long Beach, drivers can only see one corner or less from the staging grid, but Wall gives an unobstructed view of the entire oval.
Tyler McQuarrie waiting in the wings. This is the moment when track officials normally make a mad dash around the cars, turning on all of those GoPro cameras to capture the lap’s footage.
Finally the big moment has come. Nothing left to do but drop the clutch, and carefully navigate the throttle off the line, avoiding the downward slide on the banking before the car gets enough speed to hit the first entry.
While the grid is one area of tension and planning for the runs ahead, the driver’s introductions are also important for each to get set for battle. It is one of the best chances to get the crowd on your side, something that can give that extra edge in a close fight.
Chelsea DeNofa went with the swag approach, chucking some free t-shirts into the stands as his name was called. Remember, as advanced as FD may seem technically, it’s still a grassroots effort, so no t-shirt cannons here!
Out on track, there are also ways that the drivers can approach the racing line. If you’ve having a rough go of things, why not take out your frustrations on the clipping point cones?
Smash! Charles Ng showing how it’s done.
Another interesting feature of the Wall Stadium track layout is the big screen monitor. This is mounted opposite the grand stands, allowing fans at the venue to see the same feed as the online stream. At the end of each tandem competition set, the drivers must line up side by side near the finish line, and await the verdict. As they do, they are treated to the instant replays that get displayed on the jumbo TV, forced to live through the last run again. Above, Odi Bakchis looks on as the previous lap is being broadcast, looking for areas that he might have edged out Masashi Yokoi in the hopes that he’ll figure out the judges’ direction, or learn from a mistake (turns out, it didn’t go his way, and Yokoi took the win in a OMT)
Nailing the clipping point signs is relatively painless for most of the cars. The steel guardrail that lines the top of the banking on the other hand, is not. Some of the top photographers in the series strapped their cameras in with remotes to capture how close the drivers got to that wall. Luckily, no cameras were harmed in the making of this recap (though the lenses will certainly need a scrub to remove the tire debris). Michael Essa was bitten by the Wall in qualifying, but not enough to knock him out of the event.
Canadian driver Dave Briggs on the other hand may be wishing he had taken a more cautious approach in practice, doing enough damage to end his weekend early.
As the rain fell on Saturday, the action changed over from tire smoke to puddle jumping. Wall Stadium’s flat area has almost zero drainage, so any vehicle that ran wide of the line got to kick up some spray.
Many drivers had issues with the wet conditions, but obviously not Kearney or Aasbo who both made the finals.
Ken Gushi has been on a tear this season, returning to form that we haven’t seen in a while. He qualified top of the field for the second event in a row, and was able to power through a lot of white clouds during the competition.
While the rain may have given some unique water angles, the times when the track was dry provided the best action as usual. For me, the most exciting battle came early between Robbie Nishida and Daigo Saito. Both driving new cars for the 2015 season, and both very familiar with the other’s style (they practice together during the off-time in Japan).
After a OMT battle, Saito prevailed, showing fantastic progress with the R35 chassis.
The other battle that amazed the crowd was between Yokoi and Pawlak. The result was painfully obvious, as Pawlak made a lot of mistakes, but the real treat was watching Yokoi miss the matte black Mustang by mere centimeters during his follow run. Pawlak spun coming off of the bank in the lead, which could have easily been a collision for many chasers. Yokoi anticipated it beautifully, slipping around just behind Pawlak to make the pass and go on to win the round. Pawlak did what he could to challenge in their second pass, even making the above contact, but nothing could stop Yokoi’s well built S15.
By contrast to the fierce competition that Pawlak and others showed on the track, once the motors get turned off, the amount of camaraderie in the sport is inspiring. Even before the result has been announced, Kearney and Aasbo were all smiles, hugging out the joy of getting to battle cleanly in the finals.
The two Europeans showed what wet weather drifting is really about, deserving to overcome the rest of this field this round. Congrats again to Aasbo on the victory. Stay tuned to see if he can maintain his standing and claim the 2015 Championship crown.