Formula Drift kicked off the ninth championship season on the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach street course and the seventh consecutive year at the famous street course. With a nail-biting ending to last year's Formula Drift championship at Irwindale Speedway, the anticipation for this year's season opener was met with open arms. For the first time in Formula Drift history, all of the seating sold out. Like the local street junky looking for a fix, I was also jonesing for euphoria, but the high I craved consisted of the wafting stench of tire smoke and race fuel. Here's a rundown of the competition in real time as I watched the event unfold among the hordes of spectators for both days of drift competition.
Top 32 Qualifying
Utilizing Turns 9, 10, and 11 of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach street course, FD welcomed last year's returning competitors as well as a host of new drivers and teams. Daijiro Yoshihara, 2011 champion, was back to defend his title. Perhaps the most talked about competitor coming into round one was D1/FD Asia's 2011 champion Daigo Saito of Japan. Saito's new Achilles Tire-sponsored Toyota Soarer/Lexus SC430 drift car was built in Japan and rumored to make over 1,200 hp with a 2JZ-GTE. All in all, the rookie class made up for more than one third of round one competition. Speaking of rookies, George Marstanovic made the most of his first professional event; he qualified in 15th Place at Friday's qualifying.
Rounding out Friday's Top 32 was top qualifier Ryan Tuerck with a score of 97, Second Place Rhys Millen (96 points), and third position belonging to Vaughn Gitten Jr. (95 points). Drift competition progressed early Saturday with many of the Top 32 competitors-well-known drivers and manufacturer-sponsored cars-unexpectedly eliminated from competition, including Gitten Jr., teammate Darren McNamara, Mike Essa, Joon Maeng, and Patrick Mordaunt to name a few.
Friday's Top 32 qualifier Tuerck in the Team Retaks Nissan 240SX fell victim to Matt Powers in the Need For Speed/Nitto Nissan S14 in the Top 16. Judges later revealed that Tuerck's run consisted of a more shallow line than Powers.
Kenneth Moen in the Lutz Performance Nissan 350Z outperformed the seasoned veteran Conrad Grunewald in the Hankook Tire Chevy Camaro. Grunewald's forced error of tapping the wall on the first clipping point caused the Chevy to straighten out-a critical error that sealed the doors shut on Grunewald as Moen moved on to the Great Eight.
Up next is Justin Pawlak in the Falken Tire Ford Mustang. Pawlak, who came off a Second Place finish in the championship standings last season, faced off against Kyle Mohan and his Nexen Tire/Mazdatrix Mazda RX-8. JTP leads the first of two runs, throwing down thick plumes of smoke as Mohan is forced to navigate through the white cloud, eventually falling behind. Mohan shows a promising second run with good drift angle, while making good use of the entire track, but JTP mirrors his every move and is awarded the unanimous win by the judges.
It is apparent from the start that the RSR Nissan Silvia S15 of Toshiki Yoshioka is no match against the V-8-powered NOS Energy Drink/Hankook Nissan 370Z of Chris Forsberg. Forsberg muscles his way through the course; Yoshioka pulls every ounce of power to keep up. Sliding around the peninsula clip, both cars are wheel-to-wheel, almost touching. The competition is too close to call for the judges; both drivers are ordered into a one-more-time. A shallow run by Yoshioka on the following run is the pivotal turning point; Forsberg is awarded the win.
The ever-consistent Millen in the Rhys Millen Racing Hyundai Genesis coupe faces off against first-time competitor Saito and the Achilles Tire/Bridges Racing Lexus SC430. With a rumored 1,200 hp on tap, Saito has no problem keeping close to Millen's driver-side door; his flat-black SC430 shadows the Hyundai's every move, giving Saito the advantage. On the second run, Saito is in the lead. He lays down a thick plume of smoke. In a desperate attempt to separate his car from the 2JZ-powered Toyota, both vehicles enter the final peninsula turn when Millen comes in too hot and spins out, giving Saito the automatic win. He advances to the Great Eight.
Ryan Kado, piloting the Kado Racing Nissan 350Z, versus Tyler McQuarrie in the Mobil 1 Camaro is well fought, as both V-8-powered machines drive aggressively while making sure to hit every clipping zone. The competition looks to be Kado's for the win but the slippery Turn 11 around the peninsula causes Kado to bobble, thus ending his day.
Ken Gushi and the highly anticipated debut of the Scion Racing Scion FR-S, the very first FR-S built for drifting in North America didn't disappoint fans. The Scion looks more agile than Aurimas "Odi" Bakchis and his Bakchis Motorsports Nissan 240SX S14 with quicker looking transitions through the turns. Bakchis quickly makes his second run as Gushi's FR-S remains parked at the starting line, leaving many to wonder if the Scion is experiencing engine problems. Judges establish that Bakchis triggered a false start. Both cars run a flawless redo with Gushi mirroring Bakchis' every move. Chants of one-more-time are resonating from the crowds, but the judges unanimously award Gushi the win.
Reigning Formula Drift Champion Yoshihara squares off in a tough battle with the Need For Speed/Papadakis Racing Scion tC of Fredric Aasbo. During Yoshihara's lead run, both cars transfer their drifts under the bridge with textbook execution. The second run with Norwegian Aasbo as the lead car keeps Yoshihara's S13 hidden under a blanket of smoke, but Yoshihara maintains his poise. He outdrives his competitor with a better drift line. The judges award points and the eventual 2-to-1 scorecard win to Yoshihara.
The first of two battles in the Great Eight witnesses the Lutz Performance Nissan 350Z of Kenneth Mohen lose drift angle coming out of Turn 9 while straightening out. Matt Powers in the Need For Speed/Nitto Nissan S14 takes advantage of the mistake, combining both speed and angle throughout the entire track. The second run witnesses Powers playing things a "bit too safe" when he sandbags his chase run-a mind lapse on his part that demands a one-more-time from the judges. Powers gathers his thoughts as he pulls a sizable lead during eliminations and easily claims the victory to move into the Final Four to face JTP, with one of them guaranteed to podium.
Up next, McQuarrie wastes no time; he throws the Mobil 1 Camaro into Turn 9 and overcooks the clipping point, causing him to nearly spin out while competing against Saito in the Achilles Tire/Bridges Racing Lexus SC430. The two cars touched as Saito's machine suffers a bent rear control arm that needed a few minutes in the pits to repair before continuing the second round. Just as Saito's car was fixed and ready to rock, McQuarrie radios in that his car needs work. Formula D rules implement the 5-minute rule once the car has been towed into the pits. After a few minutes, both vehicles return to the starting grid. McQuarrie, once again, drove the wheels off his new Camaro but spins out at the Turn 11 peninsula and is eliminated, handing Saito "the rookie" his first FD Final Four appearance
Yoshihara in the Discount Tire/Falken Tire Nissan S13 continues to move up the ladder, facing long-time rival Gushi. Gushi slides his Scion Racing Scion FR-S deep into the clipping point but initiates the drift too long and slams the rear into the wall, giving Yoshihara the advantage. With the rear GT wing of the FR-S perched in a precarious position and noticeable damage to rear quarter-panel, Gushi calls 5 minutes to fix the damage before lining up once again to see if his FR-S could outduel Yoshihara to advance to the Final Four. The now wingless FR-S returned to competition, only to make a critical error on the course, giving Yoshihara the green light to move onto the Final Four.
The final pairing of the Falken Tire Ford Mustang of Pawlak and Forsberg in the NOS Energy Drink/Hankook Nissan 370Z rounded out the Great Eight. JTP began the round by slapping the wall but remained in complete control as Forsberg followed in close pursuit. Forsberg leads for the second round with both cars going wheel-to-wheel with an error-free run. However, it was JTP moving on.