A new track always poses a steep learning curve for drivers, and Formula DRIFT competitors faced exactly that in Florida. This is the first time that America's national drift series has visited the Palm Beach International Raceway. Although practice sessions can often be boring, today was anything but that. After a couple of crashes, the drivers had to deal with the track layout being completely revised.
Today was crucial for the drivers to get to grips with the course to give accurate feedback on their car setups. The late change to the course layout (more on that later), means the pressure is really on for both the teams and drivers to get it right before qualifying.
Team Need for Speed driver Matt Powers has put in some fantastic performances this season, and a big reason for that is he is much more relaxed this year. Before today's FD practice, Matt decided to clear his mind…
…By hitting the beach for a spot of surfing.
Meanwhile Vaughn Gittin JR and Abigail were signing in at the track.
Others were discovering that the rumours were true – there really are gators at the Palm Beach track!
In a few hours time, these grandstands will be full of Florida locals who will be getting their first taste of the Formula DRIFT circus.
The Papadakis Racing crew chilling out over lunch.
Some teams were doing final checks…
…While others had slightly bigger tasks to complete.
Matt's crew could be found adjusting the ride height on the S14…
…And doing some wiring work beneath the dash.
The world's coolest e-brake lever. Ever.
Early weather forecasts predicted a thunderstorm today, but thankfully for the drivers there were clear skies.
Being a new track, the drivers were queuing up before the start of the practice session so they could get as many runs as possible. Here's Sam Hubinette hanging out the tail of his Dodge Challenger.
Although currently 12th in the Championship, Conrad Grunewald must be confident of getting a win this season after strong performances thus far.
Rookie Aurimas Bakchis leaving a couple of tattoos on the Palm Beach International Raceway asphalt.
Ryan Tuerck looks very comfortable in his new ride. You'd never guess that this is only his second round behind the wheel of the Chevy.
Ken Gushi's Scion is one of only a handful of entrants that are still powered by a 4 cylinder.
JR seems to learn tracks quite quickly. Here he is settling in under the Florida sunset.
Entry speeds are important in FD, so you'll see quite a few spotters wielding speed guns.
The hot zone is a makeshift working area for the pit crews.
Team Need for Speed driver Fredric Aasbo and his spotter Steffen spent some time in the spotter's tower surveying the track layout.
Walker Wilkerson also parked his Silvia behind the judges stand to check out the on-track action.
Darren McNamara studying the other drivers tackle the course.
Taka Aono heading out to try his hand at the track.
The first day of an FD event is always an interesting experience. While the drivers tackle the track, the FD crew are busy unloading and assembling their equipment.
Mike Kojima from MotoIQ certainly knows a thing or two about setting up drift cars.
Once again, Chris Forsberg was looking confident in the NOS Energy Drink 370Z.
The spotters were constantly relaying information to the drivers, assessing their runs and giving suggestions on where they could improve.
Pat Cyr kicking up grass as he dances his '86 right on the edge. This is the second turn of the original course configuration, and the area just to the left would claim a couple of drivers.
During the session, Eric O'Sullivan and Alex Pfeiffer both went into the wall in separate incidents. Although Eric's Solstice suffered a decent amount of damage, both drivers were OK. The impact was hard enough to shift the concrete wall that was behind the tyre barriers.
Rightly so, the FD organisers paused the practice session so that amendments could be made, with both the drivers' and spectators' safety in mind. Initially a second K-rail was put into place, however the decision was then made to revise the course layout completely.
Being a new venue, teething problems often have to be expected. The new layout has the cars driving in the opposite direction and, although the drivers are now carrying more speed through the course, there is better run-off in case something goes wrong.
The drivers were happy to lend a helping hand with setting up the new layout.
Meanwhile Alex Pfeiffer and the Megan Racing team were assessing the damage to the 350Z.
Gardella Racing had Eric O'Sullivan's Soltice stripped in no time. I have my fingers crossed that Eric will be able to hit the track tomorrow.
With practice stopped for the track alterations, it was the perfect opportunity to catch a quick snooze…
…For others it was time to do some setup tweaks.
Papadakis Racing used the break to switch the diff ratio in Fredric Aasbo's Team NFS Scion…
…While the RMR team were busy setting up their pits.
Linhbergh and Larry took the opportunity to grab a bite to eat.
The morning surf seemed to have helped, with Matt Powers looking keen to lay down some big entries…
…But Matt wasn't the only one. Conrad Grunewald had his Camaro entering backwards…
Dai was initiating very early…
…And managing to hang on to the slide to make the first clipping point.
Michael Essa has the only convertible in the field, which is the perfect remedy to Florida's heat.
Taka Aono was super aggressive today, completing some impressive runs in the Hachi.
Forsberg tipping his Z's nose into the first turn.
After the setup tweaks, Fredric Aasbo went about putting on his trademark smoke show.
Dean Kearney kept blinding me with his Viper…
…But Charles Ng also takes his lighting seriously…
…With some additional lights added under the wheel wells.
Matt was shooting his own laser beams too.
With little to no breeze, the tire smoke created an amazingly eerie fog.
I'm really hoping to see a rematch between Vaughn and Fredric this season!
Ken Gushi was settling into the new course layout quite nicely.
It was close to midnight when the practice session wrapped up. For some teams it was time to pack up, grab a (very) late dinner and have some rest. For others, it will no doubt be a long night.
The Falken Tire team had a good day…
…With all of their cars looking potent for tomorrow's all-important qualifying.
All eyes will no doubt be on Dai Yoshihara in the Discount Tire S13 Silvia. Will he be able to back up his win in Atlanta?
Anyway, it's almost 6am now, so I better jump in the shower to get the rubber out of my pores and hit the sack. For those of you who will be heading to Palm Beach, make sure you pop by the Team Need for Speed lounge to grab some free swag. We've been inundated with emails asking for us to bring Speedhunters stickers, so we have a limited number with us. Make sure you bug Linhbergh, Larry or myself to grab yours before they're all gone!
Stay tuned for our coverage of qualifying tomorrow.
- Charles Kha
Photos by Larry Chen and Charles Kha