I lost count of how many cars hit the unforgiving walls of Irwindale. I also lost count of how times the championship chase took an unexpected twist. With little doubt, the final round of this year's FD season will go down in history books as one of the most intense, action-packed drift events of all time.
Toyota Speedway at Irwindale is a very special ground when it comes to drifting. Known as the birthplace of American pro drifting, the course is surrounded by unforgiving walls and the drivers must tackle Irwindale's famous steep banking.
In front of a sell-out crowd – the biggest Irwindale attendance in FD history – a champion would be crowned.
The pressure was on as multiple drivers were in championship contention. Other prized titles, such as Rookie of the Year, were also yet to be settled. No one could afford a slip up.
While most forms of motor sport have a defined, black and white way to determine a winner – such as setting the fastest lap time or covering a race distance in the shortest period – in drifting the winner, and loser, is decided by a panel.
Everyone who has seen a drifting event – myself included – has probably disagreed with a judging call at some point. It's unavoidable really; everyone has their own perspective and opinion. So for our coverage of the final round, we asked FD if they'd allow us to report on the event from the judging tower, where we could witness the judges' discussions and decisions.
For the entire Saturday, I perched myself behind the judges to take down notes of each battle. Meanwhile, Larry and Linhbergh would be sniping photographs from around the track's perimeter.
FD has three judges: Andy Yen, Tony Angelo and Ryan Lanteigne that judge all of the FD rounds. Each judge nominates their own winner based on speed, line, angle and overall impression with the majority vote determining who progresses. Unlike other drifting championships, FD does not encourage overtaking and also places a strong emphasis on clipping points.
The judges have a few tools at their disposal. The first and most obvious, is their vantage point. The view from the judging tower gives a clear view of the course and, being higher up, allows you to see the cars' lines easily without the obstruction of tyre smoke. Digital boards provide the speeds through the traps, while monitors provide a feed of instant replays.
Meanwhile there was an uneasy feeling down in the pitlane as the teams geared up for the Top 32 drivers. With so much at stake, the pressure was on the crews as much as the drivers.
While most of the higher seeded drivers made it through, there were some big upsets in the Top 32. Team Need for Speed’s Fredric Aasbo had been suffering with valvetrain problems all weekend, limiting his track time to only a handful of laps. In spite of this, Aasbo still managed to qualify 13th.
13 would prove unlucky for Aasbo however. In his battle against Kyle Mohan the Norwegian wouldn’t get past his lead run. After initiating into the bank, Aasbo positioned his Scion on the high line to make it as difficult as possible for Mohan to emulate.
Unfortunately it was a little too high, with the Scion spearing into the wall.
Fredric was able to make it back to the pits…
..Where the team called for five minutes to work on the Scion. But the damage simply wasn’t repairable within the allowed time. By not appearing at the start line for his chase run, Fredric Aasbo forfeited the battle.
Ever since switching to the Camaro, Ryan Tuerck has been a constant threat. In his Top 32 battle against Kenneth Moen, he hustled the Scandinavian driver into a mistake. Moen’s 350Z carried too much speed through the transition, crashing hard in front of the judges’ tower.
Reigning champion Vaughn Gittin Jr Mustang was paired with Michael Essa’s BMW Z4. The judges were unable to separate the two, calling for a One More Time.
In the rerun, Essa turned up the wick. He put it all on the line and took the fight to the Mustang.
The judges spent several minutes reviewing the replays, highlighting key moments when the drivers’ lines wavered, or when a shallower entry was taken.
The judges voted: Essa, OMT, Essa. “It was just so close” said the judges. Indeed, it was JR’s slight bobble going into the infield that cost him a spot in the Top 16.
An interesting battle unfolded between the Top 32 pairing of Toshiki Yoshioka and Luke Lonberger. On his lead run, Lonberger’s Corvette steam rolled its way through the course, leaving Yoshioka struggling to keep up.
With the positions reversed, it was the Japanese driver’s turn to attack the course. Yoshioka took a risky high line on the bank before tearing off his rear bar in front of the judges stand. Lonberger, it seemed, may have been slightly too conservative when chasing. After reviewing the runs, two judges voted for a OMT.
In the rematch, Lonberger was given the win, which was met by some grumblings fromn the disappointed Yoshioka fans in the stands.
2011 has been Matt Powers’ best FD season ever and he entered the final round in fifth position, with a realistic chance of securing a top three finish in the championship. In spite of qualifying 10th, Powers’ weekend wasn’t going exactly to plan.
A crash in practice did considerable front suspension damage…
…With his crew working through the night to get the S14 ready for combat.
It was the battle of the V8 Silvias when Matt Powers lined up against Ross Petty in the Top 32. Powers appeared to have more angle, but on his chase run the gap to Petty grew. Andy Yen and Tony Angelo picked Petty as the winner, with Ryan Lanteigne going with Powers. Unfortunately, this loss meant an abrupt end to Matt’s championship, where he would eventually drop to 6th overall.
Cyrus Martinez looked like a man on a mission in his Top 32 fight with drift heavyweight Tyler McQuarrie. Martinez was super aggressive, throwing his 240SX at the 350Z. However Martinez wasn’t able to hold it, straightening out a couple of times in his chase run.
On his lead run, Martinez went into the wall. Although McQuarrie was close behind, he was able to dip lower down the bank to avoid contact.
As the sun dropped behind the horizon, the top 16 cars took to the track as the capacity crowd filled the grandstands to watch the main event unfold.
Chris Forsberg did not have the ideal pairing for the Top 16. To keep his championship hopes alive, he would have to defeat top qualifier Sam Hubinette. While Forsberg was able to stay close during his chase run, Hubinette was able to do the same, left foot braking on the bank to hound the 370Z. Two of the three judges called for a OMT.
After grabbing a new set of tyres, both drivers went at it again. On the first run, Forsberg closed in on Hubinette with the two cars running door to door.
On his chase run, Hubinette ran even closer on the bank. But after dragging his rear bar along the wall in front of the judges, Hubinette smashed into the front clipping point. Although he maintained his drift, the error saw the win go to Forsberg.
A great battle unfolded as Ryan Tuerck chased Kyle Mohan. Tuerck's Camaro was mere inches away from the RX-8. At one point it looked like a crash would be inevitable, but somehow Tuerck was able to keep the fight clean. Although Mohan’s lead run was near faultless, Tuerck’s chase was so good that he had to progress.
Rhys Millen has hit form over the past few rounds, and that continued into Round 7. In the Top 16, Michael Essa simply wasn’t able to keep up with the Hyundai. On the second run, Millen mirrored Essa’s every move – including tagging the wall. Millen progressed to the Great 8 and was looking like one of the favourites for the round win.
JTP had a relatively stress-free Top 16, with Luke Lonberger spinning on the entry to the bank on their first run. On the second, the Corvette ran wide through the infield, taking out the rear clipping points. Just for good measure, JTP grinded the banking wall with his Mustang's rear.
Darren McNamara is known as having one of the fastest cars in the FD field. And in the Top 16 he demonstrated that to Falken team-mate Ross Petty by tackling the course like a bat out of hell.
Dean Kearney got it wrong coming off the bank and ran well offline through the transition. His opponent Tyler McQuarrie was given the win.
The final Top 16 battle saw Japanese drivers Dai Yoshihara and Ken Gushi face off. On the first run, Gushi had a clean chase, but wasn’t able to keep up with Yoshihara’s V8 Silvia.
There was a momentary scare for the championship leader when the team popped his S13's hood on the start line, however the thumbs up was given shortly after.
In the second run, Dai chased down the Scion but got lost in its smoke, missing the clipping point and running off course. Things became even more dramatic when the two cars collided at the final turn in a cloud of smoke. It only took one replay for the judges to determine – unanimously – that Gushi would progress to the Great 8.
This, quite literally, threw the championship wide open. With three of his main rivals making it through to the final 8, it seemed like Yoshihara's first FD Championship would continue to elude him. His error against Gushi came as a shock to many, including Chris Forsberg, Justin Pawlak and Darren McNamara. For them, the final round had suddently taken on a whole new meaning. With Dai out, the championship was now in their hands.
Chris Forsberg was looking to capitalise on Dai’s error by beating Robbie Nishida for a spot in the final four. In his chase run, Forsberg was bullying Nishida through the infield; perhaps a little too much as the two cars made contact after the finish line. On their second run, Nishida was pushing hard but tagged a clipping point, which caused his front bar to wedge itself beneath his 240SX, sending him into a spin in the last turn. It was an unfortunate way for Nishida to lose the battle as another upset was certainly on the cards.
Ryan Tuerck lined up against Rhys Millen for an all-Red Bull battle. In spite of an aggressive chase run by Tuerck – who at one point looked like he was going to spin – Rhys Millen proved unstoppable.
With Dai out, the new championship favourite was Justin Pawlak. But his opponent in the Final Four – team-mate Darren McNamara – was also in contention. With a championship on the line, there was no love lost as the two Falken team-mates went at it.
Sadly, it all went wrong for JTP when he crashed out on his chase run, extinguishing all hope of being the 2011 champion. It was another shock twist, but many more would soon follow.
After some calculations by the organizers in the judges’ tower, there were three possible scenarios: if Forsberg won the event, he would be champion. If McNamara won, he would be. But if both failed, then Yoshihara, despite being eliminated, would hang on to the championship lead.
On track, the drama continued between Tyler McQuarrie and Ken Gushi. After completing their runs, both cars were left waiting for several minutes as the judges debated over the winner. A contentious point was the first run, when Gushi was following McQuarrie. Judge Tony Angelo felt that Gushi was baulked as the cars neared the pace cone, with the Japanese driver having to come off his Scion’s throttle to allow the 350Z to take the lead. A similar strategy is often seen in other forms of motor racing during restarts, where competitors have to acquiesce to the lead driver’s pace. After much deliberation, it was deemed that no rule had been broken. The win went to McQuarrie.
The crowds were on the edge of their seats for the Final Four. Chris Forsberg would go up against Rhys Millen, with Darren McNamara battling Tyler McQuarrie. Both Forsberg and McQuarrie had to win their battles to keep their championship hopes alive.
Millen led the first run, setting a blistering 76mph through the first speed trap and 78mph through the second.
With the positions reversed, Millen hounded Forsberg, left foot braking through the course and keeping his Hyundai welded to the 370Z. Millen was the clear winner, meaning Forsberg was eliminated from the championship chase.
After a poor showing in qualifying, I don’t think Dmac would have imagined that events would have unfolded like this. Having seen Dai, JTP and Forsberg all eliminated, he was just two battles away from snatching the 2011 Champion crown.
Any thoughts that team-mate Tyler McQuarrie would give Dmac an easy passage were quickly extinguished. Dmac was unable to shake the 350Z from his mirrors, with McQuarrie given the win.
After a nail-biting wait on the sidelines, Daijiro Yoshihara was now the 2011 Formula DRIFT Champion. There were jubilant scenes in the pit lane, with Yoshihara going through a roller coaster of emotions in just a few hours.
Dmac didn’t even have a chance for things to sink in. No sooner had he lost to McQuarrie that he was back on the start line to battle Chris Forsberg for third place. Just a few moments before, both drivers had come tantalising close to the championship, but now they had nothing to lose. And it showed.
On their first run, Dmac put in an aggressive chase with both cars glued to one another. There was contact, causing Dmac to spin out. On the second run Dmac nailed it off the line and carried plenty of speed through the bank and transition. Forsberg, trying to keep close, came in too hot and went into the wall hard…
…Right in front of the judges.
It was a massive hit, and just a few metres away Dmac had also come to a stop having also clouted the wall.
With the track closed so the strewn debris could be swept up, MC Jarod DeAnda summoned Dai up to the judges’ tower for an interview. Just a few metres away, the crippled cars of his championship rivals were being towed away. It was an amazing juxtaposition of sheer elation and pure disappointment.
The final battle for the 2011 season would see Rhys Millen and Tyler McQuarrie fight it out for the win. On the first run, Millen clouted the barriers in almost the exact same spot as Forsberg. Although Millen's subsequent lead run would be some 4mph quicker, McQuarrie held on to the advantage to clinch the win.
It was a bruising weekend for many of the competitors, who took on a win-at-all-costs approach. While some were left rueing their luck…
…Others were celebrating.
While Tyler McQuarrie, Rhys Millen and Chris Forsberg were on the podium, another celebration was taking place. After thinking the championship had slipped from his grasp, it was Daijiro Yoshihara who had become the 2011 FD Champion. I think few would disagree that the Japanese driver deserved the crown.
The smoke has finally cleared on what was a riveting 2011 FD season that was filled with plenty of drama both on and off the track. I wonder what 2012 has in store…
- Charles Kha
Photos by Linhbergh Nguyen, Larry Chen and Charles Kha