Formula Drift: The Battle For Irwindale

By now, anyone who follows Formula Drift on social media already knows the results of this past weekend’s championship finale at Irwindale Speedway. So instead of an event recap, I thought I’d talk about my personal observations and experiences at the event.

The 2019 season ender was particularly exciting, as Ken Gushi clinched the win after several exciting tandem battles in his ZN6 Toyota 86. The car was running strong with its Blue Moon-built 2JZ-GTE engine featuring a BC stroker kit and other go-fast parts from GReddy and BorgWarner. Of course, we can’t forget its RAYS wheels and Achilles tires either.

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Shortly after FD’s announcer Jarod DeAnda declared Ken as the winner of the event, I spotted Ken’s mom running up to him to hug him with tears of joy as he was getting interviewed for the Formula D live stream. This was an especially touching moment, as everyone could tell just how proud she was of her son. You could even see Ken starting to tear up as well.

I’ve known Kenshiro and the entire Gushi family since before he even had a driver’s license, and over the years he has really developed himself into a confident, consistent driver. ⁣He first learned to drive in his dad’s AE86, and now he is battling giants as a Toyota-sponsored pro driver in a new 86. How cool is that?! It just goes to show, many of the best success stories begin with a Hachiroku.

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Formula D competition events are always exciting, with the tandem battles filling the grandstands with lots of tire smoke. I even saw some fans wearing branded masks over their mouths, which I found kind of funny. Most of my friends and I have been around burning rubber for so long, we just kind of breathe it in without thinking about it.

While walking further through the paddock, I bumped into my longtime friends Robbie Nishida and Shinji Minowa of the drift team HeyMan! from the Fussa area of Tokyo. They called their drift team Hey Man! as a joke initially, but it just kind of stuck with them. Robbie and Shinji are both veteran AE86 drivers, so it was fun hanging out with them and talking about Corollas near Ken Gushi’s pit area. Needless to say, all three are accomplished drifters and great friends.

I heard a rumor that Robbie might become a judge for Formula Drift next year, and Shinji is trying to make a plan to compete in the Formula Drift series in the USA…

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Former FD series champion Michael Essa stood atop the podium in 2nd position at the end of the night. He’s obviously a consistent driver, but what amazes me is just how much power he’s been able to generate out of his built up BMW engine. That’s right, his car is not LS swapped or 2JZ powered.

It just goes to show how important quality aftermarket race parts are to a racing program. Michael’s E46 is equipped with components from companies including CSF, Sparta, JE Pistons, StreetFighter LA, Enkei, Sparco, and of course Achilles.

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The Worthouse drift team has an undeniable presence in the Formula Drift series.

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European Drift Masters triple champion Piotr Więcek and Irish ProDrift champion (and Formula D Series champion) James Deane have been absolutely killing it all year with their amazing driving, but I should mention that I also can appreciate the polished, professional look of the entire team. This starts from the awesome attention-grabbing livery on the cars, to the design of the driving suits and the merchandise. No wonder fans have been lining up to buy merch from the Worthouse trailer.

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Of course, the Worthouse crew isn’t just about looking good – they capture attention and capture championships as well. In fact, defending Formula Drift champion James Deane set his sights on becoming the first FD driver to win three championships in a row. He ended his night at Irwindale with a third place podium finish, which won him the 2019 FD Pro series championship, much to the excitement of the Falken Tire crew. Apparently, Falken has now – through its team drivers – earned five driver championships in the last decade, and won the tire manufacturer cup for the fourth year in a row.

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Another crew with undeniable presence at Formula D events is Team RTR, with Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Chelsea Denofa in the driver seats of some insane smoke machines disguised as Ford Mustangs.

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I got to hang out with Chelsea at Ebisu Circuit’s fall drifting matsuri, where he was doing some ridiculously close fender-to-fender tandem drift trains with about 20 other drivers. All the seat time has been paying off for Chelsea, as he qualified at Irwindale in top position. Sadly, the night ended earlier than he expected due to the Irwindale wall, but if I know Chelsea and Vaughn, these guys are already making plans for their run at the 2020 season championship.

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It is just surreal to me to see Vaughn at car events now. I’ve observed his evolution as a driver and personality in the series ever since I first met him at Formula D Atlanta in 2004. Or it might have been the D1GP event at Homestead, Miami the same year. Back then he was a privateer working an IT job in Washington, DC so he could spend all his money on tires, travel and parts for his S13 Silvia. Well, apparently his investment in himself paid off.

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When I see Vaughn nowadays, I see the face of Ford Motor Company’s involvement in drifting – similar to how Carroll Shelby propelled the Ford brand in motor racing in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s just crazy to think that the guy signing autographs for all the drifting fans, doing RTR Mustang demos all over the country almost every single weekend, is the same guy who used to host raging parties full of heavy metal music and Maryland blue crab at his house, with drift friends signing their names on the actual walls of his living room, while his old Drift Alliance teammates rode BMX bikes and skateboards off his roof into an inflatable bounce house full of party people!

Vaughn has calmed down quite a bit over the years, but I know that he lets all that heavy metal aggression out on the race track when he’s smoking up the tires on his Mustang RTR. He’s certainly come a long way, and it has been so cool to see him evolve from grassroots drifter to public figure and businessman.

Guys like Vaughn and Ken are a good example of what’s possible for grassroots drivers that stick to drifting, developing their driving skills and business skills at the same time.

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Unsurprisingly, one of the most attention-grabbing cars in the series is the yellow Ferrari driven by Federico Sceriffo from Milan, Italy. It’s so crazy to see a Ferrari competing in the Formula Drift championship; I honestly can’t think of another motorsport series where it’s possible for a Ferrari to compete with a garage-built S13 240SX with low-budget wheels and a fiberglass replica aero bumper.

The first time I met Federico was actually in 2008 at the Nürburgring, where he was doing drifting demos with his RWD Subaru Impreza to the bewilderment of the German motorsport fans. I think it’s so great that the Formula D series has so many international drivers and teams involved. It’s exciting to reunite with friends from all over the world at the racetrack during different rounds.

While hanging out in the trailer after practice, Federico confided in me and told me about all the trials and tribulations he had to overcome just to get his Ferrari prepped to compete in Formula Drift. Some FD fans might remember that Federico’s Ferrari caught fire in Long Beach, during the first event of the 2018 season. After that, he had to work on the car nonstop for two weeks, fixing the fire damage and cleaning the car while breathing in the toxic dust left from the fire extinguishers.

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“It was a horrible experience, and I don’t want to go through that again. I can still remember breathing in the fumes from the fire extinguisher,” Federico explained. “But look, I’m Italian, so I’m passionate. This experience put me into fight or flight mode, and one thing about me is I never give up without a fight.” By the looks of things, Federico definitely stays ready for whatever life throws at him.

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Also hanging out in Federico’s trailer were Japanese drifting stars Nobushige Kumakubo and Naoto Suenaga of Team Orange and Ebisu Circuit fame. Kumakubo told me he loves coming to the FD season finale because he has fond memories of when he won the D1 Grand Prix championship at Irwindale.

While Naoto has accomplished many podiums as a driver in D1GP, he hasn’t achieved a podium finish at Irwindale yet (mostly because D1GP doesn’t hold events in the USA anymore). He said he still likes coming to Irwindale because he loves eating tacos and going to dinner at Hooters (I’m pretty sure he’s mainly a fan of the hot wings, wink wink). One funny story is that after we visited the Hooters restaurant near Irwindale Speedway, Naoto actually put an ‘I heart Hooters’ sticker on his S13 Silvia that he used for D1GP competition back in 2006, and when Yokomo produced an RC replica of his car, they actually included that sticker on the decal sheet. Hilarious!

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Yet another Toyota 86 driver in the series, Jhonnattan Castro from the city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic is more proof of just how much international appeal the Formula Drift series has. It was cool to see Jhonnattan (yes, that’s the correct spelling of his name) incinerating the Nexen tires mounted to his Advan RG-D2 wheels while driving off into the sunset.

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Unfortunately though, things don’t always end well in racing. Jhonnattan crashed into the wall at Irwindale, which was heartbreaking to watch. Nevertheless, he always remains positive, and gave a great interview with a genuine smile on the Formula D live stream, remaining professional and composed for his fans and sponsors. I’m pretty sure he wanted to scream because of the situation, but like the true pro he is, he thanked his team and sponsors, and then went back to the paddock to interact with fans for the rest of the day. This just goes to show, driving is only part of a professional driver’s job. When they’re not in the car, they need to be great representatives for the sponsors that support them, so that’s exactly what Jhonnattan did.

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Another car that was making big smoke was the Up Garage S15 Silvia driven by Kazuya Taguchi.

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I first met Kazuya on a trip to Japan in the summer of 2017. My AE86 friend Angelo Manalastas drove me to Up Garage’s main location in the Machida area of Tokyo, and after I bought a bunch of 86 parts, we bumped into Kazuya while he was working on his car in a workshop. At that time, he was driving in D1GP while working at Up Garage’s main location but he told me he recently moved to the United States. When he’s not drifting, he manages the new Up Garage store in Torrance, CA, so if you’re in Southern California you can visit him and buy some car parts.

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There are certainly a ton of Formula D drivers who have made the transition from driving Nissans to American domestic vehicles. One such driver is Matt Field, who makes drifting look easy behind the wheel of his C6 Corvette, with support from companies like Falken Tire, Borla, and Vortech.

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On the starting grid, I spotted Matt in deep concentration as he strapped himself into his seat and prepared himself mentally for his run.

At halftime, I wandered back into the paddock area, where fans swarmed the Falken Tire rig to trade their contact info for free swag and a chance to shoot pics with the Falken ladies.

Nissan Z34 370Z driver Jeff Jones is a popular driver in the Southern California drifting scene because he’s so relatable to grassroots drivers. Local drifting fans have seen him progress over the years from driving a S13 240SX to this LS3 V8-swapped Nissan 370Z with Edelbrock E-Force supercharger.

Even though he wasn’t having the best day after the menacing wall jumped out in front of his car, Jeff stayed upbeat and positive no matter how disappointed he was feeling inside.

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Jeff’s positive, fun-loving attitude is just one of the reasons why fans flock to him – they see him as one of their friends. Even though he knew he wouldn’t advance in the competition, Jeff stood in front of his car in the paddock and engaged with tons of fans, taking photos, shaking hands and signing autographs while cracking jokes. Jeff is hilarious because after he ran out of swag to give away, he ended up signing a pregnant woman’s stomach, and even signed a plate of nachos for a fan. It’s all in good fun, and that’s why so many people like Jeff and cheer him on when he’s driving. Everyone wants to see him succeed.

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There were lots of A90 Supras on display at Formula D Irwindale, but one that stood out was this yellow press car that Auto Tuned built up with a big wing and RAYS Gram Lights wheels, situated at the Eneos booth.

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Even though everyone was ogling the newer Supras, my favorite was definitely the MkIV being driven by ‘Rad’ Dan Burkett. Just to clarify things, I’m not an A90 Supra hater – I’m just a JZA80 Supra lover. And look at how much smoke this damn thing produces.

A look under the hood will reveal the 2JZ-GTE engine with a BorgWarner EFR turbo – what an amazing engine bay setup. In the pit area, I saw Dan talking strategy with Taka Aono, who inspired everyone when he was driving his Formula Atlantic 4AG-powered AE86 into battle against big V8 monsters when he was still competing in FD.

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One of my favorite cars in the vendor area of the event was definitely Ken Gushi’s 1JZ-GTE-swapped Lexus IS300, with GReddy and Link ECU parts. I was just dreaming about how amazing it would be to have one of these as a daily driver, especially if it were a wagon. An Altezza Gita or Lexus Sportcross with a turbocharged JZ engine would certainly fit the goals hashtag.

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The Precision Turbo booth had Bisimoto’s Porsche 911 with its rear-mounted twin turbos sitting where the rear bumper should be. Bisi’s 911 builds always attract a ton of attention because all his builds make power, and it’s impossible not to notice the turbos and AEM intakes out back.

At the booth itself, Precision Turbo had some new turbos on display, ranging from big monster stuff to small OEM replacement units. It made me wonder what it might be like to lease a turbocharged car, then do an OEM-style turbo swap with a (reversible) flash tune. Do you think that would be good for a daily driver?

I also spotted D1GP driver Takahiro Ueno who became famous for driving his red JZZ30 Toyota Soarer. He is also the owner and designer of Vertex aero kits, along with a speed shop called Sui Vax in Yokohama, Japan. When you see companies in the United States that sell fake Vertex aero parts, they are directly stealing intellectual property from this man. Think about that when you go shopping for car parts… Buy legit stuff as much as you can.

HKS USA also had a booth with several parts on display. It made me remember that I wanted some HKS intake filters and radiator caps for my AE86, but I didn’t want to carry them around all day since I was already lugging around two heavy bags full of cameras and lenses.

Hannah from HKS showed me some subtle details on how to spot authentic HKS parts. Unfortunately, there are a ton of fraudulent sellers online that sell fake HKS parts. These HKS replicas have pretty detailed copies of the product, from the emblems outside to the actual packaging. Hannah told me that if you want to make sure you’re buying authentic HKS parts, you need to purchase them from an HKS authorized reseller. It’s horrible that legit aftermarket companies have to deal with stuff like this.

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Speaking of AE86, my longtime friend Allen Lugue brought his gold Run Free-kitted AE86 out to the event, sporting its new Work Meister wheels, which pay homage to the red AE86 Trueno owned by D1GP and Formula D Japan driver Yamashita Koichi of legendary AE86 team Running Free. Notice in this view, the Run Free hood curves up near the windshield to cover up the windshield wipers. This was made to emulate the old hashiriya style of using hood spacers to vent your AE86’s hood, but without the safety issues that could arise from hood spacers if the car were to get into a front end collision.

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Check out the guy standing next to the car. I noticed he made a backpack with Nexen Tire umbrella girl Erica Nagashima on it, making a funny face. I’m pretty sure the Nexen Tire girls might giggle if they spotted it too.

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Erica Nagashima, Jess Harbour, and Karol Priscilla are definitely fan favorites because of their great personalities; their photogenic looks are a bonus too. The Nexen Tire compound always has a long line of fans waiting to take photos with the girls or get signed posters from them.

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RAYS had a booth at FD with their latest offerings on wheel stands. What do you think about these Volk Racing ZE40 RW Limited wheels in white?

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Walking around the paddock area, I noticed other cool cars randomly parked in front of vendor booths. I loved the styling of the black FC3S Mazda RX-7 with Blitz wheels, the black Trans Am, and the white EK Civic hatch from Wicked Racing.

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In front of the Falken Tire rig, it was impossible not to notice Aaron Parker’s insane FD3S RX-7, because every time he started it up, people’s ears would bleed and tears would come to their eyes. Wait, should we do a full feature story on this FD?

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Before leaving the event, I just had to stop to admire the styling of Forrest Wang’s former competition car. Man, this thing looks amazing. Forrest has always built stylish cars in this signature green color. In fact, I remember shooting photos of one of his cars drifting at a Drift Session event in 2005 at Hawaii Raceway Park in Oahu, Hawaii. It’s so great to see the progression of all the grassroots drifters I’ve met over the years all over the world as they evolved to become some of the best drivers in the Formula Drift series.

Even though the 2019 season just ended, I can’t wait to see what next year has in store.

Antonio Alvendia
Instagram: @antoniosureshot



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Always a good read with great photos. Thank you for always making quality content that’s fun to read.


Thank you so much for that compliment! I'm glad it's fun to read, cause it's fun to shoot!


I'm genuinely glad to see you back on Speedhunters. Your articles have always been an inspiration of mine - both writing-wise and photography-wise.


Wow, what an awesome compliment! I'm humbled... and I'm happy to be back! I'll do my best not to let you down! :D

AND I'm overdue for a post with progress from the never ending project builds. haha


That pink rx7 was on that show hyperdrive


It was also on an episode of Donut Media's "Bumper 2 Bumper".


that's what i hear! i havent watched the show yet. what did you think of it?


Great article and content!!


Thank you so much Ly!


Huh is that third gen on upsized oem wheels built by rotiform? Wild.


Yup! I thought it was crazy to see that. Rotiform is making all sorts of crazy things


That Black Rx7 on Bitz rims belongs to Vargas, the guy who built the red Rx7 on Hoonigan build and battle


Dope!!! Thank you! Got a link to his IG? That car looks dopeee


What there's already a bunch of A90 Supras at Formula D?!?!?!!?!?!
Definitely looking to some great things with the GR Supra


I think A90 will be the IT car at SEMA this year. So many folks going nuts with them!


Up Garage needs to get Kazuya Taguchi into a BN Sports, Moccomans yellow s15 street car


Helllllllllllllllll MF yeah. I like your style!


Hey guys! In RDS and FD last 3 years one person on S15 Silvia became a champion. I think it's quite fun theme for article)


Perhaps someone should look into this!


Great stories Antonio, and great pictures as always. Thanks

Antonio Alvendia

Gracias good sir!


The deep knowledge into the background behind the driver’s stories and the early days of the sport really made this article hard to put down. Your portrait style and action photos are always fresh but I love that the writing is so enjoyable to read through.


THANK YOU! I haven't really attended FD events in a long time, and it's been YEARS since I traveled with the series, so I'm glad a few readers liked the story itself! I think I might be rusty at shooting drifting photos though, so I better shoot more asap!