2012 Formula DRIFT Long Beach: Justin Pawlak Wins in Falken Tire Mustang
Those of us car junkies living in SoCal are spoiled by the sheer number of automotive related events and motorsports spectacles that seem to materialize almost every weekend from March through December. But with repetition comes desensitization. And some of us have become jaded and, dare I say, downright blasé about the scene of late. I too have succumbed to this fate.
That said, this past Friday and Saturday, Long Beach played host to Round 1 of the 2012 Formula Drift Pro Championship, a motorsports series that is to road racing what MMA is to boxing–a fresh, dynamic and fulfilling experience with instant gratification that may not have arguably the storied history yet but is definitely shaking things up. Modern day drifting has emerged from cars going sideways on deserted mountain roads in the wee hours of the morning to being broadcast on living room TV sets in a just a short chunk of time. Watching the action at Formula Drift these last couple of days reignited a spark for me that seemed to be precariously close to extinguishing.
The two day extravaganza kicked off on Friday with a series of practice runs and qualifying runs for the pool of 60 drivers, which included many of the usual suspects along with a whopping 19 rookies. Qualifying was definitely a bit more dicey this year with much of the track recently paved. The extra grip proved challenging for many of the lower powered cars in turns 9 and 10 on the new surface, while turn 11 remained untouched and still slick. Drivers who were able to make the quick adjustment got through fine but those who came in too hot had difficulty. It was interesting to see that the pavers were actually on hand trackside and did have to perform some patches on the fly.
But the real show kicked off on Saturday when the final pool of 32 cars duked it out college basketball style, running head to head in two-round eliminations. For those not yet hip, the format consists of each driver getting a chance to both lead and follow as the cars traverse the track running tandem. Judging is subjective and based on speed, drifting line, angle, and overall impression. This year, Brian Eggert joined Andy Yen and Ryan Lanteigne on the panel, and the trio either declared an outright winner or employed the three word crowd favorite, “One More Time,” to see the cars run again in order to eliminate any doubt (or so the thought goes).
With the idea of making things more competitive this year, we learned in the driver’s meeting that Formula Drift wants the cars to run closer together to do away with the huge gaps that often show up when more powerful cars get out in front. Drivers running chase are now allowed to give up some of the line and angle in order to catch up to the lead vehicle. The lead vehicle still serves as the mobile clipping point and the following driver’s wheels should not eclipse the front wheels of the lead car. That said, taking super-shallow angles or running very low lines to make up the distance are frowned upon.
The venue was completely sold out with hoards of fans waiting in some of the longest lines I’ve ever seen. Not only was there on-track action but also a large vendor area, paddock zone, and even a massive car show hosted by Slammed Society. Walking over the main bridge separating the two halves of the event in either direction, I looked across at an enormous sea of bodies.
The Top 32 Knockout saw cars making lots of contact and a fair number of outright collisions. The transition for the second turn of the course proved disastrous for several drivers. Wall slaps became almost commonplace. As many folks scattered due to flying debris, Bill aka Santa (due to his long white beard), who is one of the race officials, stood resolute despite many a tail making a beeline for his exact position.
After Saturday morning’s session, the field was whittled down to just the Top 16 drivers. After a rather amazing rendition of the national anthem, followed by a brief moment of silence as the celebratory whooping and whistling died down, the roar of revving V8s, screaming rotaries and forced induction V6 motors sprang to life as the field of contenders appeared out of turn 9 and slow-rolled it down to the main grandstand where they formed a line in front of the k-rails.
Drivers exited their vehicles and were joined by their riding companions, who consisted of some pretty hot umbrella girls (although some models didn’t actually have umbrellas and some weren’t that hot). After individual introductions, the drivers acknowledged the fans in various ways. Some kept it simple with a nice wave while others like Chris Forsberg jumped on top of his door. Crowd favorite Matt Powers went all out and actually climbed the fence, which whipped the already raucous fans into a frenzy.
One of my favorite parts of these events is when the drivers get back in and drive off. But being Formula Drift, it is not common for these adrenaline junkies to just saunter away. Monster burnouts, donuts and all out tomfoolery ensue as the drivers put on quite a show while making their exit. I’m always waiting for someone to crash into something as they get pretty damn close to other cars, walls and sometimes even people as they do their thing. But these are skilled professionals and they managed to steer clear of such amateurish possibilities.
When the action kicked back off, the drivers really started going all out. Speeds increased, angles became more extreme, tails swung wider and the gap between cars sometimes became a matter of inches. Naturally more mayhem erupted as bumpers scraped the walls and spoilers tore off.
I’m not sure how the the Final Four could have gotten any more competitive…. Consummate contender Matt Powers ran against Formula Drift rookie Daigo Saito (but current D1 Grand Prix champ in Japan) and reigning FD champion Daijiro Yoshihara went up against last year’s Long Beach winner Justin Pawlak. Daigo Saito knocked out Matt Powers in his 1300hp SC430 making a strong showing for his FormulaD debut. When all was said and done and the smoke cleared, Pawlak and Yoshihara stood side by side waiting for the announcement. FD announcer Jarod DeAnda made the proud proclamation that Pawlak had secured the win.
Pawlak had initially qualified fourth and made an impressive run, knocking out 2009 Formula Drift champ Chris Forberg in the Great 8 and easily sliding by Matt Powers, not an easy feat. It was only fitting that he faced off against Yoshihara, to whom he lost the championship battle in the closest points gap in FD history last year.
Pawlak said, “It is déjà vu to come back here after a year and to do the same thing and to start out the season number one is the best feeling in the world. I have to give big thanks to the 2013 Mustang. What an amazing car and amazing platform and that is why it is back on top here in Long Beach.”
He went on to say, “Just being able to take one run at a time, one battle at a time and one round at a time is exactly where I wanted to be. I really wanted to stay focused on what was at hand and not getting ahead of myself and just staying with the game plan. We didn’t do it at the last round last season and that cost us the title, but we are back here doing it. I felt great when I woke up today and when we cruised through the first couple of rounds I had a really good feeling in the car. In the Great 8 we went up against Chris Forsberg in his 370z and it was a really tight battle. It felt really good to pull that one off. In the finals I had the chance to take on Daijiro in the finals and get my revenge from last year. We had a couple of good runs with Dai and we came out number one.”
We had lofty expectations for Ken Gushi in the GReddy Scion Racing FR-S, but he failed to make it into the Great 8, finishing 9th overall, which is still impressive for a first outing in the new chassis. The FR-S developed an early affinity for the wall, tearing off the wing in practice, with a couple more mishaps throughout the course of the day. [If nothing else, we now know that the Scion FR-S is pretty durable.] After riveting it back on, Gushi managed to knock out a few challengers before later succumbing. It’s clear that Gushi is a damn good driver and once he works the kinks out of this new platform he should be a force to be reckoned with.
|Formula DRIFT Professional Championship 2012 Point Standings After 1 Event|
|1. Pawlak, Justin||Falken Tire Ford Mustang||106 Points|
|2. Yoshihara, Daijiro||America's Tire / Falken Tire Nissan S13||92 Points|
|3. Saito, Daigo||Achilles Tire / Bridges Racing Lexus SC430||78.50 Points|
|4. Powers, Matt||Need for Speed / Nitto Nissan S14||69.50 Points|
|5. Tuerck, Ryan||Team Retaks Nissan 240SX||66 Points|
|6. McQuarrie, Tyler||Mobil 1 Camaro||64 Points|
|6. Millen, Rhys||Hankook / Rhys Millen Racing Hyundai Genesis Coupe||64 Points|
|8. Forsberg, Chris||NOS Energy Drink / Hankook Nissan 370Z||63 Points|
|9. Gushi, Ken||Scion Racing Scion FR-S||62 Points|
|10. Moen, Kenneth||Lutz Performance Nissan 350Z||61.50 Points|
|11. Grunewald, Conrad||Hankook Tire Chevy Camaro||57 Points|
|12. Aasbo, Fredric||Need for Speed / Papadakis Racing Scion TC||57 Points|
|12. Kado, Ryan||Ryan Kado Racing Nissan 350Z||56 Points|
|14. Mohan, Kyle||Nexen Tire / Mazdatrix Mazda RX-8||55 Points|
|15. Bakchis, Aurimas "Odi"||Bakchis Motorsports Nissan 240SX S14||54.25 Points|
|15. Yoshioka, Toshiki||RS*R Nissan Silvia S15||54.25 Points|