JAMES DEANE IS CROWNED 2018 FORMULA DRIFT PRO CHAMPION IN THRILLING SEASON FINALE

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As Formula DRIFT returned to Los Angeles for the season finale, drivers, teams, fans and the series organizers were delighted to be back at Irwindale Speedway – the House of Drift. With only the Auto Cup decided at the previous round when Toyota amassed enough points to claim the title, there’s was everything to play. By Saturday evening we would all know the names of the 2018 Formula DRIFT Black Magic Pro Champion as well as the 2018 Formula DRIFT Link ECU Pro 2 Champion, Rookie of the Year and the Tire Cup winner. 

In what has been one of the closest season’s in Formula DRIFT history, it was as if Hollywood had scripted the most exciting event possible for the fans. There was drama in qualifying, unexpected lightning storms and title chasers watching from the sidelines as the action unfolded. This was, without doubt, the most exciting Formula DRIFT weekend ever witnessed in the series’ 15-year history.

PRO QUALIFYING
With so much on the line, qualifying for the final round of the 2018 Formula DRIFT Black Magic Pro Championship was guaranteed to be intense. The 2017 FD championJames Deane (Ireland) had a 40-point lead and his Worthouse / Falken Tire Nissan Silvia S15 had been virtually bulletproof all season. However, second place Fredric Aasbo (Norway), the 2016 FD champion driving the Rockstar Energy Drink / Nexen Tire Toyota Corolla, wasn’t going down without a fight.

Qualifying started relatively slowly until 2013 FD champion Michael Essa (USA) took to the track in his Essa Autosport / Achilles Radial BMW M3. He committed early to the course and stayed on the power throughout, earning 93 points from the judges and cheers from the knowledgeable crowd. 

Essa would soon be eclipsed by Ryan Tuerck (USA) in the Ryan Tuerck Racing / Gumout / Black Magic / Nexen Tire Toyota 86 who scored 96 points with what appeared to be a perfect run. At least, that’s what everybody thought until Piotr Wiecek (Poland) in the second Worthouse / Falken Tire Nissan Silvia S15 put in a text book run and scored 98 points. With the tension escalating, Aasbo pulled up to the start line. He had a clean run but didn’t attack the course with the same vigor. He was awarded 94 points and would soon regret his conservative approach when Deane put up another 98-point run to drop the Norwegian to fourth.

In the second qualifying runs, rookie Federico Sceriffo (Italy) in the FFF Drifting Department Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano Drift Spec “Fiorella” would stray offline and collide with the wall as he attempted to transition onto the banking. The impact was hard enough to damage the rear suspension and break a wheel. Fortunately, his first run was good enough to ensure he qualified 24th.

The top 15 drivers would all score 90 points or above as the 2018 championship continued to be one of the closest ever. Essa improved his score to 95, matched by Chris Forsberg (USA) in the NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z on Nexen Tires. Aasbo also improved to 96 points but 2011 FD ChampionDaijiro Yoshihara (Japan) in the Turn 14 Distribution / Falken Tire Subaru BRZ put in a phenomenal drive to score 97 points. It put Dai in third position behind Wiecek, who would concede to Deane after the Irishman set the stadium ablaze with an almost perfect 99-point score on the final run of the day. And with that he put the series organizers on notice to start engraving his name on the championship trophy.

Seeming to increase Deane’s advantage was the number of drivers who failed to qualify. With Ryan Litterall (USA), Kyle Mohan (USA) and rookie Kevin Lawrence (USA) being excluded, the top five qualifiers got bye rounds in the Top 32 heats. This made Aasbo’s hill even steeper to climb as it ensured Deane would get into the Sweet 16 at the very least, receiving additional points even if he failed to continue – a scenario few could imagine.

PRO HEATS
The rain that impacted the Pro 2 championship runoff the night before greeted the Pro teams and spectators on Saturday morning. The forecast suggested it would move away before the main event but the schedule was reshuffled to help the track officials dry the racing surface before competition began. 

The Top 32 would be the appetizer for the entrée to follow and saw some early retirements. Matt Field (USA) in the Wish / Borla / Falken Tire Chevrolet Corvette, for example, took a five-minute Technical Timeout before his first run against Forrest Wang (USA) in the Vapetasia / Achilles Radial / NRG Innovations Nissan S15. Field would take the start but retire early as a result of mechanical gremlins, handing the victory to Wang.

The 2009, 2014 and 2016 FD Champion, Chris Forsberg (USA) in the NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z on Nexen Tires, would also experience technical difficulty. Engine problems had prompted the team to drill out the nitrous nozzles, injecting a greater but unknown quantity of nitrous oxide into his engine. He would publicly admit his mission to retain the original “Z” engine was over and he’d investigate a new powerplant for 2019. In the meantime, he pushed the car hard on the first run against Matt Coffman (USA) in the Coffman Racing / Thunderbolt Racing Fuel / Achilles Radial Nissan 240SX S13. The lack of power presented itself in the transitions and Forsberg took a Technical Timeout before the second run, in which he’d spin at the final clipping point to give Coffman the win.

Michael Essa set a blistering pace on his first run against fellow BMW driver Faruk Kugay (USA) in the Wreckless Racing E92 BMW. Kugay struggled to get close to Essa on the first run so left the start line on the second run with extra gusto. Unfortunately, he hit the wall at the top of the first banking, causing Essa to lift and follow Kugay into the wall, hitting the front corner and then the rear. Even with Essa on a flatbed, he was given the win because Kugay was adjudged to have created an “unchaseable lead.” In other words, his collision meant his run was incomplete and Essa’s reaction after the fact was inconsequential. However, it remained to be seen whether Essa’s BMW could be fixed in time for the Sweet 16 runoffs.

With all the attention focused on who would become the 2018 Formula DRIFT Black Magic Pro Champion, six drivers were in their own battle for Rookie of the Year. The fight had come down to Matt Vankirk (USA) in the Driftmatic Nissan 240SX and Dirk Stratton (USA) driving the Lingenfelter Performance / Achilles Radial / Stratton Chevrolet Corvette C6.

In the Top 32, Vankirk would line up first against 2010 FD Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr in the Monster Energy / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR. Despite a valiant effort, Vankirk couldn’t match Gittin Jr’s experience and would go no further. 

Stratton faced Jeff Jones (USA) in the Doc / Falken Tire Nissan 370Z. It was Stratton’s first time on the Irwindale Speedway track and he drove hard to give the judges a difficult decision. However, it went to Stratton who claimed Rookie of the Year by two points over Vankirk.

Following the Top 32, Formula DRIFT traditionally takes a short break, allowing teams to address any damage incurred. The action recommences with US Air Force inductees being sworn in. The national anthem is played, and at Irwindale this was a recording of Kelsey Quayle’s beautiful rendition in honor of the Falken Tire team member who tragically lost her life a few days earlier. It was followed by a spectacular fireworks display before the cars returned to the track.

With the Rookie title settled, the Pro championship could be decided in the Sweet 16 heats. Aasbo had a mathematical chance of clinching the 2018 title if he came in first place and Deane was knocked out of the Top 16 – something that hadn’t happened to Deane since FD Orlando 2017, which was ironically the year he won his first Formula DRIFT championship.

Deane had been on fire in qualifying and expectations were high for him to win his Sweet 16 round and subsequently the title by beating Forrest Wang (USA) in the Vapetasia / Achilles Radial / NRG Innovations Nissan S15. However, Wang was reading from a different script. Both drivers were on maximum attack, with Wang getting great proximity to the champion-elect on the first run. On the second run, Deane struggled to initiate his drift into the first banking and lost ground to Wang. A collective gasp could be heard over the screaming engines below as the unthinkable unfolded. 

It didn’t take long for the judges to award Wang the win and eliminate Deane. It would emerge he had a power steering issue, which explains the outcome and the huge upset. The result made the 2018 Formula DRIFT Black Magic Pro Championship Aasbo’s to lose. 

The tension was turned to 11 as Aasbo pulled up to the start line against Jhonnattan Castro (Dominican Republic) in the GPP Toyota Racing / Falken Tire Toyota 86. Both drivers gave it everything in a round that was almost too close to call. However, the judges gave the win to Aasbo by virtue of a single mistake by Castro. This was typical of the 2018 season – there were no easy rounds, every driver stepped up their game, producing incredible competition.

This was exemplified by the Sweet 16 matchup between third-placed Wiecek in Deane’s Worthouse sister car. Wiecek was coming off a win at the previous round in Texas and faced Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis (Lithuania) in the Falken Tires / Maxxoil / Drifz Wheels Nissan S14. He had qualified 15th but wasn’t about to be intimidated. Instead, he pushed Wiecek hard, with both drivers contacting the walls in their effort to dominate. It seemed too close to call but the crowd was expecting Wiecek to reach the final against Aasbo. However, the judge’s decision went to Odi after they reviewed the live drone footage and found the Pole had dropped back slightly on his chase run. 

By this point people were fainting in the grandstands and grown men were crying but the action continued. Gittin Jr would narrowly beat Coffman despite being slow to initiate on his chase run, but the speed of his first meant he got the decision.

Yoshihara would have a dramatic round against Stratton, with the 2018 Rookie of the Year pushing hard and brushing the wall on the first run. This would knock him into Dai, damaging the BRZ. After a short break to check the car, Stratton would again hit the wall on his second run, allowing Yoshihara’s unflustered driving style to win the round.

In the Great 8, Wang beat Kenshiro Gushi (Japan) after his GPP Toyota Racing / Falken Tire Toyota 86 was forced to retire from the second run with mechanical issues. Aasbo would defeat Dean Kearney (Ireland) in the Oracle Lighting / Achilles Tire Dodge Viper after two runs where the Norwegian failed to put a tire wrong.

The intensity jumped up another notch when Gittin Jr faced Odi. The pair was incredibly close through the first banking, so close that Gittin Jr’s rear bumper was knocked off by Odi’s front bumper as they maneuvered for the  first transition point. With bodywork flying, the Mustang’s bumper went under Odi’s front wheels, causing him to spin. Gittin Jr stumbled but was able to gather it up and continue. The pair went back at it on the second run but the Ford driver had done enough to win.

Earlier in the evening, Vaughn had announced, “This has been the worst season in my Formula DRIFT career,” but he was driving hard and intended to reverse his fortunes. Meanwhile Deane told the crowd, “It’s incredibly difficult to watch this from the sidelines but Fredric is driving so well. I think he deserves to be Champion if he can withstand all this pressure,” which is typical of the constantly understated Irishman.

In the final Great 8 heat, Yoshihara would be drawn against Chelsea Denofa (USA) in the BC Racing / Nitto Tire / Ford Performance Mustang RTR. This would be a hard scrap, with the judges calling for OMT as both drivers maintained excellent proximity. Unfortunately, Dai’s car continued to be battered by his opponents and on the fourth run he was unable to keep pace with Denofa, relinquishing the win.

Stepping up to the Final Four, Wang would meet Aasbo as the crowd was whipped into a frenzy. Wang drove hard but Aasbo was in control, making no mistakes and reaching the Final. It seemed impossible to believe at the start of the day, but who would he face?

His opponent would be in a Ford Mustang RTR, but would it be driven by 2010 FD Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr or teammate Chelsea Denofa? With identical machinery and neither driver wanting to take prisoners, the deafening V8 bellow was only broken by gasps as Denofa hit Gittin Jr’s rear bumper in the first transition. Both drivers were able to continue but it meant Chelsea would have to be faultless on the second run. Unable to squeeze out an advantage, the decision went to Gittin Jr and the Final was decided.

With his car under assault, Gittin Jr returned to the pits for hasty repairs to his Monster Energy / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR. The alternator was robbed from his teammate and rear bodywork was replaced. With the minutes ticking past, Aasbo had time to collect himself and head to the start line in his Rockstar Energy Drink / Nexen Tire Toyota Corolla.

When the lights blinked, the two champions didn’t disappoint. Aasbo’s smooth driving was perfectly matched by Gittin Jr’s aggression, leaving nothing between them. The judges called for “One More Time” to the delight of the capacity crowd who were on their feet. They ran two more times but still couldn’t be separated. The judges again needed them to run “One More Time” before they could reach a decision. 

The fifth run was a repeat of the previous four, with both drivers fully committed and inseparable. By the sixth they were getting tired, adrenaline was running low and the cars were hot. Both brushed the wall on the second banking and had to correct. Gittin Jr was judged to have recovered better and took the call. The worst year of his career turned over a new leaf, he was the Formula DRIFT Irwindale winner.

And James Deane, who watched 30 rounds from the pit wall, was the 2018 Formula DRIFT Black Magic Pro Champion. It was an incredible result that represented a miniscule four-point lead over Fredric Aasbo in one of the closest finishes in series history. He becomes only the second FD driver to win consecutive titles since Tanner Foust in 2007 and 2008.

“This has been the most ridiculous night of my life. It was so intense,” said a stunned Deane. “I had 100 percent faith in Fredric to go all the way. I have so much respect for what he did because this track is so hard to drive without any pressure, and he almost made it. I also have so much respect for Vaughn. He drove so well and was amazing to watch. I put years on my life by watching tonight but it was so entertaining. All the FD drivers have really upped their level and I can’t even imagine what next season will be like because the level is getting ridiculous.”

Following Deane’s trophy celebrations, FD Irwindale winner, Gittin Jr, addressed the crowd, “I’ve been doing this for 15 years because all the teams continue to push and make it a constant challenge. The fans are amazing and bring such great energy every time we’re on the track. I’m so grateful to all of them and the teams. I’m also extremely grateful to our team because there’s something humbling about our fall but we’ve made a lot of changes and continued to fight. This win represents how we keep fighting. I’m extremely proud of Chelsea who has added a lot to the team. And Fredric – we had some epic battles tonight. And congratulations to James and his entire team – I’m looking forward to battling with you next year.”

Fredric Aasbo looked back at a whirlwind season: “It’s been an incredible night. We’ve fought really hard all year. I’ve been through the entire spectrum in Formula DRIFT from being a nobody to a rookie, a contender, champion and now a veteran of the sports. But we went back to the drawing board last year and built a new car because we realized we needed to be better. I practiced on the frozen lakes at home and Steph [Papadakis] built an incredible car. Thanks to all our sponsors, and the team who made me go back out there and take on this badass (Deane), and to all the fans.”

In addition to the 2018 Formula DRIFT Black Magic Pro Championship and Rookie of the Year, the evening also decided the 2018 Formula DRIFT Tire Cup, which was won by Falken Tire. They join Toyota, which took the 2018 Formula DRIFT Auto Cup at the previous round.

As the dust settled on the evening’s intense competition, we caught up with Formula DRIFT president, Jim Liaw to get his final thoughts for the season. “Tonight was bananas. You just couldn’t write this degree of drama and excitement into an event. The competitors were so intense and it came down to the final run of the final round in our 15th season. There was such great driving all weekend in both classes and it’s left everybody involved in the sport and all the fans looking forward to Long Beach 2019 when it all starts again!”

PRO 2 QUALIFYING
There was only one story everybody was talking about after the final qualifying session of the 2018 Formula DRIFT Link ECU Pro 2 Championship: Points leader Travis Reeder (USA) failed to qualify in his Achilles Radial Nissan 240SX!

With a 40-point lead over second place Dylan Hughes (USA) in the Advance Auto Parts / Nexen Tire Nissan 240SX, Reeder had been favoriting to take the title coming off two consecutive wins at the previous rounds in St Louis and Texas. However, Reeder’s qualifying performance was deemed suboptimal by the series judges, who scored him 71 and 65 points for his first and second qualifying runs, respectively. 

With 26 drivers competing at the Irwindale round of the 2018 Formula DRIFT Link ECU Pro 2 Championship but only 16 eligible for the heats, Reeder would finish in a lowly 22nd position and take himself out of contention.

“We struggled with car set up,” a disappointed Reeder explained. “I like to have lots of grip but the car was too tight for the banked track. With nine laps of practice we couldn’t take the grip out fast enough and I didn’t want to make a huge change and risk wrecking the car. I tried to drive through the problem and get the seat time but I’m bummed because this was the first time I’d ever failed to qualify for a drift event.”

He was almost followed into ignominy by Hughes, who qualified 15th, squeaking into the Top 16 but giving himself the best chance of winning the 2018 Pro 2 title.

Star of Irwindale qualification was Garrett Denton (USA) in the Koruworks / Nexen Tire Nissan S14. He finished on top by virtue of 94 points from the judges for his first run. He was followed by Crick Filippi (USA) driving the Fitzgerald Glider Kits / Nexen Tire USA Nissan S13 who scored 88 points. This was a sizable gap from Denton, giving him a psychological advantage, if nothing else.

Third place went to Brody Goble (Canada) in the Frankenstein Speed & Custom / Achilles Radial Nissan S14.75. He was followed by Sebastien Gauthier (Canada) in the Magicolor Carrossier / SSG Motorsport Nissan S14 in fourth, with Brandon Schmidt (USA) rounding out the top five qualifiers in his MastMotorsports / Achilles Radial Nissan S13

PRO 2 HEATS
The Final round of the 2018 Formula DRIFT Link ECU Pro 2 Championship got off to an exciting start. With Travis Reeder watching from the grandstands, he would soon know if he’d be 2018 Pro 2 Champion or whether Dylan Hughes would take the crown.

Hughes simply needed to beat Crick Filippi in the Top 16 heats and it was all over for Reeder. But if Hughes failed to get through, Reeder would win. And in an astonishing twist to the story, Reeder had cannibalized his racecar to ensure Hughes could compete after a collision in practice left Hughes with a disabled Nissan.

The tension was palpable as the Top 16 heats got underway and it wasn’t long before Hughes and Filippi reached the start line. After their two runs, with both drivers pushing hard, the judges awarded the win to Filippi.  

With Hughes out, Travis Reeder was the 2018 Formula DRIFT Link ECU Pro 2 Champion and it was a question of where would everybody else finish the year. Top qualifier Garrett Denton faced Trenton Beechum (USA) in his Roush Performance / Nexen Tire Ford Mustang in the Top 16. Making a single mistake on his second run, Denton was eliminated and Beechum progressed. In the Top 8 he would meet Troy Manners (USA) in the Neo Motorsport Nissan S14.5. Manners had beaten Ola Jaeger (Norway) in the Team Japan Auto / Nexen Tire Toyota Supra but would fall to Beechum after he failed to initiate on his second run.

His opponent in the Final 4 was Sebastien Gauthier (Canada) in the Magicolor Carrossier / SSG Motorsport Nissan S14. Gauthier had initially faced Adam Knapik (Poland) in the Knapik Racing / Achilles Radial Nissan S14. Knapik struggled to put together a good run – straightening on the first and failing to initiate on the second. Gauthier then faced Schmidt and the weather in the Top 8. 

Despite daytime temperatures in the 80s, atropical storm had blown in from the Pacific Ocean and would play a major part in the proceedings. Formula DRIFT doesn’t stop for rain and after a short pause to clear the grandstands when lightning threatened spectator safety, the heats resumed on a very slippery track as the water sat on a thick layer of rubber.

On their first run, Schmidt ran off course, giving the advantage to Gauthier. This played to his favor when both drivers ran off course on the second run, struggling to find grip in the rain. Gauthier would then beat Beechum on an increasingly wet track to take his place in the Final.

His opponent would be fellow Canadian Riley Sexsmith driving the NV Auto / Achilles Radial 2JZ Subaru BRZ. Sexsmith took a protracted route to the Final, first meeting Jonathan Hurst (USA) in the Dynosty Infiniti G37 in the Top 16. On their second run, Hurst experienced car problems, colliding with Sexsmith who subsequently brushed the wall but did enough to move on to the Top 8 where he met Brody Goble (Canada) in the Frankenstein Speed & Custom / Achilles Radial Nissan S14.75. On a wet track, Goble had a torrid time. His first run was ruled incomplete and spin on the second put an end to his challenge. 

Moving onto the Final 4, Sexsmith’s opponent, Filippi, required a five-minute technical timeout. Unable to make an effective repair, he retired and guaranteed himself third place by virtue of being the highest remaining qualifier.

In the Final, Sexsmith and Gauthier got off to a difficult start. Both Canadian drivers were judged incomplete on the first runs and the judges called for “One More Time.” On the fourth run, Sexsmith had a lurid slide on the treacherous surface and hit the wall. This put him out of the contention and handed the Irwindale win to Sebastien Gauthier in the Magicolor Carrossier / SSG Motorsport Nissan S14.

With the final places determined, Travis Reeder was the 2018 Formula DRIFT Link ECU Pro 2 Champion. He was a mere 18 points ahead of second place Dylan Hughes, with Irwindale winner Sebastien Gauthier jumping up to third. Ola Jaeger and Riley Sexsmith would round out the top five positions.

We caught up with Gauthier as he stepped off the podium: “I feel good, happy and excited to be number one,” the French-Canadian told us through a translator. “At the beginning of the season we were struggling. We went through four engines and two gearboxes but things slowly improved as the season progressed. With the rain today, there was a lot to overcome but we’re used to the weather in Canada and we’re happy to finish the season in third place after so many obstacles,” he said.

We also spoke to the 2018 Formula DRIFT Link ECU Pro 2 Champion, Travis Reeder: “This reminded me of last year in Texas where I went into the round about 40 points ahead, got knocked out of the Top 16 and Kevin Lawrence came from behind to win the championship by two points. So, it feels good to have the cards fall in my favor this year,” Reeder said. “It’s great to win the championship but it’s a little bittersweet because my good friend Dylan Hughes could have also taken the title. He wrecked in practice so we put my car on jack stands and tore it apart to help him continue. The last thing I wanted was for him to lose and I was bummed when he was eliminated, but then I realized I’d won!” he laughed. “I’m ecstatic because we’ve had a great season with a great crew and it’s great to have my best friend finish second in the championship. This is the spirit of drifting and that’s why I love it.”


NEXT SEASON
The schedule for the 2019 Formula DRIFT Black Magic Pro Championship and the Formula DRIFT Link ECU Pro 2 Championship are still being finalized. The series organizers will announce the new schedule at SEMA 2018 and post it to formulad.com – the place to find event details, ticket info, driver profiles and Livestream information


EDITOR’S NOTE
Please use this link for event images:
www.dropbox.com/sh/o3d7nu4mk6n9b9z/AAA0ei6VErqOEGuqqPoDOYpQa?dl=0


2018 FORMULA DRIFT PRO CHAMPIONSHIP

To view all the Pro Category finishers, click here:
formulad.com/results/2018/irwindale/pro

To view the 2018 Pro Championship standings, click here:
formulad.com/standings/2018/pro

To view all the Pro 2 Category finishers, click here:
formulad.com/results/2018/irwindale/pro2

To view the 2018 Pro 2 Championship standings, click here:
formulad.com/standings/2018/pro2

To view the 2018 Auto Cup standings, click here:
formulad.com/standings/2018/pro

To view the 2018 Tire Cup standings, click here:
formulad.com/standings/2018/pro

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