By Chris Hendrickson, Monitor
There is nothing quite like a summer day at the racetrack. Engines so loud you can feel the rumble in your chest, the smell of burning rubber, the sound of squealing tires, and of course, vibrantly-colored racecars. Tire smoke fills the air and as the hazy pall slowly dissipates, you can already hear the roar of the next car coming around the track. It’s an exciting place to be.
And in drift racing, those cars are guaranteed to be sideways the entire time.
Over 15,000 people poured through the gates at Evergreen Speedway last weekend for round five of this year’s Formula DRIFT Championship Series. In its 10th year, Formula DRIFT is North America’s first official drifting championship series. And for the second year in a row, the event completely sold out on Saturday as people packed the grandstands to watch the finals.
Drift racing originated in Japan, and is considered an extreme motorsport. Drivers are challenged to finesse and control their vehicles while in the midst of sideways slides, otherwise known as drifts, at all times during a race. Drivers are judged primarily on style and how well they navigate the track, rather than speed.
Speed does remain a factor, however a comparatively small one. Drivers are assessed by three judges who utilize four main criteria for judging; line, angle, overall style and speed. During qualifying runs, each judge is responsible for judging a specific aspect other than speed, which is simply based on how close the drivers are to a median speed at certain points in the track. Median speeds are determined during practice runs.
Each category has a designated maximum amount of points, all of which add up to 100; that many points in drift racing is considered a perfect score.
“They want them to be as sideways as possible through the entire course,” said Abigail Gittin, wife of one of drift racing’s most iconic drivers, Vaughn Gittin, Jr.
Gittin, Jr. drives a Ford Mustang and is sponsored by Ford and Monster Energy. He won the first place trophy last year at Evergreen Speedway and is known for being a world champion drifter. In 2010 he won the Formula DRIFT championship, becoming the second-ever DRIFT champion whose background is strictly in drift racing.
Unfortunately, transmission problems prevented him from another shot at the trophy this year, and he was knocked out of the competition after making it all the way to the final eight.
On Thursday, teams were busy setting up their pit areas as drivers got their first chance to try out the track. Ryan Sage, the co-founder of Formula DRIFT, talked about the sport, and how it’s evolved from the traditional Japanese-style of drift racing.
“It’s taken on a completely different tone. It’s much more aggressive, fast-paced, cars are door-to-door. Very American,” said Sage.
Evergreen Speedway has hosted Formula DRIFT since 2006.
“This venue in particular has become a favorite of a lot of people, especially fans, because of the viewing capacity. You can be anywhere in the grandstands and see the entirety of the course,” said Sage.
Several aspects of drift racing serve to make it unique from other motorsports, including the fact that race fans are given access to all areas of the track.
“We have an open pit situation, and any ticket will get you wherever you want to go,” said Sage.
This is especially appealing to fans because, at other racing events, pit passes have to be purchased on top of general admission tickets, which can be quite costly. At Formula DRIFT, fans can easily meet their favorite drivers, get autographs and see the cars up close and personal.
“A fan can come up and interact with Vaughn (Gittin, Jr.), get an autograph or whatever,” said Sage.
Gittin, Jr., along with numerous other drivers, could be seen all weekend shaking hands, chatting with fans and signing autographs, many times with long lines extending out of the pit areas.
The qualifying round format has changed since last year, to what Formula DRIFT refers to as a “knock-out qualifying procedure.” Approximately 50 cars showed up to race this year, fighting to be among the top 32 cars that would compete in the finals.
“Once that field of 32 has been decided, then we get into the tandem competition which is the main day on Saturday,” said Sage. “The tandem competition is two drivers, head-to-head.”
During qualifying, drivers battle it out to be in the upper half of the bracket. Their goal is to make the top 16 in their first pass around the track. Those 16 spots are not solidified until each driver is judged and scored after their first pass, and once the top 16 drivers are announced, the remaining drivers are given the opportunity to take another pass to secure a position in the bottom of the bracket, which consists of positions 17 through 32.
This increases the intensity of the competition, as drivers really need to push to make an exceptionally high-scoring first pass and secure one of the top 16 positions. But if they don’t make it into the top 16, they still have a shot at being in the finals.
This is another aspect in which Formula DRIFT is unique; it enables drivers to overcome a negative situation and still compete. Pushing it a little too hard, a couple of drivers including former points leader Diago Saito, in an unanticipated crash, hit the wall too hard and lost their drift, which ended their first runs prematurely, and with a score of zero.
Loss of drift, spinning out, two tires off the course or any part of the vehicle coming open during a run results in an automatic score of zero.
But if the drivers are able to fix their cars in time to take another run before qualifying rounds are finished, they can still make the lower half of the tandem bracket.
“In any other form of motorsport you’d be out of the competition if you wreck,” said Sage.
Both drivers who hit the wall too hard on their first qualifying runs on Friday were able to fix their vehicles and secure positions in the lower bracket for the finals. Saito made position 26, and Ryan Tuerck, last year’s runner-up at this event, came back from his crash and made position 23.
The benefit to being among the top 16 is that the drivers at the top of the bracket receive the advantage of racing against the drivers at the bottom of the bracket. Drivers are paired up for the final tandem races in this fashion; driver one will race tandem with the driver 32, driver two will race with driver 31, until all drivers are paired up.
After Friday’s races were complete, the top five qualifiers were: Darren McNamara who scored 97.5; Fredric Aasbo with a 95; Matt Field with a 90; Vaughn Gittin, Jr. with an 89.5 and Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis with a score of 88.5.
On Saturday, with the brackets set, the drivers began competing in the elimination series of tandem races. Initially, 32 vehicles competed, with one driver being eliminated after each race, until there were 16 drivers left. The final 16 drivers raced in the main event which took place Saturday night starting at 7 p.m.
During the tandem racing finals, each car receives the opportunity to be the lead car, and then have their turn as the chase car, as well, with the driver who placed highest in the bracket leading first.
Drivers are evaluated once both runs have been completed, with each judge individually declaring a winner. The majority rules, and if the judges are having difficulty assessing who was the stronger driver, they may declare a “one more time” ruling, forcing the drivers to run the track again.
Lead cars are recommended to follow the lines of the track as closely as possible, creating as wide of a gap between them and the chase car as possible. The goal of the chase car is to stay as close to the lead car as possible, following their line as precisely as they can.
This appears challenging when the smoke coming off the tires of the lead car seems to completely engulf the chase car.
The competition continues until the final four cars, out of which the first, second and third place winners are determined.
This year’s trophy winners at Evergreen Speedway were Chris Forsberg in first place, Michael Essa in second and Fredric Aasbo in third.
There are only two events remaining in this year’s Formula DRIFT championship, and the leads between the top five drivers are particularly narrow after this weekend’s round five throwdown. Essentially, at this point, the championship is up for grabs.
“Each year we look forward to the action and excitement at Evergreen Speedway and this year did not disappoint. The championship chase is heating up with only two events left in the season,” stated Jim Liaw, president and co-founder of Formula DRIFT, in a press release.
Formula DRIFT is quick-moving, with many unique characteristics that make it a lot of fun whether you’ve been a race fan all your life or are brand new to the sport. And there’s always something unexpected happening as drivers push themselves to get an edge in the competition.
“It’s one of the reasons why I think we’ve really been able to hold on to a young fan base, because it’s so quick; it’s so fast; it’s high action; there’s smoke on the track; it’s loud… If you have any level of attention deficit disorder, this is definitely the sport for you,” said Sage.
For more information on Formula DRIFT, visit: www.formulad.com. The series will continue on with round 6 in September in Texas.