Tonight’s Formula DRIFT final at Irwindale Speedway was hands down the most exciting drift event this reporter has ever had the pleasure to experience. From radical upsets to frame twisting carnage, round 7 had it all. A bit like the last day of school, we at Life Blasters will dearly miss all of our Formula DRIFT friends as we begin biting our nails, tapping our feet, and otherwise waiting anxiously for the start of the 2013 season. I’m getting ahead of myself here. Before I get too sappy, lets go over the play-by-play from a monumentous event that will surely be remembered forever.
The competition started with Rhys Milllen skating by Kenny Möen. Kenny has gotten a reputation as a giant slayer so even though they met in the Round of 32 I’m sure Rhys wasn’t taking any chances.
Next Kyle Mohan beat Dai Yoshihara. Both drivers are well established old-school FD drivers, but Dai is the defending champion, so Kyle’s win was impressive.
With Dai knocked out early, Rhys Millen and Vaughn Gittin, Jr, would have an easier time making it to the Final Four.
Pat “the Possum” Mordaunt’s unanimous win against Chelsea “don’t call me a girl” DeNofa began with Chelsea’s shallow angle on his lead run, and was sealed in a most exciting fashion when Chelsea hit Pat and launched his car into the air!
Conrad Grunewald followed Chris Forsberg and was far beyond the judges required proximity giving Forsberg the advantage going into their second run. During Chris’s follow run Conrad tapped the wall on the big bank and Chris followed suit and tapped as well. It happened again as they entered the inner bank, but this time Chris gave it a little too much and the famous inner bank claimed another car.
It’s very rare to see Chris crash like this, but the final round brings out the animal in everyone!
AE86 Corolla pilot Taka Aono was absolutely on fire at this event. His 20th place qualifying position put him up against championship contender Daigo Saito, who would surely be difficult to beat. The real story here is not that Daigo beat Taka, but why. Like many others tonight, Taka hit the wall on the inner bank and because it was the first run of the battle he was able to call for the five minute rule.
Unfortunately, Taka’s race trailer was broken into recently and all of his spare parts were stolen! I would like to think that it was a random crime and the perpetrators didn’t know who they were robbing because there’s nobody cruel enough in this world to do something like that to a sweetheart like Taka, but you just never know these days.
The battle of Wilkerson versus JTP started off with Walker aborting the run and calling for a restart. After the restart both drivers ran a solid first run. On the second run Walker tapped the inner bank wall pretty hard but managed to maintain drift.
The judges unanimously voted for Justin Pawlak, and he moved on thusly.
Fredric Aasbø was in top form as usual for his lead run against Darren McNamara.
…and combined that with a close proximity follow run for a textbook unanimous win.
If you didn’t know, Ryan Kado is the main reason you don’t see my photos from Formula DRIFT on Life Blasters anymore. Since the third round of the 2011 FD championship I’ve been spotting for young Mr. Kado, and as a spotter I’m obligated to be next to the judges stand whenever cars are on-track, thus rendering me unable to shoot much. Long story short, I had a special interest in the battle between Kado and Tuerck that transpired during the Round of 32. The official outcome was a win for Tuerck (Judge Breakdown: Andy Yen – Tuerck, Ryan Lanteigne – Tuerck, Brian Eggert – OMT). I personally think the judges should’ve had them go One More Time because I was disappointed with the lack of proximity on both runs. Essentially, both drivers did equally bad in my eyes: not enough contact.
The first battle of Top 16 was between Kyle and Rhys. On his follow run, Kyle made contact with the infamous inner bank wall, and had to call five minutes. Kyle was unable to fix his car in time, so Rhys moved on by default.
Pat Mordaunt had his work cut out for him, but as Formula DRIFT co-founder Ryan Sage mentioned in the commentary, “This is the house of drift, anything can and will happen.
Pat wasn’t very close to Vaughn during his follow run, and Vaughn ran a very conservative lead run, probably thinking it would be an easy win. Then, out of nowhere, as Pat was running a clean and normal lead run, Vaughn spun out! From my vantage-point, it looked like he made contact with the back of Pat’s car when they transferred, but when I saw the replay I could see that there were a few feet between them.
It is very unlike Vaughn Gittin Jr. to spin during competition, but we all make mistakes every now and then.
Conrad Grunewald and Daigo Saito have met in tandem more than any other driver this year, and the battles have always been fierce. Tonight was no exception. Conrad’s chase run started out with a large gap but he was able to close in on Daigo in the infield section.
Daigo gave good chase as usual, but deviated from the racing line almost enough for the judges to give him a zero. In the end the judges did not dispute his line, and gave Daigo the win unanimously.
Tony Angelo has had less than a stellar season in FD this year, so his crashing hard into the inner bank wall was not a huge surprise, but I’m always disappointed to see a tandem battle end in carnage. I guess Tony just couldn’t handle the pressure of running against Justin Pawlak.
Here’s a little secret. Every time I get a tandem bracket in my hands, I fill it out completely with my predictions just for fun. I actually had Fredric Aasbø pegged to win the entire event, but his spin while chasing Robbie Nishida sealed his fate. Robbie won the battle unanimously.
The battle of Matt Powers and Ryan Tuerck started very tight, but Powers gave away the win by spinning on his follow run. At least he avoided becoming another inner bank victim.
Pat was in the right place at the right time with his battle against Vaughn, but Millen was a different story. “Too little too late” said Jarod DeAnda, the voice of Formula DRIFT, as Millen was awarded the win and moved one step closer to taking the 2012 FD championship trophy.
Matt Field was in rare form tonight, drifting better than ever. His runs against Daigo Saito were absolutely balls-to-the-walls, and I personally think he won fair and square after the first battle, but the judges called OMT. I thought to myself, “there’s no way he can recreate those amazing runs… it wouldn’t be humanly possible!” Sure enough, Matt laid down the law on their OMT battle too! When Jarod announced the judges decision to have Daigo move on, I was shocked. I really believe Matt beat Daigo hands down not once, but twice. I caught up with Matt after the runs to get his take on it, and I was impressed with his diplomacy as he said, “I am just happy that I put in the best drive of my entire life tonight.”
With Daigo moving on to face Rhys in the Final Four, Rhys said he felt great. If he was nervous at all he did a damn good job of hiding it.
Daigo didn’t act excited but you can tell he’s got a huge grin inside that helmet.
After being knocked out previously by Pat Mordaunt, Vaughn Gittin Jr. was watching the rest of the battles from the judges stand, but at this point he still had a chance. If Daigo finished third or fourth and Rhys finished second, JR would have his second FD championship in the bag.
Unfortunately for Vaughn, Rhys too became a victim of the vicious inner bank. It seemed that most drivers got too excited on their follow runs, and came into the inner bank too fast in an effort to catch the leader, thus resulting in a crash. I didn’t think Rhys would allow himself to make that mistake, but just like Vaughn, Rhys is a human being who can make mistakes.
This mistake cost Vaughn the championship.
I think Robbie Nishida was happier than Daigo was.
Even though the championship was now his, the night wasn’t over and the Achilles crew rushed to get the SC430 ready for the final battle, against either JTP or Ryan Tuerck.
While his crew worked on the car, Daigo called home to report the news. I imagine the excitement in Japan as his friends and family gathered around the computer to watch him on the Driftstream.
Drift Alliance brothers Tuerck and Pawlak faced off in the last round of the Great Eight and the judges unanimously chose to make them run One More Time. During their OMT round, both drivers did very good runs, but JTP’s was just slightly better so he was awarded the win and moved onto the final battle.
Because of Rhys’s previous crash, Tuerck then took third place with a bye run.
The last battle of the competition packed just as much excitement as the rest of the event beforehand. JTP ran a flawless textbook lead run against Daigo and it looked like Pawlak might be taking the win until…
…you guessed it… a crash into the inner bank on the follow run!!! What a way to end the night, and the season. Absolutely shocking!
This was Daigo’s fourth podium of the year. Remember back in Long Beach how he had trouble opening his champagne? He’s an expert now.
Vaughn Gittin, Jr. was kind enough to give me a few moments of his time after the competition ended to tell me how he was feeling about the championship’s outcome.
LB: How do you feel right now, Vaughn?
JR: Well, we still got second place in the series and I’m very happy about that. After such a roller coaster ride of a season I still have huge thanks to give my sponsors and my team for helping me make a finish like this possible. I’ll be back next year fighting harder than ever.
LB: And how do you feel about a D1GP driver like Daigo Saito coming to Formula DRIFT and winning in his rookie season?
JR: I still think Formula DRIFT is home to the best drifters in the world. We have had plenty of their drivers come to America over the years and never win a season championship, so I don’t think it means D1GP is better than FD, it just means Daigo Saito is a truly amazing and dedicated driver.
…and with that, the season is over! Daigo Saito takes the championship win and the event win. Look for more from Life Blasters soon regarding individual interviews & stories from your favorite drivers, photo sets from your favorite photographers, and we’ll see you on the flip-side!
Photos by Ayala & Bohan. Story by Pitts.