As if it wasn’t tough enough for drivers and teams that the final round at Irwindale has always been a no holds barred pressure cooker (unforgiving concrete barriers and massive championship implications) this year’s points chase for the top spot came down to the last lap of a two one-more-time battle between “The Norwegian Hammer” Fredric Aasbo and “The Professional Fun Haver” Vaughn Gittin Jr.
The rain which had made the Pro 2 finale so intense (congrats to Travis Reeder on that Pro 2 championship!) flirted with Pro 1 the morning of the main event but it remained dry other than a bit of seep from the cracks on the bank. Our house photographer and NASCAR aficionado Paul Lopez totally educated me on the fact that after a shower water hides in certain spots of an oval and rises at inopportune times.
In drifting, as in boxing, it’s contrasting styles that make for interesting battles, Aasbo and Gittin Jr. are the quintessential examples of that. Gittin Jr. exhibits an aggressive checkers-or-reckers style and Aasbo holds his cards close to his chest with a calculated approach. If Irwindale Speedway were a steak one would cut through it with a surgical knife and the other one with a chainsaw. Once again the inner bank played a key role in determining the outcome of the race and the championship.
Announcer Jarod Deanda could not have captured the title chase more minutely correct than when he described how it, “came down to the final battle….[where] every point counts, every team, every tightening of every bolt, every fuel tank, every tire, it counts.” And undoubtedly they all did but if he was referring to the massive cliffhanger of the final battles need we remember when Justin Pawlak had his heart and championship ripped away from him by one inner bank as he lost the title to Dai Yoshihara by a mere 5.75 points? Yes Deanda was perhaps riding a wave of emotions when he proclaimed that this round was, “probably the best Formula Drift event ever.”
A few championships have come down to the wire and James Deane had all but put the last nail in the Aasbo coffin but after his untypical early exit it was Aasbo’s event and championship to win with not just title but legacy on the line. We also have to credit Forrest Wang for Deane’s defeat. Wang gave all of us underpowered drivers the blueprint for success during his smooth yet aggressive chase as he initiated a little later than Deane and used shallow angle and line adjustments to draw closer to the 2017 champion. However, it was Deane (or perhaps his spotter after watching Wang’s low chase line) who made an uncharacteristic mistake behind Wang by not initiating door to door with the green S15.
And the upsets were plenty as Justin Pawlak succumbed to Johnnattan Castro after throwing a nasty backie into the inner wall which looked spectacular but forced him to sacrifice the wall line and cut shallow to keep up. I had witnessed Pawlak do this same exact transition off the start finish into a reverse backie when I had the privilege of following him into the inner bank at The Drift League. But that was in practice and I felt like it was more experimental than anything.
Chris Forsberg’s heart and talent are undoubted but the VQ engine which has been a constant Achilles heel ended his weekend against Matt Coffman. Forsberg had commented recently on Maximum Driftcast that his team has been struggling with cylinder pressures.
Back when Odi Bakchis was a rookie he came to the realization that qualifying in the higher parts of the bracket means earning a greater chance of entering top 16 as you avoid the usual high qualifying heavy hitters. Nothing could be more true in today’s era of bye runs. And that’s exactly how the rookie of the year was decided this year. By earning himself a 90 in qualifying Dirk Stratton secured a battle and a win against Jeff Jones, who is by no means a slouch, but does not possess the intimidating presence or winning percentage of one Gittin Jr. who sealed Matt Van Kirk’s ROY fate earlier.
Continuing down the upset road Bakchis and his S14 earned themselves a key victory against Piotr Wiecek and his S15 leaving us to wonder if in the greater picture Bakchis has unlocked the door to defeating those Worthouse S15s. Keep in mind that Bakchis and his team, including spotter/wife/baby mama Amy Bakchis, are methodical and they analyze runs with great scrutiny. Bakchis himself had admitted on Maximum Driftcast that he had fallen victim to “driving too conservatively” earlier in the season so it was rewarding from a spectator standpoint to watch him risk to win against Wiecek.
The winner for polemic battle of the evening goes to Michael Essa vs. Faruk Kugay as the judges found Kugay at fault for Essa’s collision despite announcer and FD co-founder Ryan Sage stating that Essa’s crash seemed to be a separate incident from Kugay’s hard wall tap. In Kugay’s defense he had been lifting on the same spot all weekend long but the wall tap could have resulted in an already slow lap (by FD standards) becoming slower and thus being deemed “unchaseable” by the judges.
In Bakchis’ chase of Gittin Jr. I saw something that I’ve only had the privilege of witnessing another time in FD, after the spin by Odi which was caused by debris he had the presence of mind to stand on the accelerator and keep his S14 from being destroyed by the k-rails. The only other FD driver I’ve ever witnessed do that is obscure driver Kelvin Arreola in his V8 FC3S who was known for his beyond 100% runs which on good days cost him body panels and on bad days entire chassis.
Perhaps the blueprint for chasing a much slower driver was set by Aasbo when he adapted incredibly well to Wang as he dissected the left-hand drive S15 about as well as a kid in his fourth Biology 101 class (for the record I’ve failed Biology 3 times and taken it five times!).
Gittin Jr. had to get through his teammate Chelsea DeNofa and it was an instant classic as DeNofa risked it all and made a costly mistake in the chase lap by making contact. DeNofa admitted that, “Running Vaughn was amazing. We set the cars up identically the same so we could battle it out all off of skill. It was just absolutely wild. I knew I made a small mistake and I was like I’m about to just blow the hinges off on this second run,” and he did just that with the all or nothing lead lap of the night.
Aasbo gave us one of the greatest drives ever seen in Formula Drift history as he charged into the finals driving with a purpose. But Gittin Jr. held his card as the stats revealed that the Mustang had won 8 of their 12 battles and make that 9 for 13 after Gittin Jr. pushed Aasbo into an uncharacteristic error at the inner bank where a wall tap and a straighten left the “Norwegian Hammer” in second place for the night and for the championship. A disappointing for anyone at the top of their prime like Aasbo; but one which he handled like a consummate professional explaining that, “it’s been an incredible night and we fought really hard all year….I’ve gone through the entire spectrum of being a Formula Drift driver: from a nobody, to a rookie, to a contender, to a champion, to now a veteran of the sport.”
After the win Gittin Jr. reminisced on the low times which he endured to get to this point, “I’m extremely grateful for my team, we’ve made a lot of changes, we’ve continued to fight, and this right here….represents that will to always fight no matter what; no matter what you want in life go after it,” he also wasted no time in congratulating and challenging Deane in true Vaughn fashion, “huge congrats to James Deane and his entire team….I’m looking forward to battling you next year though my friend.”
Deane graciously accepted the championship trophy with an Irish flag draped on his back although you could sense that in his fighting spirit it was not how he intended to attain it, “This has been the most ridiculous night of my life. It was so intense,” he admitted in a stunned and emotional state, “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 [even] 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. All the FD drivers have really upped their level and I can’t even imagine what next season will be like.”
Thanks for reading guys, shout out to the photo team at everythingdrift.com for the epic shots, for more of my antics head over to my ig account @canoasada, Carlos out!