Touching down on Road Atlanta for the second time in its history, the Formula Drift series showed thousands of Southern spectators what drifting should look like. With a very tight, technical course that favored agile cars like the AE86, would history be broken? Would a Japanese car finally win a round of the Formula Drift series?
Southern hospitality was shining bright upon the Formula D guys and gals. FD is no longer a support event for any other racing series. It's a full-fledged event featuring massive trailers rolling into a sizable pit area, a VIP lounge, vendor areas and a car show. With perfect, crisp weather waiting (almost like California-we had to say it), the trailers unloaded all the drivers, drift cars and equipment. It was on.
Practice and qualifying for unseeded drivers took place on Friday and the participants took to the course like their lives were at stake. Included in the best 32 were Ross Petty in the Rotary Power RX-7 (our July 2005 cover car), straight-line enthusiast Stephan Papadakis, Alex Pfeiffer in the AEM/Honda S2000, New Jersey-round third-place finisher Casper Canul, perennial favorite Samuel Hubinette and many from the ever-present Falken Tires drift team.
Saturday broke many-a drifters' hearts. Eliminations whittled down the pack for the tandem battles amongst the best 16. When the smoke cleared, Calvin Wan and the Falken Tires twin-turbo G35 lead 15 other drifters, including Rhys Millen's second-place-qualifying GTO and Hubinette's third-place Mopar Viper. The crowd seemed very excited; the attendees watched in loud, screaming anticipation to see if Wan could maintain his position, and finish as the sole Japanese car ahead of the American superstars. The day seemed to favor him as he eliminated Rob Fleming and the Enjuku Racing S13, which had debuted Kumho's new smoking drift tire.
As always some battles were too close to call. One such pairing was the Ken Gushi/Toyo Tires Mustang and the Seigou Yamamoto/Falken Tires SR20DET RX-7. The showdown started the "one more time" madness with Gushi eventually advancing. Another strangely interesting tandem battle pitted Canul's Monster Fabrication/Nitto Tires S14 against the crowd favorite, the V8-powered El Camino, driven by Mike Peters. The Bubba Drift car eliminated up-and-comer Canul, leaving the crowd asking themselves, "Did I just see an El Camino drifting side by side with a JDM-spec S14?"
With the sun dropping and the darkness spreading over the track, the best eight stood ready to battle for the crown. The talent lineup looked very familiar: Calivn Wan, Daijiro Yoshihara, Samuel Hubinette, Rhys Millen, Mike Peters, Taka Aono, Kenji Yamanaka and Ken Gushi.
At this point the best of the best went head-to-head, and the judges began to have trouble making calls. Millen vs. Bubba Drift: one "one more time"; Millen advances. Aono vs. Hubinette: three "one more times." So many runs were made that Aono's AE86 overheated from the effort and had to retire. Despite drifting perfectly all day, Aono handed the victory to Hubinette by default. The audience booed and looked dissatisfied. Hubinette wasn't off the hook, though: His match-up with Millen's GTO equaled two "one more times" before the Viper eventually went to the final round.
J-spec fans were on their feet for the final battle, featuring heavyweight-hitter Hubinette and the Mopar Viper battling Yoshihara and the brand-new Pacific Rim Nitto Tire S13. Despite hopes that Dai would become the first-ever Japanese car/driver package to win a Formula D event, Hubinette relegated him to second place in a cloud of V10-infused tire smoke. Sandwiched between the Swede and the ultraskilled Rhys Millen in third place, Yoshihara can take great pride in his second-place finish and hope for better in the next round. Houston, Texas awaits.