The morning of October 14th began with uncertainty as the previous day had been tainted with a series of rain showers and gloomy overcast weather. If there ever was doubt that drift fans would shy away from attending the final drift saga of 2006, it was quickly put to rest as crowds pushed their way into Irwindale Speedway. The event marked a new Irwindale attendance record that had previously been set by the first D1 exhibition.
Two thousand burned and charred tires, forty drift cars damaged beyond repair, eight hungry tire manufacturers and a fierce battle for the top spot in the Formula D championship all came to a bloody conclusion in the seventh and final round. Qualifying began at 2 p.m. with 32 drivers (16 seated drivers and 16 non-seated hopefuls attempting to impress the judges), quickly diminishing in size as the three judges continually hacked away, bringing the number of competitors to an even 16. Leading the top qualifiers was Tanner Foust ,who scored an amazing 99 out of 100 points possible followed by Sam Hubinette (97.5), Ken Gushi (95.5) and Rhys Millen 95.08.
Foust took the easy win over Ben Schwartz in the first round of the top 16 as Tyler McQuarrie in the RS*R S2000 faced off against Yukinobu Okubo in the Signal Auto R34 Skyline. The first of two battles proved to be too close for the judges to call as Okubo proceeded to put on a show, smacking the vehicle's tail end on the retaining wall with every pass. McQuarrie wasn't a slouch either as he proved to be the better of the two, coming within inches of the R34's door panel and continually poking the front end of his S2K on the inside line. It was this aggressive and systematic driving style that enabled McQuarrie to advance to the next round.
Rhys Millen, known to always be Mr. Consistent throughout his drifting career, made his win over Hiro Sumida in the Toyota Chaser look effortless. Easy wins seemed to come in bunches as Kenji Yamanaka in the JIC sponsored S15 easily cleared the hurdle when challenged by Chris Forsberg and his convertible 350Z. Forsberg's season came to an abrupt end when the passenger side axle came loose, sending the Z careening into the K-rail.
The much anticipated battle between Tanner Foust and Tyler McQuarrie launched the start of the top 8 qualifying session. Both drivers blew plumes of thick tire smoke into the air as they cleared the bowl, entering the first clipping point. With McQuarrie was in the lead, a miscalculation caused him to lock up his brakes as he attempted to avoid the k-rail. Foust, who followed nearly inches from the S2K's bumper ,had nowhere to go as the trapped AEM 350Z collided with the barrier alongside the RS*R drift machine. With both vehicles limping back to the pit, it was Foust who was declared the winner in the end.
Foust disappointingly looked on as Danny Oda and the AEM crew attempted to make repairs to the damaged 350Z. If the car was repaired, it would move on to the next round, which would put Foust against Rhys Millen. Althought there was limited time to perform repairs between rounds, the Z was soon up and running and quickly staged against Millen. The two drivers mashed on the accelerator entering the bowl, but it was apparent that the damage suffered from the previous round was too severe for Foust to continue. A damaged power steering system made driving impossible for the man who currently stood 5th place in the standings. Millen was automatically given a bye run and advanced to the finals.
Kenji Yamanaka in the JIC S15 had the crowds in a frenzy as he swung his Nissan inches from the retaining wall though the bowl. Things looked good for this Japanese driver and a possible upset was imminent, but a mistaken steering correction on his second run gave the advantage and eventual win to Sam Hubinette and the Mopar SRT-10 . With the win over Yamanaka, Hubinette clinched the second 2006 Formula D championship of his career and regained the title from last year's champion, Rhys Millen.
With a costly 9th place finish during round 6 at New Jersey's Air Force Wall Speedway, Millen, who trailed in the championship points by a mere 33 points, could only look on in disappointment and admiration as Hubinette climbed aboard the roof of his Dodge. True to his sportsmanlike attitude, Millen quickly congratulated Hubinette shortly before they both strapped in again - this battle had yet to be decided.
Daijiro Yoshihara was looking particularly strong all night long as he quickly burrowed though the long line of competitors. One unlucky soul was Ken Gushi in his Ford Mustang. Some nervous moments took place during the tsuiso (twin) drift battles between these two warriors as Gushi smacked the wall in the first round while Yoshihara experienced some shifting problems with his ride. The judges awarded Yoshihara the victor during the second run and the battle for 3rd place in the semi finals was a classic dual of import vs. domestic - Nissan versus Dodge. As both cars lunged forward with a drop of the flag, it was Yoshihara with a clear round one advantage, displaying some amazing vehicle angle and speed. Round two was a closer battle between the two, but it wasn't enough for Hubinette to advance to the next round and he was locked in for a 3rd place finish.
In an all too familiar scenario, Millen and Yoshihara came face to face once again. Both men split wins between the previous meetings and there seemed to be no clear advantage towards either driver. Both were on top of their game and neither seemed to be willing to back down for any reason. With Millen taking the lead in round one, both drift machines smoked the tires and exhibited a near flawless run with Yoshihara gaining a slight points advantage. The second round was the defining moment as Millen couldn't keep up with the Rockstar Energy Drink/ Nitto Tire/ Pacific Rim Racing S13, giving the win to Yoshihara. This was Daijiro's first, and surely not last, first place podium finish of this career.
While the crowd continually cheered for the winners and all other the competitors in this year's Formula D series, it was truly a defining moment for drifting as a sport and its competitive nature. People say drifting is a fad, some even says it's a dying sport. Well, go tell that to the thousands who were in attendance or, better yet, go ask the hundreds of would-be fans who were turned away at the gates. For next year's schedule of events, be sure to check out Formula D's website at www.FormulaD.com for more information.