Against some heavy odds, the Formula Drift 2020 championship finally crossed the finish line at Irwindale Speedway with a mid-November conclusion that any other year would have been a full month after the series' traditional end. But with a pandemic raging across the globe and mass gatherings deemed essentially unsafe, FD had to come up with a Plan B to save its season, potentially without fans and when it became allowable. The Formula D team fashioned a four-event schedule full of tripleheaders - each stop hosting one Pro 2 round and double Pro rounds - across the western half of the U.S. that began in September, and in a little under three-month's time they had a full season for each of their championships in the books, showing just how nimble and adaptable the pro drift organization had to be this year.
Like the event in Washington, we had no spectators for the House of Drift, which gave the weekend an almost pro-am drift day sort of energy, but unlike the previous 2020 events, Formula D decided to run its Pro 2 feeder series on Saturday, which gave the Pro teams a break in between Round 7 on Friday and the season finale on Sunday.
Pro Round 7
Vaughn Gittin, Jr., 2010 series champion and pilot of the Monster Energy Drink Ford Mustang, sat atop the Pro driver leaderboard at 428 points heading into Irwindale, followed by Ryan Tuerck in the Gumout Toyota Corolla hatchback at 420 and three-time champ Chris Forsberg in the NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z at 364. Two hundred points were in play for the Pros at Irwindale, 100 per round, so the season was still far from over.
Formula Drift 2020
The course was stretched out this year to include a right hander with an outer zone that bent around the infield light pole, mimicking early House of Drift layouts from pre-2010 and adding a third long rear zone to go along with the ones on the big bank and infield bank. A number of top drivers came into Round 7's Top 32 on less-than-ideal footing, including Forsberg, who was in his extremely underpowered backup NOS Energy Drink 370Z, and Adam LZ, who ended up having to rent driver Odi Bakchis's backup S14. In LZ's case, the cylinder head cracked on the 2JZ in his Enjuku Racing Silvia and he was forced to find another car when repairs wouldn't be completed in time; the Enjuku S15 ultimately returned for Round 8. Ken Gushi was out of Round 7 altogether after he lost the B58 in his Rowdy Energy Toyota GR Supra. With two rounds each weekend for the pros this year, we wonder how much attrition was starting to become a factor at this late stage in the season.
In typical Irwindale fashion, the competition was rife with surprise; it started early, when Jhonnattan Castro in the turbo inline-4 Gerdau Metaldom 86 defeated Justin Pawlak in the Roush Performance Falken Tire Ford Mustang for the upset. A few pairs later, another Falken driver fell to a Toyota, this time Rad Dan Burkett in the RAD Industries Gear Wrench Supra Mk4 taking the improbable victory from Bakchis in his V-8 Silvia after Odi had a mis shift problem at initiation. Driver of the Comp Cams Cadillac ATS-V, Taylor Hull, also got in on the upset action, taking one from 2011 champ Dai Yoshihara in the Turn 14 Subaru BRZ during Top 16.
Top 16 reminded us how dangerous the walls are at Irwindale Speedway, especially on the big bank; tire marbles collect and make the areas in front of the barriers slippery and treacherous. Tuerck and his Corolla were reminded, too, misjudging the bank, giving the wall some love, and crashing out against Travis Reeder's V-8 S13. Later in Great 8, Kazuya Taguchi in the UP Garage Silvia also wound up in the wall against Mike Essa's FCP Euro BMW E46, ending Taguchi's night.
Round 7's semifinals first pitted Essa's E46 against Chelsea DeNofa's BC Racing RTR Mustang, which Essa won after DeNofa made a mistake and went wide heading into Zone 3. On the other side of the bracket, Gittin looped his Mustang in the transition from Inner Clipping Point 2 to Zone 3 while chasing 2015 champ Fredric Aasbo's Papadakis Racing Rockstar Energy Drink GR Supra, sending Gittin to the consolation round and Aasbo to the final.
The wall at the top of the big bank struck again in the third-place battle, this time claiming Gittin, and his opponent and RTR teammate, DeNofa, ended up with the bronze finish. That left Aasbo and Essa to fight it out, but it wasn't much of one as Essa's car was hurt (head gasket) and down on power, which gave Fredric the huge chase advantage, which he then leveraged to take the top podium spot, but Essa also scored his second podium of the season.
Vaughn Gittin still led the points at the conclusion to Round 7 with 492 and Ryan Tuerck was still in second with 452, but behind Tuerck, Fredric Aasbo (432) and Chelsea Denofa (412) had leapfrogged over Chris Forsberg (396). The final round offered another 100 points, and these five were the only ones with a mathematical chance at the title - but first we had a Pro 2 season to wrap up.
Pro 2 Season Finale
Jonathan Hurst, driver of the Cash Racing Infiniti G37, led the points chase heading into the 2020 closer, but with 100 points still on the table everyone down to sixth place (which was Chase Schmidt) had a shot at the title. Pro 2 had just 21 cars for Round 4's Top 32 practice, and by the time the session was over it was less than that due to wrecks and breakages. T32 eliminations ended up having only a handful of tandems and was over in well under an hour.
The 2020 Formula D Pro 2 Championship was decided early Saturday night. Battling engine issues for all of Round 4, Hurst got knocked out in Top 32, falling to Nick Noback and the Koru Works E46. This opened the door wide open for Dmitriy Brutskiy in the ISC Suspension E46; sitting second in points, he miraculously received through random selection a T32 AND a T16 bye when there wasn't enough competitors to fill the bracket. He then ended up losing to Steve Misko and the TireStacks.com S14 in Great 8, but because fellow title contender Blake Olsen in the Koru Works E92 also lost in his G8 fight with Noback, the championship fell right into Brutskiy's lap.
The night ended with Ricky Hofmann beating Misko for third place in a One-More-Time battle of TireStacks.com S14, and Noback botching the big bank chasing down Mike Power in the Power Racing S15, which allowed Mike to claim the event win and become the fourth different victor this season. Pro 2's class of 2020 - aka those top eight in points who qualify for a 2021 FD Pro license - include Brutskiy, Hurst, Josh Love, Olsen, Austin Matta, Power, Noback, and Schmidt. Congrats, boys!
Pro Season Finale
Title contender Chris Forsberg came better prepared to Round 8, not with his NOS Z34 but instead the rented Drift Cave S14 that Pat Goodin drove last in 2019, a car that rocks a supercharged V-8 with a bit more grunt than Chris's demo Z. FD's last round of the year also began with news that Fredric Aasbo popped the engine in his Rockstar Mk5 Supra celebrating after his win two nights earlier, and Papadakis Racing was furiously trying to bring the car back to life. Aasbo's engine-swapped A90 finally showed up very late to Top 32 practice but never took a lap - it only made it as far as the burnout box before it turned around and went back to its pit area.
Turns out the practice may have been more important than anyone could have imagined, as Aasbo lost in T32 to Ryan Litteral and the Powerstop Brakes 350Z, an incredible upset and early exit that sent shockwaves through the title chase. As the night progressed, more cards fell in points leader Vaughn Gittin's favor, until T16 when Tuerck, coming too hot through the decel area between Rear Zone 2 and Clip 2, slid into the side of Joanthan Nerren's S14. Judges pinned Tuerck with the error, ultimately gave Nerren the win, and since Tuerck was eliminated, Gittin was free and clear of any other title threats. Separated by ten years, Vaughn Gittin, Jr. had secured the second driver's championship of his Formula Drift career.
Gittin would only last until G8, when he tagged the Outer Zone 1 wall chasing Odi Bakchis and had to shut down his lap. Bakchis went on to face another Mustang in the Final 4, Justin Pawlak's, with an almost identical outcome (Mustang hip checking the Zone 1 wall too hard, causing correction) that sent Odi to the final. DeNofa and Jeff Jones in the DocX V-8 370Z, making only his second ever F4 appearance, were on the left side of the bracket, with Chelsea sending Jeff to the 3rd-place battle, where he lost to Pawlak. The final pair of the 2020 Formula Drift season were Bakchis and DeNofa, with Odi emerging victorious and both drivers picking up yet another podium finish.
Gittin secured his title with four podium finishes in 2020, including two that were outright wins. He now joins a club of Formula D multiyear champs that includes Sam Hubinette ('04, '06), Tanner Foust ('07, '08), Chris Forsberg ('09, '14, '16), and James Deane ('17-'19). RTR teammates Gittin and DeNofa also locked out the top two positions in the driver points and helped Ford clinch FD's Manufacturer's title.
With a new car for Aasbo and a new driver for Aasbo's old car, Papadakis Racing still had an impressive season, taking third and fourth in the championship. Aasbo's fourth-place finish was his worst of the last seven years, but he put the brand-new GR Supra on the top step of the podium twice this season.
Honorable mentions go out to Taylor Hull and Jeff Jones for really stepping up this year. Both had their hard work pay off with finishes in the top 10 in points. Finally, YouTube sensation Adam LZ has lived up to the hype in his first year of Formula D Pro, finishing 12th in points and earning Rookie of the Year, but we figured he would; his performance this year in many ways mirrored his performance in Pro 2, and we are expecting really big things from this kid.