Less than a month after Formula DRIFT paid a visit to the oval at Orlando Speedworld, the newest FD pro-am series in America—the Southeast Drift Union (SDU)—kicked off its inaugural competition at the very same track. Established in 2017 by The Drift Group (the new collective name for both Southeast and Midwest Drift Unions), the staff sought to take its seven years of experience building drivers in the Midwest to the Southeast region, scouting a new pool of talent seeking to earn their FD licenses.
Twenty-five drivers registered for the first round of the new series, which will also visit Myrtle Beach Speedway (June 15), South Georgia Motorsports Park (August 19) and will conclude, alongside MDU and U.S. Drift during a two-day season finale at Kil-Kare Speedway in Ohio (September 15-16).
Despite a threat of storms earlier in the week, the weather, though definitely on the warm side, couldn't have been better.
Brandon McDowell took top qualifying honors in his silver '94 S13 convertible powered by an iron-block GM 5.3L V8. Beyond being a driver himself since 2007, McDowell served as Pat Goodin's crew chief from 2009 to 2011 and has worked for Dean Kearny's crew since 2015. The number two spot went to the all-black G35 of Chris Maffei, with Michael Castillo, Dustin Miles, and Keegan Ellrod rounding out the top five spots, respectively.
McDowell's top spot would land him against Alex Schlagel in Top 16 in a battle of convertibles, with the top qualifier advancing on and ultimately being defeated by Joseph Love's S14 in the Great 8.
Chris Maffei would turn his second-place qualifying run into a third-place podium finish, knocking out Joey Whitaker in Top 16 followed by Kevin Phillips, who suffered power steering issues, in the top eight. Maffei would be defeated in the Final 4 by Nick Johnson, who had muscled his way past Michael Castillo and Warren Allen to that point. What would have been a battle for third between his G35 and the S13 of Dustin Miles became a bye-run when Miles bowed out due to mechanical issues, all but gifting Maffei the bronze.
This brought final battle down to Johnson and Love, with the registered, tagged, and insured LS1-motivated S13 of Johnson taking home the first win of the new series.
"I usually come here every event, so once a month or so I'll come out and at least get a lap or two in," Johnson said. "I haven't seen half the field out there. There were a lot of new faces and it definitely wasn't the same old, so it was challenging."
Love, who was borrowing a car from the Jonathan Nerren Racing program, said the event was his first time not only driving Orlando Speedworld, but a pro-am competition in general. With his own S13 still in the works, he hinted he might be borrowing the car again for round two.
"I may rent this car from Nerren again," said Love. "To make this big of an impression at this event, now there's no reason to give up. I was just grateful to get here, and after qualifying and having issues, I was almost ready to give up. But my crew came through, got my car back together and got me back out there and I tried to do all I could do."
Maffei's high qualifying score places him first in points going forward, with a two point lead over Johnson. Love and McDowell are tied for third place, with Dustin Miles only a point back in fifth, making it still anyone's season at this point.
"Today was a great day," said Nick Swann, SDU judge and director of operations. "It was definitely monumental in that it was the kickoff to our inaugural Southeast Drift Union pro-am series. We learned a lot about a new community and a new group of drivers with different goals, and in a nutshell a different way of doing things. There's nowhere to go but up from here. The competition went well. The drivers, teams, and crowd were all very engaged and into what we were doing here. It's awesome to have their support and the support of all of our partners. We look forward to the rest of the season."