A week after The Drift Group kicked off its new Southeast Drift Union Formula Drift pro-am series, the organization returned to the Midwest to host its first round of the Midwest Drift Union championship series at Gateway Motorsports Park just outside St. Louis. Now in its eighth year, the series continues full steam ahead to build and produce Midwestern talent to compete at the Formula Drift Pro 2 level and beyond.
In his first MDU appearance in almost two years, Garrett Denton secured the top qualifying spot in his 2JZ-powered S13 coupe. Due to either botched runs or mechanical problems with other drivers, Denton, alongside Jonathan Hurst and his orange 350Z and last year's third-place finisher at Gateway, Geoff Donati, all earned bye runs in an effort to try and maintain a top-16 competition bracket. And as fate would have it, these very drivers found themselves on the podium at the end of the day.
Hurst was running what was likely the most powerful car in the field, and his 350Z doubles as a drag racer with the simple swapping to drag radials and the literal flip of a switch.
"I have a low tune I run for drifting (764HP to the wheels) and when I'm using it for drag, I run the high tune," he said, adding the high tune puts down 1,100 to the rear tires. "I haven't tried drifting the high tune yet, but I have a switch in there I can flip to add it immediately if I feel I need more horsepower."
After Hurst's bye run, he drew last year's round two winner, Noah Michaels, in the great eight and got the nod. Denton saw his first battle with Brett McNamara's G35 on his way up the ladder, while Donati would defeat the F-Body Camaro of Dustin Reeh to secure their respective spots in the final four.
In a battle of bright colors, Hurst gave a close follow run to Donati during their final four match, but a dropped tire on Hurst's lead run would lead to an unexpected meeting with the tire wall.
"I was pushing it really hard and had a lot of grip in the car, and the driver rear tire dropped off a bit and sucked me right off the track and into the grass," Hurst said. "There's no slowing you down. I didn't want to hit with the front of my car so I ripped the hand brake and turned it backward. I think that's the only thing that saved me."
This gave Donati the go-ahead into the finals, where he would meet either Denton or the GTO of Shane Whalley. Unfortunately for Whalley, his day would end in an almost identical incident to Hurst's just moments before. Thankfully he was unharmed, but his GTO suffered more than enough damage to render it un-drivable. With no battle possible between Hurst and Whalley for third, Hurst was defaulted to bronze and Whalley finished fourth.
"I think I just went in a little too hard, dropped two tires off and as soon as you're in that wet grass, it sucks you in," Whalley said, echoing Hurst's sentiments. "Knowing I was going into the wall, I had two options - either try and come out of it and I probably would have gone the same speed into my door, or instead I just end steered and tried to put the front end into the wall to take all the impact. If I wouldn't have done that I probably wouldn't have been walking away from it as easy as I did. I will never complain about using a HANS device again."
With the wreckage cleared, it was time for Denton and Donati, the top two qualifiers, to determine a winner.
Though Denton maintained close proximity on his follow run, he too experienced an off-track excursion during his lead run. Though he only went off course a bit, Donati's consistency paid off and he took home the first victory of the 2017 season.
"It feels amazing," Donati - who finished third at Gateway last year during round one - said of his win. "The biggest difference between last year is that my car didn't work all day. I broke parts, didn't have spare parts, but found parts. I have spare parts at home, but they missed the boat out here to St. Louis. My amazing girlfriend actually ran 30 minutes away to get me some axles and a couple other amazing people dropped off some spares, so when we got going, we got less than 10 practice laps in total but it worked out."
Donati said despite the drastic color change from silver to blue this year, the car otherwise remains relatively the same, with its 6.0L LS engine, Wisefab bits and a dogbox.
"The core of the car is the same," he said. "It's simple and reliable, and that's all I want."
Denton said he had come into the first round with hopes of just qualifying, but his second-place finish made things even better.
"We came in with only a couple days of testing," he said. "The car, the crew - everything exceeded my expectations. I have no words for this. Going into this season, we definitely had plans on just qualifying. I think after this we might step things up a little bit."
Nick Swann, director of operations for MDU, said he felt the season kickoff was a success.
"It was really good to see a lot of new faces, and possibly more new faces than I've seen at round one in a long time," he said. "And not just new faces in attendance, but all the way up into qualifying, competition, and finals. To top it all off we finished with a final battle between our top two qualifiers. Though qualifying had some speed bumps, and we resorted to three bye-runs, which is not very characteristic of MDU, we whittled down to an incredible eight, four, and finals."
Round two of the Midwest Drift Union series will be at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Mich. on July 1.