One of the best aspects of watching pro-am drifting over professional leagues is the degree of driver improvement you get to witness in such a short time. Sure, professionals do improve their game, but to compete at the professional level you've got to be pretty well dialed-in already. Seeing pro-am drifters enter the fray as novices and finish as seasoned vets - sometimes in only a couple seasons really - is something you won't find anywhere else.
With this come events that usually unfold either of two ways: the more experienced drivers conquer their rivals with skill and experience; or the upstarts get in their way and foil their plans. It's almost like poker, where a complete newcomer to the game can bet on a 3-7 offsuit and catch cards or sketch out the table into folding much better hands.
But sometimes there's a third option: some of those newcomers get really good when nobody's looking, and catch everyone off guard with serious skill. We saw a little of all that at Top Drift Round 2 competition this year at Willow Springs' Horse Thief Mile (HTM) course.
First, it's important to note that as busy and competitive as Top Drift's 2017 season opener was at Willow Springs' Balcony course - with over 40 cars vying for Top 16 competition - the turnout for Round 2 was a lot less. This is to be expected, since those who are local or killed it in Round 1 were more likely to come back than others who traveled from different regions and maybe didn't fare as well.
Still, most of the names we'd come to recognize as among the area's best were present this time around, as well as some talented newcomers we'd hoped to see again.
A day and a half of practice is par for the course on Top Drift weekends, and if there's a round where drifters would do well to make full use of the seat time, it's here. HTM is notoriously tough, with elevation changes and tight turns followed by long straights that take some serious getting used to.
Accordingly, practice was filled with off-track jaunts. Maybe more than we've seen in past years, which might be due to infrequent track cleaning, combined with a Turn 2 clipping point marker that seemed like it was a little farther from the track than maybe it should've been.
Whatever the case, neither vets nor newcomers were immune to the occasional drift in the dirt.
Drivers' inconsistencies seemed to carry over into qualifying, where several talented wheelmen failed to move on, and the resulting Top 16 competition grid paired more than a few advanced and less experienced Top Drift drivers with each other rather than against each other, which is generally the case.
Also making the Top 16 grade were some drivers who had seldom (or ever before) qualified for competition in the past - a clear indicator of skill levels rising, and especially impressive given the dusty HTM track.
If that's not enough, many competitors we expected to see advance at least into the Top 8 knocked themselves out early by going off track or suffering mechanical gremlins during the worst possible times.
And then straight-up weird stuff happened. Sean Adriano won Round 2 last year and managed a win or spot on the podium every subsequent race since then, winning Round 1 this year and qualifying high in this event. He moved onto Top 8 competition when his Top 16 rival took himself out on a bad initiation, after laying down strong runs all day.
His first Top 8 run - a lead run against Alex Grimm, also one of the best drivers in the series - was one for the history books, with both drivers driving near flawlessly and Grimm raising a fist in the air and exclaiming, "F- yeah!" on his way back to the starting line with Adriano. But in the next run, when Adriano nailed a GoPro and vector mount that had fallen onto the track earlier, and Grimm continued to lay down another banger, the weekend was unfortunately over for one of the odds-on favorites to take home a trophy.
Likewise, Toyota Tacoma pilot Brian Nimmo survived battles against vets Micah Diaz, Pablo Cabrera, and Tim Cobb to once again put his pickup truck in the Top 4 against several thoroughbred V8/S-chassis drift machines.
But the biggest upset of the day was the one staged by Tim Cobb.
Tim finished 2016 Top Drift competition ranked 23rd for points. He did not have a great Round 1 (finishing tenth), yet here at Round 2 he qualified a high sixth and won tandem battles against four talented drivers, plus came through for the overall event win, inserting himself in championship running and throwing a big wrench in the plans of his rivals.
Though the competition gets heated, losses are suffered, and competitors do their best to take their disappointments in stride and successes with humility, at the end of it all it's the camaraderie and progress these guys and girls show that make top pro-am competition some of the best drifting to witness.
Top Drift's Rounds 3 and 4 are scheduled for July and August at Willow Springs, so if you can make it, make it. You'll see us there. Until then, peep the gallery for more from Round 2!