For the first time since 2014, the race for the Formula DRIFT Pro 2 driver's title was competitive — as in, there wasn't just one pilot to waltz in and dominate the 2017 championship. At the start in late April we watched Kevin Lawrence, driver of the Enjuku Racing S14.3, kickoff his year with a victory on the oval at Orlando Speed World in Florida; that was followed in May by Travis Reeder coming up aces in his S13 at Road Atlanta in Georgia. Then in August it was Matt Vankirk's turn at the top of the podium, his S13 sliding to first place at Evergreen Speedway in Washington.
The standings going into Round 4 of 4 at Texas Motor Speedway reflected the driver jumble, with Reeder in first at 228 points, Vankirk not far back in second with 208, and Lawrence in fifth with 147. In between Vankirk and Lawrence sat Dirk Stratton — who podiumed in Washington — at 154 points, and Aussie Josh Robinson — who earned one third-place and one fourth-place finish this season — at 152. All qualified except Stratton, who was having car issues with his C6 "Driftvette" that prevented him from qualifying, effectively knocking him out of the chase.
At the top of Round 4's qualifying order was Norwegian Ola Jaeger, driver of the Japan Auto Mk4 Supra (aka as "Chucky," 2015 Formula D Pro champ Fredric Aasbo's old ride); Jaeger had a pretty rough rookie year in Pro 2, truthfully not amounting to much in the previous rounds — but in Texas he came out guns blazing, registering a high score of 87 to lead the pack. He continued to show his driving prowess to start off tandem eliminations, taking out Donovan Brockway in the Red Baron Racing E30, who looked like he might've gone four wheels off rounding inner clipping point 2 in the pursuit.
Austin Meeks in the Committed Service Brand S14 and Reeder drove to a One More Time (OMT) tiebreaker, the first of four in Top 16; in the bonus, Meeks had a stronger chase and ended up knocking out Reeder, thus opening the door for Vankirk to swoop in and clinch the title. Improbably, Vankirk also went to OMT, against Szilveszter Gyorgy in the Szilveszter Drift S13; when it came time to line up for the extra laps, though, power steering fluid was apparently bleeding out of Vankirk's car, and stewards effectively disqualified him for having an unsafe vehicle (if you're wondering why Vankirk didn't use his 5-minute timeout to see if he could fix the issue, he supposedly had already used it). Gyorgy advanced, but more critical to the championship it looked for a moment like Reeder might have dodged a bullet.
In actuality, both Lawrence and Robinson were still alive, but that only lasted until the young Australian met Andy Hateley and his bright orange E30 in Top 16. Robinson's Magnuson Commodore Ute in the chase position had trouble getting to angle, and that was all it took to end his bid. Meanwhile, Lawrence was better both in the lead and chasing George Kiriakopoulos' Modified Performance 370Z, so he found himself moving on to the Great 8.
Jaeger continued to advance in the quarterfinals, as Meeks in the lead of their tandem went completely off course, missing the final turn; because he qualified number one, Ola's success in this battle secured him his first Formula D podium, regardless of what happened in the Final 4. Alec Robbins in the Koru Works 350Z and Randall Waters in the IAS Performance S14 took their match to a One More Time, where Robbins had the better of the two chase laps.
The other half of the bracket had Lawrence and Gyorgy meeting, and after a spinout in hot pursuit Gyorgy was eliminated from competition. The last tussle of the Great 8 saw Riley Sexsmith in the NV Auto BRZ matched up with Hateley, with Sexsmith coming out on top after Hateley may have suffered a mechanical issue and could not get his BMW sideways.
Jaeger got the Final 4 rolling by dispatching Robbins, who seemingly couldn't get his car to angle. In the other battle, Sexsmith was all over the place against Lawrence, and although he lost he still came away with a podium finish — third — for qualifying higher then Hateley.
At this point it's worth noting the first, second, and third qualifiers in Texas all wound up on the podium, which is kind of remarkable (and a huge validation of the judges' decisions). To settle the top two spots, Jaeger led first and Lawrence was pinned to his side in one of the best chases of the night — or at least it was until Lawrence botched the second turn and drove inside clip 2. The gaffe netted him an incomplete, but if you think that's all she wrote, you would be so wrong.
In an event of unlikelihoods, another reared its ugly/beautiful head when, in the second half of the tandem, Jaeger had his own huge mistake, at one point in opposite drift and himself picking up his own incomplete. Judges wanted more, so in the first OMT orbit Jaeger and Lawrence put on a solid show with almost nothing to nitpick. Then it was Lawrence's turn in front, and while he put on a clinic, Jaeger did all he could to keep the proximity reasonable, to no avail.
Lawrence earned a second win of the year, Jaeger an impressive second place, and Sexsmith rounded out the podium in third. But the bigger picture was even more mind blowing — from all the way back in fifth place before the event started, Kevin Lawrence pulled off the inconceivable by willing himself to victory. The final margin in the 2017-point standings was two points, which if memory serves is likely the closest margin of victory a title chase has ever ended with in FD history.
Congrats goes out to Kevin Lawrence on the 2017 Formula DRIFT Pro 2 championship, and to Lawrence and the following seven drivers in the points table, who all earn FD Pro licenses — Travis Reeder, Matt Vankirk, Josh Robinson, Randall Waters, Dirk Stratton, Ola Jaeger, and Szilveszter Gyorgy. Bring on 2018!