Formula DRIFT Pro 2 feeder series Top Drift kicked off its 2018 season on a recent late-winter weekend at Willow Springs' Balcony circuit, and while cold and rainy conditions persisted throughout the two-day event, one thing became abundantly clear at the end of it all: SoCal pro-am drifting competition is hotter than ever.
First observations: the bar for assembling a successful pro-am campaign is continuing to rise. A look through the paddock showed a mix of strategies in play: returning Top Drift regulars in their repaired/re-tuned competition vehicles from past seasons, drift vets in all-new vehicles, and a few new challengers altogether.
One of last year's most promising newcomers was 15-year-old Dominic Martinez, who qualified first and nearly won last year's event from behind the wheel of his V8-powered S14 Nissan 240SX. This year he's back, a year older/wiser/better (we were learning to park our mom's Corolla at 16), and out of the gates in practice sessions looked like the one to beat in Top Drift competition this year.
But not far behind Dom were Rome "FD Rome" Charpentier in his E36 BMW M3, Noah Nelson in his FD Mazda RX-7 former Faken Tire Formula D car, Shaun Doom and Pablo Cabrera in their venerable S13 240SXs, Aaron Parker in "The Wolf" (now with more rotary power and a dog-engagement gearbox!), and plenty of others.
In the new-car department, most notable were Alex Grimm, trading his formidable "Captain America" Datsun 240Z for a brand-new and fully built Camaro, and Micah Diaz, who yanked the V8 engine from his E36 M3 and dropped it into a much cleaner, wider, LTMW-prepped E46 chassis. While Micah looked strong in the E46 (still with a way to go until he's fully comfortable with it), Alex - who's proven himself many times over as one of the best of today's pro-ams - seemed very uncomfortable with what seems on paper to be a dream drift ride.
Golden Gate Drift regular Justin Ussery trekked down to SoCal (as he sometimes does) in his seriously cool, retro-themed S13 'vert to throw a wrench in local drivers' plans, joining him in the new-but-not-really new to Top Drift category was Ian Archer, Just Drift's official photographer, who got out from behind the lens to get behind the wheel of his own V8-powered S14 and prove to the world that at least some of us shooters can drive as well.
There were also a grip of flat-out newcomers, led most notably by automotive YouTube phenom TJ Hunt, who entered Top Drift competition for the first time in low-key fashion from behind the wheel of a very nicely prepared 2JZ-powered Nissan 350Z.
It may be tempting to form some preconceived notions about an enthusiast-turned-YouTube star trying his hand at driving, but Hunt seems to be doing it right - and doing it well! He may have missed the qualifying mark this time, but just give him a little more time and you might be surprised how far we're betting he'll go.
Cold weather means cold tires and track temps, and inconsistent grip, and intermittent rain compounds the situation exponentially. Wet weather cut short Saturday's practice, and left some puddles lingering around the course into Sunday. Top Drift organizers extended Sunday morning's practice sessions, and with the Balcony course laid out more aggressively than ever before, drivers needed all they could get.
There were lots of off-track jaunts early on, including one scary moment when a car overshot the course altogether and almost took out a bunch of media dudes. Heading into qualifying there were more than a few grumbles from spectators and staff whether or not enough drivers would lay down solid qualifying runs to fill the Top 16. But drivers pulled it together and before we knew it, the grid was set.
Competition started with some surprisingly good battles, including Shaun Doom edging out Adam Feliciano after some very close driving ...
... Noah Nelson narrowly defeating Daryl Priyono (and then somehow spinning on his way back to the pits) ...
... and Ian Archer ousting himself against Brian Nimmo in the 1JZ Tacoma.
But the bout of the round was between buddies Meliton Villamor and Kenneth Vuong. These guys had been psyched to battle each other from the moment the qualifying order was announced, and laid down the closest initiation of the round (to that point) on their second run.
But it soon proved it be too close, when Vuong charged a little too hard and Villamor a little too slow, and the two did their best demolition derby impression, mid-drift.
Having decidedly put on the better performance in their first run, Vuong moved on, but not before a little friendly heckling from his pal.
The competition halfway point began with another close battle, this time between Zach "Zac Mac" MacGillivray, who had been scraping his Slide Supply V8 350Z off walls all weekend, and Dom Martinez, who seemed to be on a quest to stick to the door of everyone he was paired against. Dom moved on.
Next up was Nelson v. Doom, with Doom laying down a killer follow run, and getting his lead run off to a great start ... before breaking mid-run and needing a little help from his friends to get off track, while Nelson advanced all on his own.
Similarly, after laying down those killer runs (thankfully not literally) against Villamor, Vuong uncharacteristically messed up against Nimmo and cleared the way for everyone's favorite Tacoma tire slayer to move onto the finals.
Not that Nimmo didn't deserve this on his own - he and his truck have made it to the Top 4 four times in past rounds.
Proving that the best just got better as the round went on, the decidedly Best Tandem of the day went down at the start of Top 4, between Nelson and Martinez, with Martinez being just that much closer to Nelson than he was to him, and earning a place in the Finals.
Nelson went on to face Rome Charpentier in the battle for third, and after laying down an equally clean and close lead run (where Rome stuck to his door), lost his drift in his follow run and exited stage left with the single best rolling, fire-spewing, two-stepping burnout we've seen in Top Drift history. It was awesome.
We suppose Brian Nimmo knew his goose was cooked, at this point. Really, it's a huge testament to his skill and consistency that he made it this far at all. This year's Balcony course layout was faster, wider, and demanded cars put more power and grip to the ground than ever before, which is a damn tall order to serve up in a comparatively underpowered pickup truck, as opposed to something like a V8-swapped, angle-kitted S14.
But there was just no denying Dom's near perfect performance thus far. His car was solid, his driving was solid, and he was damn sure not to repeat the rookie mistakes that cost him the win last year.
And after two runs, the safe bet paid off, as Dom and the S14 stuck right to Brian and the Tacoma's door in their first battle, and belted out a huge gap on their second.
Brian had earned four fourth-place finishes in his Tacoma prior to this, but had never landed on podium. You'd better believe he was stoked to finally be there, and it showed. Rome had been there before (including winning Round 3 last year), but from his ear-to-ear grins during the awards presentation, you might not have known it.
Dom had a different look. His was one more of relief than celebration, as if he'd been pushing himself hard to win after so narrowly missing victory here last year. It's a look common to perfectionists, control freaks, and - ultimately, in many cases - champions. We'd be surprised if he doesn't become one himself, very soon.
With three rounds to go in the 2018 Top Drift season, the fun is just beginning. It's not too late to get involved, and it's never too late to participate in parent company Just Drift's multitude of events for drivers from beginning to professional. Just head over to www.justdrift.com for all the details, and stick with Super Street throughout the season for more great coverage!