Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga., is where it all started. In 2004, the nascent Formula DRIFT Professional Championship wanted to kick off their "drifting" series on the road course famous for hosting sports cars and superbikes, and as the story goes RA was pretty stoked to be involved with the series from the get-go—so enthused, they even offered to pave a previously unpaved portion of the track in order to accommodate FD. The special section, just up the hill from the Turn 10A-10B complex, allowed drivers to come back around and return to the start line, which was situated closer to Turn 9. The area also has lots of natural spectator seating seemingly carved into the surrounding hillsides, acting like a amphitheater. That part of the track—called informally today "the horseshoe," or "the keyhole"—has become a symbol of the longstanding relationship between the circuit and the series, one that has lasted now 15 years.
Back then, Road Atlanta was where the series and the season started, but these days the motorsports park is Round 3 on the competition calendar (after spending many years as Round 2, the follow-up to the Long Beach season opener). One thing that hasn't changed at RA over the years is the passionate fans who come out for pro drifting. Even now you get some of the most radicalized Formula D groupies, and some of the largest attendance figures, relative to some other venues the championship visits. If asked which round you have to experience in person at least once in your life, most Formula DRIFT aficionados will say—often without hesitation—Road Atlanta.
The drifting course at RA is the only one on the current Formula D schedule where cars must come back the way they came to cross the finish line. Vehicles begin downhill and initiate before what would normally be the Turn 10A left hander, scoot sideways past Inner Clip 1 at the apex of 10A, toss the back end around to set up for the throttle mash up the 10B hill, scrub a bit of speed for Clipping Zones 1 and 2 at the entrance to the horseshoe, then back on the loud pedal for Clip 2, blasting out of the horseshoe to make a left back down the hill they came up to again fly by 10A (Clip 1 becoming Clip 3 at this point) and across the stripe on the way to where they started. Apart from a few nasty shoulder drop-offs on the insides of 10A and 10B, and the high likelihood of dirt/gravel getting kicked up on the course, there are few hazards in the section—with one tiny exception.
We're not sure this was ever an issue with past comps, but apparently chase cars traveling back down the 10B hill to round 10A and cross the finish were getting lost in smoke coming off of lead cars. In a few cases, the momentary blindness was just enough that drivers lost sight of the edge of the track and wound up in the 10A outside wall to driver's left (or driver's right if you're taking the "normal" way through the area). Matt Field in the Wish Falken Tire C6 Corvette probably suffered the worst of the wall love, the Chevy slamming its ass hard into the barrier while it was trailing Forrest Wang's Vapetasia S15 Silvia in Thursday open practice. Miraculously, the Vette's frame was straightened and the car seemingly put back together by the time Field had to suit up for Friday qualifying.
In that qualifying session, 32 drivers were expected to fill Top 32 for the first time this year, but it's not racing if someone doesn't get their weekend cut short by some unexpected gremlin. Alex Heilbrunn in the supercharged-V8 IMR BMW E46 was dealt a failed power plant (that's a big gremlin), the first of his four-year FD tenure, and wouldn't even get a chance to make a challenge. The hapless Federico Sceriffo in the FFF Drifting Department Ferrari 599 GTB busted a couple axles and couldn't get spares in time, ending his Road Atlanta effort. And there were others; when it was all said and done, 28 drivers made the cut to move on to Saturday tandems, which is about the norm for FD in this era of Top 32.
A full 12 pilots scored into the 90s (out of 100), which is approaching half the field—great for fans, probably hell on FD's three-judge panel. Chelsea DeNofa in his BC Racing RTR Mustang kicked things off with a 94, a score beaten by only two drivers during everyone's first lap, Justin Pawlak in the Roush Performance Falken Mustang, and 2017 series champ James Deane in the Worthouse Drift S15, both getting 95s. In the second go around, 2011 champ Dai Yoshihara in the Turn 14 BRZ reset the high mark at 96, a standard that stood until Pawlak came up to the plate again—at which point he pulled out a 97, earning perfect scores for both style and angle.
Like a lot of FD tracks, the trick to success at Road Atlanta is being okay with sacrifice, especially in the chase position. There are rarely, if ever, really close tandems for the entire course, with most pairs bunching up in the keyhole, and many struggling with pace up the hill and into Zone 1. At that point it seems like a lot drivers will compromise angle in order to keep up with the lead car.
The top four qualifiers—that's Pawlak, Dai, Deane, and 2015 champ Fredric Aasbo in the Rockstar Energy Drink Toyota Corolla—received uncontested bye runs to start Saturday competition, leaving the other 24 to battle it out. The fireworks started with the first battle, Ken Gushi in the Greddy Performance 86 versus Matt Coffman in the Coffman Racing S13; judges initially gave the victory to Coffman. But Gushi's team filed a protest with the series, claiming Coffman had jumped the start light when he was leading, which allowed him to create a considerable gap that Gushi struggled to close. Formula D reviewed the video footage and saw that indeed Coffman had gotten out of the gate early, subsequently ruling the previous result be overturned and their first pass be rerun—which due to timing would have to wait until the start of Top 16 later in the day.
In the very next twosome, Deane's Worthouse teammate Piotr Wiecek had his hands full with the surprisingly resurgent Kyle Mohan in the American Ethanol MazdaTrix MX-5. Mohan was hitting his marks, and while he struggled with quickness he still put on a good chase and an excellent lead, confounding his opponent and ultimately resulting in judges asking for a One More Time (OMT)—the first of nine for Round 3. On their second lap, though, Kyle straightened just ahead of the finish line and was likely docked pretty hard for that. The win was Piotr's, but Mohan put up a tough fight.
Drift Alliance bros Vaughn Gittin in the Monster Energy Drink RTR Mustang and Ryan Tuerck in the Gumout 86 drove to a OMT, where Tuerck put on a great chase with more angle the JR's, nabbing the win. Wang and Jeff Jones in the DOC 370Z also went to extra laps—twice; Jones finally had to bow out after losing a supercharger belt pulley.
Things started getting punchy as Top 32 wound down. Dean Kearney in the Oracle Lighting Viper got into the side of Mike Essa's Essa Autosport E46, the Dodge punting the BMW off track just past Clip 1. Then with Dean in the lead, the Viper dropped a tire and ate Inner Clip 1, ultimately careening into the runoff area for Turn 10A and ending Kearney's weekend. Carnage continued in the Jhonnattan Castro-RAD Dan Burkett showdown when Dan's RAD Industries Mk4 Supra bumped into Castro's Gerdau Metaldom 86 at initiation in almost the same way Kearney knocked around Essa in the prior run. Castro could've cruised to victory with a complete chase lap, but something broke on the right rear of the car and the wheel folded up into the vehicle. Whatever failed could not be fixed at the track, and so Dan punched his ticket to Top 16.
The round of 16 began with the redo of Coffman and Gushi's first Top 32 lap, and it turned out to be just the second chance needed for the Greddy Performance driver to force a OMT runoff. In the bonus laps there was more drama, as Coffman in the lead slowed considerably past Clip 1, making contact with Gushi's 86 as his S13 was getting set for the run up 10B. With Ken in the lead, Matt dropped at least one tire cutting the 10B turn on the way uphill, then shut down his chase coming back down the hill, giving Gushi the win.
There was no rest for Gushi as he had to immediately grid up for his match with Pawlak, the first official pair of Top 16. Perhaps carrying some momentum from the win he just scored moments earlier, Gushi was able to knock off the event's number-one qualifier, taking advantage of Justin's less-than-stellar initiations (in both lead and chase).
Wiecek made quick work of the always-dangerous Odi Bakchis in the Falken S14, and then came the first of a few OMTs in Top 16 when Deane met Tuerck. Their first orbits were bangers, but in the rubber match Tuerck had to give up too much angle in his chase in order to keep pace with Deane, judges finding the Irishman the winner. Then came the knock-down-drag-out between Kristaps Bluss in the HGK Motorsport E92 and Wang; both drivers got incompletes for their respective chases to start off, and could not clean it up enough for their first set of OMT laps. In their second pair of bonus laps they finally both put in clean runs, but Bluss's chase was far superior to Wang's (incidentally, by this point in the event Forrest had run a total of four One More Times—seems almost a shame he got eliminated).
In the second half of Top 16, Dai dispatched Field while three-time FD champion Chris Forsberg in the NOS Energy Drink 370Z got past Essa in a battle that saw Mike bobble the initiation in the lead and Chris chase with better proximity. Unable to mount a proper trailing run, Burkett was sent packing against Aasbo, and Top 16 closed with DeNofa on fire (figuratively, not literally) blowing past Alec Hohnadell's Rain-X S14.
Gushi's Round 3 ended in the Great 8 against Wiecek, who established a gap in the lead and applied a decent amount of pressure in the chase. Bluss then knocked off Deane (he's human!), Yoshihara was no match for Forsberg, and Aasbo ratcheted up the heat against DeNofa, who couldn't get as deep as Fredric into Zone 2.
The comp entered its semifinals with a Bluss-Wiecek fight that began with Piotr gambling in the chase position and initiating as late as he could, a move that momentarily put the cars door to door—even facilitating a tiny bit of rubbing—before Kristaps took off like a supersonic (Euro-)fighter, leaving Wiecek in the dust. It only got worse from there, as the Worthouse Drift hot shoe ended up over-rotating past the final inner clip and received an incomplete for his chase lap, thus resulting in Bluss's Final 4 triumph. In the other showdown, Aasbo had the cleaner lead and Forsberg had to give up angle to maintain proximity, which led to Fredric's advancement to the event finale. He still qualified high enough out of the Final 4 to get on the podium in third place, Forsberg's second podium out of three events in 2018 (he won in Orlando).
The top two steps of the podium still had to be sorted out, and their first time out judges couldn't choose between Aasbo and Bluss, so One More Time was the call. In the deciding runs, with Fredric leading, Kristaps was on his opponent like white on rice, incurring the tiniest bit of contact but not enough to upset the vehicles. With Bluss in the lead, the Bimmer took off in the second half of the lap, Aasbo managing to keep the Corolla close for the first two clips before he could no longer stay on pace.
Bluss picked up the first win of his three-plus-year Formula DRIFT career, and did it by dispatching two of FD's last three champions (including the reigning titlist). Aasbo earned second place, which was also the third podium of his season, and as we've already mentioned Forsberg came home in third. In the 2018 points table, Aasbo stays on top with 260, followed by Forsberg at 223, Deane at 208, Wiecek at 191, and Bluss at 174, with five round left to go in the year. Up next for these and all of Formula DRIFT's teams is Round 4: Wall Stadium in New Jersey, set for June 1st and 2nd.