With all deference to the postal service, it looks like neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night will stop driver and 2015 series champion Fredric Aasbo from climbing his way back into the number-one position in the 2018 Formula DRIFT point standings. With a dominating victory in the Rockstar Energy Toyota Corolla of Papadakis Racing at a brand new round, will 2017 champ James Deane really walk away with a second straight title this year as everyone was starting to expect?
Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill.—just east of St. Louis, Mo., over the Mississippi—takes its name from the massive steel arch landmark not far from the track itself, and is better known for open-wheel racing. The track has been in operation since 1967 as a drag strip but didn't see its first professional race until 1994 when the former CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) series ran there in May, a day before that year's Indianapolis 500. It had shuttered in November 2010 after racing seemed to have died off for the track around that time. However, since September 2011, it has taken new ownership and has seen a bit of a revival with IndyCar, NASCAR, NHRA, ARCA, Indy Lights, and Pro Mazda all racing at the facility in one form or another. It features a 1.25-mile oval and a quarter-mile drag strip with NHRA sanctioning, but it's part of the 1.6-mile infield road course that Formula D used for competition much like they do at Texas Motor Speedway. It was the first Midwest round for the series since 2005, when FD used to visit Chicago.
The section of road course used for competition sent cars through a chicane to start after they picked up a good head of steam, with inner clipping points on both apexes of the chicane. From there, drivers traversed an informal "power alley," picking up speed for a rear Touch & Go to set up for Inner Clip 3. One final flick and the course ended with a long Rear Outer Zone, punctuated by a final Clipping Point right at the finish line. The circuit was abrasive, grating tires like cheese, but extremely fast, possibly the fastest in the series—and almost every driver we heard from loved it.
31 cars turned up for Friday qualifying's 32 spots, but that number shrank even further as Alex Heilbrunn's IMR E46 had an oil pump failure before the session, and then during the sesh Ryan Litteral in the Koruworks 350Z was unable to put together a score-able run. The first driver to break into the 90-point club (out of 100 possible) was Chelsea DeNofa in the BC Racing Mustang RTR, laying down a 91 on his first lap, but it was Aasbo who set the standard with a remarkable 98-point pass, also on his first orbit. Matt Field in the Falken Tire C6 Corvette and Ken Gushi in the GReddy Performance 86 both got 95s on their first laps, securing second and third in qualifying, respectively. No one was able to better those scores on the first or second laps, save Aasbo, who backed up his 98 with a 96 his second time around.
Not long after qualifying ended, a potent storm cell rolled through Gateway that obliterated a handful of vendor and team booths in addition to wreaking havoc on Formula D's video and public address equipment (you may have seen the video floating around Instagram). The good news was everyone survived the weather okay; the bad news was it happened right as Pro 2 Top 16 was about to go down. Event organizers decided to postpone Pro 2 until Saturday morning, which they were able to squeeze in before the Pro guys went out for Top 32.
The top three qualifiers received bye laps in the first eliminator due to the shortage of entries, so eliminations began with the battle between Matt Coffman in the Coffman Racing S13 240SX and Jhonnattan Castro in the Gerdau Metaldom 86. Unfortunately after their first lap, Coffman had car issues and had to concede, as did Taylor Hull in the Comp Cams ATS who was to face Odi Bakchis in the Falken S14. Highlights from the round include a trio of One More Time (OMT) tiebreakers, consisting of Piotr Wiecek's eventual success in the Worthouse Drift S15 against Dean Kearney in the Oracle Lighting Viper; Forrest Wang's knock-down-drag-out in the Vapetasia Silvia with Kevin Lawrence in the Enjuku Racing S14.3, a match that ultimately went to Wang; and finally Kristaps Bluss in the HGK E92 needing bonus orbits to take down Kazuya Taguchi in the Top 1 R35 GT-R. Additionally, Top 32 had one notable upset, Jeff Jones in the DOC 370Z dispatching Alec Hohnadell in the Rain-X S14 after the latter driver shot off into the slippery grass lining Zone 1 on his chase lap, allowing Jones to pick up his second Top 16 entry in a row (he also earned Top 16 at the last round in Washington).
Aasbo faced Papadakis Racing stable-mate Castro to kickoff Top 16. Even with a 74-percent winning streak against Castro, the Puerto Rican driver has proven he's tough to defeat when he's on his game. Castro put on a beautiful follow run against Aasbo, but with less angle there was just enough for the judges to give the win to Aasbo, but it wasn't a unanimous decision as Andy Yen was the only judge to call for a OMT, while Brian Eggert and Ryan Lamontagne went with Aasbo.
2013 champ Mike Essa in the Essa Motorsport/Achilles Radial BMW M3 faced off with three-time champ Chris Forsberg in the NOS Energy Drink 370Z next. Essa got small gaps but had corrections during his lead run and allowed Forsberg to pull closer from the final section to the finish. Forsberg would have a dominating lead run to take the win. Odi and his S14 faced fellow Falken Tire teammate Wiecek in his S15, and while Odi had a decent lead run, Piotr would have a more consistent and better lead to take the win. Deane, in the right-hand drive twin of Piotr's Silvia, and Vaughn Gittin, Jr. in the Monster Energy/Nitto Tires Ford Mustang RTR would be the final battle on the left side of the Top-16 bracket.
Vaughn used shallower angle to create proximity during his follow run, but once again consistent driving by Deane using bigger angle and speed allowed him to keep up with Gittin and take the win. However, it wouldn't come without controversy. Coming up to the final clipping point during his follow run, James was clearly in front of Vaughn. The duel went to an OMT and during the OMT Vaughn went off course on the outside zone, potentially because of a debeaded tire. Because the teams are no longer allowed to change tires in the middle of a run, he could not continue and gave Deane the win.
Moving on to the right-hand side of the Top 16, we saw Field and Wang go at it. Matt and Forrest had a close call at the finish line, but Wang was able to keep from crashing into Matt when he reduced angle. They had a very touchy moment during Matt's follow run, but Matt was able to keep himself composed enough to take the win with the better lead performance. The next battle was between two Falken teammates, but this time it was Justin Pawlak in the Roush Performance Ford Mustang and Daijiro Yoshihara in the Turn14 Subaru BRZ. At initiation, Dai's car stopped drifting and ran straight into Pawlak's car. After a time out, it was determined that Dai was at fault for contact. Even with the best run that Dai could run, the contact fault was just too much to overcome and Pawlak moved on.
Then the newest Falken Tire driver, Ken Gushi, faced off against the HGK Racing/Achilles Radial BMW M3 of Kristaps Bluss. Kristaps is another who, when on his game, can be someone difficult to defeat. Unfortunately, Kristaps wasn't on his game in his follow run as the judges declared it incomplete when he straightened out going into the rear zone, which was the deciding factor even as Kristaps just pulled so far away from Gushi in his lead run. The judges even assigned fault to Bluss for pulling too much of a lead because they still want the drivers to drive against each other (no cupcaking!) Sounds odd, but they want a show. Finally, the last battle of the Top 16 would be between Chelsea DeNofa in the BC Racing/Nitto Tires Ford Mustang RTR and, one of the most improved drivers in the field and fan favorite, Jeff "El Jeffe" Jones in the Doc Energy/Edelbrock Nissan 370Z. Jones was impressive and looked very poised in the follow, but DeNofa would take the win with a more impressive lead run thanks to his very aggressive initiation.
A repeat of the 2017 championship, Aasbo and Forsberg faced off against each other. Watching them, you could see why the pair are champions, but it was Aasbo just edging out Forsberg with two of the three judges favoring Aasbo and Ryan Lanteigne being the sole judge calling for an OMT. Standings placement was on the line in the next battle between Worthouse teammates Wiecek and Deane, with James in the lead up until this run. These drivers normally put on a show, but Deane would shut off coming out of the Touch & Go before the rear zone. Wiecek received the win due to a mechanical failure. Deane wound up losing points to Aasbo but retaining the points lead at the end of the event.
Falken drivers Matt Field and Justin Pawlak faced off on the right-hand side of the bracket; Matt and JTP had met three times before, but Field has won the most times, with two. Matt showed why he has been called "The Beast from the Bay" with his lead run, dominating all the way until the rear zone. Pawlak, though, would show his experience in his lead run by sticking to a near perfect line but Field would stick to him, giving Matt the unanimous win due to better performance in both of his runs. The final quarterfinals battle was between Ken Gushi and Chelsea DeNofa. If DeNofa won, Matt Field was guaranteed a podium, as Gushi would have been the higher qualifying driver. However, Gushi's lead run would be just a little rough while his follow wasn't as smooth as we typically see from him. DeNofa's follow and lead were better than Gushi's and earned entry to the Final 4. Qualifying P2, Field would get no less than third place.
Aasbo would have to face off against Wiecek, a mountain of a challenge after watching just how good he was driving. However, Aasbo was also doing well against his competitors and knew how to throw that Corolla around. They have also once against each other, so this would be their personal tie-breaker for this point into the 2018 season. Piotr, though, would show that even he has weakness, contacting Aasbo in the entry of the rear zone. Aasbo, the veteran that he is, kept his car on line and driving which would give him the advantage. While Aasbo didn't quite get the timing right on initiation, Aasbo's run was much cleaner than Piotr's, but the gap Piotr was able to pull was more than Aasbo could defeat. The judges unanimously went with an OMT.
Piotr was on the doors of Aasbo throughout the run, with the only real mistake was being too aggressive with the first inside clip and its rumble strip. Then, when they swapped, Aasbo had a very similar looking run to the point that they would go OMT again. This time, Aasbo would be able to pull a larger gap after Wiecek went too aggressive into the rear zone. This gave Aasbo a clearer advantage this time and, with his better follow run, Fredric would move on to the Finals.
Matt Field faced off against Chelsea DeNofa, two drivers known for their aggression, and they showed it in their battle. Both guys were on point throughout Matt's lead run. However, an over-aggressive entry caused DeNofa to go wide on the first two front clipping points. He pulled off a dramatic angle going into the rear zone that most were expecting him to spin. DeNofa kept it going and Matt kept right with him until they crossed the line. As impressive as it looked, Matt's lead run had the better line with angle and he moved on. In his defeat, Chelsea DeNofa claimed third place overall, as he was the higher qualifying driver between himself and Wiecek.
The closer was billed as one for the ages—the Beast versus the Hammer, Corvette versus Corolla, four-banger versus V8—you couldn't hype this up more if you tried. However, Matt knew he would have to push if he was going to have a chance against Aasbo. Despite its diminutive engine, the Corolla was also fast and took down cars twice its size. If you wanted a real-life Initial D hero story, Aasbo and the Rockstar Energy Toyota Corolla was it. Unfortunately, hero stories often don't pan out like Hollywood would lead you to believe, and if you push too hard you don't always get rewarded. As Matt Field entered the rear zone, he contacted the Corolla and went off course. Matt was found at fault for the incident, so the only way Matt could get the win is if Aasbo would get a zero on his follow run.
Aasbo, however, is too much of a veteran to have that happen. The judges confirmed, and Fredric Aasbo took the win. "Our first visit to St Louis and we're walking away with not just the win but also the qualifying pole. I couldn't be happier because it's closed the gap in the championship with James going out early," said an ecstatic Aasbo to Formula DRIFT after the event. "This weekend was one of my highlights as a driver. We were finding grip in every battle trying to hang with these guys and it gave us the car to beat." With is win and Deane getting knocked out in Top 16, Aasbo is now within 30-points of taking first in the 2018 Formula Drift Black Magic Pro championship.
"We started the weekend on a new track with uncertainly. We didn't know if the Corvette or the tires would last, but the team gave me a solid car and the Falken tires lasted every battle through to the finish. And that's what gave us the edge to reach the Final," Field said after the podium ceremony. With his podium, Chevrolet moves ahead of Nissan in the Auto Cup Championship, but Toyota and Ford continue to lead. However, this looks like Toyota's championship to lose as Ford trails behind them by 216 points. With their performance in New Jersey, Seattle, and here at St. Louis, Falken extends their lead in the Tire Cup with Nexen only 71 points out of first place.
The next round of the 2018 Formula Drift Black Magic Pro Championship is the penultimate round at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. James Deane slammed the door on Fredric Aasbo's repeat championship points here when he took the victory against Aasbo in the Final Four in 2017. Will it be a repeat and we have our second ever back-to-back champion or will Aasbo come back to capture his second championship? Or will Piotr Wiecek play spoiler to both and pull off the miracle to erase his 105-point deficit in just two rounds? We'll find out in just four weeks.