The last time Formula DRIFT's Pro 2 driver development championship ended its year at Irwindale Speedway, 2015, Peruvian driver Alex Heilbrunn was putting the finishing touches on a dominant season, earning his FD Pro license in grand style, pounding out a 125-point edge in the standings with his blown-V8 BMW E46. A year later in Arizona, Canadian Marc Landreville was also in clear control by season's end (he had an even greater 130-point advantage), but then in following seasons the chase began tightening up - a lot. Kevin Lawrence scraped by with just a 2-point title lead in 2017. And the drifting gods delivered another crazy season finale this year.
Coming into the event Travis Reeder's lead in the points table was 40 over his buddy Dylan Hughes, 273 versus 233, his only real threat to take the season championship. Reeder rose to the top by landing on the podium at every round thus far in 2018, third at Round 1 and first at Rounds 2 and 3. But so did Hughes, finishing in second twice (Rounds 1 and 2) and third once (Round 3). And as it turned out, many of the drivers in the field had never driven the House of Drift before, which only heightened the uncertainty and tension surrounding the year ender.
Garrett Denton, third-place finisher in Texas, carried some of that momentum from the previous round into the top qualifier spot, putting down a Pro-like 94 score out of 100. He was the only driver to break the 90s threshold, with Crick Filippi and Brody Goble taking up second and third, respectively, earning scores in the high 80s. The season-shattering news to emerge from Pro 2 qualifying, though, sent ripples through the paddock: Travis Reeder in his Nissan S13 failed to qualify for Top 16 for the first time in his competitive drifting career. Boom.
Like the Pro season finale being held simultaneously with Pro 2's, suddenly the guy sitting in second - in this case, Dylan Hughes - had a very real shot at a come-from-behind championship triumph. He didn't qualify well, coming in at 15th, but he was in the show, his destiny in his own hands - sorta. In practice earlier, Hughes hit the wall at the top of Irwindale's big bank pretty hard, "bending everything" he commented later on social media and having to turn to other teams for help in piecing back together his S13 - including assistance from Reeder's camp, in an act of class and sportsmanship among friends.
Top 16 kicked off with an amazing upset by number-16 qualifier Trent Beechum in his Ford Mustang, dispatching top qualifier Denton. Troy Manners in his S14 knocked out Round 1 winner Ola Jaeger in the Japan Auto Mk4 Supra, while rookie Sebastien Gauthier in the PBK S14, who impressed with a Final-4 finish in Texas, sent off Adam Knapik and his S14. Brandon Schmidt in the Mast Motorsports S13 ended the season of Midwest Drift Union alumnus Geoff Donati and his S14 to complete the left side of the eliminations bracket.
Filippi in the Team Burn the Most S14 then made his presence felt in the 2018 championship chase, knocking out Hughes and effectively ending the title fight; after coming incredibly close in 2017, Reeder had his championship wrapped up, and he didn't even have to turn a single wheel in tandem competition (although we're pretty sure he would have rather done it the more traditional way). Kelsey Rowlings in the Kotek S14, who also had a tough wreck in practice, didn't have enough to beat Alec Robbins and the KoruWorks 350Z; Riley Sexsmith in the NV Auto Subaru BRZ had the mild upset of Jonathan Hurst in the Dynosty Infiniti G37 to end Top 16; and in between the two matches, the highlight of the round: Brody Goble in the Fikse Wheels S14.5 and Josh Robinson in his Holden Commodore Ute needing six closely contested laps to figure who would advance (it was Goble).
Beechum continued his pony car charge in Great 8, stopping cold Manners and his S15-nosed 240SX. Then, as it has for every round of Formula D Pro 2 this year, it started raining, this time as Gauthier and Schmidt completed their first lap. Lightning touched down all around the speedway, and apparently one strike was close enough that officials decided to clear the grandstands and wait for the evening storm to pass.
Some 15 minutes later, we got the green light to return to action, but by then the rain had become a steady drizzle, so FD decided to allow drivers to take a recon lap before they went into battle. If you've ever seen drifting in the rain, it can be a slow, white-knuckle affair, as speeds come way down but car control takes on an extremely different dimension.
Gauthier was second in to the Final 4, the rookie earning his second semifinal appearance in as many events, followed by Filippi, who shut down Robbins' Z33. Sexsmith made it four, pulling off his own upset of the much higher qualifying Goble.
Gauthier's high-visibility Nissan was able to put a stop to Beechum's remarkable run in his Mustang to kickoff the soggy semis. Then Sexsmith, who has shown moments of brilliance all year long, did it again in the Final 4, sending Filippi to the showers, but not before Crick earned third place - his best result of 2018 - for qualifying higher than Beechum.
For the first time this year, neither Reeder nor Hughes was in the final battle of the Pro 2 event, but Gauthier and Sexsmith put on a wild, slow motion, slip-and-slide display of fishtailing prowess. Judges even needed an additional set of laps to figure out who won, but when they did come to a decision, it was Gauthier who got the nod, claiming the first overall victory of his young FD career. In the process, Sebastien also locked up Rookie of the Year honors, beating Garrett Denton by nearly 80 points.
The night, however, and season belonged to Travis Reeder. It is the most bizarre thing to look at the Pro 2 standings and see all goose eggs for Reeder's final event of 2018, but see that same name at the top of the order to finish out the year. Hughes finished in second place in the standings 18 points adrift of the leader, and the two lead a list of newly licensed Formula D pros that also includes Gauthier, Jaeger (who, like Reeder, already has his Pro license from a season earlier), Sexsmith, Filippi, Goble, and Denton. Congrats to everyone on a fantastic year; look for news about the series' 2019 to emerge from the 2018 SEMA trade show in a couple weeks.