It's just a fad, they said. When drifting began to take root in America in the early 2000s, critics and haters—from anti-import goons, to racing elitists, and everyone in between—said it'll never last, for a multitude of reasons. In spite of those headwinds and many others more serious, Jim Liaw and Ryan Sage decided to start their professional drifting championship, not in Japan where the sport is most closely identified with, but in the good ol' U.S. of A. Willing participants, from here and abroad, were down to see how far they could take Formula DRIFT, and so in 2004 the series got off the ground, culminating in its season finale at Irwindale Speedway.
15 years on, that dream has matured into one of the greatest motorsports entertainment properties on the planet, attracting the best talent drifting has to offer. And their season still ends at the House of Drift, Irwindale Events Center, with one of the biggest spectacles "racing" (lol) has to offer.
Like most years, the big story going into the year-ending event was the points chase for the drivers title. James Deane, the earnest young Irish pilot of the 2JZ-powered Worthouse Drift Team Nissan S15 Silvia and reigning Formula D champion, was leading in the standings, sitting at 556 markers, a comfortable 49 points ahead of the hot shoe in second, 2015 champ and wheelman of the Papadakis Racing 1,000hp turbo 2AR inline-4-powered Rockstar Energy Drink Toyota Corolla, Fredric Aasbo. Aasbo represented the only legitimate threat to robbing Deane of a second straight title, and early on things looked like they might go the Norwegian's way.
As he did a round earlier in Texas, Deane nailed the number-one qualifier, logging a remarkable score of 99 out of 100, thus earning a Top 32 round bye run due to the 27-car field. Aasbo also qualified high, at fourth, and also got to do an uncontested lap to kickoff eliminations; if he had any aspirations of snatching the title from Deane's hands, he needed to keep up with him at every turn (no pun intended). That meant gunning for max points in qualifying. That also meant however deep Deane went into the tandem bracket, Aasbo would need to go deeper.
But even with that strategy, there was a limit. Aasbo would basically need to finish an improbable three rounds deeper than Deane in order to eclipse him in points. Even if the two faced in in the Final 4—a possibility, given the pair lined up on the same side of the bracket—and Aasbo won, by then it would be too late.
Crazier things have happened in FD, though, and in fact happened again at Irwindale when Deane went down to style hero Forrest Wang in the Vapetasia S15 in Top 16 after failing to initiate fluidly in the chase spot on the big bank. A massive door suddenly swung open for Aasbo, but he'd need to have the event of his life—and nearly did.
In Top 16, Aasbo dispatched Papadakis teammate Jhonnattan Castro in the Gerdau Metaldom Toyota 86, and then knocked off a resurgent Dean Kearney in the Oracle Lighting Viper in Great 8, who was finally having a good weekend in his Dodge supercar after a season of engine woes. Aasbo then drew Wang in the event semifinal, who was having a stellar night of his own, first taking out the current champ, then Ken Gushi in the GReddy Performance 86. Aasbo and Wang had a straight-up battle, and when it was said and done Aasbo took another step toward securing the title by defeating Wang.
He faced in the Final Fight's final fight someone who is very familiar with winning at the House of Drift, 2010 champion Vaughn Gittin, Jr.—the guy who arguably gave Irwindale its nickname. JR qualified tenth in the Monster Energy Drink Ford Mustang RTR and began Top 32 against rookie Matt Vankirk in his 2JZ S13. After getting past Vankirk, Gittin dispatched Matt Coffman in the Ford V8-motivated Coffman Racing S13, then did the same to Odi Bakchis in the LS V8 Falken Tire S14. This left just RTR Motorsports teammate Chelsea DeNofa in the BC Racing Mustang, who has been shining all year long, but this time gave way to the boss, settling for third place (DeNofa qualified higher than fellow Final 4-finisher Wang, 11th to 16th).
The event finale was a bruising affair, Aasbo and Gittin needing two additional sets of One More Time laps to figure out a winner. The driving was intense, cars inches from one another, usually sacrificing proximity in the chase position as they came off the big bank past Inner Clip 1 in order to suck up again to the lead car along the infield bank Outer Zone 2. In the end, though, Gittin had the commanding lead and a chase lap that was textbook, and the judges gave the win to JR. It also meant the title had slipped from Aasbo's reach, as he had just the final step of winning the event in order to claim all the marbles but couldn't make it happen.
The scene when the voice of FD, Jarod DeAnda, announced the winner after Aasbo's and Gittin's third final-round battle at Irwindale was chaotic. Gittin embraced his pregnant wife and members of his team in celebration, and then proceeded to excitedly climb up the Irwindale catch fencing in front of the grandstand to share his joy with fans. While his '18 was generally pretty forgettable—Vaughn ending 13th in the standings and equaling his last poor showing in '15—some of his greatest accomplishments have come at the House of Drift: winning D1 Grand Prix's All-Star event in 2007, winning Formula D's season finale in '08, and receiving his FD title there in '10.
Also celebrating nearby was James Deane and his Worthouse crew, who had dodged a huge bullet and hung on to win the 2018 title by the slimmest of margins: 4 points. After Top 16 he was powerless to influence the outcome of the season finale, but having landed on the podium four times this season—two victories and two runner-ups—as well as qualifying top-3 five out of 8 times, he did what he needed to during the course of the year in order to find himself in the catbird seat. Deane becomes only the second Formula D driver's champion to win back-to-back titles, sharing the distinction with Tanner Foust, who did it in '07 and '08.
For the fourth time in the last five years, Fredric Aasbo concluded the season second in points (in 2014 and '16 he played second fiddle to three-time champ Chris Forsberg), rivaling comparison to the NFL's Buffalo Bills of the early 1990's (look it up)—seemingly always the bridesmaid, rarely ever the bride. We imagine it must feel frustrating, but have zero clues as to what it will take for the Norwegian Hammer to get over the hump again one day.
Falken Tire won Formula DRIFT's 2018 Tire Cup, while the Auto Cup went to Toyota this year (a title clinched at the Texas round). Additionally, Dirk Stratton and his Chevy C6 Corvette "Driftvettte" wound up tops in the running for Rookie of the Year. This season was nuts in FD, the finale reflecting that. But we're left with basically the same question we had when last year's championship chase was over—who can stop James Deane? We're not convinced anyone else currently in the field can take him on, so there's every possibility he will return to Formula D in 2019 and do the same thing all over again. We find out more about next year soon, when FD holds its annual press conference at the SEMA Show, scheduled for Wednesday, October 31st.