Almost a year ago, at the 2017 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, Nev., we first learned about The Drift League pro-am Formula DRIFT licensing series - or at least the very early rumblings of it. It was at the annual press conference FD holds at the trade show to announce their following year's Pro and Pro 2 competition schedule - and actually, FD weren't yet committed to what was still only an idea at that point. It was Rathyna Gomer, amateur drifter, area scene kid, eventual TDL series director, who told us she was looking to reshape the landscape of pro-am drifting in Southern California.
Over the course of the next several months, Gomer and her cohorts at MotoIQ put together and executed a plan to get TDL up and running. In the community, they found enough drivers willing to compete and put on a decent show. In Irwindale Speedway, they found a site amenable to hosting a pro-am drifting championship (all 4 rounds). And in Formula D, they found a partner who was willing to leverage its weight to get things done, as well as a way to advance drivers into FD's Pro 2 ranks. So with all the pieces in place, Drift League launched in June 2018, and since then has refined not just the competition aspects, but also how it runs its show.
For the final round of 2018, twice podium finisher and perennial number-one qualifier Rome Charpentier in the Imagine Garage We Are Lions V8 BMW E36 led in the driver standings at the start with 249 points, followed by twice runner-up Daniel Stuke in the MSEPK Performance 2JZ Nissan S13 at 209 and Round 1 winner Josh Mason, driver of an LS-powered Ford Mustang, at 208. Being one of the top three points earners at season's end also entitles you to pick up a Formula DRIFT Pro 2 license, and ahead of the season finale sure bets were that Charpentier and Stuke would get two of the three, while the receiver of the last license was a toss up among Mason, 15-year-old driver Amanda Sorensen in the DriftLine V8 E46, and Pablo Cabrera in the V's Performance V8 S13-each finished top 4 twice this season.
While TDL events over 2018 generally drew 20 or more drivers for Top 16, for the finale hot shoes were a bit more scarce, with just a few over a dozen on hand - an effect we've seen at the pro-am level primarily, where teams/drivers with little to lose near the end of the year will just skip the season ender in order to save resources (and honestly, we don't see anything wrong with that). Both Daniel Kuo in the Garage Life Mazda FD3S RX-7 and Gerald Hernandez in his V8 E46 had event-ending incidents with Irwindale's walls during practice, leaving just 13 to take laps in qualifying.
Amanda's 14-year-old brother Branden Sorensen (and current holder of a Pro 2 license) set the pace early in qualifying in the 212 Performance E46 with a score of 76 out of 100, which was ironically eclipsed by his sister five drivers later who put down a 77. Margaritis Katsanidis in his E46 scored his own 77 on his second lap, but both Charpentier and Micah Diaz in his E46 got 79s, putting them atop the order (Diaz ultimately got sole possession of number one due to a higher scoring first lap). Unfortunately, Matt Piercey failed to make a complete pass in his S13, thus reducing the Top 13 to a Top 12.
In between sessions and really throughout the day, pros (besides special guest judges Jeff Jones and Ryan Litteral) were taking to the Irwindale course - a mockup of the layout used by Formula D each October to end its season - to test and tune, which meant spectators were treated to unintentional demos. 2013 FD champ Mike Essa and his Essa Autosport E46, Justin Pawlak in his Roush Performance Falken Tire Mustang, and Kyle Mohan in the American Ethanol ND MX-5 were throwing their pro machines into the corners, getting ready for their big show in a few weeks.
Since there were only a dozen entries, top qualifier Diaz received a bye, as did Charpentier, Amanda Sorensen, and Katsanidis. Diaz did not advance any further, however, as he busted an LCA ahead of his Great 8 match with Cabrera and did not make the start line. Sorensen also only got as deep as Great 8, losing to Stuke (again, like she did at Round 1), and Mason got eliminated in Great 8 by Charpentier after beating Carlos Cano Estrella's V8 AE86 in Top 16.
Cabrera had a wild one in Top 16 with Tony Cisneros in his V8 S14, which first went to a One More Time (OMT) tiebreaker, and then ended when Cisneros in the lead apparently de-beaded a front tire (look at the pics if you don't believe us) and fell out of drift, handing the win to his opponent. After the bye against Diaz in Great 8, Cabrera fell to Branden Sorensen in the Final 4. For his part, Stuke knocked off newcomer Jon Shaffer and his S14 in the opener, then after dispatching Amanda Sorensen in Great 8 couldn't do the same to Charpentier in the Final 4, even after a OMT. This led to Cabrera and Stuke meeting in the third-place battle, a fight that ultimately went to Cabrera.
Branden Sorensen - who hadn't been in a Drift League comp since Round 1 - began his night by taking out Don Boline's Concept Builders 350Z, then eliminating Katsanidis in Great 8. With a semifinal victory against Cabrera, Sorensen moved on to face Charpentier in the event final, who got there by going through Mason, and then Stuke. Their first set of runs were inconclusive, but after a One More Time judges elevated Charpentier to the top step of the box, where he stood at the end of Round 3. It was also Rome's third podium finish this season.
In addition to the event triumph, part of multiple TDL podiums this year, and the series' inaugural title, Charpentier was top qualifying scorer all year long (that's all four events) and, as we mentioned at the beginning, clinched a Formula D Pro 2 license good for the next couple years - his second Pro 2 accreditation in 2018, as he also won the 2018 Top Drift FD sanctioned pro-am championship as well. Stuke earned a Pro 2 license, too, and so did Mason. We wish the trio the best of luck, and now eagerly await news from The Drift League, as they make moves in the off-season to prepare for season two of its pro-am. Congrats go out to them for their successful first year.