In 2008, Red Bull and Formula DRIFT (FD) put on the Drifting World Championship (DWC) in Long Beach, Calif., to test the waters and see if they could take a burgeoning motorsport supported by multiple series in a bunch of different countries and somehow turn it into an international “thing” under one umbrella. That didn’t work out so much, but it did introduce new audiences to a plucky 16-year-old Irish driver by the name of James Deane. He’d only been drifting a couple years by this point, and was eliminated in the first round of tandems at DWC, but would go on to win the Formula D Rookie of the Year two years later, as well as rack up a bunch of championships in Ireland and across Europe in the intervening years. 2010 turned out to be the only year he competed in FD proper before returning this season, and we’re almost totally certain no one expected Deane to come out guns blazing the way he did at Round 1 of the 2017 Formula D pro championship.
We’ve previously documented Deane’s path to victory in Long Beach for Round 1, and he deserves all the praise sent his way – but we wonder if maybe he also didn’t have a little luck on his side (we’re resisting the Irish pun). Qualifying for Top 32 had only 30 entrants, and of them only 27 actually made it into the dance. The modest turnout was due partly to a handful of drivers not returning to the series for 2017 – among them heavy hitters like Forrest Wang, Tyler McQuarrie, and Mad Mike Whiddett – in addition to a small class from FD’s Pro 2 feeder series – pretty much just RAD Dan Burkett (Nate Hamilton also came from Pro 2 but used to be a pro, so really his is a return, while Jeff Jones has been running Pro and Pro 2 concurrently since the start of the Pro 2 championship in 2014).
This unusual vacuum of talent in Formula D means the 2017 title really is anybody’s to take. With such a wide opening, we expected seasoned hot shoes like Vaughn Gittin, Jr., Ryan Tuerck, and Fredric Aasbo to at least qualify well, which each did (first, third, and fourth, respectively). Youngblood like Alex Heilbrunn and Matt Coffman also took advantage of the favorable conditions, earning fifth and sixth in qualifying, respectively. But it was Deane who not so subtly surprised many, qualifying second in the 2JZ-powered Worthouse Nissan S15 Silvia after being away from Formula DRIFT since 2010. To many – including us – it seemed a bit out of the blue.
All save Coffman got a bye out of the first eliminator, and he wound up facing Burkett and his battered Mk4 Supra in Top 32, which he made quick work of in the Coffman Racing V8 S13. Other Top 32 highlights included last year’s Long Beach winner, Chelsea DeNofa, sliding into the tire barrier on the outside of the Turn 10 sweeper with his RTR Motorsports BC Racing Mustang in a loss to Deane’s Worthouse teammate Piotr Wiecek; Pat Goodin in the Huddy Racing S13 making contact with Justin Pawlak’s Roush Performance Mustang allowing JTP to advance; and Alec Hohnadell in the Enjuku Racing S14 having an incredibly close chase lap against three-time champ Chris Forsberg in his backup NOS Energy Drink 370Z before making contact and spinning out in between Turns 10 and 11, which ended Hohnadell’s day.
Also in Top 32, Russian rookie Georgy Chivchyan had jitters all through Long Beach, and the run in his NGK Silvia ended mercifully at the hands of Ken Gushi in the Greddy 86 after several corrections and ultimately a spin. Past champ Dai Yoshihara contended with a serpentine belt issue in his Turn 14 BRZ that reared its ugly ahead against fellow past champ Mike Essa’s Essa Autosport E46, leaving the Subaru with compromised steering that led to Dai’s early exit. Finally, Robbie Nishida in the Achilles Tire G37 brought the fight to Kristaps Bluss in the HGK Motorsports M3, leading to a One-More-Time (OMT) tiebreaker, but that was all Nishida could muster as he faded and Bluss took the win to move on.
The round of 16 was marked by upsets, starting with Dean Kearney’s win in the Oracle Lighting Viper over number-one qualifier Gittin and his RTR Monster Energy Mustang; it looked like JR probably came into the hairpin a little too hot and ran into a leading Kearney, prompting judges to assign fault and give the win to the Viper. Deane sent Essa packing in their match after the BMW spun in Turn 11, while Coffman beat Matt Field in the Falken S14, thus ending Field’s win streak to two events dating back to the 2016 season. Finally, there was a near-upset in Top 16 when Wiecek very nearly eliminated Odi Bakchis in the other Falken S14, but some corrections on his lead lap in the second Worthouse S15 sealed Piotr’s fate.
The Top 8 (Great 8? We don’t even know what to call it anymore) saw dead heats and rough driving. Kearney and Bakchis drove to a OMT, a duel that ultimately went to Bakchis, as did 2015 champ Fredric Aasbo in the Rockstar Energy Corolla iM and 2016 Rookie of the Year Alex Heilbrunn in the IMR E46, this one going to Heilbrunn in yet another upset. On the other side of the bracket, Coffman looked to be sizing up Ryan Tuerck in the Gumout 86 for the takedown but could not negotiate the switchback and wound up literally door to door with the Toyota, getting pinged for the contact and sent home. Deane and Forsberg also had contact in the quarterfinals battle, but judges deemed theirs less severe and when the tallies came in Deane was the one who found his number pulled for advancing to the semis.
At this point, the only drivers left were Bakchis, Heilbrunn, Deane, and Tuerck. In chasing Heilbrunn, Bakchis got lost in a cloud of tire smoke and had to do some quick moves to avoid contact, for which he was charged with an error and Heilbrunn promoted to the finale. As for Deane and Tuerck, Deane appeared to handle his foe easily, Ryan falling in the Final 4 but also picking up third place since he qualified higher than the round’s other loser, Bakchis. And the final was set – Deane versus Heilbrunn, Ireland versus Peru, young versus … younger? Both were in their first respective FD career finals, and it was an incredibly intense dogfight – but the judges needed no OMT to figure out who had won.
When the judging panel pulled both cars to an area right in front of the main grandstand and announced that Deane had won, the emotion he let loose was palpable, the twenty something first climbing on top of his car to raise a fist in triumph, then hugging his opponent Heilbrunn. But the best part was seeing him run over to his teammates as the cameras clicked and the crowd roared, Deane taking a moment to embrace his Worthouse mate Wiecek and fellow countryman Kearney.
We wish every Formula D season would begin so emotionally. Now the chase for the championship is on, and we cannot be more excited about watching the next seven rounds unfurl over six months or so. The sideways action starts up again April 28 and 29, when the series heads to Orlando Speed World in Florida for Round 2, an event that will be held in conjunction with Round 1 of Formula D’s Pro 2 series. Will Deane keep the momentum going? We can’t wait to find out.