It is widely believed this year's Formula DRIFT season ender at the Irwindale Event Center in Southern California was its last at the not-even-20-years-old motorsports complex. We've covered the why and the when, and while the site's outgoing management has pretty much said the track's time is up, the actual owners of the land have not exactly been transparent about what's to become of the property. This has led to a weird spectrum of emotions when you ask fans about what they think of Irwindale closing – from those resigned to the end, to those who, having believed they've seen this scenario play out before, refuse to believe it's the end. And we sorta get that; on some level, we won't believe it until that iconic grandstand is torn down, the short oval bulldozed over.
Working under the premise Irwindale is closing, Formula D pulled out the stops in planning 2017's Round 8 of 8. Probably the coolest thing for attendees and spectators at the big show was being able to walk out onto the speedway to watch the podium ceremony after competition was over, something that has never been done in FD Irwindale history (handing out hardware for first, second and third is generally done at the facility's permanent podium next to the grandstand). Organizers commissioned pyrotechnics for Top 16 driver introductions, and an impressive list of drifting luminaries from the past were on hand, from OG series champs Sam Hubinette and Rhys Millen to D1 GP champion Nobushige Kumakubo and others from Team Orange in Japan, to Ken Miyoshi, who headed up Drift Showoff events at the track in the early 2000s.
Beyond the bowl, the paddock was chock full of stuff to see and do. We posted our AutoCon coverage a few days ago, which we understand is shaping up to be a more regular aspect of FD events, and in vendor row we spied with our little eye past and future pros' cars, like Forest Wang's S15, Ryan Litteral's S14, and 2017 Formula D Pro 2 champ Kevin Lawrence's S14.3. FD even got the United States Air Force to drop off an F-16 for everyone to paw at and get selfies in front of.
We have, in brief, recapped the scene for qualifying and how the comp shook out. And going through our notes, one thing is clear – it was a brutal, all-out war at the finale. It began even before the event did, specifically when Kristaps Bluss' HGK Motorsports V-8 E46, newly set up for nitrous oxide just for Round 8, went ka-blammo on the dyno, a season-ending blow to the Latvian driver (we may have erroneously reported the engine failure happened at the track, which it didn't). Or so everyone thought; enter the “Euro Fighter,” a V-8, carbon-Kevlar bodied BMW E92.
The Euro Fighter was built as a 2017 SEMA Show display car, but with his main weapon down for the count, Bluss decided to give his show car a baptism by fire. The car made it to and passed tech, and then went on to advance past Top 32, taking out landlord RAD Dan Burkett and his RAD Industries Mk4 Supra (aw-kward!) That's as deep as Bluss would go, though; in Top 16, his tandem was with eventual Irwindale winner Piotr Wiecek in the 2JZ-motivated Worthouse Drift S15 Silvia, and it was pretty obvious the HGK entry needs to find more speed to be more competitive.
Other carnage sufferers included Ryan Tuerck losing not one but two 2JZ in the Gumout 86, and that was just to get through qualifying; with Ken Gushi's backup mill under the hood, he gave his best against Aelx Heilbrunn in the IMR E46, but it wasn't enough. Also in Top 32, Justin Pawlak mangled the right front suspension on his Roush Performance Mustang while chasing Kyle Mohan's Built to Apex MX-5 but was able to return, which is more than we can say for Matt Coffman in the Coffman Racing S13, who had a serious run-in with the inner bank wall while chasing Odi Bakchis in his Falken S14. Dean Kearney in the Oracle Lighting Viper and Gushi in the Greddy Performance 86 cancelled each other out in the first round of tandems, with Kearney blowing up a motor and Gushi going hard into the inner bank wall. Neither returned.
As the night wore on, the event became more and more emotional. At one point, we kinda wanted Vaughn Gittin, Jr., in the Monster Energy Drink Mustang RTR to win the whole thing, given his history at the track (winning D1 GP's America vs. Japan comp in 2005, D1's USA All-Star World Championship in 2007, and a Formula D title in 2010). His run, unfortunately, went through Robbie Nishida in the Jerry Yang Racing GT-R for Top 32, who was also at an end – in this case, at the end of his pro driving career. The under appreciated Nishida, who has been with FD since 2005, announced he was calling it quits earlier this year, and as such received a lotta love throughout the weekend at Irwindale.
Gittin had to dispatch teammate and number-one qualifier Chelsea DeNofa in the BC Racing Mustang RTR in Top 16 and then Pawlak in Great 8 before he faced off against the champion who replaced him, 2011 titlist Dai Yoshihara in the Turn 14 BRZ. Vaughn lost the match, but in one of the most poetic and fitting displays of love for Irwindale, before he drove off, JR left with a big, gnarly burnout in the middle of the paved infield – a proper goodbye kiss, if you will.
Dai looked pretty unbeatable throughout eliminations, knocking off in Top 16 the fierce Jhonnattan Castro in the Gerdau Metaldom 86, Heilbrunn in Great 8, and JR in the semis. But then he faced Wiecek – and, well, we all know how that went. Indeed, not enough can be said about the way the Worthouse Drift Team came to North America from Europe and cleaned up in Formula DRIFT. Champion James Deane, who went out in the round of 8 at the House of Drift, amassed six podium finishes over the season, four of those victories, and finished the year 113 points ahead of Fredric Aasbo in second in the points table, the largest margin for at least the last decade (and probably ever). That, folks, is what you call resetting the bar. And there's no reason Worthouse can't come back next season and be even more dominant, with either Deane or Wiecek.
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: if this is really the end of Irwindale, it's gonna suck, and we will miss it. But time waits for no man, and Formula D has already suggested it has a replacement for the home of its yearly finale – we'll all learn where it is in the next couple weeks, as the series is set to make the announcement at the 2017 SEMA Show in Las Vegas on November 1st.