Round 6: Sonoma, CA
Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, is close to the heart of California's wine-making industry. But it was the piquant aroma of melting tires that filled the air during Formula D's sixth round. The event was rescheduled to accommodate a double date with the IndyCar circus, a great way to pick up more fans for both series and a sign that drifting is becoming a bigger part of America's motorsport culture.
Round 6 was something of a homecoming for McQuarrie. So, would Sonoma welcome its favorite son, and smile upon him and all his endeavors? Fat chance. Life never works like that.
For this round, we went to my backyard: Infineon Raceway. I've been an instructor at the Jim Russell Racing School there for 12 years and have done hundreds of races at this track. But it hasn't been good to me over the past five seasons. Whether it's a NASCAR West race or a Formula D event, if it's at this track, I'm almost guaranteed a fluke mechanical problem. But the Falken Tire 350Z had been amazing all year, so I was hoping my luck would change at Sonoma.
The schedule was pretty wacky, because we were sharing the track with the Indy cars, which is awesome for Formula D and the sport of drifting. We got two hours of practice on Thursday and ASD did an awesome job on the setup, making it easy for me to throw it into Turn One. I felt ready for qualifying, but the Infineon gods had something else in mind. On my first qualifying run, I had great entry speed with tons of angle. As I went back on the power to connect the outer clipping point, the car just shut off, causing me to straighten up and get a zero. It was a bad master switch, so the team hard-wired the car for my second run. With only one stab to get the Falken Tire 350Z in the show, I took it pretty easy, placing me 13th overall.
We had an hour's practice before the Top 32, but the Infineon gods were speaking loud and clear that they had other plans for me. I did one run, then while I waited in line for more, the car died and wouldn't re-start. Nate from Motec started looking for the problem, so he could tell the ASD guys what to fix; this was with about 20 minutes to go. At first we thought it was the cam sensor, so the team changed that quickly, but it still wouldn't start. Top 32 had started and it was "code red" at Team Falken. Everyone was diving on the car, radio chatter was off the charts and Nate was still trying to pinpoint the problem. I almost started laughing as I looked up at the sky, yelling: "Why? What did I do to you?"
I saw Kenji lining up and we had to call for five minutes. I got in the car, ready to go just in case, but it wasn't looking good. Our five minutes passed, so we had to forfeit the round. Kenji went through to the Top 16.
It's one thing to make a mistake or get your butt kicked, but not even getting the chance to battle sucks. There's nothing we can do to change what happened, but we can sure as hell make sure it doesn't happen again. Every driver still in the championship chase had a bad event too. Although I dropped from Third to Fifth in the standings, I'm only five points short of Third and 15 points from Second. I'm still in a great position to finish my first year in the Falken Tire's Nissan 350Z at the sharp end of a highly competitive Formula D field.
So here's an, um, interesting fact. The allegedly Chinese curse of "may you live in interesting times" might not be Chinese after all. Which is no comfort at all to championship leader Chris Forsberg, who described this event at one of the original four tracks in Formula D by using that very word.
This was definitely an interesting weekend. We went into Round 6 with a large points lead and were focused on maintaining that lead. We arrived at Infineon Raceway Tuesday night, because we had a media opportunity Wednesday morning along with Tony Brakohiapa and Tyler McQuarrie. It was nice to get a couple of laps on the car, even with passengers in it.
Formula D had the opportunity to run this event in conjunction with IRL, and that changed our schedule a little. We had to qualify on Thursday, run Top 32 on Friday and then Top 16 on Saturday. Thursday's qualifying went really well; the car felt great, I laid down a solid run on the first pass, then followed it up with a faster, deeper-angle run which put us up to Third. The team was really excited to get a few extra points toward the championship and to have a great position for the Top 32.
Friday's Top 32 session started with a lot of upsets, starting with Second-Place points man Ryan Tuerck getting knocked out by my Drift Alliance teammate Vaughn Gittin, Jr. After that, Tyler McQuarrie (who was Third in the championship) took a DNF when his car failed to run. With those guys out in the first round, I had a great chance to create an even bigger points gap.
In my first outing, I went against Calvin Wan. I led on the first pass, so I set out to run a nice, wide qualifying line. However, when I was coming off the outer clipping zone and in toward the first inner clipping point, Calvin struck the front of my car with his door, damaging the front suspension. I rushed back to the pits and our team called for five minutes to carry out repairs. Calvin returned to the starting line to wait. Kevin and Sergio attacked the front end with tools and jacks and anything that could fix the front suspension. We were waiting to hear from Formula D if the contact was declared Calvin's fault or not, and if we needed to make a second run. No such word was given, so with time running out, we had no choice but to make a temporary fix and send the car back to the line in less-than-perfect condition.
Running down the straightaway on the second run, I threw the car into a drift and could tell it wasn't steering properly. Calvin straightened out at the outer clipping zone and I stayed close. I rotated around the inner clip, flipped to the left and felt the car load up on the damaged side. The wheel started to rub the fender and we spun to a stop at the finish line. I almost made it. The judges called for a One More Time.
At this point, Kevin had the pieces to fix the car. I pulled into the pits and there were several mechanics from other teams ready to help. But as soon as the jack went under, a Formula D official ran over and told us that a second five-minute call was not allowed. We tried to convince him that this happens all the time, but he would not allow us to fix the car. I was forced to run two more laps, knowing that as soon as I transferred to the left, the wheel would rub the fender and I would spin out.
I drove as hard as I could, made it through the first lap with very little angle to the left. On the second lap, however, I spun at the finish again. We were sad to hear that we lost the round and immediately went to the rulebook to see where it says you can only declare a single five-minute call. It was nowhere in the rules, so we filed a protest with the chief steward. After some review, the chief steward announced that it was incorrect not to allow us the five minutes, then said that we would be doing a re-run starting from the first One More Time.
Saturday afternoon: we had to wait until 4 p.m. before we could get on track. Calvin and I were the first to run. I led first, again, focused on getting a good run to gain an advantage on the first pass. Until Calvin ran into my front suspension. Again. At the same part of the track. He had so much momentum that he also damaged his car, then he immediately hit the back end of my car as well. I rushed back to the pits, again, Kevin started jacking up the car, again, and we call five minutes, again.
The damage wasn't as bad this time. Kevin fixed the alignment and had us back on the ground in two minutes. I pulled up to the line as Calvin's team tried to fix his car. He came to the line just as his five minutes ran out, but his front end looked pretty bad. I gave him some room because his car was hardly tracking down the straightaway and, as we ran through the course, Calvin made a few errors. Because of this, along with the collision in the first round, I was declared the winner. I was just happy it was over and could continue in the competition.
In the Top 16, I faced Stephan "Frenchie" Verdier, who has always been a solid driver, but was laying it down better than I had ever seen. It was a close run. I tried to stay with him, door-to-door going through the hairpin. I let off as his car rotated across in front of me in the transition. When I got onto the throttle, he had already put a car length down in front of me, giving him the win.
Now that the top three drivers had been eliminated from competition early on, Sam and Vaughn, who were placed Fourth and Fifth, respectively, had the opportunity to gain positions in the points chase with a solid finish. As I watched to see how it would all unfold, my stomach was turning itself inside out. However, both drivers were knocked out in the Great 8, which still left me with the points lead.
By the way, not only did Frenchie win the Top 16 round against me, he went on to win the entire event. It was a well-deserved and well-earned victory for him. Congratulations Steph, you killed it out there.
Nos Energy Drink
Daijiro Yoshihara is one lucky SOB. After trashing his ride at the last meeting, it looked as if this diary entry would be about how he spent the entire weekend watching TV and eating nachos. But Team Falken Tire had other plans and another driver was rescued from premature obesity.
After the terrible crash in Round 5, I thought my season was over. But Team Falken Tire decided to build another car for me.
With only two weeks between Rounds 5 and 6, we had just nine days to build the car. We decided to use one from the previous season: Ross Petty's old Nissan S13 240SX. Since the car had no engine and we didn't have any SR motors available, we decided to put a V-8 in it. We had to rebuild everything except the roll cage and fuel lines. It was a lot of work in the time we had and I tried to help as much as I could. Fortunately, we finished at 4 a.m. on the day we had to trailer the car up to Sonoma and qualify.
In the practice session, the S13 ran well fresh out of the box. We made just a few minor adjustments and went to the qualifying round. I tried my best and was able to place Ninth. I was amazed. In the Top 32 round, I went against Eric O'Sullivan. He's a fine driver, scoring Second in Seattle. I led the first run and he spun out before completing the first clipping point. I had solid runs, both leading and following, which allowed me to move on to the next round. OMG, finally! It was my first time in the Top 16 this year. I was so happy.
I went against Ken Gushi. He led first and I stayed close, but he was so fast after the first clipping point and I couldn't keep up. I thought he had the advantage, so I decided to push harder when I led. I tried to make more angle, but unfortunately it failed and I made a half-spin. Ken moved on. After he beat me, I was cheering for Ken and he was driving great, reaching the final. That made me feel better. I think he could have won if his car hadn't broken down.
I really wanted to go further. It could have been better, but I was happy to be there as a competitor again. My mechanics, Scott and Steve, did great a job. The S13 was built very efficiently, so it didn't have any problems the whole weekend. I really, really appreciate all of their hard work.
I want to thank my team, Falken Tire and Discount Tire and all the sponsors, everyone who helped to get the new Discount Tire S13 ready. Without their help, I wouldn't have been able to drive in Sonoma. I realize again that I'm surrounded by splendid people and I'm super lucky.
Millen takes it to the next level. New Zealand's finest export since "Flight of the Conchords" and a perky Sauvignon Blanc, Rhys has finally said: "It's business time." But let's allow him to tell you in his own inimitable way.
For a track I really don't care for, I have to say it was a pretty good weekend for the team and the Genesis coupe. The car felt fast, predictable and competitive from the very first practice run. Qualifying placed us Fourth-a result we were very happy with. Once again, the car never skipped a beat and was recording some of the highest entry speeds of the weekend at 93 mph.
Race day would see the Genesis coupe progress past the rounds of 32 and 16, meeting my buddy Tanner Foust in the Great 8 in his . . . whatever that thing is. I placed a respectable Sixth for the weekend. It's great to roll the Genesis coupe out on track and watch heads turn-this car really is bad-ass. Just wait until you see what Team RMR has in store for SEMA this year. You're gonna throw out your "oh face". Oh, yeah!
A team barbecue seems to have lit a fire under Tanner Foust. He attacked Infineon Raceway as if he wanted to impress the IndyCar team managers. Or maybe Helio has got him a gig on "Dancing With The Stars." Either way, the protein will do him good.
While Sonoma's drift track is not that interesting (in my opinion), it certainly hosted a fascinating event. Indy cars on track, drift cars working a demo on the epic Infineon Raceway, protests and recalls, the top points guys failing to qualify, finish a lap or even start their cars . . . awesome.
To liven up the weekend further, Mr. Papadakis rented a bitchin' house in the hills for the team: hot tub, pool and all. We were lounging in hammocks and grilling afternoon steaks like it was friggin' Club Med. Thankfully, the guys are pros and when the flip-flops hit the track, we were ready for work.
At this point in the season, there's no room for tentative tandem runs. I attacked every car in front of me as if the driver had just bitch-slapped my sister. When leading, I put the hammer down as far as it would go, clocking the three fastest runs of the day. We were out for blood!
Ken Gushi, in his Scion, was in the same mode, so it was unfortunate that after two days of battling we came together in the semi-finals. Following him, I attacked hard-too hard, and put a tire in the dirt. It cost me a car length, but I was still sticking with him. On the lead lap, I waited a few hundred feet before opening up the TRD NASCAR V-8, as agreed, so Ken could stay with me down the straight. I threw my worst, but couldn't shake the lighter RS-R Scion. Ken fought hard enough to blow his engine's head gasket on the last turn, but he still took the victory.
In the consolation round with Ryuji Miki, we battled three times. Each time there was contact, evidence that we were both hungry for the last podium spot. On the last following run, he slowed slightly and I made contact with his rear bumper. Knowing the pattern, I stayed in the throttle, which must have startled Ryuji. He lifted off the gas and we came to a stop. I took Fourth without complaint and I'm proud of the team for finding two more design improvements for the next event. With a chance to still snag a podium championship spot, the Rockstar/Scion Drift Team will be more prepared for Irwindale than ever.
At last, Ken Gushi has a reason to get excited, making it to the finals at one of the series' fastest tracks, before a crowd swollen with IndyCar fans. All that pressure, though, means that it's easy to blow a gasket.
Finally, we did it! It may not be a win, but Team RS-R has proven that we can take it all the way to the top. Every time I've written an entry, it was always about something going wrong with the car. The last event at Seattle, our driveshaft broke. Before that, it was a motor swap in Vegas. New Jersey was transmission issues, and in Atlanta, we had no power steering. All these problems, one after another. And at last, here at Sonoma, we make it to the finals. But the story continues.
Let's start with Qualifying. It was the first time this year that it was held on Thursday. Which meant Top 32 tandem was on Friday and Top 16 on Saturday. If I failed to qualify on Thursday, my weekend would have already been over, so I was determined to make it into the Top 32. During practice, Ben from RS-R had me work on a few different lines. I wanted to enter with a lot of angle, but with the current setup of the car, it would become shallower by the end of the straight. I had to change my approach. Instead of clutch kicking, I had to use a hand-brake entry and try to get it quickly to full counter. I ended up qualifying in Eighth Place with a score of 69.9. Either the judges were really strict or they didn't like any of my runs because the First-Place qualifier was Ueo with 80.
Placing eighth meant going up against the 25th-Place qualifier: Robbie Nishida. If it was anyone else, I would have been happy, but why did I have to be matched against my friend? One of us would not make it to Saturday.
I beat Robbie, which put me up against Daijiro Yoshihara for the Top 16 on Saturday. From there on, I was on fire. I was determined to take it all the way to the top. I didn't want anything to stop this rhythm. After Dai, I went against Ueo-probably the toughest battle of the day. He had a lot of angle and his entries were hard to match. Because of this, he would slow down so much, forcing me to brake more than usual.
Up next was Tanner Foust. Scion tC versus Scion tC; V-8 versus four-cylinder turbo; Hankook versus Toyo. I wished this was the final battle, but it had to come in the semis. The runs with Tanner were easier to fight compared to the runs with Ueo, because Tanner drives extremely clean. So clean, in fact, that maybe it's not good for tandem. He doesn't play dirty, so I had the confidence to stick with him through the straightaway. This was when things started to turn.
Through the last corner of the second run, I lost power and my motor began to sputter. And there it was: a toasted Beams 3SGE. It was a good thing we made it to the finals, but with a blown motor? "Oh well," I thought, as I was determined to show the audience a great final battle against Stephan Verdier.
The best part about my misfortune was that guys from Bergenholtz Racing, Maxxis Tire/LS Auto, Falken Tire and many others in the hot-pit area all came by the RS-R pit to help get the tC back on track. That made me want to win even more. Unfortunately, the motor was too tired for another round. It gave up as soon as I initiated into Turn One. I had to straighten out and go off-course to avoid a collision with Stephan.
I'm very happy for the RS-R Scion Toyo Team. Hard work does pay off in the end and without them, it would have been impossible. Nate from Motec has also been with us from the start of the season and has been working his ass off to get the car right. I appreciate every single one of you guys and will continue pushing forward. One day, we shall rise to the top!
Never let it be said that longshots can't beat the safe bets; that stacks can't be toppled; that privateer Davids can't take out big-buck, corporate-sponsored Goliaths. Please welcome this month's guest, Stephan Verdier, the man who puts the "ordinaire" in "drifter extraordinaire", has no crew to speak of, and as of Round 6 of Formula D, is the only man we know to win a pro drift event on a single set of tires.
I landed at Los Angeles International airport on Monday at 2 p.m., after a flight from Toronto where I was judging a Canadian drifting series. I got home, hooked up my trailer and STI to my truck, and drove straight to Sonoma.
Thursday morning was spent unloading and getting ready for two hours of practice, which went well. I've always been comfortable on this track; it's pretty simple compared to the rest of the season's circuits.
I placed 14th in qualifying, which put me against Kazu Hayashida-a very good driver-for Top 32 competition. We went into battle and I was leading with a really good, error-free run. When following, I was able to come close and stay there the whole time. I advanced to the Top 16 for the main show on Saturday. It was a victory for me already, and a big confidence booster.
On Saturday, Formula D ran the Forsberg/Wan battle again and Forsberg won, which wasn't good news for me-he would be my next opponent. His entry speed was close to mine, and he's a clean driver. I knew to enter as close as possible to him; he wouldn't brake-check me or anything stupid. I entered right next to him and was able to stay on his door. It was scary, but I did it-it was my best follow, ever.
Back at the start for my lead run, I knew I had to be perfect to make it difficult for Forsberg to follow. He was right on my door like he always is, but coming out of the teardrop I was able to put a little more space between us. I advanced.
I was on a cloud until I found out that Vaughn Gittin, Jr. was going to be my next battle-another big hitter. His car is so loud that when you run next to him, you can't hear yours. And it's so smoky that you can't see where you're going half the time. He qualified better, so I had to follow first.
I went in deep with him, to stay on his door. He gapped me a bit after the teardrop, but I was able to close in by the end of the course, which was funny because in the last turn, I was in his smoke and couldn't see where he or the outside wall was. My lead lap had to be mistake-free. JR was on me, but made a mistake in the last corner and I moved up to the Final Four. I was back on my cloud-first Final Four ever!
By this time, I was really starting to worry about my tires. Since I don't have a crew, the only way to change tires would be for me to go back to my truck. But when you win, you have to bring all the cameras back to the starting line, so I had to stay on the same set of tires that I started with for practice earlier in the day.
Next was Ryuji Miki, another big gun. His entry speed was seven mph faster than mine, and I had to follow him first. I knew I had to enter really deep to have a chance of sticking with him. We both entered hot, but he made a correction and I looked at him to see what he was going to do instead of seeing where I was on the track, which made me go wide in Turn One, dropping a wheel and losing some distance. I was able to close the gap a bit by the end, but my run wasn't as good as my two previous battles.
Again, I had to put in a perfect lead run to advance. I went in as fast as I could, but Ryuji was on me, so close that he tapped me at the teardrop. It didn't affect me, but I knew he was there. I was able to get a better line coming out of it and he made a couple of corrections that gave me the advantage to advance. On to the Finals!
I was so happy! My spotter, Doug Andrus, who also is my Cooper Tires sponsor, kept telling me to "breathe, breathe, breathe!" Not only was it my first Final, but it was Cooper's too. Now I was really nervous! That was 10 runs on the same set of tires, plus all the warming up before each run-a blow-out in the Finals wouldn't look good for anyone! Also, the track was getting colder, but I couldn't adjust tire pressure, since my gauge was in the truck . . . along with the extra gas I was running out of. Six runs, plus warm-ups, standing in line, etc. I kept thinking: don't run out of gas, please!
The finals. Ken Gushi versus Stephan Verdier. The factory driver versus the privateer. The superstar versus me. I was telling myself: "It's getting better by the round." I was in the follow position at the starting line, and could smell Ken's car losing water. We left the line pretty slow, and I could see white smoke coming from his right front wheel well. We initiated slow and his car was spraying water and oil all over my windshield. Ken started the drift but lost power, dumping water all over his wheels and keeping him from continuing. I passed him, and went back to the starting line, thinking we had to go again for my lead run. My windshield was covered with water and oil and I couldn't see. I could hear everyone cheering, but since I didn't have a crew, I was screaming for somebody to help me clean my windshield. Then Chris Forsberg came over and told me, "It's over! You won!"
Unbelievable. I won my first event overall. I don't like to win on account of a mechanical failure, and I wish I could have battled Ken the right way. But that's racing, unfortunately. I'm sure Ken and I will have a rematch one day. I can't wait!
Rd 6. Results
Sonoma, CA Podium
1. Stephan Verdier
2. Ken Gushi
3. Tanner Foust