Here we are-at the seventh round of the seventh season of Formula Drift. To say the series has gotten better with time barely scratches the surface. All season long, we've seen neck-and-neck competition-and the most positive rivalry any racing fan could ask for-between two of the league's original slide masters, culminating in a championship seat that's stayed fair game for both until the end. And hot on the wheels of it all there's been the threat of past and defending FD champs, and some of the biggest guns in import drag racing now trained on mastering the sideways arts. The final chapter of Formula D Diaries brings it back to the legendary House of Drift: Toyota Speedway at Irwindale, CA.
Any fan of import drag racing will be familiar with Gardella Racing. The Howell, NJ, privateers' Ecko-sponsored red Civic hatch ran consistent low-eight-second E.T.s in NHRA Hot Rod competition throughout 2003 and 2004, and won the NDRA Pro 4 Cylinder Championship outright in 2005, setting a class E.T. record with a 7.92-second pass in the process. They've also done an equally progressive job of winning drift events with Ryan Tuerck behind the wheel of the team's Red Bull/Mobil 1 Saturn Sky, winning two events in 2009 and finishing Second for the Champ chase. Would their streak continue for 2010?
Leading up to Irwindale, I was able to spend a few days at my place in New York to relax for a little while. This made me pretty comfortable, thinking about the weekend ahead. I got into LAX the Tuesday prior to the event for some planned early testing, but rain for the first two days changed those plans. The weather cleared up for open practice on Thursday, and the Gardella Racing team and I were itching to hit the track. After half a day's testing and tuning, the car was perfect-I couldn't have asked for a better setup. But by the end of the session the motor was running a little funny. We brought it back to the pit and found out that we had destroyed a lifter-nothing too serious. Gardella Racing mechanics Scott and Mike had it changed in about 20 minutes.
Friday was Qualifying. I was sitting Fourth in the championship and still had a shot at Second or Third, so I needed to get every point I could. I stayed calm. I felt really strong during morning practice and was ready to step it up a notch for my two qualifying runs. The first Qualifying lap I laid down was killer-I was high on the bank, nailed the first two clips, ran fast through the center clip, and flicked it hard into the lower bank wall. For a split second I thought I was going to plant my rear bumper into the wall, but I pulled it off and finished strong. My score was 83.9-good enough for Second. I put down another solid run but was too low on the bank and only scored an 82.2, leaving me in Fourth. I really wanted to be in the top three but it just wasn't in the cards.
Saturday was game day; the day that would decide whether we would have a long, dark, crappy off-season or not. For Top 32 I was up against Ryuji Miki. I had been watching him in practice and had a pretty good strategy going up against him. As we lined up to the grid I was on the right side to lead the first lap. We took off and paced each other and once we passed the pace cone I floored it to get my normal entry speed, and nailed the run. It was the best lap I had all weekend! I put a good amount of distance on Miki so I knew I'd have an advantage on my following lap. I had a minor correction on the bank, but ran clean enough to move on to the Top 16 where I would see my buddy Justin Pawlak.
Justin always runs really well at Irwindale, so I wasn't expecting him to hand me a win. I lead the first lap. We took off, I flicked into the bank super high on the wall, trying everything not to scrape the bumper, and made it most of the way around, but right at the outside clip I stuffed the bumper and bounced off the wall three times. I maintained my drift and finished my run but it was a pretty big mistake. My follow lap was awesome, putting the pressure on Pawlak the entire time, but it just wasn't enough to put me ahead of him, so my season ended with a Top 16 finish.
I was bummed at myself for making such a dumb mistake. And just as I was thinking I'd just ruined my shot at a Top 3 season finish, I learned that since Dai spun in his Top 32 run and didn't make Top 16, I had scored Third Place in the championship . . . by one point! And we were only a few points off our total earnings last season. I felt bad for Dai's bad luck, but was really happy my teammates at Gardella Racing and my sponsors and fans got the finish they deserved. The off-season isn't looking so dark and crappy after all-here's to an even brighter 2011!
Thanks to all our supporters this year for a great season: Mobil 1, Gardella Racing, Pontiac, Red Bull, Maxxis, County Line Auto Body, ACT, AEM (and Stef's fabrication), NGK, Norm's Fiberglass, Precision Turbo, Pro Shocks, Alpinestars, Electric Sunglasses, Vans, and Driveshaft Shop.
Vaughn Gittin Jr.
Looking back on JR's track record for the '10 season, it might seem smart to assume he's had the Champ crown on lockdown from the start. But that's not entirely true. He had a very large, JDM, drift samurai thorn in his side all along-one that goes by the name Daijiro Yoshihara. True, JR did stand on the podium at every event of the season, but the two of those times when he took Second, it was because Dai nailed First. But alas, this is Irwindale, and contrary to what Toyota Speedway tax forms may declare, JR owns this house!
Coming into Round 7, I knew I had a pretty big lead for the championship on Daijiro Yoshihara. He's my bud, Falken teammate, and a damn good driver, but everyone knows the rivalry between us this year. We've been neck-and-neck all year long. Who would win the championship came down to how well we both qualified, and whether or not I could make it through the round of 32.
I ended up qualifying Sixth and Dai in Third, but as long as I could make it through the Top 32, I would seal the championship. The '10 FD season had been a dream year for me leading up the finale, as I had podiumed five out of six rounds, winning in Long Beach, taking Second in Atlanta and New Jersey, Third in Vegas, and finally, taking the win again in Sonoma. All this in a new car! I don't even have to speak for my crew-their work speaks for them.
After qualifying, I went up against the rookie Nicoli Konstantinov, who had smashed his car into the wall during a practice session the night before. Luckily, Nicoli is one dedicated driver and worked all night to get his car back together in time for the Top 32. I led first and scraped the infield wall a bit-not anything huge that would disrupt my run. On my chase run, Nicoli had some issues initiating, and I could tell he was shutting it down, so I passed him while staying on the proper line. Driving back to the grid I knew Jarod was announcing that I had just won the championship, and I cannot even begin to describe what I was feeling. As soon as I got back, everyone swarmed my car, tore me out of the seat, and threw me into the air-yes, I have some strong friends. My fiancée ran to me and jumped up in my arms. It was an unreal moment that I will never forget.
But I had one last podium to finish off for the year. I was up against Fredric Aasbo in the Top 16, who had been killing it all year and was later awarded the Rookie of the Year title. This was the fourth time we had gone against each other this season, and I loved battling him every time. I led first and entered early, with a high line on the bank and a ton of angle. Coming off the bank, I was able to put the Mustang right up on the infield wall. My spotters were telling me that Aasbo followed right behind, with just a slightly more shallow line in the infield . . . but it was close. I knew I needed to put some insane pressure on Aasbo to get the advance, which I did, and moved on.
I was up against Matt Powers in the round of eight. He had been progressing each time out this year and was doing awesome all weekend, so I knew I couldn't cut him any slack. I was able to run the course with more speed and angle than Matt, and was on his door the entire time I chased. I was pumped to be moving on!
I faced Michihiro Takatori in the Final Four. I was immediately able to pull a huge gap on him after initiating on the bank, and stuck to my qualifying line and pulled ahead. When chasing, I was able to reel into him immediately and stay on his door. I even tapped the infield wall a bit without losing my drift, making sure the judges knew that I should be the one in the Finals, and they agreed.
My final battle of the night and of the season would be against none other than Mr. Tanner Foust. Tanner is a great driver and we've beaten each other many times. Driving against Tanner is always a gamble, but the good thing about it is when we run each other we both push our absolute hardest and go crazy on the track. We put down two insane runs and the judges called for a One More Time. Our second battle was just as crazy as our first, but Tanner was said to have had a better chase run. I would end the night in Second Place for the event, but as the 2010 Formula Drift Champion!
There are a lot of people who work extremely hard to make sure I have the tools to do my job, and without every last one of them, there is no way I could have done this. But I have to give a special thanks to Falken Tire for believing in me and supporting the sport of drifting on an unmatched level since 2003-it's an honor to bring them a Championship. I'm not sure how I am going to top this epic year, but believe me, I plan to try. 2011, here we come!!
Monster Energy Drink