The temperatures were hot and the “House of Drift” at Irwindale Speedway was ready to roll. Formula Drift’s grand season finale was on the horizon and everything was set for an all out competition for the championship. The standings leading up to the finale had Rhys Millen and the Pontiac GTO at the top, Samuel Hubinette and the Mopar Dodge Viper in a close second and Ken Gushi in the Ford Mustang in third. Nitto Tires’ Daijiro Yoshihara in the S13 was in sight at fourth place and not far behind was Team Falken’s own Vaughn Gittin JR with the Mustang.
Friday’s qualifying round solidified 13 drivers for Saturday’s Top 16 qualifying attempt. Robbie Nishida straight from Japan, driving the Team Falken / Overboost.com 180sx would take the 13th spot after a judging issue was presented. Erik Jacobs in the Team Toyo S13 would be in 12th; Yukinobu Okubo in the Signal S13.5 in 11th; Ryan Hampton showed that his Team Falken ’69 Camaro isn’t far behind in 10th; Brendan Walker in the beautiful champagne colored Team Falken S14 grabbed 9th; Chris Gregorian in the Pirelli sponsored RB powered 240 would be in 8th; Benson Hsu represented Southern California with a 7th place qualifying position in the Tein 240sx; Barry Wong drifted KAAZ colors into 6th; Derrick Rodgers would surprise the crowd with the Cooper Tires Firebird into 5th; Stephan Papadakis carried his momentum from Chicago into Irwindale with a 4th place qualifying in the AEM S2000; Ken Gushi’s dad, PaPa Gushi would roll into 3rd with the Gushi Auto S13; and rounding off the top two were Ross Petty in the Rotary Powered RX-7 and Big Smoke Ben Schwarz with the Peak Performance / Team Falken S14 was in top.
Friday’s qualifying would claim a few cars, including Matt Vassallo’s Team Enjuku S13.5. Never lifting on the outside sweep Vassallo put the beautiful S13.5 into the wall pretty much destroying the car. And Tony Henderson’s S14 went up on the wall giving those present an interesting show.
As the seeded drivers practiced and the blazing sun set on the “House of Drift” Friday night, anticipation grew for what would happen the next day. With sunrise on Saturday, and the hot hot temperatures returning, all the qualified drivers were lined up to practice and ready to put on a show. As usual, Rhys Millen was right on track, but there were a few surprises. Dai’s beautiful red S13 was nowhere to be seen; instead a bright yellow S13 took its place. After a few practice runs, Vaughn Gittin JR also had to replace the Team Falken Mustang with the Car Tune S13. As top 16 qualifying rolled around, mayhem would ensue – what’s a Formula Drift event without crashes?
Alex Pfeiffer, following an insanely fast qualifying lap ending his hopes of competition with a front-end crash into the wall. Despite qualifying for top 16, the car was unfortunately not able to be repaired in time for competition. Taka Aono in the Team Falken AE86 went beyond rolling the car on its side against the wall; Aono took it all the way and flipped it upside down! No problem for Aono though, showing that he is a true competitor and showman he bowed for the cheering fans and then even scored himself a solid 10 for the crash after watching the replay. We can’t wait to see your return next year Taka!
After all the smoke cleared – and there was plenty of it – the Top 16 was announced:
Conrad Grunewald in the Team Falken S14
Robbie Nishida in the Team Falken 180SX
Ken Gushi in the Team Toyo Mustang
Derrick Rodgers in the Cooper Tires Firebird
Seigo Yamamoto in the Team Falken SR20DET powered RX-7
Vaughn Gittin JR in the Team Falken / Cartune S13
Tyler McQuarrie in the Jasper Supra
Dai Yoshihara in the Nitto Tires S13
Mike Peters in the Bubba Drift El Camino
Chris Forsberg in the Team Falken / Password JDM S15
Alex Pfeiffer in the RS*R S2000, despite crashing
Ben Schwartz putting up big smoke in the Peak Performance / Team Falken S14
Yukinobo Okubo in the Signal Auto / BFGoodrich S13.5
Samuel Hubinette in the Team Mopar Dodge Viper
Tanner Foust in the McKinney Motorsports S13
And lastly, Rhys Millen would take pole position in the Yokohama Pontiac GTO
First round tandems produced some excitement, as Millen bested Grunewald, Okubo put the pressure on Rodgers with a win, Schwartz left Yamamoto in a ton of smoke, Yoshihara would spin out against Peters, Foust would proceed past Nishida after a one more time, Forsberg never lifted against McQuarrie, and Hubinette would move on past Gushi after a debatable contest. Gittin would have a solo run since Pfeiffer was unable to repair the car.
A Millen and Hubinette final looked possible, but Hubinette would have to face Vaughn Gittin JR first. Before that however, Millen conquered Bubba Drift and the Schwartz vs. Okubo tandem would go to a one more time. Schwartz unfortunately spun out against the Japanese driver, giving Okubo the nod to the top 4. Forsberg left Foust in a ton of smoke, paving his own way towards the top 4. Lastly, Vaughn Gittin JR against Hubinette drew gasps from the crowd as Hubinette spun out both times giving JR a future bout with his own Drift Alliance teammate. At this point, Millen was already crowned the series champ!
The competition went on however, Millen would best Okubo and Forsberg’s never lift mentality left a questionably running S13 driven by JR for a third place contest against Okubo. The Cartune S13 just couldn’t hold up to the abuse of Vaughn Gittin JR however, giving Okubo the third place podium finish and JR a fourth place finish overall for the season.
The finals between Rhys Millen and Team Falken’s Chris Forsberg would be something for the books however. On Forsberg’s old 350Z, he had a sticker that said “too close for missiles, switching to guns!” Well, in the season finale and the final battle, the sticker could have read ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire!’ That’s right, in blazing glory and a fiery drift battle, Forsberg’s rear bumper lit up as he went completely sideways through the course at speeds only Millen could duplicate. A one more time was in the works which proved too much for Millen’s GTO. Suspension problems would ensue on the GTO as Forsberg continued his consistency through the track at blazing speed producing tons of smoke. Forsberg would finally receive his long awaited and deserved victory representing Team Falken and Password JDM.
A great season finale, with the top three champions at Rhys Millen, Samuel Hubinette, and Ken Gushi. Next season is already in the works and the surprises that await are going to be insane!