The third round of four in The Drift League's 2019 championship will be remembered for some very pointed examples of the thrill of victory and agony of defeat. We had one young hard-charger impress judges and earn a hard-fought event triumph, and another have an untimely mechanical failure that has seemingly thrown his title and Pro 2 license hopes into question. And, it was freakin' hot.
We didn't quite get to 100 degrees, but man it was gettin' close. Hydration and shade were musts for anyone driving and working the event, but that wasn't always possible, especially for teams and drivers set up in the paddock or hot pits. We knew of at least one pilot who had to seek refuge in one of Irwindale Speedway's air-conditioned offices after complaining of symptoms of heat stroke, so you really needed to aggressively mitigate temps as much as possible, both in your car and yourself.
Heading into Round 3, Tony Cisneros had a sizable 54-point advantage in the standings, after winning both Rounds 1 and 2, with Jon Shaffer in second. We liked what we saw of Jon all season long, as his S14 seemed dialed and he seemed to be building some momentum (however much can be had with a 2-month break in between events), getting on the box at Round 2. But drifting can be a cruel mistress sometimes, and the oval at the House of Drift a treacherous place; on his first Qualifying lap, the power steering in Jon's car let go on the big bank, and in spite of doing everything he could to keep it out of the wall (there's video out there) that is unfortunately exactly what happened.
It was heartbreaking to watch Shaffer exit his Nissan and walk away from it after the wreck, his body language clearly expressing the disappointment in realizing his season may be in serious jeopardy. As of this writing, it looks like Jon is going to try to fix the car and make Round 4 in less than a month - but even he appears to admit that's a pretty tall order, and might be unlikely (he's suggested he might show up in a different car). At this point, he'd only be doing it to try to secure one of TDL's three Formula D Pro 2 licenses; it is mathematically impossible for him to win a 2019 season championship.
It's worth noting that the close of another season for Southern California's other Formula DRIFT-licensed pro-am series, Top Drift, weeks earlier had a small but important ripple effect on Drift League's driver points table, that being Micah Diaz and his Hold Fast BMW E46 dropping out of TDL. Because he earned a Top Drift championship and, probably more importantly, an FD Pro 2 license through them, he didn't need to see out the rest of Drift League's season - and it's a smart move, considering how expensive it is to compete. He was sitting in third place, but now is effectively out of the title race.
With the stakes so small for so many other competitors, and the almost-extreme heat, it wasn't that much of a shock to see the modest turnout in competition, just a dozen entries total, which became 11 after Jon's crash. Essa Autosport E46 driver Margaritis Katsanidis took the number-one qualifying spot in a somewhat abbreviated session, followed by Keoni Rodrigues, Cisneros, and Pablo Cabrera. A top-11 meant there would be five bye runs sprinkled throughout the first round of eliminations to start.
The Drift League Rd. 3 2019 Qualifying Order
Irwindale Speedway, CA.
1. Margaritis Katsanidis
2. Keoni Rodrigues
3. Tony Cisneros
4. Pablo Cabrera
5. Aaron Velazquez
6. Carlos Cano Estrella
7. RJ Contreras
8. Meliton Villamor
9. Don Boline
10. Nicholas Balcerzak
11. Jerald Hernandez
Interestingly, the three actual tandems in Top 16 went to One More Times, a testament to the tricky nature of the track layout. Everything was on the southeast end of the bowl, with cars shooting down the big bank for Zone 1, swinging around off the big bank to the low bank and then transitioning to the right and another rear zone before sliding past an inner clip, and then flicking again in the other direction to cross the finish line. Meliton Villamor in his S14 had a strong finish in Round 2 but this time was outmatched by Don Boline in the G2 Wraps 350Z; RJ Contreras and his badass Big Duck Club E36 needed an extra frame to get by newbie Nicholas Balcerzak's lime S13; and Top 16 ended with Carlos Cano Estrella in his V8 AE86 (he was trying to bring out his A80 Supra, to no avail) dispatching Jerald Hernandez and his still-not-totally-ready Cadillac CTS V in extra laps.
By Great 8, everyone had an opponent to drive against, and the oppressive sun was finally getting low on the horizon. When it was over, qualifiers 1 through 4 had advanced to the semis, in a perfect example of how it's supposed to play out; Katsanidis eliminated Boline, Pablo Cabrera in the V's Performance V8 S13 knocked off Aaron Velazquez's S14 in either's first pair, Rodrigues defeated Contreras, and Cisneros put an end to Cano Estrella's night. With the most high-powered drivers in the Final 4, would fireworks ensue?
All the matchups from here on out were epic. By the looks of it, Katsanidis finally had a car underneath him that could live up to his style of hard driving, but Cabrera is always a threat, always on the hunt for a podium, and this time the Nissan emerged victorious. On the other side of the bracket, everyone knows how potent Cisneros is behind the wheel of his 240SX, but for Round 3 he faced an out-for-blood Rodrigues, who was on fire all day in his S13 hatch, and the judges ultimately gave it to the young Hawaiian. This left Katsinidis and Cisneros to battle for third place, where Margaritis took the decision.
The last tandem of the night was an excellent one, but it seemed clear (to us, anyway) Keoni was the greater aggressor among the pair of S13, and employing a higher level of style, and judges agreed. A TDL rookie, Rodrigues has improved with each event this season with his 2JZ S13—getting into the Top 16 at Rd. 1 and as deep as Great 8 at Rd. 2—and now picks up that all-important first W. We expect big things from this kid.
In between Rodrigues's come up, Shaffer's crash, and Micah Diaz's exiting Drift League, the points are now all wacky again, not so much for the title (that seems like Cisneros's now, who has 278) but for the remaining two Pro 2 licenses. Our behind-the-napkin calculations put Rodrigues now in second place at 193 and Shaffer miraculously hanging tough in third with 156, with Cabrera lurking at 153 and Cano Estrella not too much further back with 139. Those who might believe there's little left in the story of the 2019 TDL season need only to look at the fight for those last two licenses to see this one's not over yet.