Drifting and Nissan's S-chassis go together like mornings and Starbucks, but the platform's popularity has led to a dreaded "drift tax"—or more plainly, the premium that sellers feel emboldened to ask for (and can often get) because everyone wants the S13/S14 they're selling. The over-inflation in value has led many hungry drifters to look at other platforms for sliding, like BMW's E30 and E36 3-series, or certain generations of the Ford Mustang and Chevy Corvette. If The Drift League's 2020 season opener is any indication, though, drivers may not even have to leave the Nissan brand, because it looks like the 350Z can be just as reliably tail-happy as its S-chassis kin.
The Z count was five at Irwindale Speedway for Round 1 of The Drift League pro-am championship, with Shawn Illingworth and Rye O'Connor bringing out their V8-swapped 350Z to join returning drivers Ash Redberg and Don Boline in their respective Z33. Additionally, George Kiriakopoulos signed up his 370Z for the comp, and was actually looking pretty solid until a steering arm failure in Qualifying sent the car into a wall. Don't get us wrong, there was still way more S13 and S14 on the grid than Z—by double—but rarely do we see a concentration of one model (apart from the almighty S-chassis) at a pro-am drifting event.
Out of the 29 drivers who earned points in 2019, only 6 were back for 2020's first round, with the likes of Micah Diaz and 2018 champ Rome Charpentier moving up the Formula DRIFT driver development ladder to Pro 2 this year (and actually, Rome is done with Pro 2 so it's Pro for him this season). While there were rumors swirling there could be as many as 28 entries at this round—the first of TDL's third season in operation—in the end there was only about 20, more than enough to fill up a Drift League Top 16 tandem eliminations bracket. Sitting on the panel for this first event of four in 2020 were three familiar judges, drivers Riley Cahill and Formula D pros Justin Pawlak and Jeff Jones.
While drifting was the focus at Irwindale, it wasn't the only activity on site. The property's 1/8-mile drag strip was running (as it often is on Saturday afternoons/evenings), and Drift League organizers decided to throw a car show again in the afternoon like they did during year one, which appeared to attract more people this time around. Dozens of vehicles turned up for The Drift League's "Car Show Showdown," including a handful which we've never seen before; our favorite among them was the pictured SR20DET-swapped E30. It wasn't the cleanest build but we could totally see ourselves putting around in it.
Morning and early afternoon practice sessions gave way to late afternoon Qualifying, which saw Southwest Drift's Javi Martinez, Jr., put his S14 in the number-one spot. Illingworth and Redberg qualified behind Martinez in their 350Z, followed by the always-gung-ho Jon Shaffer in his S14. The field shook out this way:
- Javi Martinez, Jr., STR Racing Nissan S14
- Shawn Illingworth, Nissan 350Z
- Ashton Redberg, Drift Cave Nissan 350Z
- Jon Shaffer, Schaeffer's Specialized Lubricants Nissan S14
- Brad Davis, Nissan S13
- Nate Snyder, SV Performance Nissan S14
- Sean Murtha, Elevens' Paint Nissan S14
- Charly Bompas, BMW E36
- Don Boline, G2 Wraps Nissan 350Z
- Cameron Crawford, Nissan S13
- Amir Falahi, Machine Tech BMW E30
- Rudy Hansen, Nissan S13
- Evan Bogovich, Chevy Corvette
- Rye O'Connor, MFR Enterprises Nissan 350Z
- Dante Sandoval, Nissan S13
- Jeff Le, Boost Brigade Nissan S13.5
To begin eliminations, Martinez made quick work of ex-Top Drift pilot Jeff Le and his 2JZ S13.5, advancing to meet French stunt driver Charly Bompas and his E36 in the Great 8. That battle went to a One-More-Time (OMT) tiebreaker, and so did Martinez's next duel after dispatching Bompas; Brad Davis and his S13 got past Rudy Hansen's S13 and Evan Bogovich's Corvette to square off against Martinez in the Final 4, a semifinal that Martinez emerged from victorious.
On the other side of the eliminations bracket, Illingworth was on his game, advancing past Dante Sandoval's S13 in Top 16 and Sean Murtha's S14 in Great 8. He lined up against Redberg's Z33 in the semifinal after Ashton took out O'Connor's 350Z in the round of 16 and Nate Snyder's S14 in the quarterfinal; the number two and three seeds, respectively, had a good clean fight but judges sided with Illingworth, sending him to the event final to face Martinez.
The matter of third place was decided when Redberg knocked off Davis, which left just the tandem for first place to be sorted out. Anytime you have an eliminations tree, the best-case scenario is to have the number one and two qualifiers meet in the end, and that's exactly what Irwindale Speedway got; Martinez was tough, but Illingworth would not be denied and drove the wheels off his Z to pick up his first Drift League win.
Thanks to support from BC Racing, Milestar Tires, and others, Illingwroth made off with a cool $1,500 for first place, while Martinez got a G and Redberg 500 big ones. For getting eliminated way earlier than he wanted to, Jon Shaffer got to lay a big fat burnout in the Schaeffer's Specialized Lubricants S14 (and spit a little fire, too), and we don't even know why our boy Josh Mason got to do burnies for the crowd in his Camaro (he wasn't even competing!) but it made for irresistibly silly amusement. Congrats to the Drift League Round 1 podium (and all the 350Z in the series now!)—we'll post a report after Round 2, set for July 25th at the House of Drift.