Dubbed the fastest drift track in the D1 Grand Prix series (only the Tsukuba circuit in Japan is comparable), Irwindale Speedway gathered 39 of the world's best drifters to battle it out in front of a capacity crowd of 10,000 fans.
This D1 series event, the second to take place in the United States, took on a more serious theme. At the inaugural USA D1 in August 2003, the only things at stake were a cash purse and recognition from the crowd. On February 28, 2004, the drivers battled for real D1 series points as Irwindale Speedway served as the venue for the D1 Grand Prix season-opening contest.
This year, the three Option Video judges, Keiichi Tsuchiya, Manabu Orido and Manabu Suzuki, were back on their infamous black podium with pen in hand and stern looks on their faces. They expected all the drivers to perform better than the previous D1 and put on a spectacular show. Keiichi "Drift King" Tsuchiya personally monitored the track layout for this year's D1.
During the morning practice session, we talked to the Drift King about his motives for changing the track setup.
"I wanted to make the course faster and more challenging than the previous year. This new setup will not only give spectators a more exciting show, but also will give us judges a better idea of each driver's abilities in this particular course," Keiichi explained. The course is filled with difficult sweeping turns and cars need to carry higher speeds through the apex to complete the drifts, so many drivers and spectators anticipated tough competition and crashes throughout the day.
Friday, February 27 - Yokohama Media Day/QualificationsYouichi Imamura in his A'PEXi-sponsored RX-7 was the first to fall victim to mechanical problems at Yokohama media day. As Imamura completed the long sweeper and was preparing to counter the secondary cones at midtrack, the front lower tie rod bolts on the passenger side snapped off. The front tire swung out as the RX-7 lost control, careening into the plastic safety barrier and barely missing Taniguchi (HKS S15). The accident wasn't serious as Youichi climbed out of his car, and it suffered only minor body damage to the doors and rear fiberglass bumper. Imamura then jumped into another car, the left-hand-drive U.S.- spec A'PEXi RX-7, to continue his exhibition show.
Huber Young's day to shine at D1 was cut short on Friday when his Motorsports Dynamics-sponsored Nissan 240 crashed into the infamous Turn Two "elimination wall" at full speed. Just as Young exited the sweeper going into the "J turn," the vehicle rotated sideways, hit the concrete barrier at 70-plus mph, launched into the air and landed on the track on all four tires. Within seconds, Judge Keiichi hopped the wall to attend to the driver. Amazingly, Young climbed out uninjured, although his car wasn't so lucky.
Saturday, February 28 D1 Grand Prix Round 1Last year's runner-up Nobuteru (N.O.B.) Taniguchi in the HKS-sponsored S15 was determined to take home the coveted trophy and points lead in 2004. During the first round of eliminations, which consisted of three judged runs, Taniguchi scored a perfect 100 on all three runs, a feat never before accomplished in the D1 series.
Perhaps the sleeper of the day went to the A55 Daihatsu Charamant driven by Ryoji Takada. Powered by a mere 160 hp, Takada made the most of this old-school vehicle as he impressed the crowds and judges, combining high-speed entries into the turns and smooth drifting throughout the course, and advancing to the next round.
Round 2A black cloud seemed to linger over the heads of all the U.S. drivers, as numerous engine failures and inconsistent driving reduced the qualifying U.S. drivers from 10 to four in the second round of competition.
Last year, U.S. driver Ernie "Gung Ho" Fixmer surprisingly dazzled the crowds and judges with a smoke-filled display of drifting skills. Unfortunately, a blown engine during Friday's practice session diminished Team USA's chance of winning this year.
Burning the midnight oil, Fixmer and his crew swapped the engine. The car was in running condition just in time for Fixmer to get to the track and jump in the driver's seat without any practice time. Unfortunately, after two laps Fixmer's 240SX hobbled off the track due to a transmission failure that was heard clinking and grinding all the way from the grandstands.
Rhys Millen and his newly acquired Pontiac GTO, powered by a 5.7-liter LS1 V8, made its debut within the drift circuit with mixed reactions from the crowd. The boos and unappreciative die-hard import fans looked upon Rhys and his GTO as a disgrace to the import drift community. After an excellent first round of competition, Rhys slowly gained their respect with his clean drift lines and consistent tire smoke, which received thumbs-up from the three judges, advancing him to the second round.
Samuel Hubinette, otherwise known as the Swedish ice racer back home, took his JZ80 Jasper/GReddy-sponsored Supra to new levels. The crowds erupted when his car's rear fender and bumper came within inches of the retaining wall.
Keiichi Tsuchiya jumped out of his seat and clapped as Hubinette precariously pitched the Supra from left to right in angles never witnessed on the track. Back in the pits, the drivers from Japan lined up on both sides of the car, clapping and shaking Hubinette's hand in appreciation for an excellent run. Hubinette scored a 99 out of 100 points, earning him the highest score for a U.S. driver as of date.
Crowd favorite Ueo Katsuhiro and his Yukes/ Revolver-sponsored AE86 performed flawlessly in the first round of eliminations as, once again, Ueo displayed his trademark ("kakudo") angle of drift. Laying down perfect drift lines and smooth transitions from one apex to another, Ueo was sure to be a shoe-in for this year's U.S. D1 series, but with drifting, nothing is written in stone.
Second-round eliminations proved to be a disaster for Ueo as he uncharacteristically missed key drift points and his speeds going into the turns were dramatically slower than his previous runs, ending his quest for back-to-back wins.
Japanese driver Daijiro Yoshihara in the Pacific Rim-sponsored 240SX held his own, as his speed and drifting skills were comparable, if not better than his fellow Japanese drifters. In Japan, Yoshihara was to compete in the upcoming D2 series, the minor league of drifting.
During the second lap of round two, Yoshihara miscalculated the second bank leading into the J-turn. The car slid head-on into the retaining wall at 80-plus mph. A loud echoing boom followed the impact as debris showered the crowd and the unlucky Option video camera man. Daijiro was unscathed, but the car was a complete loss.
Sweet 16 TandemWhat started out as a field of 39 cars and drivers narrowed to the best 16, with many of the popular Japanese D1 drivers still in the hunt. Youichi Imamura (A'PEXi FD3S) went toe-to-toe with Kazuhiro Tanaka in the Team Orange S15 in a series of tandem drift eliminations.
To everyone's surprise, Imamura lacked the finesse and skills he displayed earlier in the day, running much slower and struggling to run consistently. Tanaka, on the other hand, tore up the tarmac, smoking the tires and showing exactly why he placed eighth in the 2003 D1 series.Nobushige Kumakubo followed in his teammate Tanaka's footsteps and rose to victory over Ken Maeda in the yellow Up Garage-sponsored AE86. Although it was apparent the horsepower game was in favor of Kumakubo, Maeda put on a valiant effort in keeping pace with Kumakubo throughout the course.
Elite 8The best eight drivers were Kazuhiro Tanaka (Team Orange S15), Nomura Ken (Blitz Skyline E34), Nobuteru Taniguchi (HKS S15), Gen Terasaki (black AE86), Ryuji Miki (Top Secret S15), Nobushige Kumakubo (Team Orange S15), Atsushi Kuroi (Signal/ Tanabe S13), and Yasuyuki Kazama (Kei-Office S13) respectively, tried to advance to the top four.
Tanaka and Nomura were the first to head out in a classic battle of weight vs. power. Although the S15 is known as the more agile of the two, Nomura powered his way through the apex in his four-door Skyline and displayed the classic "Nomuken" style of drifting he's known for, and took the win.
It was almost unfair to watch Gen Terasaki and Taniguchi go head-to-head, but many newcomers to the drifting scene didn't know Terasaki was a force to be reckoned with, who'd competed in a number of top four eliminations in D1. Terasaki in his AE86 was at the mercy of Taniguchi as the HKS S15 exhibited drift lines that were once again flawless.
Miki, who had been on a tear the whole day, running the Top Secret S15 to the ragged edge, squared off with Kumakubo in a nail-biting elimination. Kumakubo, not one to shy away from danger, drifted door-to-door with Miki, coming within inches from Miki's rear bumper as Kumakubo rode him from start to finish. Ultimately impressed with Kumakubo's drifting, the judges advanced him to the next round.
The final tandem in the field of eight were Kuroi and Kazama. Both drivers were running exceptionally well the whole day and this one lined up to be quite a battle. In an uneventful turn of events, Kazama spun out while chasing down Kuroi during the second run but was awarded the win, perhaps due to the previous run that impressed the judges.
Final 4Nomura Ken and Nobuteru Taniguchi have been in the drifting scene for more than a decade and are two of the bigger names in the drifting scene. They faced off to determine who would advance to the championship match and who would end up capturing third place. Taniguchi once again laid down a flawless exhibition of speed and line control as he took the advantage over Nomuken and advanced.
The second battle was a classic S15 vs. S15 battle between Kumakubo and Kazama. Both runs were too close for the fans to determine a winner. The judges selected Kazama as the victor to head to the championships, while Kumakubo was left to battle Nomuken for third place. Kumakubo made a crucial mistake, miscalculating a turn that caused him to go wide into the infamous J-turn and giving the third place finish to Nomura.
D1 Grand Prix FinalsTraumatic memories of last year's D1 USA swirled in the head of Taniguchi, as the 2003 finals against Ueo ended up in a climactic accident for Taniguchi. Once again, the HKS S15 was back in the staging lanes, but with a different competitor by the name of Yasuyuki Kazama. In the 2003 series, Kazama was coming on strong in the D1 Grand Prix series, perhaps to impress his boss and main sponsor, Keiichi Tsuchiya.
As both cars shot off into the night, all 10,000 fans in the grandstands and judges stood up as the final cars entered the sweeper turn. Coming within inches of the wall and each other, both drivers displayed never-before-seen tandem drifting with only inches separating them from start to the finish.
After both runs were complete, the crowd erupted in chaos, as no one-including the judges-knew who won. The fans chanted in unison, "One more time!" similar to last year's event. Both drivers jumped back into their cars and performed another flawless run, followed by a third back-to-back run. Taniguchi was the first to exhibit any sort of weakness and the championship was ultimately awarded to Kazama.
D1 2004 set the standard in drifting, as scores of media vendors and fans from across the globe swarmed Irwindale Raceway to see the hottest thing to hit automotive motorsports since import drag racing. With only one D1 Grand Prix series taking place in the U.S. for the 2004 season, drift enthusiasts and media are looking forward to the 2005 race season for another spectacular event.