It was a warm, October Saturday night in Southern California. The kind of weary calm that typically follows a day of triple-digit heat blanketing the Los Angeles basin. Most of its citizens readied themselves for another day of the same torment, maybe squeezing in a relaxing night on the town. Most, but not all.
On L.A.'s industrial outskirts, the town of Irwindale had seen its population grow almost tenfold in the preceding hours, all contained within the half-square-mile footprint of the "House of Drift," Irwindale Speedway. If you've ever been to its annual Formula Drift season finale, you'll know it doesn't take physics to predict the result of that rapid influx of mass and energy on such a concentrated area. And in that moment, no one felt the heat and pressure more than Fredric Aasbo.
Here, in his second Top 32 run of the final event of a tumultuous '15 season, his championship contention hung in the balance. As the fifth-place event qualifier, he was paired with rookie Kristaps Bluss in 28th place, a less experienced competitor in a faster car, meaning as much of a gamble for Fredric as anything he'd encountered all season. Seven months, seven rounds of the world's toughest professional drifting competition—after 12 years dreaming of this very win—in the birthplace of drifting in the U.S., in front of its largest-ever crowd. It had all come down to this.
It wasn't just Fredric whose hopes and dreams were literally on the line in that moment. As the current driver of the AEM/Rockstar Scion tC team (taking over after two-time Formula D champ Tanner Foust had gone on to become a three-time rallycross champ, and driver of the AEM/Rockstar Formula D Passat), he was only one half of the car's public-facing equation. Team owner and manager Stephan Papadakis represented the rest.
In the late '90s and early '00s, before Fredric and much of the world had even heard of drifting, Stephan and a handful of enthusiast drag racers were helping to thrust sport compact culture into the mainstream. The iconic yellow EJ Honda Civic hatch he and the late Shaun Carlson built, and Stephan raced, became the first FWD to run the quarter-mile in 9 seconds, and then 8 seconds, and break the 150- and 160-mph trap speed barriers. The effort helped to establish Outlaw and Pro FWD classes in multiple drag racing series where Steph earned a grip of championships and put the car's title sponsor, AEM, on the radar of enthusiasts everywhere. He continued to dominate the new sport in his second car, the '01 AEM Civic Coupe, breaking the 170- and 180-mph trap speed barrier and its share of records before he and his teammates embarked on their third creation and first RWD project: the AEM/DriverFX.com Civic coupe. Again with Stephan on the wrench and behind the wheel, it was the first Honda to break the 7- and 6-second quarter-mile barriers, becoming the world's fastest drag Honda and running as quick and fast as 6.54 @ 211.73.
After a brief stint behind the wheel of the AEM/Memphis Car Audio Honda S2000 in the early days of Formula Drift, Steph formed what would become the Papadakis Racing/Rockstar Energy Drink team under the AEM roof in '07 and has served as team owner/manager ever since, overseeing the development of Tanner Foust's championship-winning Nissan 350Z, and the company's first RWD-converted tC. When the driver seat was offered to Fredric in '10, Papadakis Racing and the Rockstar Energy Drink/Hankook Tire/Scion Racing tC team had come to know a thing or two about building championship-winning cars.
Of course, Fredric had also come to know a thing or two about winning, by that time. After two seasons competing in small drift events in and around his home country of Norway, behind the wheel of a modified E30 BMW he built in his parents' garage, he earned top honors in the '007 "Drft Battle" [sic] championships and scored a competition Toyota JZA80 Supra through sponsor Japan Auto. Fredric and the 2ZJ-powered fan favorite Supra would rack up double-digit wins throughout Europe before making their way to the U.S. for the first time, placing high in the '09 Red Bull Drifting World Championship at the Port of Long Beach. It was the first time Fredric competed against the world's best in one place, including the top Formula D pros. He was hooked. That day, he tells us, he decided he was going to keep the Supra stateside and find some way to compete in Formula Drift.
The following year Fredric scraped together enough money working as a barista in L.A. to compete his Supra in five of the seven '10 Formula D pro rounds, and earned Rookie of the Year honors to cap off a demanding first season. But the real reward came months later when he took a call from one Stephan Papadakis, looking for a driver for the tC team in the wake of Tanner's departure for full-time rallycross competition and Top Gear USA hosting.
When the Rockstar Energy Drink/Hankook Tire/Scion Racing tC debuted in '09 as Tanner's new Formula D car, it was unlike anything the drifting community had seen, and was the subject of much scrutiny and controversy. It met FD's official rules for competition, but barely. RWD conversions were allowed (heavily influenced by Scion's decision to support the series, some would argue), so long as factory strut towers and suspension pickup points remained. Custom-fabricated tubing replaced almost all other factory sheetmetal and frame railing, allowing for faster collision repair and easier access to suspension components, as well as transverse placement of the engine (front) and radiator, fans, fuel cell, battery, and related components (rear). Tanner's engine choice was also as radical: a Toyota TRD NASCAR V-8, which (again, some would argue) helped standardize the switch to V-8 engines among pro drift competitors. By the time Tanner left Formula D for rallycross in '11, he'd taken the car as far as second place in the pro championship race.
Stephan built on the knowledge gained from Tanner's tC and applied it to a new, second-generation tC for Fredric, choosing to replace the V-8 with a Toyota 2AR—the 2.5L inline four-cylinder engine the Scion tC ships with from the factory—but with a few tweaks: boring and stroking displacement to 2.7L with built internals, adding a BorgWarner EFR 8374 turbocharger and direct-port nitrous oxide injection, and tuning the mix to more than 950 hp and 800 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheels with an AEM Infinity EMS and E85 fuel.
But what about that V-8 torque, you ask? Isn't that a proven advantage in drifting? As Fredric tells it, V-8 engines' linear torque and immediate throttle response are great for increasing the performance latitude of a drift car; they're great for compensating for inaccurate initiations and throttle inputs, or for making corrections when following an unfamiliar or inconsistent driver. But they're also heavy and bulky—and more experienced, precise drivers like Fredric (though he'd probably never refer to himself as such) can gain a bigger advantage setting up a lighter engine lower and farther back in a car's chassis, which is exactly what Stephan and his team did with this new tC. And thanks to the advancements present in its BorgWarner turbocharger, nitrous injection, and AEM tuning, it gave them all the power, torque, and throttle response they needed.
Other surprising advantages were found in the car itself. It might seem that sticking with the old, proven chassis, or simply campaigning a RWD chassis from the start (like the FR-S) would be easier, but building the new Scion tC allowed Steph and his team to start clean and make only the modifications they needed, without the temptation to settle in areas where it might be easier to accept the car as is. Plus, the tC's factory McPherson front suspension could be modified within the rules to give loads of adjustment and steering angle, and its new factory five-link, double-wishbone rear suspension offered increased adjustability (for lots of mechanical grip) and played nicely with the JZA80 Supra rear diff and axles the crew added for strength and aftermarket serviceability. The new recipe took a couple seasons to shake down, but once everything was sorted, Fredric, Stephan, and the team improved their championship standing year over year. By '14, they were back in second place for the title, missing gold by a very narrow margin. In the mind of competitors as thoroughbred as Stephan and Fredric, there was no other option but to win.
The tC team couldn't have asked for a better beginning to the '15 season, earning the win in the first round at Long Beach. They seemed to improve in Round 2 at Road Atlanta by qualifying second and breezing through the Top 32, but then suffered an uncharacteristic loss in Top 16. Even worse was their exit in Top 32 the following round at Orlando Speedworld. But then the rain fell, and Fredric—with his years of experience drifting wet European roads—and the light, nimble tC were able to qualify high and clinch repeat wins the following two rounds in New Jersey and Washington, along with an international-round win in Montreal. A subsequent Top 8 outing in the penultimate Texas round kept Fredric leading the points chase, but also kept the title within reach of several competitors. By the time the team rolled into the House of Drift on that hot October night, they absolutely had to win their Top 32 competition round to lock up the championship title, continuing their upward climb with Fredric and the tC, and the legacy the team had become known for.
"When you break it down," Fredric explains, "all you really need to do is drive the car where you want it to go. It's three turns, 20 seconds...how hard can it be?" Rather than allow all that heat and pressure to squeeze his thoughts at that crucial moment, Fredric focused on this mantra. "When I get in that mind-set," he tells, "that's where I do my best." And as it turned out, his best was good enough not only to earn the '15 Formula Drift Pro Championship title, but also to take the Irwindale-round win and World Champion honors, helping Papadakis Racing become the winningest team in FD history. "Standing atop that box at Irwindale Speedway, the House of Drift, after dreaming of that moment for 12 years... it was the best feeling I've ever felt," Fredric concludes. "To this day, I don't think it's fully sunk in."
Fredric and Stephan hope this momentum will lead to an even more successful future. They'll be gunning for a repeat performance this year, but in light of Toyota's recent decision to "call home" (i.e. discontinue) the Scion brand, no one can say what's in store for the team after '16. What is for certain are the multiple places in history these guys have carved for themselves through passion, perseverance, and resilience. If past truly is prologue, you should expect to see much more of that—and much more winning—no matter where the future takes them.