Round 4: Las Vegas, NV
From not-so-sexy New Jersey to the infamous city of sin, Formula D's Round 4 saw the bright lights and glitzy glamour of Vegas. And boy, was it swish. Well, no, it wasn't. It was a converted parking lot at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But the upside was that it became one of the fastest tracks on the calendar (if not the fastest), with corner entry speeds reaching 90 mph. And the temperatures hit even higher numbers. Here's how our diarists dealt with sweaty race suits and other various challenges.
2009 Miss Formula D
This month's guest is hot-and we're not talking Vegas-in-the-summer-dampened-armpit-area-of-the-shirt hot. In fact, this has to be the hottest Diaries contributor we've had to date (although Dai's JDM hairstyle is quite dreamy). Who? We're talking about Miki Taka, 2009 Miss Formula D, and some of the important life lessons she's learned on tour. This year has been nothing short of exceptional. When I found out that I was going to be the 2009 Miss Formula D, I knew it was a big deal, but little did I know just how amazing it would be! My experiences in the past few months have far surpassed any expectations I had, and every show has had its own learning element where I've taken a lesson from each.
The first show in Long Beach was exciting and intimidating at the same time-I had no idea what to expect as the new Miss FD but I was stoked, nonetheless. I was so excited that during some of the video filming, I actually started to stutter, which brought me to Lesson 1: Try not to stutter. Think fast but speak slowly.
Round 2 was in the ATL. After a long day of running around in three-inch heels, sweating like a banshee and trying to keep up with the action, I was unexpectedly rushed to the podium where I fell on my ass! And in classic Miki form, I tripped in front of everyone! Which brings me to Lesson 2: Bring comfy shoes to keep up with the drivers for interviews and always watch my step . . . especially in front of a huge crowd.
In New Jersey, I managed to keep from embarrassing myself, which, if you get to know me, is quite an accomplishment! It's a good thing that I love to laugh at the silly things I do-one of life's best lessons, yet. But on to Lesson 3 from Round 3: Stand "stage right" on the podium. This clever tactic makes it possible to run off stage immediately, so as to avoid the oh-so-sticky "champagne shower." It worked. Success!
Round 4 in Vegas proved to be the most fun, yet, as I've come to feel like a part of the FD family. The show was amazing and I had such a great time interacting with the crowd. From the moment I landed 'till the moment I took off, it was like one long party. In Sin City, I finally took meaning to the infamous phrase, bringing me to Lesson 4: What happens in Vegas, most definitely stays in Vegas.
The staff, drivers, girls and fans have made being Miss Formula D one of my best life experiences, ever. I'm really looking forward to the release of the behind-the-scenes footage, so that everyone can catch a glimpse of the crazy, kick-ass fun I've had on my amazing journey with Formula D! I can't wait to see what Seattle has in store!
Looks like Rhys is loving his new Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Perhaps a little too much-he doesn't want to hurt it. Could be he's suffering from peak performance anxiety. A new relationship can do that to a guy.
With the Pikes Peak Hill Climb the following weekend, I knew we needed to play it safe at Vegas. We couldn't leave for the mountain with a damaged car, like last year. Between New Jersey and Las Vegas, the team had re-worked the setup for Pikes Peak, headed out to Colorado for a two-day test on the mountain and built our first RMR-developed Hyundai Lambda 3.8L V-6 engine, producing an additional 100 hp over the previous setup.
With a lot of focus on the following weekend and only 28 cars making the first lap of Qualifying, I took it conservative to just make the show. I'm guessing by the score I was given (21 points, the lowest in FD history), that the judges didn't like me playing it safe. Next lap, I went in harder and all was good until the last corner. A half-spin gave me a zero score and we didn't make the show. I was a little bummed at myself, but at least the car was in one piece. There are no judges on the mountain, just a stopwatch to prove the speed of you and your car, so I'm excited to do my favorite event of the year in the Genesis Coupe.
What's going on with Dai? Or, more to the point, what's going on with his new IS350? This accomplished drifter and Second-Place Red Bull World Championship finisher hasn't reached the Top 16 all season. But if Tanner Foust couldn't qualify for New Jersey, that shows it's an upside-down season right now. Did the new car woes get worked out in time for Vegas?
After Round 3, Team Falken Tire kept trying hard to make improvements to the Discount Tire IS350. We had a few test sessions and changed some suspension arms, which made big improvements, so I had a good feeling and confidence going into the Vegas round.
In the first practice session on Friday, I felt pretty comfortable with the new track and the car. I was eager to practice with other cars, since I haven't had much tandem experience with the IS. Up to this point, everything felt good and I thought I could do well this time. Qualifying for the Top 32, I took Fifth. After qualifying so high, I continued to feel good about the car and myself, even through the second practice session.
On Saturday, during practice before the Top 32 competition, I hit the tire barrier. I don't know why, but I guess I went too fast. Fortunately, there wasn't much damage. My mechanics, Scott and Steve, fixed it in 10 minutes (thanks, guys).
In the Top 32 round, I went against Kazu Hayashida. I took the first lead and hit the tire barrier again. Man, that was horrible! I couldn't believe what had happened, even though I did it myself. My first thought was that I felt so sorry for my mechanics who worked hard in super-hot weather, and all of Team Falken who had put a lot of effort into improving the IS.
Luckily, again, the damage wasn't too bad so I was able to drive. On my chase run, I followed him pretty well, but he didn't make any mistakes, so I lost the battle.
I've hit the car here and there in practice, but not in any competition over the last five years. It's a really miserable feeling. I still don't know exactly how it happened. I thought I was pretty calm, but I guess not. I think I was too desperate to move on since I haven't made Top 16 this year yet. I pushed too hard. I beat myself.
This 2009 season is definitely tough for me, but I will try to refresh myself and come back strong in the remaining three rounds.
It's been a tale of steady progress for Ken and his tC: a solid Fourth in the previous round and a step up in the rankings. So he hasn't set fire to the series, but the desert temperatures, both inside and outside the car, could ignite something for Ken that he might not have been expecting.
This was the first time we used E85 ethanol for the RS-R Scion Toyo tC. I questioned the move at first, but the change was significant. Mid-range torque had improved and the engine temperature dropped. A cooler engine means more power.
When practice began on Thursday, I was a bit confused about the track layout. I didn't know whether to feint into the main outer clipping zone or come in straight and initiate along the wall. Our team didn't start practice until later, so I was also pressured to learn the track with only an hour left. About three or four runs in, I attempted to mock up a qualifying-style, on-the-wall run. Concentrating too much on the outer clipping zone, I tapped the tC's rear quarter panel and nearly went into the tire barrier. Luckily, it was only a light touch. I couldn't afford to wreck the tC during practice, where no one is even spectating. For that session, I was fighting myself to learn the course. I decided to feint into the outer clipping zone because it looked more exciting and the speed wasn't that much greater when I drove straight into the zone. I finally got it down in the remaining five or so minutes of practice. It was good enough to feel confident going into Friday's qualifying.
Track temperatures were soaring way above 100 degrees on Friday. In this baking heat, the RS-R team worked hard to set the right tire pressures. As always, we were on Toyo Proxes R1-Rs and we set pressures to 35 psi front and about 38 psi at the rear. The only problem was a lack of tire smoke-I needed to stay on the throttle longer wherever possible. Speed during practice was around 81 to 83 mph. My angle wasn't bad, either, but I saw Daijiro Yoshihara and Ueo Katsuhiro diving into Turn One almost perpendicular to the wall. Practice was about to end and the unthinkable happened-from a moderate 75 degrees Celsius, my engine temperature suddenly skyrocketed. Nate from Motec said it could be air in the cooling system. Koji bled the system and the temperature dropped to the mid 70s. I went out once and came back to find that the tC had a bad head gasket. It was losing water.
At this point, our options were few. We couldn't swap motors because Qualifying was about to start. We just had to keep temperatures down and limit the time the engine stayed on. Koji bled the system once more. We kept the engine off until the green light and as soon as I was given the go, I cranked the motor and blasted off the starting line. I got a score of 60. Why? Because I wanted to stay conservative and make it into the Top 32, but I think I was too conservative. Since the engine was still good, Koji gave me the OK to do a second run. I pushed a little harder and scored 74.1. That placed me 16th against Tyler McQuarrie (who was at 17th). Tyler, yes. Revenge time.
As soon as qualifying ended, Team RS-R began tearing the motor out. The reserve 3S we had was not set up for E85 ethanol, so I had to be aware of drastic changes in engine temperature.
Main competition day, under a blazing sun. Since I hadn't practiced tandem all weekend, I knew I had to focus on it for the last practice session before the Top 32 began. I did three runs behind a couple of different drivers and got the hang of it. The back-up motor was running strong, so I was happy. Top 32 started and I lead first, so I knew I had to create a gap and get the advantage. Tyler didn't back off. He stayed on me throughout the course. On my following lap, I tried to stick as close as I could to Tyler's door, which I managed to do until the second clipping point, where I couldn't see a thing because of his tire smoke. I overshot the clip and gave Tyler an advantage. The result? OMT.
On my next lead lap, Tyler was on my door again. The run was flawless and simple, so I felt confident to get even closer to his door on his lead lap. As Tyler left the green light, I tried hard to keep up on the straight. Then his car stalled a bit so I lifted and he got back on the throttle, creating a half-car gap between us. At this point, I'm freaking out because I had to close the gap. I managed to get on his door once again through the outer clipping zones and to the first inside clipping point. This is where I was having trouble on my previous following lap. I knew I had to stay close to the clipping point without overshooting, so I transitioned early and dived into Tyler's tire smoke. I was hoping to find a clear track in front landing right upon Tyler's passenger door, but he was right there, stalled. Unable to slow down fast enough, I slammed into Tyler's rear quarter panel and spun.
My day ended early as I sat back to watch the Top 16 driver intros. My Scion teammate, Tanner Foust, drove like the champ he is all the way to the top. Man, how does he do that? Good job to Team Scion Racing and Rockstar for the win. Next time, I'll be up there.
Tyler is dangerous. Not because he's a crazy driver (well, no crazier than the rest), but because he's on a roll, along with Falken, the tire company that shod all three podium finishers at the last round. Will Tyler and his 350Z keep up the mad momentum?
The past month has been crazy. A few days after my Third Place finish in New Jersey, my stepdaughter, Hailey, had a kidney transplant. We lived at the hospital for the month and we were able to bring Hailey home about a week before Vegas. As you can imagine, we were spent. Vegas couldn't have come at a better time.
I got to Vegas on Thursday and it was hot . . . 110 degrees hot. Luckily, our first practice session was late that night, so the heat was bearable. It soon became apparent that a month spent in the hospital and away from racing had taken a toll on my driving. It took a long time for me to get into a rhythm on this track, which is why I qualified all the way down in the 17th spot. It finally started to click on the Saturday practice before the Top 32 tandems. I was feeling good and ready to battle.
My first match-up was with Ken Gushi-definitely not a guy you want to meet this early in the event. He led the first run and I stuck to him through the first half, but I went a little wide at the third clipping point, so Ken pulled a little gap. I knew I needed to nail the next run and I did. Ken made a mistake and I pulled out a big gap, so they called for a "one more time." This time, I stayed closer. When I led, I had a little gap in the first half. He charged into the second inner clipping point so hard that he hit me. I'm not sure if he couldn't see from the tire smoke or he just brought in too much speed, but either way, I know he didn't mean to. I was able to finish the run, and since Ken spun at that point, so the win went to me.
My first match-up in the 16 would be the top qualifier, Robbie Nishida. 'Awesome, no problem,' I thought-he just happened to be the fastest guy at the event. He led first and as we left the line he slowly edged away. I was able to close the gap to two car lengths and had a clean run. The only way past Robbie was to lay it all on the line, which I did and created a good gap going into the first turn. But his car is so damn fast, he was able to close up quick. But then I threw down my Falken smoke screen, and Robbie ended up spinning.
I was up against Michael Essa in the Great 8 for the second time this season. He's new to Formula D, but not to drifting. He led the first run and I was able to stick with him and even pull up on his door at the finish line. So I knew I just needed a clean run to get to the Final 4. I pulled out a little gap and I think he got lost in tire smoke because he turned early for the second inner clip and went off course. I advanced.
It's an awesome feeling to get to the Final 4 twice in a row, but I wanted to get on the podium for the second consecutive event. And Tanner Foust was in my way. I've run against Tanner many times, but never in his new Scion. I led the first run and came in with 91 mph and even tapped the entry wall. Tanner went a little shallow to catch up and I had a gap of one or two car lengths on him. He led next and when we left the start tree it was a drag race. That Scion is fast and he pulled out a huge gap before the first corner. I closed up, but it was still too big, so the judges called for a One More Time. We both had clean runs in the OMT, but the judges went with Tanner, so I would face Chris Forsberg in the consolation round for Third Place.
This would be the third time this year Chris and I have battled, which was fine with me. I know Chris will drive hard, but clean. No B.S. from him. He beat me in Atlanta and I beat him in Jersey. If I could beat him in Vegas, I'd get on the podium. Both runs were good, but he was able to stick to me a bit closer. He won the Third spot and I'm now 1-2 against Chris this season. The next one will be mine.
Given the circumstances over the past month for my family and how long it took me to get into a rhythm this event, I'm stoked to leave Vegas with a Fourth Place. I'm now half a point behind Fourth and only 42 points shy of the championship lead. To be a championship contender in the first year for the Falken Tire Nissan 350Z with three events to go is an amazing feeling.
Vegas is the millionaires' playground, but Chris is sticking with his trusty 350Z. And it's served him well, hauling him into the upper reaches of the championship. It seems Chris likes a card game too, so Vegas could be the ideal place for him.
I had high hopes for Las Vegas. We made some minor changes to get some more speed, so I couldn't wait to get the Z on the track. We got a chance to test the car the weekend before and it felt great. When we got to the track, we noticed Formula D was running a new course. It seemed much more suited to tandems, so we had a good feeling about the weekend.
On Thursday, we didn't do anything special, except run the car and make sure everything was good. We took a few different lines through the course and tried a couple different entry styles to find the best way through the main corner. The car was running great and we all felt comfortable with the setup, keeping it unchanged for Friday's qualifying session. Thursday night was also the Formula D Blackjack Tournament. Many drivers and crew came to the casino to compete. I made it through all three rounds, finishing Second overall-a great start to the weekend!
Friday began with Pro-Am, so we arrived a little early to check it out before setting up for our day. When practice started, so did the mayhem. Takatori hit the tire barrier, JR smashed his front end, tearing off the front suspension, and Darren's Sky was done for the weekend because of a blown motor. When things like that occur in front of you, it's a reminder that it can happen to any of us. We all knew this, but it's the last thing you want in your head before going out on track.
The course was tricky, but similar to Long Beach. I ran up to Fourth gear, clutch-kicked into the first right, keeping the angle light and the throttle down, trying to gain as much speed as possible. Then I flipped back to the left, along the first outer clipping zone and floored it, drove all the way down with big angle toward the second outside clipping point, downshifted and brought it into the first inside clipping point, followed by a tight right into a tight left turn. After qualifying, we were sitting in the Top 10. Although I didn't want to think about it, I couldn't help being excited because Tuerck was now theoretically in First Place, moving us up to Second.
Saturday was another interesting day. Some drivers were not cautious during their practice laps and forgot that the track gets much looser in the hot sun. I think four or five cars hit the wall in the one-hour practice session. Thankfully, all but one was still able to compete in the Top 32. For our first match-up, we went against Bill Sherman, who was making yet another triumphant return to Formula D in that crazy-fast S13. I was a little nervous to run against him, since he seemed to be having some car troubles in practice and was limited on track time. On my lead lap, I did my run and never looked back. On the chase run, I wanted to stick close. We flipped into the big left-hander and he was going deep toward the wall. I thought he was going to crash, but I just followed him in there, knowing that if he pulled it off and I straightened, he would get the win. He jumped on the gas at the last second, so I did the same, but I guess he had a little too much momentum coming out of the clip because he straightened out. We moved into the Top 16.
Our next battle was against Takatori. He was doing quite well in his new car, so I didn't want to give him too much room on the chase lap. We kept it close; he made a small mistake, so I got the win. I was in the Top 8, happy to see that my opponent was Ryan Tuerck. He's an awesome driver and an even better friend. This was going to be great. I got to lead first, so I drove through the course with as much throttle and smoke as I could. On the chase lap, he had a slight mis-shift as we were running down the straight. I paused as he got the car back into gear and tore past. We were entering the course almost 10mph slower than normal. We both managed to pull off a great run together, despite the lack of entry speed. Then those dreaded three words: One More Time! We lined up again and this time I carried it in a little harder, pushing for the wall. On the chase lap, I stuck with him all the way through the course. Then another OMT was called. Come on! This was the last chance; I threw it into the main corner even deeper and put the rear bumper right up to the wall. Tuerck followed me so closely that he also tagged the wall. His team called for five minutes to look at the rear; they changed a part and got him back to the line in time. I think he must have bent or broken something else, because as I chased him into the course, he threw the car to the right, but did a full 180 and flipped back to the left. I barely avoided hitting him and was on my way to the semi-finals, happy to have two chances for the podium.
Our first round in the semi-finals was against Miki, who was doing a great job in his RX-7 that weekend. I led through the course with a smooth run, but he was right on top of me. While chasing on the second lap, I followed him into the left-hander pretty close, but hesitated before getting back on the throttle and he put another car-length gap between us. I was unable to make up the gap through the second half and lost the round. Mildly frustrated, I tried not to think about it as we lined up to run against Tyler. This was the third event in a row that I had to run Tyler head-to-head, and this time it was for Third Place.
I got to lead on the first lap again, which helped my spotter watch his moves and tell me what I should do. We got a nice pass through the course and he was within a car's length or two the whole time. We swapped spots at the start line and I told myself not to get lost in the smoke like I did in Jersey. I decided to go for it-I figured if he's still making smoke then he's probably still going. At full throttle, running toward the outside clipping zone, I tried to look for anything I could use as a reference to see where I was on the track. I could see him as he got off throttle to enter the first inside clip, so I jumped on the throttle and pulled up within one car-length. We flipped into the tight right turn and I lost him again. I stayed on the throttle for a second longer and there he was, inches away. I transferred through the last turn and stayed close. We pulled up to the Formula D official, who pointed to me as the winner. I congratulated Tyler and ran over to my crew. We just got our second podium finish of the year. And for the first time ever, I was leading the Formula D championship in points. What an awesome weekend!
Although a favorite to take the Formula D crown for a third time, Tanner and his tC came to Vegas with something to prove. Round Three in New Jersey wasn't his finest hour. Never mind not qualifying no lower than Fourth, he failed to qualify at all. These are strange times, indeed.
I wasn't sure what to think about Round 4 as we cruised by The Strip on our way to Thursday's test session. Round 3 was an absolute disaster for the team. I knew the guys had done all they could during the interim five weeks to solve any issues we might find, and dilute the fact that I spun in both qualifying laps. This time, the mood in our pit was a bit different. The jokes were more personal and the competition pressure was pushed squarely on me.
The test session didn't answer many questions. I wasn't willing, with all the concrete around, to repeat the same scenario that had caused the car to spin in New Jersey. I approached the limit slowly-too slowly-and looked conservative. Sure, we made suspension and gearing changes to hone the car into this new, diverse track, but I wasn't taking the same committed lines that JP or Ueo demonstrated. I knew a little too much angle could cause the front tires to rub the frame, locking them up and spinning the car straight into the wall at over 80 mph.
I strapped in for qualifying and threw the car hard into the first left-hand corner at 84 mph. It over-rotated and my worst fear came true, as the car began to back into the wall. I was at full lock and half-expecting a spin as I looked behind the passenger-side B-pillar at the impact point. Something was different, though, and the car began to come back to straight, sliding sideways now at only 60 mph. I let out the clutch and added throttle . . . only to stall the engine! Red warning lights in my face and the wall approaching fast, I shifted to Second and popped the clutch while the car was still at a decent drift angle. The NASCAR TRD V-8 fired and I finished the run without losing drift or line. It wasn't pretty, but it was enough to get into the show.
What happened there was exactly what I needed. I found the car's new limit and could proceed with a bit more confidence. After qualifying, team manager Stephan told me not to worry about bending the car. "Just push hard and leave your vagina at the hotel," he said. His pep talk hit the spot and I threw that Scion into the course as hard as I could for the rest of the event.
Every run felt better and better. I could get on the throttle earlier and earlier, smoking the place out. Our Rockstar Scion tC sounded awesome, the Hankooks took the most ridiculous punishment imaginable in stride and the win was as sweet as I've ever experienced. Thanks go out to Formula D for a great event, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the hard-core Vegas fans and the guys on the Rockstar Drift Team (Stephan, Sean, Carlos, Rob) for a job well done.
Formula D Snapshots
Rd 4. Results
Wall, NJ Podium
1. Tanner Foust
2. Ryuji Miki
3. Chris Forsberg