Lightning Strikes Twice: Formula Drift Action Electrifies Atlanta

Over the past couple years, it has been mentioned on several occasions that I, Kyle Crawford, am cursed. Not cursed with anything detrimental: my life is not in jeopardy, nor does any sort of demon inhabit me, but I do seem to induce inclement weather no matter where I go. If you look back through my past event coverage you’ll notice that many events are either photographed in the rain, or there are ominous clouds looming in the background. In fact, even on my honeymoon in St. Thomas it rained for three days straight, which the locals told me almost never happens. So when I checked the forecast for Braselton, Georgia, just prior to this year’s annual showcase of tire smoke and motorsport at the Road Atlanta stop of Formula Drift, I feared for the worst. Thunderstorms.

The weekend of the Drift Atlanta event is packed full of motorsport excitement as it combines Global Time Attack battling against the clock, Trans Am wheel-to-wheel racing, and Formula Drift Pro and Pro2 competition all squeezed onto the famed turns of the Road Atlanta racetrack over two days. This creates a truncated schedule for all the series involved—even with perfect weather. When thunderstorms were predicted in the forecast for Friday afternoon, each series adhered to their schedule accordingly in the morning, and Formula Drift made the decision to abandon their allotted two hours of practice in favor of bumping their Pro qualifying session to an earlier timeslot. With only a Thursday afternoon practice session to test, many competitors still needed to dial their cars in during qualifying.

The Ford camp seemed to have some of the most dialed-in chassis entering this event, with Chelsea Denofa’s BC Racing RTR Mustang trekking sideways into a comfortable seventh position, while the camp’s leader Vaughn Gittin, Jr. hit the marks to earn the number-one qualifier position.

Latvia native Kristaps Blušs struggled to locate grip on his first run into Turn 10a, and beached his HGK Racing BMW deep into the gravel trap. He was able to stay on track for his second run and climbed into third qualifying position ahead of Saturday’s festivities.

As the storm approached nearer, the qualifying session for the Pro championship ended with minutes to spare before the projected thunderstorm made its way above of the racetrack. True to form, my curse brought the rain again. Luckily, it didn’t interfere with Formula Drift’s Pro Championship thanks to some clever schedule rearranging by FD’s staff. Pro2 was not as lucky, as fans had to wait out the lightning before their eliminations could begin.

I awoke Saturday morning to sunshine pouring through my hotel window. The forecast called for more rain, but it appeared the weatherperson was mistaken. However, by the time I entered the confines of the racetrack, the sky had begun to split into a mix of sunshine with heavy cloud cover—it wasn’t looking good.

Due to an altered practice agenda a day prior, the entrants were eager to line up for test runs before the main competition in an effort to familiarize themselves with their vehicle in the current conditions.

As practice neared its end, drivers like Robbie Nishida in his Top 1 Synthetic Oil Nissan GT-R had to elevate tire temperatures even higher in order to battle the cool drops of rain that began to hinder the grip of the track surface.

Top 32 competition began under matching conditions, with the first handful of tandems being decided by the winner managing to complete a run on the slick track surface and avoid self-elimination. Justin “JTP” Pawlak was unable to slow his momentum into the nearby gravel awaiting his Roush Performance Ford Mustang, while his opponent Jeff Jones pulled away in his 700-horsepower Nissan 240SX and took the win.

One of the highlights during Top 32 came from Odi Bakchis in his Falken Tire/Feal Suspension Nissan 240SX and Chris Forsberg in his NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z. The two are known for their aggressive driving styles, and neither gave up an inch of track for the other. In the end, it would be the three-time Formula Drift World Champion Forsberg, who would advance to Top 16.

No battle was more intense than the initial matchup—and eventual “One More Time”—between veteran drivers Dai Yoshihara in his 1,000-horsepower Turn 14 Distribution Subaru BRZ, and Ryan Tuerck in his Advance Auto Parts/Black Magic Toyota 86. The duo was so evenly matched in their initial tandem encounter, the judges ruled a OMT to better decide the winner. Amidst the close quarters of his chase run, Yoshihara made contact with Tuerck’s 86 and spun, giving the BRZ driver an incomplete score.

Now in his chase run, Tuerck simply needed to prevent an incomplete score in order to advance on, which he did with ease.

After the halftime break, the Top 16 contenders assembled in the keyhole turn for driver introductions to the enormous Atlanta crowd. The inclement weather had completely dissipated, leaving clear skies above for the remainder of the evening.

Battling continued into the darkness with the help of artificial lights illuminating the plumes of tire smoke underneath the colorful setting sun.

Alec Hohnadell in his supercharged Enjuku Racing Nissan 240SX faced Jeff Jones as his next opponent in an all S14-chassis battle. Unfortunately for Jones, Hohnadell was on a mission to progress as he pressed his Nissan within millimeters of Jones’ machine throughout the entire run.

When you see it: A quick glance at the picture above appears to only be of Jones, except that Jones doesn’t run a rear wing—Alec Hohnadell does. Look closely through Jones’ windshield and you can see Hohnadell in the Enjuku car putting on the pressure. This optical illusion was brought to you by some of the closest tandem driving I’ve ever witnessed.

Drivers like Ryan Tuerck, Kristaps Blušs, Dean Kearney and James Deane continued to progress through the Top 16 and Great 8 rounds of competition and readied their cars for their final exhibitions of the night.

In the Final 4, Alec Hohnadell was the only American in a European-dominated final grouping, which included a riveting encounter between Kristaps Blušs and Dean “Karnage” Kearney in the Oracle Lighting Dodge Viper. The pair went through consecutive heated runs which the excited crowd never wanted to end, until Blušs’ BMW made contact with the rear of Kearney’s Viper forcing a competition timeout between runs.

The five-minute allotment of time given for a timeout encapsulated a frantic effort in order to fix Blušs’ BMW before time ran out— including the added help of several FD drivers and their teams. The timer counted down the seconds until finally striking zero, with the car still on jack stands. The rulebook states to have all four wheels on the ground before the time runs out in order to be clear for competition. As a last ditch effort, while the rear of his car was lowered onto the ground, Blušs drove his car off the front jack stands while staring at the nearby FD official. Despite a roaring “Let him run!” chant from the collective spectators of Road Atlanta, the officials deemed it unsafe to drive due to a lack of lugnuts, proper alignment, or safety inspection. The crowd was deflated, and Blušs would need to settle for a third place spot on the podium.

The final pairing of the event saw a cross-country derby, as Irishman James Deane in the Worthouse Nissan Silvia faced off against fellow Irishman Dean Kearney in the Oracle Lighting Dodge Viper. With only one lead and chase run split between them, the judges had come to a final ruling for the winner of the night.

The pair returned to the keyhole turn and demonstrated their ability to shred tires together in a massive display of donuts creating so much tiresmoke that both drivers didn’t know where or how to stop and their cars eventually just found their way onto the grass where there was visibility. The clock had struck midnight and the two drivers patiently awaited the ruling together in front of the spectators left in the stands.

James Deane had won his second Formula Drift round of the season (and career) just six weeks after sealing his first. The victory brought elation to Deane’s teammates and fellow countrymen as they hoisted him into the air and he celebrated his incredible accomplishment.

This season is shaping up to be one for the books and I can’t wait for the fourth round in New Jersey in just a couple weeks. Here’s hoping it doesn’t rain, but it usually does—plus I’ll be there. So bring an umbrella!