Formula Drift’s Opening Rounds In St. Louis Show What To Expect In 2020

What a ridiculous year 2020 has been. The uncertainty of a global pandemic, widespread economic fallout, civil unrest, a run on toilet paper, emotionally unstable big cat wranglers, murder hornets (did that ever happen?), UFO disclosure, and — most recently — aliens on Venus. In a hundred years, I don’t think anyone could’ve possibly called this one. Yet, the best advice for dealing with it may come from a phrase initially coined by a soul musician in 1971 and co-opted 20 years ago by a mulleted, orphaned, mop-wielding, fictional representation of determination and grit.

With mostly all of that behind us (for now), the motorsports world is gradually sparking back to life. It realizes what is regained if we simply “keep on keepin’ on.” Enter the Formula Drift Pro Championship, which has finally welcomed its 2020 competition season.

Laying The Groundwork

Although the 2020 FD season is scheduled to run its entirety in just over two months, the series remains committed to a conventional eight-round season. Rather than run an event every week to make up the difference, they’ve opted for doubleheader event weekends for the entire season for the first time ever. This schedule change means that competition Rounds 1 and 2 were both run during the recent weekend in St. Louis, Missouri.

Since the rest of the motorsports world is also cramming their compressed schedules into the remainder of this battered and broken year, some favorite FD stops weren’t available. This will be the first year since the series’ inception that there won’t be a Round Atlanta round. Adding to that, the season would’ve been run entirely west of the Mississippi if not for the St. Louis area’s World Wide Technology Raceway sitting just two miles east of it — technically in Madison, Illinois.

Another point to mind is that packing so much competition into each weekend decidedly left no room for qualifying sessions. So, FD devised a substitute. Here’s how it works: Each round’s winning driver pulls a number (from 2-16) out of a hat and slots into the next competition’s bracket in that position. Then each subsequently finishing driver slots in ahead of them, in ascending order. Once the first qualifying position is filled, remaining drivers slot in behind the winning driver, in descending order, with any series newcomers ranked afterward in alphabetical order. Clear as mud? Yep, we know.

An upside to this was that the Battle for Third (place) is officially back on the table for competition rounds, which adds a lot of excitement to penultimate matchups at each round.

Despite the valiant effort by FD staff to accommodate drivers, fans, facilities, and partners, some familiar names will not be making it to the grid this year, due in large part to international travel restrictions, pandemic safety concerns, or strained sponsor relations and financial hardships. Topping that list in St. Louis were the Worthouse Drift Team of Piotr Wiecek and three-peat champion James Deane, who teased of bigger/better plans to come. Others included in this list were fan favorites Forrest Wang, Federico Sceriffo, Matt Coffman, Kyle Mohan, Pat Goodin, Dirk Stratton, and more.

On The Grid

Only 29 drivers filled the starting grid in St. Louis, meaning the top three starters would each enjoy bye runs in Top 32 competition — another modus operandi FD plans to continue throughout the season. And while World Wide Technology Raceway remained open to fans for the duration of the doubleheader event weekend, their numbers seemed to fill lightened expectations in this pandemic year.

The degree of liability shared by business owners, employers, and promoters in whatever COVID transmission or fallout should occur under their watch remains to be seen. Still, it’s necessary to realize that Formula Drift and its participating venues incur added risk in producing these events. Precautions must be taken, and as we saw in St. Louis, they were as thorough as they could be.

All fans and series personnel were required to pass a temperature screening and wear a mask to enter the facility. Participating teams, vendors, and workers (i.e., yours truly) were either required or strongly encouraged to wear one for the event’s duration. More often than not, we saw teams and staff abiding by this, except when effectively distanced, or when it just wasn’t practical.

Fans were a different matter, opting for social distancing more often than masking or a combination of the two. To their credit, fans did seem completely accepting of each others’ personal preferences regarding COVID precaution; no mask shaming was seen, either for or against.

Round 1

With the Worthouse team out of the running, the safe money seemed to be on the 2015 Champion, Fredric Aasbo, for the winningest season heading into Round 1. His all-new car may have seemed like a bit of a wildcard at first, but the fact that it’s a GR Supra, and one built by Papadakis Racing seemed to quell those concerns.

Handily winning Round 1 competition on Saturday hammered that notion home. Poise might be the best word to describe it. The all-new Supra ran smoothly and flawlessly in each battle. Freddy drove with his textbook precision once again, and the cool, calm calculus that is the Papadakis Racing recipe proved its mettle.

There were also Drift This buds Ryan Tuerck and Chris Forsberg to consider, with each veteran slide guy returning to competition in new and/or significantly improved rides.

Two-time champ Chris Forsberg is undoubtedly one of the best drivers in the field. Still, recent seasons have seen his efforts plagued by mechanical failures on his NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z. Things were looking good on Saturday, with Forsberg driving like a man possessed in search of that elusive W. He battled all the way to Aasbo in the Final 4, where familiar demons painfully reared their heads. A freak mechanical failure stalled his hopes not only of victory but making it to the line for his Battle for Third.

Ryan Tuerck thrashed his side of the ladder as well, driving like genuine championship material from behind the wheel of Papadakis Racing’s competition-proven Gumout Toyota Corolla. He edged out a similarly assertive and new-car-wielding Odi Bakchis in the Final 4 (landing Odi in Third Place by default). However, with a damaged power steering system from his last battle, Tuerck seceded the win to Fredric Aasbo in an epic all-Nitto Tire, all-Toyota, all-Papadakis Racing Final.

Suffering only minor mechanical injury, the Papadakis Racing duo looked right to repeat their podium performance for Round 2 the following day (it’s still weird to say that), if not for some key challengers.

Odi seems to come out of the gates swinging hard each year. In last year’s first two rounds, he earned wins and narrowly closed in on Aasbo’s second-place finish in championship points. This year also emerged as the overall winner of the inaugural Turn 14 Distribution x Formula Drift Skills Battle at Irwindale held just weeks before Round 1. He made a slight correction against Tuerck in the Final 4, and with the benefit of hindsight, looked to improve for Round 2.

And then there was Dai.
Daijiro Yoshihara had also already scored a win this year when he drove the Evasive Motorsports / EVS Tuning / Turn 14 Distribution Toyota 86 through the clouds to an Unlimited Class win at the 98th annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, less than a week before FD. Let’s just recap Dai’s last month or so. First, he drove from CA to NV in the Drivers Project, then he competed in the Skills Battle at Irwindale, a week later, won Pikes Peak in Colorado, and then a week after that, traveled to compete in St. Louis for FD. I’m tired just thinking about it.

Dai looked great through practice and Top 32 battling in Round 1, charging hard in his Top 16 battle against Odi. However, after causing a little contact, he was undoubtedly eager to improve in the following day’s Round 2 action.

And this isn’t even mentioning the perennial threat from former champs Michael Essa and Vaughn Gittin Jr., his RTR teammate Chelsea Denofa, JTP, Matt Field, Ryan Litteral, and several talented rookies.

Round 2

The FD upset of the year came early in Round 2, in a controversial but seemingly rulebook-sound judgment call. When Fredric Aasbo took himself out against Matt Field’s aggressive and unorthodox lead-run initiation in the Top 16.

Just two battles later, it was Chelsea DeNofa with an upset. The RTR driver and his Mustang dispatched Chris Forsberg after some of the fastest and fiercest battles seen all weekend, before ousting Michael Essa in Top 8.

Meanwhile, the other side of the bracket seemed eerily similar to the preceding day’s. Odi and Dai met again in Top 16 after Dai survived getting punted off course by Joao Barion in Top 32. Odi emerged victorious, before again meeting and overcoming JTP in Top 8.

Tuerck took out JR in Top 16 in a familiar fashion to the day prior when he did away with DeNofa. Tuerck once again went on to best Dylan Hughes in Top 8 before meeting Odi in the Final 4, where Odi exacted his revenge over Tuerck and moved into the Final against DeNofa.

There was just no stopping Chelsea in Round 2. He seems perfectly comfortable assuming the unofficial Worthouse duties of “turning it up to 11,” especially in the context of the final event of a doubleheader weekend, after months of pent-up aggression. After two solid runs, the win was all his.

As The Smoke Clears

So what can we come away with after FD’s grand re-opening in this strange and uncertain year? For starters, we know that teams — especially pit crews — will have their work cut out for them this year. Each of their abilities to maintain or recover will be crucial to success in a season of doubleheader weekends packed so closely together. The strongest will survive here, which means the odds favor the more extensive, well-run, better-funded teams out there.

But also, that the tumultuous, subjective nature of drifting can shift that power balance literally at a moment’s notice, with the right combination of critical thought, determination, and passion.

It’s rumored that livestream viewership was at record levels for Rounds 1 and 2. It’s clear that the dedication, achievement, and excitement of motorsports — especially drifting — provides a much-needed escape from modern mayhem.

Above all, I think we can learn that the show will go on. And that sometimes, the best thing to do is kick back, cue up some Curtis Mayfield, and keep on keepin’ on.