An Ode To All Who Made The 2020 Formula Drift Season Legendary

I remember at the start of this Formula Drift (FD) season (prior to my coverage of the St. Louis season opener for Front Street Media) wondering if stuffing eight full competition rounds into just four travel stops in a shortened calendar might feel like a half measure compared to a regular year. Boy, did that prove not to be the case!

Each subsequent round of the world’s foremost professional drifting competition has brought drivers, teams, and fans every bit of the drama, heartbreak, success, and legendary excitement as any in recent memory. Championship dreams were realized and lost, often in just 24 hours. Longtime rivals upstaged each other at every turn, while rookies and wildcards posed unforeseen threats. Teams and drivers got the workout of their lives. In many ways, this was the craziest and most intense year of FD to date!

In light of that, I’m taking a slightly different route to my coverage this time and am focusing on the real driving force behind Formula D: it’s people. People who could’ve found success in other walks of life in and outside of motorsports, yet who chose drifting and to double down on it when it would’ve been easier to sit this year out. Without further ado:

Papadakis Racing

After Round 1 competition in St. Louis, Papadakis Racing was my pick to win season championship honors. Fredric Aasbø’s smooth victory in the team’s Toyota GR Supra and Ryan Tuerck’s Second Place finish in their venerable RWD-converted Toyota Corolla solidified the duo as my choice.

A rollercoaster mix of podiums and early losses ensued by both drivers, along with continued repairs and development by Stephan Papadakis and his aptly named team. The former champ and FD’s winningest driver, Fredric, the multiple-time champion team owner/builder, Steph, and crowd-favorite, Tuerck, would keep their team in championship contention but would have to fight every step of the way to do it.

However hard the Papadakis Racing team battled before Irwindale, it was nothing like what unfolded here. Round 7 started off with a head gasket failure of the 1,000 hp Toyota 2AR engine in Tuerck’s Corolla, during or even before his Top 32 victory over Kyle Mohan. After some quick work, the engine was swapped, and the car was readied for Top 16 competition just over an hour later.

Irwindale is a tumultuous round for many reasons, especially in these later months as its track surface cools once the sun sets behind its banked oval walls. The same walls claim countless cars when drivers don’t stay on their A-game. Tuerck suffered such a fate when leading against Travis Reeder in Top 16. Tuerck locked up his front wheels on the cool pavement after initiation, contacting the wall and necessitating a lengthy repair to the Corolla for the following day.

Irwindale is also where teams turn up the wick on power. Steph tuned the Toyota B58 inline-six in Fred’s Supra from its usual 1,000 hp to over 1,200 hp at around 8,800 rpm for Irwindale competition. The engine held together perfectly from Texas’s doubleheader through Fred’s win at Round 7 in Irwindale. However, it finally gave up the ghost during celebratory donuts.

Steph and company swapped in a replacement during Saturday’s Pro2 Finals. At the same time, they also remedied the suspension to the Corolla. However, suffered another freak Supra engine failure during Round 8’s practice session early on Sunday, just hours before Top 32 competition. Both B58 engines were torn down and pieced into one working unit, which was successfully installed and brought to the line, with minutes to spare.

Likely due to lack of practice with the new and slightly different engine and changing track conditions, Fred suffered much the same fate as Tuerck the night before. He contacted the wall in his first run against Ryan Litteral, straightening and incurring substantial rear suspension damage. After another incredible fix by the Papadakis Racing team — using all but two seconds of their competition timeout(!) — Fred was able to throw down an absolutely killer chase, but it was not enough to advance.

While they didn’t earn the completely-unrealistic-in-a-development-year 1 & 2 Championship finish that I had initially speculated they might. Papadakis Racing did earn three wins for seven total podium finishes from their two drivers in 2020. The team ended the season in Third (Tuerck), and Fourth (Fred) places overall — certainly a cause for celebration.

Chris Forsberg Racing

Chris Forsberg’s drifting talent is without question. Having earned massive five- and six-consecutive podium streaks and three Championship titles throughout FD’s history. But fans and followers will also be familiar with the mechanical gremlins that have plagued him and his NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z in recent years. Last year seemed to have brought an end to those, with the swap to a built Nissan GT-R VR38DETT engine that lasted all season long! Inevitably, some issues have reemerged in 2020.

Forsberg and his team went into Irwindale competition comfortably Third in Championship points, after finishing Second and First in Texas. Then the engine blew, late in Thursday night’s practice, with no backup VR38 available.

Forsberg’s 370Z “party car” got him through his Top 32 bye run in Round 7 on Friday. However, with only half the power of his usual car — and most of the FD field — the decision was made to withdraw from the remainder of the competition for everyone’s safety. At the sacrifice of his championship bid, this was a massive display of sportsmanship by the veteran driver.

But that’s only where the work began. Chris’s team found a loaner car in Matt Field’s retired V8-powered S14. They launched a one-day mission on Saturday to drive up to San Francisco to fetch it, dial it in at Buttonwillow Raceway, add some livery, and get it on the line for Top 32 competition Sunday.

It was a solid plan and a fantastic effort, if not for Forsberg’s meeting and falling to eventual Round 8 winner Odi Bakchis in Top 16 competition, landing in Fifth Place for the season, no doubt with renewed motivation to improve next year.

Daijiro Yoshihara and Kenshiro Gushi

Good friends, JDM-to-CA transplants, victims of comical gaijin mistaken identity, and both always seem younger than their years. Dai Yoshihara and Ken Gushi sometimes seem to have more in common than they do in difference. Sadly, in 2020, that included a problematic competition year for both.

Ken suffered a back injury and the gremlins of new-car development with his KGMS / Rowdy Energy Toyota GR Supra, while Dai juggled a busy early-season schedule and struggled with some unforeseen hardships of his own. Collectively, the two finished 2020 competition rounds only as high as Fourth and Eighth, with Dai’s performances in Seattle and Texas.

Ken’s Irwindale weekend began with his Supra’s rear-main seal failing in Friday’s practice, taking him out of Round 7 competition altogether.

Dai and the Turn 14 Distribution / Falken Tire Subaru BRZ moved on from Top 32 with a victory over Faruk Kugay, and then blasted out a killer lead run against Taylor Hull in Top 16. Dai’s contact followed after a controversial wall tap by Hull, which ultimately ended the evening for our man.

Ken came back hungry on Sunday, coincidentally battling Dai in Top 32 with two of the best and most memorable runs of the weekend. He went on to take out Adam LZ in Top 16 before giving hell — but ultimately falling — to JTP in Top 8.

With both of these friendly rivals’ stability on the horizon in 2021, we’re hoping to see Ken reign in his new machine and Dai to find his Championship footing once again.

Adam LZ

I’m not sure what it is about fame that incurs a proportionate amount of hate, but YouTube influencer-turned-Formula Drift rookie Adam LZ seems to enjoy and tolerate it both. A simple read through the comments of the Formula D Livestream, and it’s apparent. All the while, he seems to be keeping his head down and doing a damn good job of drifting his RHD, 2JZ-powered Nissan S15 competition car.

The only problem is that he, too, suffered an untimely engine failure heading into Round 7 competition on Friday. But when Odi Bakchis loaned him his V8-powered, LHD, Nissan S14 2019 competition car, the rookie crew wasted no time readying it for competition. They covered it in painter’s tape, slapped on some orange trim, and got it to work — all while rebuilding LZ’s 2JZ for Round 8 on Sunday.

Round 7 competition began for LZ with a lucky bye run in Top 32, followed by a victory over “Rad” Dan Burkett in Top 16, before falling to eventual winner Fredric Aasbø in the round of 8. At this point, LZ had cemented 2020 Rookie of the Year honors with his steadily improving season competition performance, finishing as high as Top 4 at Round 6 in Texas.

Back in his S15 for Round 8 on Sunday, LZ outmuscled Alec Robbins in Top 32 before falling to Gushi-on-a-warpath in Top 16. Means, motive, and opportunity; Adam LZ seems to have all and a genuine passion for cars and drifting. If you ask us, it’s impossible to hate on that.

The Monster Energy / Ford Mustang / RTR Team

Thanks to the Monster Energy RTR Ford Mustang drift team’s support, 2010 champ, Vaughn “JR” Gittin Jr., was once again able to drift himself to that elusive top step of the championship podium.

JR was this year’s living proof that anything can happen. After starting the year with back-to-back Top 16 exits in St. Louis, his back-to-back wins in Washington and back-to-back-podium finishes in Texas propelled him very quickly and distantly to the championship lead.

Irwindale wasn’t so smooth. After a longer-than-usual adjustment curve to the lengthened House of Drift course, JR battled as far as Top 4 in Round 7 before getting lost in the smoke behind Aasbo and spinning his way out of the competition.

Then, after an absolutely killer lead run against teammate Chelsea DeNofa in the battle for Third, JR got lost in the smoke once again, this time just after initiation, and crunched his RTR Ford Mustang into the infamous Irwindale wall.

Following a truly impressive rebuild by his team, JR survived Round 8 Top 32 competition on Sunday against Kyle Mohan. He was crowned 2020 Formula Drift Champion following Tuerck’s exit in Top 16 and took out Ryan Litteral later that same round, before ultimately falling to Odi in Top 8.

If the Championship win wasn’t enough, teammate Chelsea DeNofa nabbed Third Place in Round 7 with JR’s crash. He battled to the Finals against Odi Bakchis in Round 8 on Sunday and claimed Second both for the round and season Championship points.

Once the champagne and confetti had cleared, the RTR team took the championship podium’s two highest steps.

Everyone Else

I really wish I could drone on and include everyone involved this year because after a year like this, their extraordinary efforts deserve all the recognition we could give, and their stories are every bit as compelling. But alas, I have to put a cork in it.

We’ve all come a long way since St. Louis. Sacrifices were made, calculated risks were taken, and a lot of life was lived in those two and a half short months. So, while we take another four months to recover from it all, we’d like to wish everyone involved a restful and productive off-season. We expect to see all of drifting’s hardest chargers back for what we hope proves to be a much smoother year.