As if scripted by Hollywood screenwriters, the Formula DRIFT Black Magic PRO Championship would again result in a nail biting, heavyweight showdown at its Final round. And sticking with tradition, the Final took place at the House of Drift – Irwindale Speedway in Southern California – in front of a capacity crowd.
The 2019 AutoZone Title Fight presented by Rain-X promised to be a slugfest, with five drivers having a mathematical chance to win 2019 Formula DRIFT Black Magic PRO Championship – James Deane (Ireland), Fredric Aasbo (Norway), Piotr Wiecek (Poland), Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis (Lithuania) and Chris Forsberg (USA). And with six championship titles already held by three of those contenders, nobody could take it easy.
Looking back to 2018, the title fight was equally close, and Irwindale brought us one of the most exciting Finals, with Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA) battling through the heats to win, narrowly beating Fredric Aasbo after running One More Time on two occasions to separate them. But Deane, who was knocked out in the Top 16 heats by Forrest Wang (USA), clinched the title by four points from Aasbo.
Arriving at the Irwindale 2019 Finals, Deane had a 19-point lead, but with a 20-point difference between first and second place, and extra points available for qualifying, Aasbo and the three drivers below him in the Championship would need Deane to be eliminated early to have a realistic chance.
With so much on the line, everybody was expecting fireworks, especially since a number of technical problems had depleted the field slightly. This meant the top qualifiers would receive the advantage of a bye round into the Sweet 16 heats.
Sadly, one of those missing was rookie Dylan Hughes (USA), which meant Travis Reeder (USA) would receive a well-deserved 2019 Rookie of the Year award since nobody could to challenge his points lead.
With James Deane dominating qualifying at the previous two rounds, few spectators could have predicted he’d qualify sixth on Friday evening in his Worthouse / Falken Tire Nissan Silvia S15. And fewer would have expected Championship rival, Aasbo, would be ranked tenth after choosing not to complete a second run in his Rockstar Energy Drink / Nexen Tire Toyota Corolla. With a misfiring engine after his first qualification run, the Papadakis Racing team chose to retire the Corolla rather than risk an engine failure. As it transpires, the problem was a 10-cent part, which was quickly replaced before Saturday’s competition heats.
With the two main protagonists taking a back seat, it was Chelsea Denofa (USA) who topped the qualification charts in the BC Racing / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-D. With his trademark aggression netting him 95 and 93 points respectively from his two runs, Denofa maintained his blistering performance from FD Texas, where he recorded his first win in three years.
Second place went to Kenshiro Gushi (Japan) who scored an identical 95 points on his second run in the GPP Toyota Racing / Achilles Tire Toyota 86. His first qualifying run received a respectable 90 points from the judges, which kept him out of first place.
In third was Ryan Tuerck (USA) who scored a very consistent 94 and 93 points in his Ryan Tuerck Racing / Gumout / Nitto Tire Toyota 86. He put everybody on notice that he was looking for a podium finish.
By their very nature, every Formula DRIFT round is packed with high-octane action and high-speed drama. However, the 2019 Formula DRIFT Black Magic PRO Championship Final at Irwindale will be remembered as one of the most intense events in the series’ history. There were more collisions with the safety walls, and more Competition Timeouts called by teams needing to repair stricken vehicles than anybody could previously remember. With a Championship on the line and the entire field sniffing the chance of a podium as the main contenders were distracted counting their points, nobody would show any mercy.
The Champion-elect, Deane, started his FD Irwindale campaign against Kevin Lawrence (USA) in the Top 32 heats. Driving the Enjuku Racing / BC Racing / Achilles Tire / Competition Clutch Nissan S14.3 with determination, Lawrence put on a good show but couldn’t match Deane’s lines or speed.
The two-time Irish Champion would proceed to the Sweet 16 where he meet crowd favorite, Forrest Wang in the Achilles Radial / Yellowspeed Racing / NRG Innovations Nissan S15. The pair have a healthy rivalry, which included Deane’s premature departure from the 2018 Irwindale Finals. Unwilling to allow history to repeat itself, Deane needed to advance to the next round since it would enable him to amass enough points to claim the 2019 title. In order to do so, he had to overcome a fierce competitor who wanted to end his own season on a high note.
As the cars approached the starting line, Deane would assume the lead position for the first run. Setting his own pace, Deane’s Worthouse Nissan burnt a groove through the outside of the course, closely shadowed by Wang who gave up very little. With the positions reversed, Deane appeared to have difficulty adjusting to Wang’s pace while matching his angle throughout Outside Zone 1, while Wang tapped the wall multiple times in Outside Zone 2, forcing Wang to adjust his angle. With mistakes made by both drivers, the judges didn’t agree on an outcome and voted for One More Time on a majority decision – where the runs would be repeated in order to separate the drivers.
In the OMT battle, both Deane and Wang seemingly provided carbon copies of their previous runs, with all the strengths and weaknesses they previously portrayed. The judges were again divided, and the majority requested another OMT because it wasn’t possible to pick a clear winner.
During the second OMT battle, Deane was flawless on his lead run and while he had some shallow angle on the banking during his chase run, he had equal angle and better proximity than Wang through Outside Zone 2. Deane was unanimously awarded the win and became the first driver to win the Formula DRIFT Championship three times in a row – 2017, 2018 and 2019. His consecutive wins place him on par with Chris Forsberg, who also has three Championship titles, but he took longer to achieve the feat – 2009, 2014 and 2016.
“I can’t believe it!” Deane exclaimed as he jubilantly jumped from his Worthouse Nissan. “I was in the zone with the battle against Forrest, trying my best to stop making the same mistakes I made on the previous two runs. It wasn’t until my spotter told me that was the battle for Championship that I realized what had happened. I couldn’t believe it!
“It’s unbelievable to be here after a challenging season where I’ve watched the level of driving come up so high. I’ve been inspired by Piotr [Wiecek] all weekend to drive harder. I owe him so much, as well as my family and friends. I don’t care what happens now; I just wanted to watch good drifting and enjoy the rest of the night.”
GUSHI TRIUMPHS IN IRWINDALE
Deane’s festivities would carry him through the Great 8, where he overcame a strong challenge from Ryan Tuerck, but he would falter in the Final 4 against Ken Gushi. Qualifying second, Gushi was on a mission at FD Irwindale and while he set a very strong lead lap, there were doubts he could match the pace of the newly crowned 2019 Champion in the chase position. However, Gushi defied the odds and doggedly stuck to both his task and Deane’s door, sending the Irishman back to the paddock early. Deane would still claim a third place podium position and the aforementioned 2019 Formula DRIFT Black Magic PRO Championship, so he wasn’t totally despondent.
Gushi’s path to the Final started with a bye round in the Top 32 courtesy of his second place qualifying position, followed by a match-up with Travis Reeder (USA) in the Sweet 16. Back at the wheel of Old Red – Reeder’s faithful Napoleon Motorsports / Turn Key / Nitto Tire / Nissan 240SX S13, which was substituting while development continues on his revolutionary electric-powered Camaro EL1 – the newly crowned Rookie of the Year put up a valiant fight but couldn’t match Gushi’s pace or precision.
In the Great 8, Gushi met Wiecek in the second Worthouse / Falken Tire Nissan Silvia S15. Wiecek was fresh from beating Aasbo in a very tight Sweet 16 heat, which was ridiculously close but the Polish driver was given the nod by virtue of better proximity in the chase position.
As Gushi and Wiecek went to battle, both impressed the judges on their lead runs but made small mistakes in the chase position. Much to the delight of the crowd, the judges requested OMT.
On their repeat runs, Gushi drifted high on the banking in Outside Zone 1 as Wiecek accelerated hard to gain proximity. Making slight contact with Gushi’s door, Wiecek was then fighting the car as he transitioned off the banking and found himself too deep through Inside Clip 1. Throwing the car sideways, Wiecek was lucky to escape with nothing more than decapitated tail lights and returned to the starting line for run two after a brief check. However, Gushi decided to take his only Competition Time Out at this point in order to refill his nitrous injection bottle. Some onlookers questioned the wisdom of using his only Time Out when Wiecek’s previous run was ruled incomplete and all Gushi had to do was finish his chase run. However, Wiecek wasn’t about to make it easy and again set a blistering pace. Gushi did enough to finish the run and was awarded the win.
After beating Deane in the Final 4, Gushi faced 2013 FD Champion Michael Essa (USA) in the Final. Driving the Essa Autosport / Achilles Tire BMW M3, he had a punishing route through the heats. It began against Rookie Sebastien Gauthier (Canada) in the Top 32. Driving his SSG Motorsport Nissan S14, Gauthier needed to make up ground in the first turn and found himself stumbling over Essa at Inside Clip 1. With Essa spinning out, Gauthier was adjudged to have been the culprit, granting Essa more time to make repairs.
Once they returned to the line, Essa struggled to keep pace with Gauthier in the chase position and appeared to be experiencing car problems. Unsure whether his “inactive chase” was the result of the collision or simply a conservative approach to ensure progress to the next stage, the judges called for OMT.
When the runs were repeated, Essa seems to find the right gear, knocking out a strong lead run and better chase run, grabbing the win.
Next up was Justin “JTP” Pawlak (USA) in the Roush Performance / Falken Tire Ford Mustang. Always fast and aggressive, Pawlak went hard off the line, leaving Essa in his wake trying to find speed and the correct line. With a clear advantage over his opponent for run two, JTP called a Competition Time Out on the starting line to address an overheating problem. With coolant leaks and a very hot engine, the team was unable to make repairs in time and was eliminated.
Things didn’t get any easier for Essa in the Great 8 where he was matched against 2010 FD Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA) in the Monster Energy / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-D. Never wanting to take prisoners, Gittin Jr was all over Essa in the chase position. The pair made light contact in Outside Zone 2 but Essa was able to hold his line and finish a good run. With Gittin Jr in the lead, Essa simply can’t match his pace. Possibly sensing victory, the Mustang driver didn’t drift deep enough through the course. Facing a dilemma, the judges ruled in favor of Essa who had a better lead run.
In the Final 4, Essa would start the first run in the chase position against Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis (Lithuania) – the only driver to win two rounds during the 2019 season. Driving his distinctive Falken Tire / Feal Suspension Nissan S14, Bakchis left Essa in his tire smoke as he built a significant gap through the course. Seemingly down on power, Essa’s lead run was clean but resulted in Bakchis drifting wide through Inside Clip 1 and colliding with the safety wall. While there was some speculation that Essa’s car problems may have mitigated the situation, he’d done enough to advance to the Final.
With Gushi’s incredible form throughout qualifying and the heats, and Essa’s apparently sick BMW, it seemed as if the result was inevitable, but the 2013 FD Champion wasn’t finished. Essa found an adrenal burst of acceleration for the first run and managed to maintain good proximity to Gushi’s leading Toyota, despite having to make several adjustments to avoid contact. Once Essa adopted the lead position, Gushi found himself tripping over the slower M3, making light contact on the banking and then having to back off through Inside Clip 1 to avoid further contact. As the cars drifted deep through Outside Zone 2, Essa’s BMW span without receiving any outside assistance. And while Gushi had to take avoiding action, Essa’s run was judged incomplete.
WORDS FROM THE WINNERS
With two Achilles Radial-equipped drivers on the podium, and the announcer building the excitement, Ken Gushi wept with joy when he was announced the winner. Despite finishing second in the Championship in 2015 and recording three podiums as recently as 2016, Gushi – who has competed in the series since its inception – hasn’t won a Formula DRIFT round since Texas in 2005, so his emotion was overpowering. “This is the first year I took over the entire motorsports operations for GReddy Racing, which brought a lot of challenges figuring out logistics, scheduling, prioritizing car development and more. There’s so many factors that can prevent me from being 100% focused on driving, so to be here at the last round of 2019, after overcoming all those challenges, and to be able to celebrate the win with my fans, friends, family and the entire team, is a huge bonus. It was an incredibly challenging year but hopefully we’re going into 2020 with some momentum. I’m very excited today – it’s a day I’ll never forget.”
We also caught up with the third-placed, 2019 FD Champion James Deane: “The whole night has been crazy from start to finish, as we knew it would be. But this one has been even madder than the past few years. Drivers were taking more risks and we saw a lot of crashes. But people need to push harder as the sport progresses, and that’s the outcome. It was impossible for me to pick a winner from the Top 16 because everybody was pushing so hard but we managed to three-peat the championship, which is ridiculous in my mind. I need some time to let it sink in because this wasn’t something I even dreamed about – I never thought it could happen, so I can’t put into words what it means. But it’s happened and I want to thank everybody who has supported me since the very beginning as a kid in Ireland. It was a silly dream to so many people but my family and friends stood by me. It shows that if you really go for something you can make it happen. And while it was a tough season in many ways, it’s finished in an amazing way and I want to thank everybody who helped get us here and supported us.”
In addition to James Deane winning the Formula DRIFT Black Magic PRO Championship and Travis Reeder becoming the 2019 Rookie of the Year, Irwindale also saw that Toyota win the 2019 Auto Cup and Falken again win the 2019 Tire Cup.
To round out another exciting season, we got the thoughts of Formula DRIFT president, Jim Liaw: “As in previous years there were a lot of ups and downs this seasons. There were drivers who surged but then fell off. There were drivers who didn’t start well but, in the case of James [Deane], finished really well. Every season gets tougher and tougher but to see James prove he’s the best of the best with a three-peat – which nobody has ever done before – really proves he’s the best in the world at this time.
“Next season everybody will return with renewed focus to get after him and chase the Championship," Jim continued. "At the same time, as a fan of the sport, it was great to see Ken [Gushi] on top of the podium at his home race after watching him experience ups and downs over the past 16 years. Everybody who works at Formula DRIFT and I’m sure all the teams and fans are delighted for him.”
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