Every form of motorsport has had its difficulties during this year of troubled times. With a pandemic on the loose since early March, sanctioning bodies have had to contend with a pile of road-blocks in a year-long attempt to keep their racing relevant and accessible.
It hasn’t been easy for any one of them. That included Formula Drift, with its rabid fan base around the USA. Initially, Formula Drift intended to contest eight events. It did hold eight races, but they were located at four venues and didn’t start until the first weekend of September, not the first weekend of April, as originally intended.
The contracted schedule began in St. Louis on Labor Day weekend, albeit without reigning two-time champion James Deane, who wasn’t able to return to the US because of the pandemic. Both Deane’s and teammate Piotr Wiecek’s Worthouse drift team’s Nissan Silvia S15s were parked for the season, opening up the competition to other racers.
Fans were permitted – albeit at 25% of capacity – at World Wide Technology Raceway’s outside St. Louis for the doubleheader and at the third double-race meeting at Texas Motor Speedway, on Halloween weekend, which allowed 50% capacity at that huge facility.
The other two venues to hold 2020 Drift events, Evergreen Speedway’s event, held the final weekend of September near Seattle and the finale, the weekend before Thanksgiving at the traditional House of Drift, Irwindale Speedway near Los Angeles, did not permit fans on-site, making a normally rowdy atmosphere much less so.
So they raced and Formula Drift did have a championship. The Irwindale season finale saw the two races separated by a day. Round 7 took place on Friday while Round 8 was held on Sunday, allowing emerging racers in Formula Drift’s Pro2 class to compete on Saturday and crown their titleholder, Dmitriy Brutskiy, who was in second place going into the final round.
New for this finale was the addition of mandatory under-car lighting, used in the night sessions that ended each day’s activities. With viewers worldwide tuning into the live stream to catch their favorites in action, the visuals were acute and added to the excitement. Coming into the season finale, Ford Mustang driver Vaughn Gittin Jr was the leader, but only by eight points over Ryan Tuerck, with Chris Forsberg, Chelsea DeNofa and Fredric Aasbo rounding out the top five.
Aasbo won Round 7 in his Toyota Supra, with Michael Essa second in his BMW, DeNofa’s Mustang third and Gittin Jr. fourth. That result allowed the fun-loving and brash Gittin to extend his lead to 40 points over Tuerck, driving the Toyota Corolla formerly helmed by Aasbo, with teammate Aasbo third, DeNofa fourth and Forsberg back to fifth, racing an S15 Silvia instead of his normal Nissan 370Z.
Much action ensued before nightfall on Sunday and the final Round of 16 began as the track cooled off. Because of the pandemic, all Formula Drift qualifying rounds had been cancelled and, as there weren’t 32 cars on the Irwindale grounds, at least four drivers had bye runs in the first round. The only real shocker going into the Round of 16 was that Aasbo failed to advance after hitting the wall as he battled Ryan Litteral’s Nissan 350Z.
Auremis “Odi” Bakchis, the Lithuanian who quietly, seemingly tends to inch his way to the winner’s podium did, in fact take top honors late Sunday evening, as Gittin finished sixth. DeNofa was second and Justin Pawlak took the final podium spot in his Mustang. The podium spot for DeNofa gave Gittin’s teammate second place in the season standings.
By making it into the Top 16 on Sunday afternoon, Gittin secured his first championship since 2010, a ten-year gap for the self-taught drifter. The Maryland-born, North Carolina resident used his consistency this season, a trait for which he’s not terribly noted, to earn a second title.
Visibly excited, even behind a mask, Gittin exulted, “I couldn’t have dreamed a better Formula Drift season for our team and to have earned these results throughout the year have had me elated with gratefulness,” he said. “Seeing [teammate] Chelsea [DeNofa] hold up that second-place championship trophy right next to me with our team flanking us is something I will never forget.”
Formula Drift does have plans for 2021, according to co-founder and president Jim Liaw. He has agreements ready for Englishtown, New Jersey, Road Atlanta, Orlando Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis. He’s still hoping local regulations will allow Long Beach, Evergreen and Irwindale dates to be on next year’s schedule.