Sunday, June 17, 2012

FD Slides into The Sunshine State

Round 3 “The Invasion” at Palm Beach International Raceway was full of surprises from beginning to end. Between the changes to the course layout, the rain during qualifying, and the heated race between two top drivers, this competition was destined to be one of the most controversial and important events of the season.

On Thursday when the drivers arrived for their first look at the track they were surprised with track options. The judges were unsure of the track and wanted the drivers input on what they liked best, so they gave them the opportunity to try a couple out. Soon the drivers took a liking to the track with the huge sweeping entry and the judges approved.

Not only did the drivers get a new track layout compared to last year, they were also handed some new rule changes, which isn’t unheard of mid season, but are pretty rare. I think a lot of calls were questioned from the Atlanta event and the judges wanted to address those concerns. For this event the judges noted that drivers could pass and not be penalized for it, and that some angle could be sacrificed for proximity. Of course there were a ton of questions from the drivers, but the rule changes are for the better and encourage some insane tandems. These rule changes didn’t disappoint because I witnessed more carnage at this event than any other.

Palm Beach is setup like most FD events with a wide open paddock so the spectators can get a close up view of their favorite cars. The way Palm Beach is setup the fans actually have to walk right through the paddock and venders to get to the stands. Speaking of getting up-close to your favorite cars, here is the number one car at the time, the Falken Tire Mustang. I love how even the jack stands are teal, which just shows you how much effort Team Falken puts into their team.

The pilot of that car above is the great Justin Pawlak. He won the last two events at Long Beach and Atlanta, which puts him in the number one position. If you were watching last year, you know he was so close to winning the championship, finishing a few points shy of Dai Yoshihara. It’s great to see he can still relax and have a good time.

Practice for the top 32 was the first session to run Saturday. The top 32 was a very surprising mix of drivers due to rain half way through the qualifying session on Friday. Qualifying starts with the person with the lowest score in the championship and ends with the highest. Rookies like Chris Ward and Jeremy Lowe got some good scores in before the rain, while the highest contenders had to qualify in a down pour.

Despite the bad conditions most of the expected drivers made it through qualifying which set up a very interesting bracket to the top. Dai Yoshihara qualified 14th which usually is a rough spot to qualify in. This time however, the past champion would go up against rookie, Chris Ward, which is a big change from going against the experienced Ryan Tuerck in Atlanta.

After practice was the ProAm finals which are always fun to watch. These grassroots guys really keep drifting fun and show it. I always catch the ProAm finals to keep a look out for future FD drivers. Drivers like Nate Hamilton and Dan Savage are always fun to watch, as is Doug Van Den Brink and Ovano who is pictured below.

The top 32 was filled with some pretty epic battles; Taka Aono in his trusty AE86 gave Tuerck a serious love tap giving Tuerck the win. Essa took out Atlanta’s 2nd place winner, Fredric Aasbo, and Wilkerson took out Lonberger in the Corvette.

During the top 32 when all the media was finally out and ready for action it became apparent that Palm Beach isn’t a photographer friendly place. I shared a small cut out with two other photographers during the top 32, but hey, there is no better glue for friendship than close proximity. Thanks to the Nitto guys for letting me get in their way!

You can see a photographers window from the other side here.  

Toshiki Yoshioka took victory over Tony Brakohiapa, as well as taking Tony’s bumper for a ride. The best part of the top 32, was not the body panel swap meet, it was the epic battle between Daigo Saito and Conrad Grunewald. Conrad put up an amazing fight going two “one more times” with the giant Daigo. The judges seemed much more fair in judging Daigo’s runs this round, but even with that, Conrad still couldn’t hold back the amazing Daigo and the 1200hp 2jz moved on.

In the top 32, local favorite Chelsea DeNofa took out past judge Tony Angelo. Chelsea is from the South Florida area and he really showed the crowd what they wanted to see. I think Chelsea is the new heart of Formula D. He is a super chill guy, drifts a 15 year old BMW, and has (I’m just guessing here) his girlfriend in normal clothes as his umbrella girl. This guy killed it against Daigo in Atlanta and absolutely killed it here in Palm Beach. I see some wins in the near future for this guy.

As the golden hour approached it was time for the top 16. Sunsets are always fun to photograph but everything is better at a drift event.

Vaughn did his trademark windmill with his hat, much to the amusement of his umbrella Girl.  Forsberg in the background watches quietly

Pawlak lined up knowing he’d have a great shot at a third win. The shot below is just about the most American shot you can take at a drift event; good ole boy with his mustang, brunette holding the umbrella, American flag, and a giant TV in the background. It’s no surprise that so many of us are drawn to this sport, even if drifting is from Japan, hoonage is in our heritage.

The top 16 was held under the lights after the sun had gone down.  The weather stayed clear and the driving got even more intense.

Dai Yoshihara and Ryan Tuerck met in an S13 vs. S13 battle. Dai was on a mission since Tuerck took him out in the Top 32 in Atlanta. Dai was on his game and didn’t let Tuerck get an inch away from him and Dai took the win. Gushi in the FR-S was taken out by Kyle Moen in the RX8 and Wilkerson was taken out by Pawlak.

The best battle of the night was the Mustang vs. Mustang battle between Pawlak and Vaughn Gittin Jr. The crowd absolutely loved this battle. It went into a “one more time”, Pawlak made a mistake on Gittin’s lead run, all Gittin had to do was make it to the end without spinning, and he could have moved on. Sadly it didn’t work out for him. As you can see in the picture above something in his steering broke before he even spun. I don’t think a lot of people even know what happened; they just thought he came in too hot and spun out. That’s not the case however; Gittin didn’t have a chance from the first turn.

In the top 4, Yoshihara was taken out by Chris Forsberg in the NOS 370Z and Daigo took out Pawlak. Pawlak had a few words with Daigo after the race. Apparently Pawlak was not too fond of how Daigo drove. On Diago’s lead run he took a completely different line, entering the first turn with the brakes slammed on, but still moving fast. Pawlak came in super hot like always, but couldn’t match Daigo’s changing speed, and spun out. Daigo moved on to face Chris Forsberg in the finals.

The biggest story I haven’t touched on yet was the epic tandem runs Chris “the force” Forsberg was involved in. Nobody had the track down better than Chris. Chris was the 2009 champ but hasn’t been on a podium in a while. It was good to see Chris back in his true form with the best smelling car on the grid. You read that right, you can smell the race gas off of his car from a mile away…yum. However, can he defeat the smoke monster Daigo Saito?

The short answer is no. Chris’s lead run was amazing but completely mirrored by Saito, and on his following run Chris slightly overcooked the entry tapping Daigo. This gave Daigo the win, his first win in Formula D, and it only took three rounds. This puts him right on the heels of Pawlak for the championship. Chris had to settle for second, and Dai was happy to be back on the podium after beating Pawlak for 3rd. Who knows what’s in store for the rest of the season, it’s going to be an exciting year!

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