Formula Drift Round 7: Title Fight – Irwindale Speedway, CA

As the sun set over Irwindale, California, Formula Drift Round 7: Title Fight was underway to settle the battle for 2012 Formula Drift Champion. Entering the final round of competition, seven drivers had a chance of securing the 2012 championship, but only one would be crowned. Points leader and 2010 champion Vaughn Gittin Jr,  Formula Drift Asia and D1 champion Daigo Saito, defending-champion Daijiro Yoshihara, 2009 champion Chris Forsberg, Pike’s Peak record-holder Rhys Millen, and others would go head-to-head beneath the lights and crowd in what was certainly the greatest Formula Drift event of the year.

Vaugh Gittin JR Ford Mustang Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

For the first time in Formula Drift’s 9-year history, the event sold out before the gates even opened. The wild and massive crowd came to see one of the best years in Formula Drift history come down to its final round. Qualifying started with a bang- Rhys Millen set the bar with an initial score of 97. Following him, Pawlak and and Aasbo both secured their place for championship contention.

Matt Fields Rotiform NUE Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Rhys Millen Hyundai Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Vaughn Gittin Jr qualified 9th, keeping him in race for an overall win of the season. The acquired points knocked Ryan Tuerck out of contention, but he still had the option of taking home a 2nd or 3rd place finish if the cards were right. Chris Forsberg qualified for 4th, a step in the right direction if he wanted to win. With the competition at an all-time high and points meaning more than they ever have before, both the drivers and the audience were on edge throughout the event.

Vaugh Gittin Jr Ford Mustang Monster Energy Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Chris Forsberg NOS Energy Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

As the sun fell lower into the sky and the audience began to glow bright red, the qualifying runs continued and the pounding of the war drums in the distance slowly grew closer. Ken Gushi snagged himself a 5th place position in qualifying; a great way to follow up the issues that plagued him at both Irwindale and Vegas. Matt Powers and Matt Field scored consecutive qualifying postions, followed by Daigo Saito in 13th. Despite mechanical issues all weekend, he managed to snag the spot. Saito hardly ran during the practice sessions, but we should have known he wouldn’t let the championship slip through his fingers that easily. As a technical “Formula Drift Rookie” due to his first year competing in America, Saito arguably has the most to win and lose on the table.

Ken Gushi Toyota FRS Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Matt Powers Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Mike Essa qualified, ensuring we’d see his turbo Z4 run at least a few more times. As BMW fans, it’s always been a hope to see Essa become more competitive; we can’t help but feel he always gets the short straw. Tony Angelo put his Scion tC through some serious work but pulled off a qualifying spot as well.

Michael Essa BMW Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Scion Racing Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

The rest of the top 32 was filled with familiar names, many of them with a chance of either wining the 2012 championship or at least a 2nd or 3rd place finish for the series- quite the accomplishment for any driver. Darren McNamara snuck in by the skin of his teeth, as did Walker Wilkerson.

Silvia S15 Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Vaugh Gittin Jr HRE Mustang Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

The top-32 knockout proved to be as hectic as expected. Several cars met the main wall, either eliminating themselves or escaping with unbelievable luck. Wilkerson, Millen, Pawlak, Lee, Forsberg, Grunewald, Aono, Angelo, Brakohiapa, and others all spent quality one-on-one time with the K-rails surrounding turn 3 of the track. Powers narrowly stole his victory against Lonberger in the Blu808 Corvette after a debate from the judges; both drivers had fantastic runs.

Matt Powers Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

As said, Walker met the wall during his head-to-head fight against Pawlak in his Ford Mustang. Despite a fantastic run and giving Pawlak a run for his money, Walker was eliminated. We’re sure he’ll be back next year with even more force behind him, as his year was beyond fantastic. Aasbo eliminated McNamara with a perfect and unanimous win, Saito eliminated Taka Aono, setting his sights on the championship, and surprisingly, Mohan defeated defending-champion Daijiro Yoshihara, preventing him from scoring the overall win.

Walker Wilkerson Fatlace Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

S14 Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Enjuku Racing Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Matt Fields Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

After the Top 32 Knockout was finished, the teams went back to the paddock where they had an hour and a half to modify, repair, and check the cars before the true competition began. During the break, the crowd left the stands to fill the paddock where the teams were working. While some teams only need a set of fresh tires, others necessitated serious fixes. The paddocks always prove to be interesting for the spectators; teams perform their changes and fixes front and center for everyone to see. And of course the paddock was chock full of awesome booths such as the Hoonigan’s, complete with Ken Block’s Gymkhana car.

Falken Mustang Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Falken Azenis Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Ken Block Ford Fiesta Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

The intense liveries of the final top 16 lit up under the grandstand spotlights. As always, the drivers and their cars were lined up and announced, followed by the national anthem. The crowd went berserk for each of their favorite drivers and machines.

Hankook- Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Vaughn Gittin Jr Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Tension for the event continued to build, as several competitors in the top 16 still had a chance of taking home the trophy. Right off the bat, Rhys Millen took out Kyle Mohan with his Hyundai Genesis Coupe. It meant that a win was still possible. Matt Field went up against Ken Gushi, laying down some truly amazing runs, on par with his previous runs throughout the day. He’d wind up going head to head with Daigo Saito in a later round, and I couldn’t help but hope he’d take down the mighty “Ninja.”

Rhys Millen Hyundai Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Matt Fields Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Scion Racing Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

In what was arguably the most important match of the night, Vaughn Gittin Jr went against Pat Mordaunt and his Lexus SC430. It was considered to be an easy match for Vaughn: the championship would be his if he simply won the round. If he made it to the top 8, his points alone would name him the 2012 victor; however, in an absolutely surprising turn of events, Gittin made an uncharacteristic spin in his chase run, putting him in 2nd place overall for the series and leaving him to watch from the sidelines.

Vaughn Gittin Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

As the competition moved forward, Field finally went up against Saito. Field put down some of the best runs I’ve seen from him yet, holding his own against the “big dog.” In fact, the judges agreed on the two going at it “one more time,” as their runs were simply too close to call the first time around. Going against Saito’s 1200hp Lexus, Field was at an obvious disadvantage, yet he held his own. Unfortunately he came up short. The crowd disagreed and begged for yet another do-over, but the judges saw it differently and Saito moved on to face Rhys Millen.

Daigo Saito Champion Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Millen and Saito were both still in contention for the podium spot… but if Saito won the round, he would be crowned the champion of 2012. The duo started off well; I found my own jaw clamped shut in anticipation of seeing who would come out on top.

Daigo Saito Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway Championship

Shockingly, Millen put his Genesis into the wall — hard. The front right wheel went flying off, strut and control arm included. Sparks flew and once the smoke settled, the damage could be assessed. Even though he was down for the count, a smile was still upon Millen’s face, knowing he had put up one hell of a fight. The car was loaded on to a flatbed and hauled off. And that meant 2012 had a champion.

Rhys Millen Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Rhys Millen Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

However, Round 7 hadn’t been claimed yet, with first place still up for grabs. Saito and Justin Pawlak went head to head, and it seemed as though Pawlak may take the win until, of course, the outside wall of Turn 3 claimed the Falken Tires mustang and Saito took his second 1st place win of the evening. Ryan Tuerck managed to land a 3rd place finish for Round 7, a solid way to end the season.

Falken Ford Mustang Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Ryan Tuerck Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway

Back at the podium, Saito was crowned the 2012 Champion. Vaughn Gittin Jr took home the runner-up spot and Rhys Millen walked away with third. Saito entered the competition as a rookie and left as the world champion. He still has a chance to capture the 2012 D1GP title as well, and if things continue, we’re sure he’ll take it home. Congrats to Saito and his team’s victory in their first year in Formula Drift. We’re anxious for Round 1: 2013 to roll around – we’ll see you there.

Daigo Saito Champion Formula Drift Irwindale Speedway


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