Formula Drift Royalty Puts on a Smoke Show - 2023 Road Atlanta


Formula Drift Royalty Puts on a Smoke Show - 2023 Road Atlanta


Long before Formula DRIFT became the sensation it is today, the premier North American series got its start in 2004 at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. In almost storybook fashion, Chris Forsberg and Vaughn Gittin Jr., who placed first and second, respectively, at the inaugural round, found themselves with their positions reversed atop the podium once again. In addition, the Link ECU PROSPEC (formerly Pro 2) feeder series which made its debut in 2014 saw its tenth anniversary at the home of FD with Rudy Hansen taking home his first series podium.

Chris Forsberg and Vaughn Gittin Jr. have been frenemies for 20 years. In 2004 at the very first round of Formula DRIFT, Forsberg and his Nissan 350Z bested Gittin and his Nissan S14 to become the first winner. This year, the roles were reversed.

Perhaps the biggest buzz surrounding the second round of the 2023 FD season was the return of fan favorite and two-time series champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. in his Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD. The ever-popular driver took the 2022 season off to focus on off-road racing among other endeavors, returning in 2023 to split the driving duties with Adam LZ. New to the RTR Motorsports stable this year is 2017-2019 champion James Deane, also making a return to the series in a RHD version of the not-yet-available-to-the-public 2024 Mustang after having previously competed in an S15 Nissan Silvia. Along with fourth teammate Chelsea Denofa, the quartet promises a commanding presence throughout the season.

James Deane came from Ireland to dominate Formula DRIFT for three consecutive seasons (2017-2019). This year, he returns to the series in a RHD 2024 Mustang for Vaughn Gittin Jr's team, RTR Motorsports.

On the subject of presence, attendance in Atlanta was widely rumored to be the largest of any drift event in history. Fans old and new totaling an estimated 25,000 were treated to three days of action between the two drift divisions, with the seemingly annual rain rearing its head only briefly Friday morning, dampening the autograph session and leaving just enough on the track to make the earliest part of the afternoon PROSPEC warm up a little slippery.

Thursday afternoon saw the PROSPEC field start their qualifying runs, with a notable portion of the field making their Road Atlanta debut. The unique loop-style layout is the only track on the schedule where drivers start and finish in the same spot, and the 80-foot elevation change into/out of the first/last corner proves a sobering experience for many rookies and sometimes gets the best of even the most seasoned drivers. Besting 38 other drivers in PROSPEC was the newest member of Odi Bakchis' Team Feal, Ben Hobson in the Pedal Commander / Feal Suspension / Koruworks / Motegi Racing Nissan S14, who qualified first with a score of 83.3. Nearly half the field failed to lay down a qualifying score on their first pass and had to run again, and with only 32 spots in the competition, seven drivers found themselves among the thousands in attendance once the bracket was set.

Top PROSPEC qualifier Ben Hobson and his S14, the newest member of Odi Bakchis' Feal Suspension team, earned top qualifier and faced seventh-place qualifier Rudy Hansen in the finals with Hansen taking home the victory.

Qualifying seventh was Rudy Hansen in his Track Tires / Mast Motor / J&A Racing Oil Nissan S13, who would best Hooman Rahimi after a one-more-time decision in the top 32. Rahimi's spin in Outer Zone Two all but gifted Hansen the win, and he would go on to another one-more-time decision in Top 16 against Matthew Bystrak, who went four tires off exiting the keyhole ruling his run incomplete. Hansen had his first clean victory over Nate Chen in the Great 8, where the solitary Idahoan wooed two of the three judges to find himself in the Final Four.

It was there Hansen was paired against Alex Jagger in the Forsberg Racing / NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z. A chase run by Hansen that proved superior to Jagger's when the latter miscalculated the touch-and-go zone on his awarded Hansen a spot in the final. Jagger would need to be satisfied with third place.

The finals saw a one-more-time decision once again after Hansen and Hobson committed equal errors on their first pair of runs. With improvement by both on their second set of runs, the judges still weren't unanimous with a victor but Hansen secured the win with two of the judges siding in his favor.

“One year ago we were wondering what it would take to stand on the podium,” Hansen told the crowd from atop the podium. “We put our heart and soul into getting here and I've got to thank everybody who stood behind me including my wife and teammates, as well as Track Tires for their great support. Overall, I hope this is the beginning of something. I've been working so hard for this and I'm ready to be champion this year.”

Rudy Hansen scored his first Formula DRIFT PROSPEC podium, with Ben Hobson securing second and Alex Jagger taking home third.

Though by only competing in half the rounds for 2023, Vaughn Gittin Jr. looked like he was ready to be champion once again and came out swinging in Pro qualifying. He set the pace on his first run with a 93.3, a score untouched by anyone else and securing him the top spot in the bracket. The ever-popular Forrest Wang also returned this year in his Yellowspeed / NRG Nissan S15, arguably one of the best-looking cars in either series and found himself qualifying second with a 91. Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis in his Feal Suspension / GT Radial Nissan S15 was but four-tenths of a point away in third with a 90.6. With fewer drivers than PROSPEC, only three drivers failed to make the competition cut.

Gittin began his climb to the top with a knock-out over 2022 PROSPEC champion Robert Thorne, where the veteran driver all but ran away from Thorne on his lead run as the latter ran deep through Inside Clip 1, then all but glued the door of his Mustang to Thorne's BMW E46 on his chase run yielding a unanimous judges decision. Drawing last year's top qualifier Alec Robbins in the round of 16, Gittin's speed and accuracy were the likely culprits that caused Robbins to spin in Outer Zone 2 on both runs and allow Gittin to advance.

It was in the Great 8 where the twice-former champion drew current points leader Matt Field and this Borla Performance / GT Radial / Drift Cave Corvette. Field, who had qualified ninth and would ultimately end his night in the decision in favor of Gittin, would not only retain but increase his series points lead as rivals like Fredric Aasbo and James Deane bowed out earlier.

Gittin's win over Field would see himself draw 2018 Atlanta winner Kristaps Bluss who was competing in the same HGK E92 BMW Eurofighter from five years ago. Bluss bumped Gittin as the two were transitioning through the Touch & Go zone, causing Gittin to spin and Bluss to acquire damage significant enough to have to be towed off course. Unfortunately for Bluss who had already utilized his five-minute competition time out, his car couldn't be repaired and he was forced to retire.

Kristaps Bluss and his Eurofighter E92 BMW won the Atlanta round in 2018 and returned this year in the same car looking for a repeat performance. Darren Kelly and the Heart of Racing Aston Martin scored his highest finish of the series yet with eighth.

As Gittin's long-time friend and rival Chris Forsberg had knocked out Jhonnattan Castro, Forrest Wang, James Deane, and Odi Bakchis to earn this spot in the finals, the electrified crowd was ready to witness a spectacle that seemingly all had been waiting for. With over 40 years of drifting experience between them, the two drivers with five championships between them were set to square up in a re-match 20 years in the making.

Forsberg held his own on his initial chase run, losing ground to Gittin through Inside Clip1 but zeroing in through Outer Zone 2 and sticking like glue until the run was through. After a slightly shaky start by Forsberg on his lead run when he initiated late into Inside Clip 1 causing Gittin to take corrective action, the judges determined Gittin to have the superior runs and ruled in favor of the Fun Haver. As it turns out, the transmission in Forsberg's Nissan Z determined it no longer needed a fourth gear, excusing itself from the chat and making the 2004 ATL champion fight that much harder to keep pace.

“Chris beat me 20 years ago and it was amazing to be competing against him 20 years later,” Gittin said immediately after his victory was announced. “I was feeling confident coming into Atlanta but I didn’t expect to run against this field of drivers and have a perfect event. I’m happy to represent my team, which has killed it all weekend. They supported my dream of running three cars this year and it reflects the passion of the amazing men and women at RTR. It puts smiles on faces and proves my motto; cool shit wins. We’re at the greatest progression of the sport and I’m pumped to have won in Atlanta. I’m also excited that my decision to run a partial season has worked out because I love drifting but I have to balance my life. And having a partial season allows me to commit to pouring my heart and soul onto the track. We did that tonight and I plan on doing it in Seattle, Utah, and Irwindale.”

Like Forsberg and Gittin traded podium positions in 2004, as did Bakchis and Gittin in 2021, where Bakchis had been the victor and Gittin found himself holding the bronze.

After a one-year hiatus and driving only part-time this year, two-time Formula DRIFT champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. was victorious in Atlanta, with Chris Forsberg earning second place and Odi Bakchis in third.

“Atlanta has always been a special place for us,” said Ryan Sage, president of Formula DRIFT. “It represents our history but we can also bask in some incredible nostalgia as we watched Vaughn qualify first and get the win. He’s doing a partial season but he’s made his presence known. He’s a force of nature and it was incredible to see him battling one of his best friends. They’re both legends of the sport and, of course, Odi Bakchis finished third as the old guard refuses to die. They won’t go away; the young guns will not push them around. And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of our first event than by essentially re-enacting it with two superstars who entertained the fans all night. We’re in Orlando in just two weeks and I really hope this energy continues to grow as the season progresses.”

Odi Bakchis' LS-powered Nissan S15 is crammed full of Holley components in just about every aspect of the build.


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