Reflecting On The Past And Welcoming The Future At The 2021 Formula Drift Finals At Irwindale

10 min read

Reflecting On The Past And Welcoming The Future At The 2021 Formula Drift Finals At Irwindale

10 min read

What began in Japan as a pastime among enthusiasts of popular vintage sport compact cars (by today’s standards), carving Japan’s many touge mountain roads in stylish, smoky, sideways form, has come a long way into the modern-day motorsport of competitive drifting.

Where naturally-aspirated and turbo four-cylinder engines sending some 200 horses to 195-series all-season tires of cars like the Toyota “AE86” Corolla, Nissan 240SX and even the Mazda Miata were once requisite hardware for the art of getting sideways, today’s top competitive machines flex no less than 1,000hp (some closer to the two-millennia mark), mostly from forcibly induced domestic V8s powering the massive, grippy, competition radials of just about any car imaginable.

Once only the best and most experienced wheelmen dared drift in tandem with each other. But today’s drifting competition is judged exclusively on tandem bouts organized in a ladder bracket of eliminations, where drivers are judged according to smoke, line, style, and proximity — all while sliding at triple-digit speeds, inches (or lack thereof) from concrete barriers, and each other.

Yes, the sport of drifting has come a long way. Formula Drift (Formula D, for short) competition right here in America has emerged as the world’s standard. The machinery it’s inspired has grown exponentially more impressive and powerful, the competition riskier and more exciting, and the best drivers who have stuck around have grown even better, while new challengers continue to raise the bar. This year’s final event of the 2021 Formula Drift season showed us a bit of all of that, with some series-changing moments along the way.

The New Standard

In 2009 there was only one V8-powered drift car in competition. Fast-forward to 2021 and there are only a handful of competition cars not powered by V8s, with only one turbocharged four-cylinder remaining. And while past years have seen sport-compact enthusiasts struggle with that change, today’s recipes for drifting domination are well-known, and consist of bits that can be found right here, through the Holley family of brands.

Holley EFI systems supply many of today’s most powerful drift cars with engine management and fuel, whether based on the venerable GM LSX engine, Ford Coyote variants, or even the odd Hemi. Holley bolt-ons, plumbing, and plenty of parts from NOS also find their way into many (if not most) modern-day Formula D engine bays, and play nice with a wide range of builders’ solutions.

AEM engine management systems have been a staple among Formula D drivers and builders since the brand’s inception, so it’s no surprise the hardware makes its way onto some of the winningest and most diverse vehicles in the series. The Rockstar Energy Drink / Papadakis Racing team’s 1000+hp Toyota GR Supra and RWD-converted Corolla, each with fully built versions of their factory turbo inline-six and four-cylinder engines underhood (respectively), make use of AEM engine management, as well as Federico Sceriffo’s FFF Drifting Department Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano, with its factory V12 underhood.

The RTR Motorsports team of veteran driver Vaughn Gittin Jr. and Chelsea DeNofa also raided the Holley parts bin in the construction of their dual Ford Mustang RTR competition vehicles, enhancing the cars’ N/A Ford Coyote Voodoo flat-plane V8s with plenty of NOS nitrous.

Today’s most competitive newcomers and pro-ams are smart to follow suit, with drivers like repeat pro-am champion and former ProSpec (Formula D Pro competition’s feeder series) Rookie-of-the-Year winner Rome Charpentier, 2020 Pro Spec Championship runner-up Jonathan Hurst, and former Shelby American driver (now in a Whipple-supercharged LS-powered Nissan S14) Jonathan Nerren.

The Competition

Most Formula D season championship points chases boils down to its final round of competition at its final round, but we can scarcely recall a final showdown as tense as what we all saw this year at Irwindale. A full four drivers had a realistic chance of winning the Championship coming into Irwindale, and those odds held all the way into the quarter-final “Great 8” round of eliminations, where narrow points leader Fredric Aasbø and that Rockstar Energy/Papadakis Racing Toyota Supra cliched the title with his win that relegated Vaughn Gittin Jr. and the RTR Motorsports Ford Mustang RTR to third place for the event.

Aasbø’s championship win came after a string of narrow misses in past seasons, many to Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s own competition wins, and was built this year on a whopping four second-place finishes and one win. He would go on to face Odi Bakchis in the evening’s final battle, where he would concede the round win but drive off with top Championship honors.

Odi Bakchis’s Irwindale competition win was the ninth event win of his career, and built on two previous event wins for the season, catapulted him to third place on the Championship podium. His car: the Holley-equipped, supercharged, LS-powered, Falken Tire Nissan S15 Silvia. Landing in second-place for season championship points was his Falken Tire teammate Matt Field, in his venerable supercharged Chevy Corvette.

The Departed

Few of Formula D’s original drivers have remained with the competition series in all 18 years of its existence, and after this Irwindale finale even fewer remain. Repeat 2010/2020 champion Vaughn Gittin Jr. chose the Irwindale round to announce his exit from the series, wanting to spend more time with his growing family and pursue other opportunities both in drifting and off-road racing. He was, after all, one of two hired guns that were chosen to launch a pair of Ford Bronco Ultra 4 trucks into the stratosphere at this year’s Holley Ford Fest, and thoroughly rocked that weekend’s drift demos from behind the wheel of his Mustang RTR with teammate Chelsea DeNofa. We’ll happily be looking forward to more of that in the future!

Along with Vaughn, Formula Drift OG, Japan transplant, and 2011 season champion Daijiro Yoshihara announced his retirement from competition, also to focus on future driving endeavors and family. Dai has long been a crowd favorite of the series and America’s take on the sport of drifting, and seeing the line for his autograph (and to catch a final glimpse of his Holley-equipped, LS-powered 2011 Championship-winning machine) on race day stretch past the Irwindale gates, we realized just how much his presence will be missed.

The Road Ahead

While the close of the 2021 season of Formula Drift has brought about a lot of changes to the series, looking over the field of newcomers and challengers — not to mention the entire field of Pro-Spec competitors not profiled here — we can’t help but feel optimistic for the future of this young and exciting motorsport. Follow Holley and Motor Life for much more to come in the near future, and be sure to check out some forthcoming features on our digital pages for more mechanical insight into some of the most powerful and durable competition cars on earth.


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