DeNofa, Gittin Jr., And Pawlak Wrap 2019 Formula Drift Season At IRW

No matter how you look at it, it’s undeniable that pro-level drifting takes an enormous amount of skill, power, and performance. Formula Drift, the largest sanctioning body of the sport, has an interesting rule book when it comes to car specs and since drivers aren’t racing each other or the clock to see who comes in first, the rules to win can be tricky.

Unlike some other motorsports, driver skills and their ability to consistently perform determines the winner. As a result, the field is composed of a wide variety of vehicles that adhere to some tight suspension pickup point restrictions and retain a large portion of the car’s original body, but there are no restrictions on what powerplant can be used and how much horsepower it can make.

This means Formula Drift competition cars are built to keep up with everyone else and the average car puts down 1,000 horsepower thanks to some kind of forced induction and a shot of nitrous on top of that.

We attended the final round of the 2019 Formula Drift Pro series championship, held October 18-19 at the “House of Drift” – Irwindale Speedway in Southern California – and got an in-depth look at qualifying and how tandem battles are run.

How Does Qualifying Work?

Regardless of the track configuration, drivers are expected to start with a commitment and a high angle initiation. They must drift through all of the outside zones, reach all of the inner clips with pace and the highest degree of angle possible while making quick, aggressive transitions without corrections or mistakes.

According to the rule book, each driver is allowed two non-consecutive runs, each judged on their line, angle, and style–which consists of initiation, fluidity, and commitment.

What Do Judges Look For?

The objective is for the driver to show their level of vehicle control; thus, drivers that do not make use of the outside zones or reach inner clips, or those that do with a low degree of angle or make mistakes and corrections will receive deductions.

According to the rule book, to receive the maximum amount of “line points,” the drivers are judged on their ability to adhere to the line stipulated by the “line judge” during the driver’s meetings. Outside zones and inner clips receive points. Line points are broken up by sectors at each track.

Angle points are awarded based on the driver’s ability to achieve and maintain a high level of angle, as described by the angle judge during the driver’s meetings. Line points are broken up by sectors at each track.

The style judge has three areas of focus: initiation, fluidity, and commitment.

To receive the maximum points possible, judges look at Initiation and how quickly the driver gets to the desired angle, and how smooth they can do it.

To earn the maximum points for Fluidity, judges look for a smooth rotation during the transition, lock to lock angle, and whether the car is settled and flows through the course smoothly.

Commitment includes consistent throttle application and maintaining speed throughout the course, and judges want it to look dangerous – code for “approach barriers and track edge with confidence.”

Only 32 drivers will advance from qualifying to the top 32 tandem battles. To proceed, drivers must earn a score to secure a spot within the top 32.

IRW Qualifying Results

Having scored 93 points on his first run, Chelsea DeNofa quickly initiated and got high onto the first bank for his second run. DeNofa left the first bank early but transitioned smoothly at the clipping point. Despite entering the second outer zone late, he carried massive angle throughout and taped the final front clip.

Behind the wheel of the BC Racing / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-D, DeNofa scored 26 points for the line, 30 for the angle, and 39 points for style. The run earned him 95 points, which secured his place as the number one qualifier.

Second place went to Kenshiro Gushi, who scored 95 points on his second run in the GPP Toyota Racing / Achilles Tire Toyota 86. His first qualifying run received 90 points from the judges, which kept him out of first place.

Ryan Tuerck qualified in third place, having scored 94 and 93 points in his Ryan Tuerck Racing / Gumout / Nitto Tire Toyota 86.

Justin Pawlak started strong on his second run during qualifying and immediately put the rear of the car on the wall. He carried his speed with a snappy transition, and he got right back on the wall in the second outer zone. However, JTP pushed it a little too far and compressed the rear end of his Roush Mustang six to eight inches. Fortunately, his S550 could handle it, and JTP was able to finish the run strong.

Despite the phenomenal driving, contact with the wall resulted in a point deduction. The judges awarded the run 25 line points, 28 angle points, and 35 style points. In total, the run scored 88 points, but since he scored a 94 on his first run, Pawlak was named the event’s fourth-place qualifier.

Vaughn Gittin Jr. scored 87 points on his first qualifying run. On his second run, Gittin Jr.’s initiation was proper, but he entered the bank a little lower than the judges desired. Gittin Jr. showed consistent throttle through the inside clip and carried his speed into the second outer zone.

The judges gave Gittin Jr. 25 line points, 26 angle points, and 38 style points. His score amounted to 89 points, which qualified him in 11th position.

What Are Tandem Battles?

The top 32 drivers are placed in a standard bracket based on their qualifying position. The tandem battles are single-elimination head-to-head battles that consist of two runs per battle with the winner moving on in the bracket.

According to the rule book, the higher qualifier will always lead the first run. Third place in the overall competition is decided based on the highest scoring qualifier of the two losing competitors in the Final Four.

If the vehicle breaks or is unable to pull to the line for the battle, the remaining car must make a bye run to be able to move on in the competition. The bye run is a non-judged qualifying lap to prove the mechanical condition of the vehicle is ready for competition.

What Do Judges Look For?

Formula Drift judges look for the driver that performs better overall in the tandem battle. However, if the judges are unable to find a clear winner, they may call a “One More Time (OMT)” battle.

Judges watch both Run 1 and Run 2 of each battle. They compare both lead runs, and both chase runs to determine which driver was better overall.

In a battle, the lead driver’s goal is to accomplish a chasable run. To be chasable, the rulebook states the lead driver will have filled the zones, hit the clips, and maintained a consistent speed and slowed in the proper areas. By delivering a chasable run, the chase driver has the opportunity to chase and mimic the lead driver with excellent proximity.

By contrast, an un-chaseable run will have a variety of errors and deductions that make it difficult for the chase driver to mimic or keep up with while in drift.

According to the rule book, the goal for the chase driver is to complete the course with as much proximity to the lead driver as possible while mimicking the lead driver’s angle, line, and transition points and style. The chase driver may not initiate later than the lead driver, and they can not make any corrections or mistakes. The chase driver must remain drifting until the finish line has been passed to show their abilities in comparison to the other driver.

IRW Top 32 Battles

Without a 32nd qualifier, DeNofa got a bye run in the top 32 and automatically advanced to the top 16.

Meanwhile, Federico Scerriffo struggled to chase Justin Pawlak and was unable to get as high as JTP on the bank in their top 32 battle. Scerriffo missed the inside clipping point altogether and was able to close some of the distance on the second outer zone.

In the chase position, Pawlak mirrored Scerriffo in all the right places but came in a bit too shallow the second outer zone. Pawlak advanced.

Vaughn Gittin Jr. went against Kyle Mohan in the top 32. With Mohan in the chase position, Mohan wasn’t able to get quite as high on the first outer zone and straightened a little as he approached the inside clipping point to catch up. Mohan almost went into the wall on the second outer zone as Gittin Jr. left the bank a little early.

Gittin Jr. got on Mohan’s door and remained next to him through the first outer zone, navigated the inner clipping point with ease, and finished with an intense chase run. Gittin Jr. unanimously got the win.

IRW Top 16 Battles

Chelsea DeNofa faced off against Daijiro “Dai” Yoshihara in the first battle of the Top 16. As the pair came into the second outer zone, DeNofa in the lead position caught one of the banners, and Yoshihara went into the wall. Neither driver finished the run.

On the second attempt, DeNofa’s rear bumper flung around violently, but due to his lead run, Yoshihara got the win and advanced to the Great Eight.

Gittin Jr. went against Chris Forsberg in the Top 16; the two drivers hadn’t seen a head-to-head battle since 2004 when Gittin beat Forsberg for the series championship.

In the chase position, Foresberg slid a little too far as he approached the second outer zone and made contact with the wall. Unable to continue, Gittin got a bye run for the second pass and advanced to the great eight.

Next, Justin “JTP” Pawlak (USA) in the Roush Performance / Falken Tire Ford Mustang went against Michael Essa in the Top 16. Always fast and aggressive, Pawlak was quick to initiate and went high on the bank as Essa initiated early and struggled to find speed and the correct line.

With both drivers lined up for the second run, Pawlak had the advantage but called a competition time out because his car began to overheat. With coolant gushing out of the vehicle and a scorching engine, the team was unable to make repairs in time. Essa advanced.

The Great Eight at IRW

After the easy win against Pawlak in the Top 16, Essa moved on to the Great Eight, where he faced 2010 FD Champion Vaughn Gittin Jr in the Monster Energy / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-D.

Gittin Jr. chased on the first run of the battle which saw the drivers make light contact in the second outer zone, but Essa was able to hold his line and finish with a good run.

Essa could not keep up with Gittin in the lead position, but he caught a break when Gittin did not drift deep enough through the course. The mistake forced the judges to rule in favor of Essa, who had a better lead run.

2019 IRW Event and Season Winners

In the Final 4, Essa chased Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis in his Falken Tire / Feal Suspension Nissan S14. Bakchis built a significant gap between himself and Essa through the course. However, despite a clean lead run from Essa, Bakchis drifted wide through the inside clip and collided with the safety wall. Essa had done well enough to advance to the Final.

Essa was able to maintain excellent proximity to Gushi’s leading Toyota during the first run of the final battle but had to make several adjustments to avoid contact. In the chase position, Gushi found himself tripping over the slower M3, making light contact on the bank, and then had to back off through the first inside clip to avoid more contact.

Essa spun out in the second outer zone, which earned him an incomplete run and gave the victory to Gushi.

James Deane joined Gushi and Essa on the podium in third place. Deane also became the first driver in Formula Drift history to win the Formula Drift Championship three consecutive years– 2017, 2018, and 2019. Previously, Chris Forsberg was the only driver to have three championship titles, though he earned them in 2009, 2014, and 2016.

The 2020 event schedule will be announced shortly at the annual Formula Drift SEMA press conference, slated for November 6.

Photography by Nicole Ellan James

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About the author

Nicole Ellan James

As an automotive journalist and avid car enthusiast, Nicole Ellan James has a passion for automotive that is reflected in every aspect of her lifestyle. Follow Nicole on Instagram and Facebook - @nicoleeellan
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