2017 Formula Drift Pro 2: First Half Season Recap
Formula Drift Pro 2 doesn't quite get the fanfare as the top tier "Pro" class, but tomorrow’s future stars are now required to drive through the Pro 2 ranks to earn a Pro license. As the link between the regional Pro-Am series and the national Pro series, the class acts as a strategic stepping stone to give drivers the experience of driving in front of the same judges on the same tracks as the top class, but with a reduced schedule to help ease the costs.
The first two rounds of this year’s Formula Drift Pro 2 schedule took place at Orlando Speed World and Road Atlanta, just two weeks apart from each other. After those two events just 500 miles from each other, there would be a three-month break until the third round of Pro 2 at Evergreen Speedway in August.
In the interest of giving these drivers their own spotlight, we delayed the coverage of the first two events until now as a refresher for those who are anxious to see how the final two events play out. The Pro 2 class champion will be granted free entry fees for the 2018 Formula Drift Pro event series, which is a great reward for the hard work and dedication that these drivers put in over the season.
ORLANDO: UNCHARTED TERRITORY
Thursday’s qualifying session took place with clear conditions, although temperatures started dropping rapidly due to a pending thunder storm in the area. Twenty-four drivers showed up to the inaugural event on the 2017 Pro 2 schedule, with only the Top 16 earning a slot in the tandem elimination bracket on Friday.
The top of the qualifying charts was fairly contentions, with just 10 points separating the top qualifier from Q10. Luis Lizardi, Randall Waters, Brody Goble and Kevin Lawrence took the Top 4 positions, with each driver scoring just one less point than the driver ahead of them. All four drivers competed on the 2016 Pro 2 circuit, while Travis Reeder in Q6 was the top driver who was new to the Pro 2 circuit this season.
Top 16 Tandem
Historically, qualifying has had little correlation to results in the tandem battles, and this season would be no different. Lizardi would lose the first tandem battle out of the gate to Brandon Schmidt, showing that any driver in Pro 2 can beat any other driver in any given battle. Lizardi would be the lone upset in the Top 16 round as the higher qualified drivers won all other battles.
Schmidt would defeat Hungarian driver Gyorgy Szilveszter in the Top 8 to earn a Top 4 appearance as the 16th qualified driver — a first in the history of the Pro 2 class. Local Floridian Kevin Lawrence would defeat Dirk Stratton, Australian Josh Robinson would defeat Waters, and Reeder would defeat Goble in the other Top 8 tandem battles.
The semifinals in Orlando featured some of the best drifting we saw all weekend, with both battles getting the crowd excited for very different reasons. Schmidt vs. Lawrence would take two “one-more-time” battles before being decided, while Reeder vs. Robinson was exciting due to Reeder losing a tire mid-run but still winning the battle.
The first semi-final between Schmidt and Lawrence would also determine one of the podium positions due to how third place is decided. If Lawrence lost the battle, he was guaranteed third place due to being the top qualifier, while a loss from Schmidt would have guaranteed he finished of the podium due to being the lowest qualified driver.
After a pair of tied tandem battles, a mistake from Schmidt in the lead position was enough to give Lawrence the win in front of his hometown crowd. Reeder’s win against Robinson was quite unusual due to the lost tire. Had Reeder lost the tire in the first half of the battle, he would have been unable to run the second half due to Formula Drift rules which restrict a driver from replacing a tire between runs. However, since it happened in the second half of the battle and Reeder was able to still apply pressure sans one of his rear tires, the judges awarded him the win. Robinson would still earn third place thanks to his superior qualifying position over Schmidt.
In the final, Lawrence had a very strong chase run, and likely an advantage heading into the second run. In the second run, Lawrence started the run off a bit lower on the bank in chase, but continued to apply pressure through the entire run and was awarded the event win. As a sophomore in the Pro 2 class and driving at his home track, Lawrence was the clear driver to beat throughout the event and put down consistent runs through each of his tandem battles. Heading into Atlanta, several drivers felt that Lawrence was beatable away from Orlando Speed World, and they still had plenty of room to make up valuable points.
ATLANTA: ROAD TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP
Atlanta’s qualifying field ballooned to 30 drivers, and a thunderstorm shortly before qualifying put all drivers on neutral ground. Both the top qualifier (Lizardi) and event winner (Lawrence) from Orlando would find themselves on the outside looking in after qualifying with a pair of zeros, which was guaranteed to shake up the points standings.
Formula Drift journeyman Danny George would take the top qualifying position with a score of 87, with Stratton, Robinson and Austin Meeks close behind him. Reeder, the bridesmaid from Orlando, would qualify in 11th position, while fourth-place winner Schmidt from Orlando would also miss the qualifying cut. Atlanta is long known as one of the trickier tracks on the circuit, and the Pro 2 qualifying session validated that perception.
Top 16 Tandem
Tandem eliminations would again start with a bang as a mistake on initiation from George would cause him to be eliminated by the 16th qualifier Alec Robbins. While most other top qualifiers won their tandem battles, Robinson would lose to Hooman Rahimi in his battle, and underdog Reeder would defeat Andy Hately in the final battle of the Top 16. Robbins’ day would end in the Top 8 when he would fall to Matt Vankirk, Goble defeated Meeks in his battle, Stratton would fall to Waters, and Reeder would end Rahimi’s Cinderella run.
Looking at the Top 4 matchups, it was clearly anyone’s race to win. Vankirk would face Goble on the left side, while Waters would face Reeder. As the highest remaining driver, Goble would likely be seen as the driver most likely to win the event at this point, while Reeder could be seen as a favorite due to being the only remaining podium finisher from Orlando. Goble would also be guaranteed a podium finish due to qualifying results, which allowed him to be a bit more aggressive if he wanted to be.
In the end, Goble had a very aggressive set of runs with Vankirk but dropped two tires off course in the final turn of his chase run, which gave the win to Vankirk. On the other side of the ladder, Waters slid off course after initiating too aggressively behind Reeder, although one judge wanted to see the battle go to a “one more time” battle.
Unfortunately, the final would be anti-climatic as Vankirk experienced broken parts and was unable to compete against Reeder, handing Reeder the win. Reeder now carries a 78-point lead over Goble and Waters, who are both tied for second in the standings, with Vankirk just two more points behind them in fourth place.
Looking ahead to Seattle, three of the top four drivers all have substantial amounts of experience at Evergreen Speedway as Reeder, Goble and Vankirk all earned their Pro 2 licenses through the Evergreen Drift Pro-Am series. Lawrence will look to avenge his DNQ from Atlanta with some big results in Seattle — a track he failed to qualify at back in 2015 when he last drove it. At the end of the season, eight drivers will graduate from the Pro 2 class with their Pro licenses, which means any of the 23 drivers who have earned points to date in the class still have a chance to move up to the top tier of Formula Drift.
FORMULA D PRO 2 STANDINGS
As of Rounds 1 & 2:
Stay tuned for our season recap of Rounds 3 & 4!
Enjoy more photos from Orlando Speed World and Road Atlanta in the gallery below.
(Photos: Andrew Jennings, Jason Scott)