James Deane Survives The Gauntlet at Formula Drift New Jersey 2018
Formula Drift celebrated a landmark centennial event at Wall Speedway in New Jersey over the weekend with another highly competitive event and a nearly sold-out crowd, two themes that have become commonplace over the past few seasons. Although the initial weekend forecast looked ominous, with scattered showers scheduled for the duration of the weekend, Mother Nature was clearly a drifting fan as qualifying and tandem competitions both stayed dry after a mix of moisture provided mixed conditions all day during Thursday's practice.
At the end of the weekend, James Deane finished on the top step of the podium in his Worthouse Nissan S15, with Matt Field placing second in his Chevy Corvette and Justin Pawlak occupying the third step on the podium behind his Roush Ford Mustang. All in all, we saw what felt like a record number of One More Time battles, showcasing just how competitive the Formula Drift grid is from top to bottom.
Wall Speedway Course Layout
For the first time this season, Formula Drift made a major change to the course layout at Wall Speedway, returning to the initial layout from 2006 where drivers cross the flat bottom of the track and finish counter-clockwise around the final turn, compared to the layout used over the past few years, which kept the drivers out of the center of the track and drifting every corner in a clockwise rotation. For those completely unfamiliar with the Wall layout, the drivers sit on the end of the backstraight midway up the bank to start and initiate into turn 2 of the traditional speedway layout in clockwise orientation.
Judges asked drivers to stay close to the guardrail at the top of the 30-degree banked turn as an outside clipping point for the entirety of the traditional turns 1 and 2, then transition down onto the flat bottom of the track and switch to an inside clipping point on the traditional start/finish line. This transition is especially harsh on the drift cars and requires the teams to sacrifice an ideal setup in exchange for control through this transition. The course then continues through turns 3 and 4 of the traditional layout in a clockwise orientation along the skirt of the track, and continues through a figure-8 style crossover in the middle before finishing around turns 1 and 2 along the skirt. The layout is one of the slower courses speed-wise on the Formula Drift schedule, but it is technically challenging to master and typically makes for great tandem battles.
As qualifying shook out, Justin Pawlak again found himself at the top of the charts for the second consecutive event by earning 95 qualifying points out of a possible 100. Odi Bakchis sat in second with his 93 point run, his highest qualifying effort of the season. James Deane (93 points), Fredric Aasbo (92 points) and Matt Field (92 points) rounded out the top five qualifying positions, all names that we’ve seen near the top of the qualifying charts all season long.
Nitto Tire drivers Vaughn Gittin Jr. (Q7), Alex Heilbrunn (Q8) and Federico Sceriffo (Q22) all earned season-high qualifying marks, while Chelsea DeNofa (Q25) qualified for the tandem competition a bit lower than expected but with a fighting chance come Saturday’s competition. Unfortunately, only 30 drivers turned in a qualifying score despite 32 drivers making passes on the weekend, which meant Pawlak and Bakchis earned bye runs into the Top 16 round.
After the amazing tandem battles we saw in Atlanta, we had high hopes for some door-rubbing action in the Garden State. The Top 32 battles started out a little lackluster as several of them were decided without much of a challenge due to major mistakes or spins from drivers. Most of the higher ranked drivers moved on in the bracket, including Nitto Tire drivers Gittin Jr. and Heilbrunn, who defeated Kevin Lawrence and fellow Nitto teammate DeNofa, respectively.
Unfortunately, Sceriffo and his Ferrari 599 lost the tandem battle to Ken Gushi due to sliding up onto the bank in the second turn while chasing Gushi (which is considered offcourse), but he has showed considerable improvement since his rookie debut in Long Beach. The biggest upset of the Top 32 happened in the final battle when defending Atlanta event winner Kristaps Bluss defeated 2013 series champion Michael Essa after a One More Time battle, an upset of the 27th qualified driver (Bluss) defeating the 6th qualified driver (Essa).
After the VIP trackwalk and Opening Ceremonies, the Ford Top 16 battles were definitely much more exciting than the Top 32 round. Several battles in this round ended in contact, including back-to-back battles early in the bracket. Alex Heilbrunn effectively eliminated himself by tapping the top guardrail in his lead run, which broke his left rear wheel and ground his run to a halt before the second turn of the track, giving Chris Forsberg the win.
In the very next battle, Forrest Wang and Aasbo made car-to-car contact before both drivers crashed into the top guard rail. With Aasbo being deemed at fault by the judges, Wang was allowed to move into the NOS Energy Drink Great 8. The only other Nitto Tire driver remaining in the competition was Gittin Jr., who was also eliminated in the Top 16 by Dai Yoshihara’s Turn 14 Distribution Subaru BR-Z.
The most entertaining battle of the Top 16 was between Worthouse Drift teammates James Deane and Piotr Wiecek. Although Wiecek had to back out of drift midway through his lead run, the entire first half of the battle was bumper-to-fender between the cars and looked like a coordinated bumper-car derby between the two good friends. Deane earned the win largely due to what appeared to be mechanical gremlins from Wiecek, but the crowd was appreciative of the effort from both drivers.
The Permatex Final 4 came down to Justin Pawlak (Q1), Matt Field (Q5), Odi Bakchis (Q2) and James Deane (Q3). As the highest qualified driver, Pawlak was guaranteed a podium finish, but he was aiming for the win. Both Final 4 battles went to a One More Time battle. Field’s Corvette got the better of Pawlak’s Mustang in the muscle car battle, while Deane’s 2JZ-powered Nissan S15 earned the victory over Bakchis’s Chevy LS-powered Nissan S14 in the battle of swapped S-chassis vehicles.
The Black Magic final between Field and Deane was decided without the need for a One More Time, much to the delight of the fans who had been waiting for nearly 3 hours to see the Top 16 come to a finish. Deane’s superior chase was the key to earning the win from the judges, a theme we have seen repeatedly over the past season.
With the event win, Deane jumps back into the top spot in the championship chase, 17 points ahead of Aasbo and 29 points ahead of Forsberg (who lost in the Top 8 to Pawlak). The championship chase is effectively down to the top three drivers, barring a major run by Wiecek (87 points back), Pawlak (98 points back), Bluss (105 points back) or Wang (107 points back).
Formula Drift effectively enters a mid-summer break as drivers have six weeks off until Round 5 at Evergreen Speedway just outside Seattle in late July. This is the longest break of the season, and one drivers will welcome in large part due to the carnage that took place in Wall, N.J. We’ll have full coverage of the rest of the season here on Driving Line, so stay tuned!