Vaughn Gittin Jr. Knocks Out the Competition at Formula Drift Irwindale 2018
For the last fifteen years, Formula Drift has ended the season at the iconic Irwindale Speedway, lovingly dubbed the “House of Drift” by many, and 2018 was no different. After seven rounds of competition, James Deane held a 49 point lead over Fredric Aasbo, as well as an 87 point lead over his Worthouse Drift Team teammate Piotr Wiecek in the overall points race. Although all other drivers were statistically eliminated, finishing the season on a good note with a strong result at Irwindale is always a priority for drivers. Southern California is known for the lack of variation in weather, but Mother Nature decided to throw a curveball into the equation with some rain and thunderstorms on Thursday and Friday. Thankfully, Saturday’s competition was dry throughout, and the drivers were able to push their cars to the limits (and in some cases beyond).
Irwindale Speedway Course Layout
The course layout at Formula Drift Irwindale has stayed relatively unchanged for the past few seasons, but in case you’re unfamiliar with it, we’ll take you for a spin around the half mile banked oval. Drivers start on the back straight, with the lead driver taking a small chicane before entering the traditional turn three corner at speeds nearing 80 mph. The first banked turn has an outside clipping point near the exit of the bank at the exit of turn four in the traditional layout.
Coming across the traditional start/finish line, drivers transition to face the crowd midway down the front straight to hit a front clipping point on the finish line, then transition back towards the middle of the track to brush their back bumpers along an outside clipping zone on the inner quarter mile bank. There’s a second outside zone near the end of the inner bank, an inside clipping point on the flat bottom of the inner bank, then a final outside clipping zone at the finish line on the flat bottom.
Since the track layout hasn’t changed much over the years, drivers have figured out how run this track very well, and the qualifying scores reflected that experience. Fifteen of the 27 drivers who put a qualifying score on the board had scores in the 90s, with the top seven drivers only separated by only five points. At the top, James Deane put down an insane qualifying score of 99 points to earn the top qualifying position, and many drivers felt that the run was worthy of a perfect 100 point score. Not to be outdone, Piotr Wiecek piloted his Nissan S15 to Q2 with a score of 98 in another run that several people felt was just as worthy of a perfect 100 point score.
Rounding out the top five, Daijiro Yoshiahra (Q3), Fredric Aasbo (Q4) and Ryan Tuerck (Q5) earned scores of 97, 96 and 96 points respectively, with Aasbo earning the tiebreaker over Tureck by means of a higher style score. Nitto Tire drivers Vaughn Gittin Jr. (Q10), Chelsea DeNofa (Q11) and Federico Sceriffo (Q24) earned scores of 92, 92, and 79 points respectively, with Gittin Jr. also earning the tiebreaker from a higher style score. This marks only the second time all season that Gittin Jr. has outqualified his teammate, but the team was happy to have both drivers on the top half of the qualifying ladder. With only 27 drivers earning qualifying scores, the top five qualifiers each had a bye into the Top 16.
Entering the tandem battles, Deane had extended his championship lead by another three points thanks to the top qualifying position. With both drivers earning a bye into the Top 16 round, the first Top 32 tandems wouldn’t have an effect on the final championship, but still lead to some strong battles. As we’ve seen through the rest of the season, the higher qualified drivers dominated the Top 32 round save for a few battles. Jhonnattan Castro (Q20) eliminated Justin Pawlak (Q13), and Matt Coffman (Q26) earned the win over defending champion Chris Forsberg (Q7) when Forsberg spun while chasing Coffman, which surprised many. Nitto Tire drivers Gittin Jr. and DeNofa defeated Matt Vankirk and Taylor Hull respectively, while Sceriffo was eliminated by Alec Hohnadell in his Top 32 battle.
Top 16 Opening Ceremonies were a mix of emotions for many reasons. Several young men and women took the Oath of Enlistment for the US Air Force in front of the main grandstands. Unfortunately, former umbrella girl Kelsey Quayle passed away in the week leading up to the Irwindale event, and Formula Drift played a recorded version of Quayle singing the National Anthem to honor her.
Each of the remaining 16 drivers were introduced in front of the sold out grandstands, and a fireworks show to commemorate the final event of the 15th season of Formula Drift ensured that the fans got the full value from the price of admission. After some donuts and burnouts, the drivers staged up for the Top 16 battles, and fans got rowdy in anticipation of a championship that was still to be decided.
The first battle of the Ford Top 16 ensured that the remaining battles would keep the fans excited. In a Nissan S15 vs. S15 battle, Forrest Wang laid down a pair of near-perfect runs against Deane. That, combined with a lackluster chase run from Deane, ended Deane's weekend and opened the door for Aasbo. While Aasbo now had a path to the championship, he needed to win the event in order to overtake Deane and win the title.
Aasbo did his part in the Top 16, eliminating his Papadakis Racing teammate Jhonnattan Castro, while Nitto Tire drivers Gittin Jr. and DeNofa also won their battles against Coffman and Michael Essa. The biggest upset in Top 16 came when Odi Bakchis (Q15) eliminated Wiecek (Q2), keeping both Worthouse teammates off the podium just one event after they swept the top two positions in Texas and making this the first time this season no Worthouse driver finished in the top four.
Moving into the NOS Energy Drink Great 8, Wang continued his improbable run by eliminating Ken Gushi in the first tandem battle, Aasbo eliminated fellow European Dean Kearney to continue his championship hopes, and Nitto Tire drivers Gittin Jr. and DeNofa setup a battle among teammates in the Final 4 by winning their battles against Bakchis and Yoshihara. DeNofa needed a “One More Time” battle before eliminating Yoshihara, one of the first of the day, but definitely far from the last one.
The Permatex Final 4 produced some of the most exciting runs of the entire season, and with the championship still hanging in the balance, fans stayed in their seats until the very end. Wang continued his aggressive driving against Aasbo in the first battle, but judges felt that Aasbo had enough to earn the win and keep his championship hopes alive. Unfortunately, as the lowest qualified driver in the Final 4, Wang needed the win to earn a podium finish, and thus finished fourth.
In the other Final 4 battle, Gittin Jr. and DeNofa faced each other for the first time this season and the third time overall, with each driver earning a victory over the other in 2017. DeNofa tapped Gittin Jr. during transition across the traditional start/finish line, but both drivers powered through the contact and finished the run just inches from each other as if nothing happened. DeNofa then laid down one of the most aggressive lead runs we'd seen, rubbing the wall at the top of the bank multiple times and the wall on the inner bank several more times. He did everything he could to sway the judges in his favor, but Gittin Jr. was too much, eliminating his teammate DeNofa.
A Final Battle for the Ages
The Black Magic finals were for all the marbles, both in the event and the championship. Gittin Jr. was looking for his first win since New Jersey 2016, a drought of 19 events that was his longest victory drought since his first win back at Irwindale in 2008. By making the final round, Gittin Jr. ended his podium drought of the same length. This was also the longest podium drought of his career, which was especially heartbreaking since he has seen three fourth place finishes in that same timespan. For Aasbo, the event win would be his 13th overall, most all-time among all Formula Drift drivers, and guarantee his second championship in three seasons.
The first pair of battles between Aasbo and Gittin Jr. was inconclusive, with all three judges unanimously voting for a “One More Time” battle. In the second pair of tandem runs, there was still so little separation that it resulted in a split decision: one judge voted for Aasbo, another judge voted for Gittin Jr. and the third judge felt the run needed to go “One More Time.” Tires were changed, cars and drivers were re-fueled and the pair of former champions lined up again. Finally, after another equally difficult-to-judge pair of runs, a winner was decided. All three podium drivers were called in front of the crowd to announce the decision, along with James Deane, who was still waiting to find out if he had claimed back-to-back championships. After some tension, announcer Jarod Deanda announced Vaughn Gittin Jr. as the event champion, which gave Deane the season championship.
The win is Gittin Jr.’s tenth of his career and his 22nd career podium finish. His Nitto Tire teammate Chelsea DeNofa earned his second podium of the season and the first double podium for the Ford Mustang RTR team since they expanded to two cars at the start of the 2017 season. Deane claimed the championship by just four points and became the first back-to-back champion since Tanner Foust in 2007 and 2008. Gittin Jr. was joined in the Winners’ Circle by his wife, who was pregnant with their first child that is due during the coming off-season.
Aasbo finished the season in second place with his sixth podium of the season and 24th podium of his career. Wiecek finished the season in third place, 88 points behind his champion teammate Deane, and a huge improvement over his eighth place finish last season in his Rookie-of-the-Year worthy campaign. The Nitto Tire team finished eighth (DeNofa), 13th (Gittin Jr.), and 25th overall (Sceriffo). The off-season starts immediately, while announcements for the 2019 Formula Drift season will begin with the annual Formula Drift Press Conference at SEMA, which occurs October 30 to November 2 in Las Vegas, Nevada.