It has been just over a week since I was able to attend my first professional drifting competition at Drift Atlanta. In the weeks leading up to the event I spent a considerable amount of time watching FormulaD videos and on the Formula Drift Web site so that when I arrived I would have some idea of what was going on. In the end, the time spent researching was well worth it because when I got to Road Atlanta on Friday afternoon I had a pretty good idea of some basics to watch for.
Qualifying itself was as entertaining as any motorsport event. Good stuff but just a teaser for the activity that comes once the competition begins in earnest Saturday night. Drift qualifying is a single car affair with each car going out on a solo run.
When I arrived at the track I found a place to park along the back straightaway. The back straight happens to be where all the teams grid and where the start line is. A short walk over to the fence and I was able to watch as teams prepped cars for the runs and the competitors do doughnuts to put heat in the tires (I assume) before they head out on their qualifying runs.
One thing I observed during all this activity was the skill level of all the drives and the faith their crew members have in those skills. Keep in mind the back straightaway is a relatively small space and as the drivers worked to warm their tires their crews all stood in close proximity, taking half steps back when cars got a little too close.
Shortly there after I watched as the cars hurdled down the hill one by one on their qualifying runs. I was immediately impressed by the speed they carried down the hill and the apparent violence in which they threw their car into the first turn (Turn 10a). The drivers would approach the turn as far to the outside as they could, almost touching the curbing as they set-up for the corner. A flick of the wheel and some throttle and the rear wheels break loose as billows of white smoke pour out from the rear of the car. From there the drivers navigate through the course. Controlling the angle of the drift and their speed though steering inputs, throttle management and braking. One thing I particularly liked was the light bars across the top of the windscreen that would allow spectators to see when the drivers were braking even when the car was facing you, when viewing of the taillights would otherwise be impossible.
The other thing that I noticed right away was the sound. Unlike the whisper quite diesel powered Audis and Peugeots that have competed at Petit Le Mans in years past, these cars made some fantastic sounds. From normally aspirated V8s to Mazda rotaries to turbocharged V6 and I4 engines with their corresponding sound of the wastegate dump, the variance of the noise emanating from the track is spectacular.
Onto race day – Unfortunately prior commitments meant I wasn’t able to get to Road Atlanta until around 5:00 PM. So I missed the top 32 competition but was ready and excited for the top 16 battle. Rain had been threating all day but had yet to arrive and the hope was it would hold off until after the competition. However that was not to be, just as the 90-minute pre-final break started and right about the time my family and I worked our way into the stands, the sky opened. Not a deluge, but certainly not what the fans were wanting. Thankfully a group of fans that had been at Road Atlanta all day were kind enough to invite us to join them under their canopies to avoid the elements. This gave me an opportunity to soak in the atmosphere and chat with some of the fans. I was really impressed with the crowd on hand. Everyone that I met was polite, enthusiastic and just out to have a good time. A perfect environment for me to have my family involved in.
As the final 16 competition approached the rains slowed, and although there were periods of drizzle off and on throughout the competition, it was mostly more of an annoyance rather than an evening spoiler. I’m not sure the same can be said for some of the competitors, several runs ended early with a driver spinning off the course in the damp conditions or just getting it wrong and losing drift.
However, the conditions didn’t prevent some great battles on the track. The highlight of the night for me was the battle between Fredric Aasbo in his Scion tC and Vaughn Gittin in his Ford Mustang. The run started off well enough with Aasbo as the lead driver and Gittin in the chase position – if you don’t know what I am talking about, go back and see my earlier blog on Drift Atlanta. As they came down the hill it appeared that Gitten made a slight miscalculation and made heavy contact with the Scion, with Gitten’s Mustang lifting up and essentially running over the front bumper of Aasbo. Heavily damaged, Aasbo fell into position behind Gitten and miraculously both drivers finished the run. After taking some time to repair the Scion’s damage, both drivers came back out to complete their runs with Gitten just edging out Aasbo for the win.
The rest of the night was filled with other great battles and while I will admit to not always understanding how the judges were evaluating certain aspects, I certainly understood enough to truly enjoy the event.
So I guess I can officially state that this traditional motorsport fan is now a convert and I will definitely be back in 2014 to watch Drift Atlanta in person.
By Dean Richardson