Sonoma Formula Drift event recap – July 11, 2004
Houston Formula Drift event recap – June 12, 2004
Preparation for this event was a killer, especially on our very limited budget. We had a lot to do to get the El Camino prepared for the Formula Drift event, mostly in required safety equipment. Building the roll-bar was the most laborious task, but we caught a few breaks when laying out the bar design. Turns out that for at least this season, Formula Drift is allowing a simple 4-point roll-bar in place of the full 8-point cage specified by the SCCA Pro-Racing rules. Also, the SCCA Pro-Racing roll-cage guidelines spared us from having to run the rear down-bars through the glass window – turns out we were able to fit the down-bars within the cab and still be within spec (whew). But it’s a tiiiiiight fit. . . . Once all the prep-work was done, we loaded up the back of the El Camino with all our tools and 10 wheels mounted with various donated used tires – gotta love the ElCo for it’s all-around utility! James had a wedding to attend on Friday, so my good friend Keith Lempa and I headed down to Reliant Park for the Friday pre-event practice and set-up.
We checked in at about 9:30, and after a quick pit-area setup we headed over to the course area to check out what the course designers had set up so far. What we saw could most easily be described with one word – scary. 3rd gear entrance into a funnel of sorts lined with concrete barriers on both sides, followed by a high-speed left-hand sweeper in front of the grandstands, and with virtually zero runoff room should a driver spin on corner entry. Quite worrisome we thought. Fortunately, many complaints were lodged during the preliminary drivers’ meeting and the organizers agreed to accept ideas on a new course design.
Soon thereafter, the practice time began and I got to see the new course design. Still a bit scary for all the concrete and speeds we’d be attaining, but much better overall. Still a 3rd gear entry (well, 2nd gear in the ElCo), followed by a seriously difficult right-hand braking drift into a decreasing-radius corner in front of the grandstands. It then curved around back over itself into an S-turn of sorts. I knew right away this would be the most difficult drift course I had ever driven, by far. To have a chance at qualifying I decided I would need to enter with as much speed as possible and initiate the braking drift as early as possible, while aiming for the racing line around the first corner. This was much easier said than done, because the line entering the first corner was very difficult to visualize, and I found I had a frustrating tendency to approach the corner with too much speed and run it too wide. To top it off, the corner apex (or clipping point, as I’ve heard it called) was impossible to distinguish from the other cones until I was right on it – and most often missing it completely. Ah, well, looked like fun! I really didn’t have any big complaints about the course, it was just extremely challenging. I was relieved to see that most all the other drivers were having similar problems – cool, it wasn’t just me who was having difficulty with the course – maybe I had a chance!
Another problem I was facing was our tire selection. We brought along 4 different pairs of tires for the rear, and on the practice day I needed not just to practice the course, but also to decide which tires would be best to use for the competition the next day. None of the pairs were anything special, they were all used and given to us by friends. In the end, I decided to that the pair of Rage Road Huggers (some sort of no-name all-season tires) were the best we had so I pulled them off the El Camino to saved them for Saturday, and finished the practice time on a pair of well-worn Firestones.
Anyways, fast-forward to Saturday, competition day. The organizers had arranged for an hour and a half of practice time in the morning, and I was committed to getting in as much track time as I could before qualifying began. I put some serious thought into my technique and line attack the night before, and I was ready to try out a few ideas. Unfortunately, none of my practice runs felt as good as I would have liked, and I was unhappy with my lack of consistency. But then a couple friends who were watching told me very few of other drivers were looking any better, so it looks like I wasn’t the only one having trouble during practice.
Qualifying began on a first-come basis, and everyone would get two rounds of 3 runs – a practice run immediately followed by two judged runs. While I was waiting in line for the first round of qualifying, I was told that Casey, the local driver in the DriftmasterZ IS300 had nailed his first two judged runs after having lots of trouble during the morning practice. In addition, it sounded like most of the other drivers were stepping up their performances from the practice and were putting in some descent runs for the judges. Great. . . . No pressure there. . . Anticipation is a killer. Nevertheless, I managed to nail my practice run. It was my best run so far that day – too bad it was just my practice run! Unfortunately, I choked and spun on the two judged runs. Doh! Thank god there was another round of qualifying to go.
The second round of qualifying went much better for me than the first. I managed to gather my confidence for these runs, and I pulled it off! My practice run and first judged run felt really good. My second judged run was also OK, but I took the first corner way too wide. I was really happy with the first judged run, and I was relieved I was able to pull it off when it counted. But would it be good enough to qualify me in the top 16? I had my doubts. We were small fish compared to almost every other competitor in attendance. Could a simple budget El Camino really beat half of the pros for a position in the top 16? Despite all the encouragement and compliments we received throughout the event so far, I still had my doubts.
During the break between qualifying and the competition, the drivers were gathered together so the top 16 could be announced. Did we make it? Man, the anticipation was intense for us. Ryan Sage of Slipstream Global had the honors of reading off the sweet-16 list, starting from the bottom up. The further up the list he read, the lower my heart sank. Once some names were read, I knew I didn’t make it – no way I could have beaten those guys, how could I possibly have qualified better than them? My friend James Evans patted my shoulder and said to me “oh well, maybe next time. . .” Well shucks. It was fun anyways. . . . But I still continued to listen to Ryan because I was curious who qualified 1st. But then Ryan got to the #7 spot and paused – “Rogers?” almost like a question (maybe in surprise?). He couldn’t possibly mean me, could he, I thought? But then everyone looked straight at me and started clapping! Wow, I DID qualify, in the #7 spot even! Awesome!
Our only goal in our first ever pro-drifting event was to qualify in the top 16 – anything further would just be icing on the cake. I knew if I made it into the competition that I really didn’t stand a chance since I have zero experience in tandem competition. I had followed around a friend from a distance at a recent practice event a couple times, but that was the extent of my tandem experience. So understandably, I was pretty pessimistic about my chances at advancing past the first round. Then later I learned I would be lined up with Chris Forsberg in the Motorex 350Z (who qualified 10th) in the first round. Dang, just my luck to be lined up with the Atlanta 2nd place finisher. . . . Oh well, I though, this should be a heck of a lot of fun getting my butt kicked anyways. . . . .
Before the competition began, the 16 qualifiers were lined up to do an exhibition run during their introduction to the crowd. James and I had already selected a theme song for this – a really wacky blue-grass piece with banjo, fiddles, and lots of “yeeeeeeeehaaaw!” There couldn’t be a better theme for the El Camino :) I head out after Alex Pfeiffer’s crazy exhibition and without a clue what I wanted to do, so I just winged it. Looks like everybody loved it though!
So at this point I was confident that I would loose pretty badly. I was still going to try and not embarrass myself too bad. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep pace with Chris, as I was at a serious disadvantage in both experience and equipment. Oh well, I thought I would do good just to keep him from passing. First run out, I lead. Chris was right on my fender going into the first corner, and I lost the line and took it way too wide. Doh! Chris almost got inside of me coming out of the first corner, and we were almost side-by-side into the second. Unfortunately, I misjudged my speed and entry angle and ended up spinning. Second run, I was following. We leave the line, and Chris just leaves me in the dust. Wow, he must have put 8-10 car lengths on me by the first corner – I was totally left behind. And I was trying to keep up, too, but I just had no rear traction whatsoever. But what happened next was totally unexpected. As I approached the first corner, I was catching up, and fast! A lot of people had told me earlier that I had impressive corner entry speed, but this was the first time I got to see it for myself. By the corner apex, I was almost right on his bumper, but alas, he started pulling away again on corner exit. Our exit lines were very similar, but it seemed Forsberg could put the power down more effectively. Man, do we need better tires. . . .
As we pulled off the track, I was certain I had lost, thanks to my poor line and spin on my leading lap. But apparently the judges were impressed with my chasing performance, and they deliberated for nearly 4 minutes before deciding to have us line up and run again! But this round wasn’t to be, either. I made the same mistake when leading and took the corner way too wide again. I saw Forsberg edging in on the inside, so not wanting to give him the opportunity to pass, I kept my foot in it at the consequence of widening my line further. At the corner exit I lightly tapped the wall with the back corner of the El Camino – I saw the hit coming and I could have kept it from happening by easing up on the throttle, but I also didn’t want Forsberg to pass and I knew the hit would only be a light tap. Unfortunately, as minor as it was, the tap distracted me enough that I spun again when entering the next corner. Doh! The next run was nearly a repeat of my last chase run – I lost ground off the start but proceeded to make it up again on corner entry. However it was no surprise that the judges chose Forsberg to move on to the next round. It was a lot of fun though, and I was very surprised at how close the battle turned out to be.
So overall, I am exceedingly happy with how I stacked up at the Formula Drift event. A lot of people were surprised to see an El Camino do so well, and of them, including many of the other drivers, came up to me during the day with high compliments. It also seemed like a lot of people were unaware that the ElCo has an automatic transmission until they saw the interior. That caught a lot of people by surprise! Hah, I wonder if this could be the first pro drifting qualifier ever with an auto transmission? Having a clutch would certainly make a few things easier, though, as would an e-brake and adjustable shocks. We are hoping to become serious competitors in the series, so these are things we may be considering in the future.
Right now we are hoping to find a way to afford to compete in the next Formula Drift competition in California. We’ve received an incredible amount of support from everyone we talked to at the Houston FD event, and all followed by a “you gotta come out and compete in California!” Believe us, if we can find a way to afford it, we’ll be there! If you know of a sponsorship opportunity that could help this happen, please let us know!
Hope to see ya'll at the next event!