In the midst of its 20th Anniversary season, Formula DRIFT inducted two new names into its legend of competition winners. Adam LZ, a YouTube star who joined the series in 2020, won his first PRO Championship Round. While the PROSPEC Championship crowned 19-year-old Rookie Cole Richards after his second event, having only started drifting three years ago following a visit to a Formula DRIFT event.
More than ever, there’s a sense that anything could happen this year. And while experienced drivers occupy the top spots in the 2023 PRO Championship table, the first four Rounds have now produced four winners. The PROSPEC Championship, designed to cultivate new talent, is seeing another wave of raw talent preparing to reach the major league.
A capacity crowd filled the only purpose-built drift arena in the United States: Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, NJ. As one of the newer venues on the Formula DRIFT calendar, it has consistently provided thrilling action since it was incorporated in 2021. The figure-8 layout lined with grandstands provided spectators with an outstanding view of the drama as it unfolded in both the Formula DRIFT PRO Championship Round 4: TYPE S The Gauntlet presented by AutoZone as well as Round 2 of the Link ECU PROSPEC Championship. It was an action-packed weekend that asked more questions than it answered at the halfway stage of the two Championships.
Coming off a podium at Round 3 in Orlando, where he took the Formula DRIFT PRO Championship lead, Fredric Aasbo (Norway) maintained his momentum with an impeccable 94-point qualifying run in his Rockstar Energy Toyota GR Supra.
As the final driver to participate in the K&N PRO Qualifying session, Aasbo crushed the hopes of his competitors, particularly teammate Ryan Tuerck (USA), who had waited anxiously to discover if his 92-point run in the Rain-X / Nitto Tire / Rockstar Energy GR Corolla would be enough for the top spot. Satisfied with second place, Tuerck has been an incredibly consistent qualifier this year, taking first place in Long Beach and Orlando, but could he convert Friday form into Saturday celebration?
Third place went to Dylan Hughes (USA), who scored 89.6 points in the Whip Racing / Royal Purple BMW. He narrowly beat Matt Field (USA), who claimed fourth in the Borla Performance / GT Radial Corvette with an 89-point run.
Chelsea DeNofa (USA), the winner of Round 3 in Orlando, was unable to complete his first qualifying run in the Pennzoil / BC Racing Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD. Demoted to the Knockout Qualifying Format (KQF), he completed a more conservative second attempt. The 83-point run qualified him in 27th.
With 32 drivers qualifying for the Top 32 competition places, no drivers were eliminated from KQF once everybody had completed a point-scoring run.
While LZ’s first win was cause for celebration, it revealed another story. With four winners from the first four rounds, it’s important to note that the last three have been claimed by drivers of the Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD from RTR Motorsports.
Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA) famously cracked the dam at Round 2 in Atlanta, DeNofa repeated the feat in Orlando, and LZ has flooded the field in New Jersey. It’s also worth noting that LZ and Gittin Jr weren’t expected to be a factor in the 2023 Championship since they’re sharing a car and only competing in four rounds each. But at the halfway mark, both have a win under their belts and sit 13th and 17th in the rankings, respectively.
As if that wasn’t enough to disturb their competition, it’s worth remembering that the fourth member of RTR Motorsports, three-time FD PRO Champion James Deane (Ireland), is still learning his right-hand drive Mustang RTR and is widely expected to reach the top step of the podium at some point this year.
And with the wealth of talent in the RTR Motorsports roster, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ford is dominating the 2023 Formula DRIFT PRO Auto Cup and Nitto, supplier to RTR Motorsports, is leading the 2023 FD Tire Cup.
LZ’s success came at the expense of his teammates during the New Jersey slugfest. At the wheel of his RTR Vehicles Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD, LZ first dispatched Mike Power (USA) in a frenetic Top 32 contest that saw both drivers slide the wrong side of Inside Clip 1 (IC1) on their second run. Despite a valiant challenge in his Power Racing Type Nissan S15, Power couldn’t match LZ’s proximity in the chase position and was out.
In the Top 16, LZ faced DeNofa in the Pennzoil / BC Racing Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD. As an experienced drifter with a pile of trophies above his fireplace, the contest was expected to go DeNofa’s way, but that discounted LZ’s determination.
It was a battle of the Titans, each car producing more than 1100hp, throwing sparks and dirt as the drivers jostled for dominance. Despite his foray into the mud, LZ emerged victorious thanks to a superior lead run. Robbing the Championship protagonist of vital points, DeNofa finished 15th on the night. He remained second in the table but with a 41-point deficit to overcome if he’s to claim his first title.
In the Great 8, LZ faced Joao Barion (Brazil), driving Corvette Barbarius. This was a different Brazilian than we’d seen in previous years. It would also be his best result since joining the series in 2019, placing seventh overall following a close contest that saw LZ dominate in the chase position by filling the Outside Zones.
Moving into the Final 4, the YouTuber met the three-time Irish Champion, and everybody expected the plucky challenge to fade. However, LZ was reading from a different script. He chased Deane hard on the first run, giving him little breathing space in the chase position. And with the tables turned, LZ initiated at hyper speed, forcing Deane to overcommit into Outside Zone 1 (OZ1). Clipping the wall, his AutoZone Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD was flung wide as Deane struggled to maintain control. Deane’s chase run was judged incomplete by exceeding track limits, and LZ advanced to the Final to meet Simen Olsen (Norway) in the Feal Suspension Nissan S14.9.
The 2021 Rookie of the Year had previously driven modern Toyotas but switched to Team Feal for 2023 and had quickly come to terms with the Odi Bakchis-built supercharged V8-powered Nissan. In fact, Olsen demonstrated how well he’d learnt from the master in the Great 8 after beating Taylor Hull (USA) in the Top 32 and Kazuya Taguchi (Japan) in the Top 16.
Facing the supremely talented Bakchis (Lithuania) in an almost identical Feal Suspension / GT Radial Nissan S15, there was again an expectation that experience would triumph. However, the Norwegian didn’t want to play nice. The first two runs were too close to call, so the judges requested One More Time (OMT), where the runs were repeated. With both drivers pushing hard, Bakchis hit the wall in OZ1, which forced him offline. This mistake was enough to differentiate the teammates, and Olsen was through.
In the Final 4, Olsen met Matt Field (USA) in his potent Borla Performance / GT Radial Corvette. It was another finely balanced contest that again went OMT, with the final decision favouring Olsen on the basis of fewer mistakes at a micro level.
The field would place third overall, accumulating sufficient points to regain the lead of the FD PRO Championship by a healthy 41-point margin at the halfway stage. It’s a significantly stronger position than he found himself in at this time last year as he attempted, but ultimately failed, to win the 2022 title. Perhaps this year will end better…
Olsen’s Final against LZ was equally dramatic, with both drivers matching each other in terms of speed, aggression, precision and proximity. Once again. The judges requested OMT, and only multiple reviews of the video replay from every angle allowed them to rule in favour of LZ.
“The more I drive, the better I feel!” a jubilant LZ declared after clambering from the Mustang RTR. “We seemed to get better with every battle to where I wanted to go One More Time because I was enjoying it so much. It feels fantastic to get my first win at the best place on earth here at Englishtown Raceway. And I can’t thank my team enough for grinding to get us the best car we could possibly have.
“I took out my teammates, which was something I didn’t want to do. But I told myself that if I did that, I needed to take it to the top. I did, and I must thank everybody who supported and believed in me. It feels really special to take home the win and show what I’m capable of.”
After scoring 100 points, LZ jumped from 31st to 13th in the FD PRO Championship table, while Olsen slid from 14th to fifth.
The defending and three-time champion, points leader, and top qualifier, Fredric Aasbo, was jettisoned from the Top 32 heats in a shock result that saw him struggle in challenging track conditions following an earlier rain shower. The driver of the Rockstar Energy Toyota GR Supra made an error chasing Ken Gushi (Japan), which required a significant correction. The small mistake had a big impact on Aasbo’s Championship chase, dropping him to third, tied for points with second place DeNofa.
Formula DRIFT President Ryan Sage offered his thoughts after the event: “What a crazy way to mark the midway point of the season,” he observed. “Nobody expected Adam LZ and Simen Olsen to be in the Final, but their determination allowed them to battle through some incredible competitors, including their own, more experienced teammates. And with Aasbo going out in the Top 32, we’ve seen the PRO Championship shaken up as Matt Field regained his position at the top of the table. It’s been an enthralling end to an exciting weekend and a great way to set the stage for the second half of the season and the run to the Final Round in Irwindale.”
Ben Hobson (USA) brought positive momentum to New Jersey after qualifying first and finishing second in Atlanta driving the Pedal Commander / Feal Suspension / Koruworks / Motegi Racing Nissan S14. As the third member of the Bakchis Team Feal, he backed up his Round 1 performance with a 91.3 qualifying point run at Englishtown, which put him in pole position for Round 2. But could he win the event to complete the perfect weekend?
Also proving his Atlanta performance wasn’t beginner’s luck, 15-year-old Jayden Martorana (Canada) qualified second with an 86-point run in his Empire Auto C6 Corvette. As a top PROSPEC Rookie, Jayden continues to impress fans and fellow competitors alike.
Shifting from newbie to OG, Dmitriy Brutskiy placed third in the DriftHQ E46 BMW. The double FD PROSPEC Champion received 84.6 points for his qualifying run as he attempted to kickstart his 2023 season and chase his third title.
The winner of Round 1, Rudy Hansen (USA), failed to complete his first qualifying run but got a second chance under KQF. He would eventually score 83.6 points, placing his Track Tires / Mast Motor / J&A Racing Oil Nissan 240SX S13 in the 26th position.
With 39 PROSPEC drivers competing for 32 competition places, a total of 15 had to run a second time under KQF. At least seven would be eliminated from the competition, provided they successfully completed one run. The Unmagnificent Seven were Adam Knapik (USA), Brian Wadman (USA), Rye O’Connor (USA), Daniel Malvasio (USA), Chris Leonard (USA), Matthew Bystrak (USA) and Justin Chesnutt (USA).
Generating as much excitement as the PRO teams, expectations in the Formula DRIFT Link ECU PROSPEC Championship were turned upside down when 19-year-old Rookie Cole Richards (USA) claimed his first Round win at only his second FD event. The teenager only started drifting three years earlier after being inspired by attending a Formula DRIFT event and was too young to enjoy his champagne on the podium.
Driving the Richards Racing / Koruworks Scion FRS, Cole defeated Kasey Kohl (USA), Derek Madison (USA), Nate Chen (USA) and Andy Hateley (USA) on his way to the Final.
The Final 4 heat against Hateley went OMT as the hugely experienced driver of the Hateley Motorsports Habanero E46 BMW failed to shrug off the Rookie. In fact, Richards was close enough in the chase position to remove the BMW’s bumper without upsetting its composure. When the runs were repeated, Richards received the nod thanks to a better lead run. Hateley would finish third, propelling him from 17th to ninth in the PROSPEC standings.
As he positioned his FRS on the starting line alongside two-time Champion Dmitriy Brutskiy for the Final, few could expect Richards to vanquish the high experience driver of the DriftHQ E46 BMW, but that’s what happened!
The drama began on the first run as the two drivers touched in OZ2. Brutskiy had set a fast pace and deep line through the turn, but as Richards positioned himself alongside the BMW, Brutskiy adjusted his speed to maintain his line, and their front tires touched.
With the drivers wanting to check their vehicles for damage before commencing a second run, the judges apportioned equal blame since Richards had been offline prior to the incident. Both were allotted 5min to inspect and repair the vehicles, although Brutskiy opted to add his one-time, 5min Competition Time Out.
When the cars returned to competition, Richards set a fast but imprecise pace while Brutskiy failed to achieve good proximity. And with neither driver having a clear advantage, the judges decided to reset and request OMT.
Repeating the runs, Brutskiy set a great lead run but dropped two tires into the dirt in OZ2 in the chase position. After falling behind, he was unable to regain proximity, and Richards was declared the winner.
“I’m lost for words to be on the podium,” a speechless Richards confessed after receiving the trophy.“Obviously, I want to thank my parents, the team, sponsors, and friends who helped me get here. I want to thank Taka Aono, who taught me everything especially coming to every event, and is my spotter, because, without him, I wouldn’t be here. He’s done everything in his power to help me get on the podium. In Atlanta, we got knocked out of the Top 32, so we had to come back and prove ourselves, and I think we did exactly that. I’m ready for St Louis and wish it was tomorrow!”
Richards’ win moved him from 20th to third position in the PROSPEC Championship table, and he also leads the Rookie standings. Brutskiy’s second place took him from 21st to fifth, which will certainly help to boost his bid for a third title.
A well-deserved fourth place went to Faruk Kugay (Turkey), driving the ENEOS Oil / Pedal Commander Nissan S14. He’s been enjoying a return to Formula DRIFT competition after a hiatus from the PRO Championship following the 2020 season. Using PROSPEC to rebuild his program, Kugay’s result means he’s currently seventh in the title race after two solid rounds.
Meanwhile, Rudy Hansen (USA) maintained his position at the top of the table but by a narrow 6-point margin to Ben Hobson (USA). Hansen placed seventh on the night after being knocked out of the Top 8 heats by Kugay.
Fifteen-year-old Martorana was eliminated from the Top 16 heats by Kugay. He dropped from sixth to tenth overall but clearly has a long career ahead of him.