After the tropical storm that dominated last year’s competition heats, the Formula DRIFT PRO Championship teams were relieved to run under dry conditions for Round 3: TYPE S Scorched, presented by AutoZone.
Upon arrival at Orlando Speed World, the teams discovered Formula DRIFT had made some minor revisions to the layout of the figure-8 course for this year. Outside Zone 1 was lengthened, and Outside Zone 2 was shortened slightly to improve the flow of the course. The result was an improved spectacle for spectators at the track and via the free-to-view livestream, resulting in an extremely close K&N Qualifying session and exciting competition.
Commencing at sunset and continuing into the evening, all PRO teams were required to use Type S under-car lighting, helping the fans to follow the action through the tire smoke.
The top qualifier was Ryan Tuerck (USA), who put his Rain-X / Nitto Tire / Rockstar Energy GR Corolla in first position with a 94.6-point run, thanks in part to a high X factor: a 10-point discretionary score the judges are able to award to particularly impressive runs.
Tuerck was also the top qualifier at the opening round in Long Beach but was unable to make much impression, languishing in 11th in the 2023 FD PRO Championship battle coming into Orlando. Undoubtedly, Papadakis Racing would be hoping Tuerck’s flawless qualifying run would initiate the launch of the GR Corolla driver’s title chase.
In reality, Tuerck’s advantage was marginal, with second place Chelsea DeNofa (USA) scoring 94 points in his Pennzoil / BC Racing Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD, and third place Kazuya Taguchi (Japan) awarded 93.6 points in the Upgarage / ISR Performance / GT Radial / Jerry Yang Racing Toyota 86. This meant one point separated the top three drivers, while less than ten points separated the top 18. The changes to the course certainly brought out the best in the entire field, although there were some hiccups.
Championship leader Matt Field (USA), for example, scored 87 points, which placed the Borla Performance / GT Radial Corvette in a rather disappointing 16th, but everybody understood he’d undoubtedly be a major factor in the competition heats.
Reigning Champion Fredric Aasbo (Norway) fared better, scoring 91.6 points in the Rockstar Energy Toyota GR Supra, which meant he placed fifth in qualification.
With 35 drivers again contesting 32 competition places, there would inevitably be a disappointment. And while the Knockout Qualifying Format (KQF) ensured the top 24 drivers automatically qualified, the remainder were required to run a second time. Once the points were tallied, Joao Barion (Brazil), Kyle Mohan (USA) and Ola Jaeger (Norway) were cut from the competition.
For the second time in three events, it was a Mustang RTR driver who climbed to the podium’s top step. Two weeks ago in Atlanta, fans had witnessed the incredible return of team leader Vaughn Gittin Jr., But with Gittin Jr sharing a car with Adam LZ throughout the 2023 season and sidelined for Orlando, it was Chelsea DeNofa (USA) who took his Pennzoil / BC Racing Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD to the win.
And it was a battered and bruised Mustang RTR that transported DeNofa to his first victory since Round 6 in Seattle, 2022. With an incredibly tough bracket, DeNofa fought valiantly for the win, and the carnage began in the Top 32, where he collided with Alex Holovnia (Ukraine).
After two clean runs, the judges requested they go One More Time (OMT), repeating both runs to help them find a winner. Unfortunately, the rookie driver of the Huragan Racing / Cheap Racing Toyota GT86 experienced power steering problems as he initiated into Outside Zone 1 (OZ1) on the fourth run. Unable to control the car, it was pulled into the wall, giving a committed DeNofa nowhere to hide. Hitting the rear corner of the Toyota, the Mustang RTR was thrown into the air, landing hard and suffering considerable damage.
With a two-hour intermission before the Top 16 heats, RTR Motorsports replaced the damaged components in time for a blockbuster battle against three-time FD PRO Champion Chris Forsberg (USA) in the NOS Energy Drink / GT Radial Nissan Z. With both drivers setting extraordinary lead runs, it was DeNofa’s chase that tipped the close decision in his favour.
Advancing to the Great 8, Chelsea faced three-time FD PRO Champion and teammate James Deane (Ireland) in the AutoZone Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD. Again, it was a clash of the Titans, with both drivers matching speed and precision. And again, it was the finesse of DeNofa’s chase run that allowed him to progress to the Final 4.
The explosive power DeNofa brings means opponents are always under pressure to match his speed, and sometimes that ends badly. In this instance, Taguchi used his Toyota 86 as a spear. It was aimed directly at the Mustang’s door as Taguchi lost composure at Inside Clip 2 (IC2), causing more suspension damage to the Ford.
After making the necessary repairs, DeNofa defeated Taguchi in their second run despite an engine misfire. With new plugs and leads fitted to the 1100 HP V8, DeNofa faced three-time FD PRO Champion Aasbo in an extremely close Final that saw both drivers take it to the limit.
“It was a gnarly event, and the team worked extremely hard all weekend,” DeNofa told us after spraying the champagne. “We worked through a number of gremlins in practice, and the car was there when I needed it. Everything went well, and after our One More Time in the Top 32, we won all the battles with the chase run and clean leads. It worked out really well because we have a great car for this track – it’s only one turn, so it can’t be that hard!
“We need to fix the car before New Jersey because it’s so battered. The crew will get it back together, and we’ve got a good set-up for Englishtown, so we’ll try to get on the podium again.”
The victory lifted Chelsea from tenth to second in the 2023 FD PRO Championship and kickstarted his title chase. While Aasbo’s second place meant he amassed sufficient points over the first three rounds to lead the 2023 FD PRO Championship by a narrow 13 points despite not claiming a victory thus far.
Conversely, Matt Field – who was leading the Championship by a healthy 40-point margin coming into Orlando – was eliminated from the Top 16 by Tuerck after a monumental conflict that saw them run six times before the judges declared a winner. Finishing 14th on the night, Field dropped to third in the title race but will remain a real threat.
Taguchi finished third, reflecting his qualifying position and reinforcing the respect given to him by an increasing number of drift teams and experts. After a poor start to the season, the Orlando result catapults Taguchi from 25th to 12th in the FD PRO Championship table.
Dylan Hughes (USA) finished fourth in the Whip Racing / Royal Purple BMW after a very close contest against Aasbo in the Final 4. He also received a healthy bump from 13th to 6th in the title race. Hughes had purged Aasbo’s Papadakis Racing teammate Tuerck from the Great 8, and although the top qualifier in the Corolla GR finished 5th in Orlando, he only collected enough points to rise from 11th to 10th overall.
With only Holovnia and Diego Higa (Brazil) competing for the 2023 Rookie of the Year title, both were eliminated from the Top 32 heats. However, Higa’s superior qualifying position put him in 28th while Holovnia finished 31. They sit 29th and 32nd in the Championship table, respectively.
After the third round, Ford extended its lead in the 2023 Formula DRIFT PRO Auto Cup, while Nitto regained the lead of the Tire Cup thanks largely to the performance of both DeNofa and Aasbo.
“After a fast start to the 2023 season, we find ourselves almost at the halfway point and see Fredric Aasbo take the lead in the PRO Championship with another consistent performance,” Formula DRIFT President Ryan Sage reflected. “We saw a lot of One More Times throughout the competition heats, but it was Chelsea DeNofa who emerged victorious in his hometown after an incredible evening that saw his team repeatedly fixing the vehicle. He and the team were able to navigate the chaos and get the victory, which is a big result for both Chelsea and RTR. It’s going to be fascinating to see if the team can continue its momentum at the next round in New Jersey on June 22-24.”