The big stories heading into the start of the season were Chelsea Denofa joining Vaughn Gittin Jr.’s team, James Deane making a return to the states, rookies Piotr Wiecek and Georgy Chivchyan aka Gocha making their US debuts, Fredric Aasbo jumping in a Toyota iM chassis further continuing his ties with the automaker, Alec Hohnadell and Matt Coffman teaming up, Matt Field and Odi Bakchis bringing the iconic Falken blue and green livery back, and Dan Burkett and Nate Hamilton making the jump from Pro 2 to the Pro ranks.
2017 is shaping up to be a visually appealing year for the fans. Most, if not all, cars are looking sweet and attractive. Metallic graphics are in, and liveries are looking rad and fresh. Teams have seemed to rid themselves of flat liveries which have plagued the grid for several years, and focused on creating rides that will win the hearts of fans on the North American tour this year.
The top qualifier was Vaughn Gittin Jr., who laid down a nearly perfect run resulting in a score of 97. VGJr filled every touch and go with authoritative perfection, knocking current top qualifier James Deane to second. Vaughn’s first Top 32 battle would be with nobody, driving against himself with a bye run.
James Deane qualified in 2nd with a 96, which ultimately also gave him a bye run in Top 32. Ryan Tuerck’s solid qualifying run earned him a 96. Just as Gittin and Deane, he would be running himself with a bye run in Top 32. Fredric Aasbo knocked out a 91, impressive for a new chassis, continuing the Top 32 bye run streak. The last driver to bracket a bye run in Top 32 was Alex Heilbrunn. Heilbrunn scored a 91, becoming the 5th highest qualifier for the first round of the season. Breaking the bye run streak was Matt Coffman, who scored a 90 and faced Dan Burkett in Top 32.
Top 16 saw some significant battles. Vaughn Gittin Jr. went up against Dean Kearney. Gittin made a huge mistake following Kearney into the hairpin, losing control and spearheading the Dodge Viper. The decision in the battle between Fredric Aasbo and Kristaps Bluss upset the crowd after Aasbo slowed after the second touch and go, causing Kristaps to hit him, judges advancing Aasbo into the Great 8. Alex Heilbrunn moved on to the Great 8 after Juha Rintanen tapped the bridge wall too hard and straightened. Michael Essa lost to James Deane after over-rotating around the hairpin on his follow. Matt Coffman took out Matt Field in a much-anticipated battle that never reached the excitement level fans were hoping for. Matt Field was rumored to have engine issues, which hurt his performance against Coffman.
The battles become more exciting as competition moves into the Great 8. After a OMT and competition timeout, Dean Kearney ended his competition with a loss against Odi Bakchis. Enkei Wheels sponsored driver Alex Heilbrunn defeated Fredric Aasbo after a OMT, judges stating Aasbo made far more mistakes than Heilbrunn. Matt Coffman faced Ryan Tuerck and made contact with Tuerck at the hairpin. Coffman called a 5-minute timeout for a car inspection, but Tuerck took the win once the battle was over.
The Top 4 battles had the crowd on their feet, starting with the battle between James Deane and Ryan Tuerck. Deane filled every single touch and go with accurate precision, Tuerck giving close chase with few corrections. Tuerk’s lead run was equal to Deane’s, but Deane shadowed Tuerck all the way through the course. Deane knocked Tuerck out of first place contention.
Alex Heilbrunn and Odi Bakchis face each other in the battle that determined who would fight for the first place against James Deane. In a battle too close to make a decision, judges ran Heilbrunn and Bakchis OMT. In the OMT, Heilbrunn dominated the run from the initiation, leaving Bakchis struggling causing him to run off line on the follow. During Odi’s lead run, Alex couldn’t be shaken, and Alex took the win moving on to face James Deane in the battle for first.
James Deane and Alex Heilbrunn would battle each other for first place. Deane was extremely consistent throughout the weekend, and he ran a line similar to his 96 point qualifying run, which the judges praised. Heilbrunn ran shallow on portions of the follow, but closed all gaps and remained dedicated through the end. Alex Heilbrunn took his final lead run of the Long Beach event, and James Deane was all over him through the finish. In the end, James Deane was ruled the winner of the final battle.
2 of the drivers standing on podium had overcome major handicaps throughout the weekend, one driver having not driven in the US for years, and the other having not driven Long Beach ever. James Deane has successfully returned to U.S. soil and taken first place at the beginning of the 2017 Formula Drift Season. Alex Heilbrunn finishes second and shows he has the skills to threaten drivers hunting for points toward the championship. Ryan Tuerck adds another podium finish to his career in third. These are the 2017 Formula Drift Round 1 – Streets of Long Beach winners.
Round 2 – Uncharted Territory, takes place in Orlando Florida on April 28-29, 2017. Be there, or tune into the livestream and witness these guys fight to keep their championship dreams alive.
Words and Photography by David Karey