The last few weeks have been very busy, but I finally found some time to go through my Formula Drift Final Fight photos.
Right after Irwindale, I headed off to Gothenburg in Sweden to shoot some virtual car feature shots for the new Need for Speed game, and then jumped on a plane bound for Tokyo, Japan, and the D1 Grand Prix finals. I’ve been swamped with work, but more on that later…
The first-ever professional drifting event I attended was D1GP Japan vs USA at Irwindale Speedway in 2006, so you can imagine that the Southern California race venue is quite a special place to me. Dubbed ‘The House of Drift’ it holds a special place in the hearts of the drivers and teams too.
When Fredric Aasbo came to the U.S. from his native country of Norway to pursue a drifting career, he didn’t exactly scream “Formula Drift Champion” — but, his team saw something in him.
“They’ve been trusting this weird Scandanavian dude, who came in as the hothead a couple of years ago and was smashing cars left and right,” Aasbo said. “They’ve put everything they had on the line and trusted me to make it happen.”
When Aasbo did make it happen and added his name to both the U.S. Formula Drift championship and the inaugural Formula Drift World Championship trophies, the response of his team at Papadakis Racing was, “We told you so.” The team — and owner Stephan Papadakis — knew it was going to happen, even while Aasbo was the newcomer smashing cars.
When he first entered the drifting scene, Aasbo “absolutely didn’t expect” to perform as well as he has. But ever since Papadakis Racing brought him on after his 2010 Rookie of the Year season, “they’ve been working their asses off.”
Even though Aasbo didn’t have a lot of confidence back when he made his U.S. debut in 2008, he had big dreams. He found success in Norway before coming overseas — winning the Nordic Drifting Championship in 2007 and 2008 — but he knew ahead of time that competition in the U.S. was stiff.
Seven years later, Aasbo beat every member of that competition. If he’s any testament to it, maybe all of that talk about dreams becoming reality isn’t such nonsense after all.
While it all panned out, championships weren’t in Aasbo’s initial game plan. When he packed up and came to California, Aasbo looked racing in the U.S. as a trial run — as “whatever happens, it’ll be an experience.” During his early drifting career, Aasbo even related to the “struggling actors” narrative so common of Los Angeles.
“I wondered when it was going to end, you know?” said Aasbo, recalling his early attempts at the big leagues of U.S. drifting. “I think if you put everything on the line like that, you’ve got to be prepared to not succeed. And I definitely was.”
For Aasbo, winning the Formula Drift championship sort of illustrates the modern-day American dream (who said that concept was dead?). He’s got family members who made the U.S. their home nearly 100 years ago, and he now splits his time between California and Norway — surfing, drifting and all.
“Back in Northern Europe, everything in America, especially California, is very exotic,” said Aasbo, whose vision of California came from watching Baywatchepisodes with his father as a kid. “I sat there thinking, ‘Wow, this looks like the dream. It looks unreal. I wonder if it’s actually like that.’ And it kind of is, isn’t it?”
And get this — those Baywatch episodes actually helped him learn English.
Aasbo says he still has an accent, but he doesn’t give himself (or Baywatch) enough credit for how well he’s got the English speaking down — my southern draw is almost more detectable.
While his language differences didn’t exactly set him apart when he came to the U.S., Aasbo’s driving did. Formula Drift announcer Jarod DeAnda gave Aasbo the nickname “The Norwegian Hammer” after he entered the series, and Aasbo said that the nickname feels very American to him — in a good way.
“I think he saw this like tall, kind of quirky Norwegian dude come into the series,” Aasbo said, “and I’ve sort of always had this like humble perception — people look at me as a humble guy — but on track, I have moments when I’ve been pretty ruthless.”
Aasbo was ruthless, but his fellow drivers were “far more competitive” than he’d seen in Norway. Aware of the consistency, funding and speed of the drivers in U.S. drifting, Aasbo put his methodical ways to the test by watching videos and following the competition before he even got to America.
“Everything was more competitive compared to Europe,” Aasbo said. “But there was one thing that hadn’t been developed over here at the time, and that was the steering angle in the cars.
“That was actually something that we had been playing around with a lot in Europe, and that’s also the one thing that gave me the courage. It made me ask myself, ‘We’re going to be slower, we’re going to be less consistent, but what if we can drive with more style and more angle than these guys?’”
The style and angle he brought from Europe is what Aasbo says got him noticed in the first place, and what allowed him to take over for two-time Formula Drift champion Tanner Foust in the Papadakis Racing ride after his rookie year in the series.
A Winning Formula
Before I even got to the formal questions when speaking to Aasbo after his championship-winning weekend, he had one thing to say — “It was pretty incredible.”
“It was the grand slam, wasn’t it?” Aasbo said. “It couldn’t have been scripted any better — we won the U.S. Formula Drift Championship, which has been my dream for 12 years, and the first World Championship, and the [season finale at Irwindale Speedway].
“It all kind of built up to that grand finale and we took it. We checked a lot of boxes that night, and it makes you wonder where you go from there.”
Winning the event that night marked Aasbo’s first at Irwindale, but topping the charts at the event itself wasn’t his goal going in — it was all about the championship for him. Making it out of the top 32 at Irwindale would clinch both championships, but “there’s no such thing as an easy battle” in a format that can pit drivers against virtually any other competitor each round.
“That put a hell of a lot of pressure on that first battle,” Aasbo said. “And you know, even ahead of that, we had to qualify.
“All these guys are die-hard, serious contenders, so you might as well lose out early as win the event. So, I think the moments and the minutes leading up to that first top-32 battle were probably the most tense moments of my career.”
During the early portions of Aasbo’s U.S. career, he said team owner Papadakis knew that success would take time. But faith in Aasbo and in a newly built Scion tC — one with an engine platform “totally opposite” from what other drivers had success with in the series — finally culminated in a championship, just a few years later.
“[Papadakis] knew that he was gambling a little bit,”Aasbo said. “But I think he did a good job of letting me know that he understood it was going to take time. So, I think most of the pressure I felt, I put on myself.”
The self-driven pressure allowed him to fill Foust’s shoes on the team, win the Formula Drift Fan Favorite of the Year driver title three years in a row, and get his hands on a championship trophy — both for the U.S. and the world.
Aasbo far exceeded his initial expectations for the series, and he certainly didn’t end up writing the struggling-actor (ehem, “driver”) narrative — for the longtime California dreamer, “it all worked out in the end.”
“It’s still, to this day, mind-blowing to be able to live this dream and to basically build bigger and better every year,” Aasbo said. “It’s taken me by storm.”
For Aasbo’s sake, let’s just hope that there aren’t any storms out on the California beaches.
I loved Irwindale as a whole but I struggled with it as a photographer.