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.
Destiny is a funny thing, especially when you notice a pattern and start expecting things to turn out certain ways. It almost never goes the way you think it will, or the way you think it should. We begin to understand that the outcome that makes the most sense is probably the least likely to happen, so it’s actually ironic when it does happen. And then in retrospect it’s hard to imagine it playing out any differently.
That’s what happened to Fredric Aasbø. He made a splash in Formula D in 2010 when brought his haggard Mark IV Supra “Chucky” to the US from Norway and earned Rookie of the Year by finishing in 13th place overall, even with missing two rounds. In fact, he was the highest placing driver who didn’t have perfect attendance.
His performance got the attention of Stephan Papadakis, who had a vacant seat in his program after the departure of Tanner Foust. Papadakis got Aasbø fitted into a Scion tC, with the seat and controls laid out to mimic Chucky’s cockpit. After some off-season testing, the team pushed hard in the 2011 season and finished 12th, which isn’t too shabby considering everything was new. 2011 is also when Aasbø had his first podium finish, earning 3rd place at Evergreen.
In 2012 Aasbø and Papadakis came back harder and stronger, with their sights set firmly on the championship. Aasbø had two second place finishes that year, but they came up short of the ultimate goal. Still, they dramatically improved their overall position to 6th.
A single third place finish was Aasbø’s only podium finish of 2013, but he finished fourth in all six of the other rounds. That kind of consistency was enough to keep him in 3rd overall until Round 7, where he fell to 4th.
This is where a lot of people started picking up on the pattern. Every year, Aasbø had finished better than the year before. The logical conclusion was winning the championship within the next three years. Many thought 2014 would be the year, and Aasbø earned his first win at New Jersey and another at Texas. He and Forsberg were locked in an epic season-long race that came down to the very last battle at Irwindale, where Aasbø lost to Saito and Forsberg took home the big trophy. Aasbø finished 2nd overall and everyone knew 2015 would be the year. It became a prophecy.
Aasbø started off 2015 with a new title sponsor in Rockstar Energy Drink a win at Long Beach, but followed it up with a pair of terrible losses at Atlanta and Orlando, casting enormous doubt on if the championship was even still within reach. But that’s what one would expect to have happen, because winning in 2015 would be too obvious. The universe wouldn’t allow something that made so much sense to happen.
But then Aasbø won in Jersey for the second year in a row, in the rain no less.
And he followed it up with a win at Evergreen, also in the rain. Suddenly he was the points leader again, and by a whopping 76 points too.
At Texas, he extended his lead to 80 points, even with a loss in the Great Eight.
And that brought us to Irwindale, where dreams – and nightmares – become reality. After Friday’s qualifying session, Tuerck and Forsberg were both eliminated from contention. Only Ken Gushi could take the championship away from Aasbø, and he’d have to do very very well. All Aasbø had to do was win his Top 32 battle, and when was the last time he couldn’t do that? Oh right, this year at Orlando.
Aasbø lined up with Kristaps Bluss and I can’t imagine what was going through each driver’s head. All Aasbø had to do was drive better than Bluss for two laps and he’d be the champion.
Bluss knew this, and it was within his power to put Aasbø’s fate in Gushi’s hands.
Aasbø had the advantage going into the second run, but Bluss spun right at the finish line, causing a Aasbø to collide with the BMW…for the win?
They got the track cleared and brought the two cars back to the grid and we waited on the judges’ decisions. We waited and waited and then waited some more. More than 10 minutes went by. What was taking so long? We were waiting for a commercial break? Were they creating suspense since such an important battle happened so early in the day?
Then the results came in. Andy Yen picked Aasbø. Ryan Lanteigne picked Aasbø and just like that we had a champion doing donuts. Hang on though, there was one more judge. Not that it mattered, but Brian Eggert also picked Aasbø. It was unanimous!
Half the people on the grid ran over to the tC to congratulate the Norwegian Hammer on his first championship, get some photos, and do interviews. Oh, the event was still going on and the next battle was happening? Never mind that, this is where the story was.
Fredric Aasbø was the happiest guy in the world, and the night was young.
The battle that was happening during the celebration was Daigo Saito beating Pat Goodin. That meant Aasbø would be facing Saito in the Top 16. Keep in mind Saito was undefeated at Irwindale. He had won 15 consecutive battles in three years, and winning against Goodin made it 16.
Aasbø had beaten Saito before, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch that he could beat him again here. It would be the ultimate payback for the defeat last season that cost Aasbø the championship. But there’s that pesky pattern problem again. Going off the previous three years, Daigo Saito should never lose at Irwindale, ever. But he had a new car this year, and patterns like that can’t last forever.
And it didn’t. Daigo Saito made a huge error and flew off the end of the big bank. Still, he had lost at the hands of Aasbø, who was already the champion and had absolutely nothing riding on this battle.
You can’t win ’em all.
Aasbø’s crew casually changed the car’s tires and he lined up with Mad Mike Whiddett.
Mad Mike is always a crowd favorite but his driving has only been so-so this season. Aasbø easily moved past the Kiwi and into the Final Four.
Forrest Wang would be a little bit tougher opponent. Not only has he too been improving, but he finished on the podium at Irwindale last year and was the top qualifier at this track for the second year in a row. He did put up a fight, but Aasbø got his fourth win of the night. There was only one more battle to go.
Ken Gushi, if you recall, was the only driver with enough points going into competition on this day to threaten Aasbø’s championship, and only if he performed flawlessly. Well, his performance was everything it needed to be, and even though Aasbø had already won the season, Gushi was trying to win the round. As the third qualifier, he got past Castro, Essa, Ng, and Pawlak only to face his Scion/Hankook teammate in the final battle. No matter what the outcome was, he’d be second for the season, but he was still chasing that elusive single event victory that he hadn’t seen since 2005.
Aasbø on the other hand, was still busy putting together the greatest night of his life. Winning the championship is amazing enough by itself, but winning at Irwindale would be the icing on the cake.
Jarod DeAnda loves to build suspense by giving the crowd useless clues. The winner drives a Scion. Everyone laughed. On Hankook tires. More laughter.
His name is Fredric Aasbø, and he could hardly believe it.
Aasbø and Gushi went 1-2 in both this round and for the season. That’s a heck of a result for both Scion and Hankook. Forrest Wang finished third for this round, completing the Hankook podium sweep. This is Norway’s first FD championship, though it’s anything but new for Scandinavia. Swedish driver Samuel Hübinette won Formula D’s first season in 2004, and again in 2006.
So what’s next?
Photos by Langer, Pitts, and Bohan
I loved Irwindale as a whole but I struggled with it as a photographer.