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If there’s one thing you should expect in Seattle, it’s rain. And rain is what greeted the teams for Round Two of the 2020 Link ECU PRO2 Championship. Fortunately, it began to dissipate on Saturday for Round Three of the PRO Championship and was practically gone for Sunday’s PRO Round Four. But it allowed drivers with the best car control to rise to the top. And following numerous impacts with the wall at Evergreen Speedway, it also showcased the teams able to restore their cars to competition standard during the action-packed, double-header weekend.

As we saw at the opening round, Formula DRIFT is running a compressed format in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the season getting underway later than usual, each event weekend hosts a double-header for the PRO category on Saturday and Sunday to ensure a full eight-round championship, with the PRO2 category running on Friday.

Also new for 2020 is the elimination of traditional qualifying, with Thursday devoted to practice for both categories to ensure the drivers are familiar with the track layout. As a result, driver match-ups in the competition heats would be decided by a selection formula that ensured close competition.

In a first for the series, Formula DRIFT Seattle was held without spectators in attendance. This was incredibly disappointing for everybody concerned – organizers, teams and, of course, the fans – but it’s just another measure taken to ensure the season can be completed in these challenging times.

Just as in opening round of the 2020 Link ECU PRO2 Championship, Round Two would be dominated by rookie drivers, with two again making the podium – including Austin Matta (USA) for the second time.

The top step of the podium would be taken by Dmitriy Brutskiy (Belarus) who joined PRO2 last year but could only finish 27th of 28 drivers. With immense dedication and preparation, he now jointly leads the 2020 Link ECU PRO2 Championship with Round One winner Joshua Love (USA) who finished the weekend in fourth place driving the After Hours Autosports BMW E36.

With 22 PRO2 drivers arriving at FD SEA for the TOP 32 heats, Brutskiy would initially have a bye run before meeting rookie Nick Noback (USA) in the Top 16 in the Koruworks / RTS Built / Noback Racing BMW E46. Driving similar cars, Noback essentially handed Brutskiy the win after a spin in the wet conditions on his lead run.

In the Top 8, Brutskiy battled Andy Hateley (USA) in the Hateley Motorsports BMW E30. A small mistake by Hateley in the chase position and great proximity from Brutskiy for his chase run gave him a unanimous vote from the judges.

Moving into the Top 4, the Belarus driver faced Austin Matta (USA) in the Don’t Matta Racing Nissan S14. Both had rather untidy runs but the judges voted in favor of Brutskiy on a split decision by virtue of his consistency and precision.

The Final would be against rookie Chase Schmidt (USA) in the Chase Schmidt Racing / Achilles Radial / Kansei Wheels BMW E36. In his third all-BMW battle of the day, Brutskiy was again consistent on his lead run while Schmidt made a small mistake trying to maintain proximity. With the positions reversed, local driver Schmidt, who hails from Snoqualmie, WA, hit the wall in Outside Zone 1. Forced to straighten, Schmidt’s run was ruled incomplete and Brutskiy took the win.

“It certainly wasn’t an easy win,” Brutskiy told us after the podium ceremony. “We had a lot of problems with the car. In fact, I didn’t think we’d make it past the Top 16 but we Never Settle and made it happen. My strategy was to make clean lead runs without major mistakes to put pressure on the other drivers – that’s what happened and consistency was the key this weekend. But I want to thank Michael Essa who stepped in and definitely helped us. He got us back on track but we still needed a miracle and I know my family at home was praying, which must have helped. I’m extremely happy.”

After the downpour experienced by the PRO2 drivers on Friday, there was relief among the PRO teams as the track began to dry out during the course of the day. But with the track going from damp to wet during a brief rain shower and eventually drying it meant every run was different. The drivers had to adapt to the evolving surface, and inevitably a few were caught out.

Even before the competition heats got underway, Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis (Lithuania), the joint series leader prior to this weekend, collided with the wall during the morning warm-up. It caused considerable damage to his Falken Tire / Feal Suspension Nissan S15. Despite bent suspension, no front bodywork and an inoperable supercharger, he reached the Top 16 but was knocked out by Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA) on his way to the Round Three win.

Driving his Monster Energy / Nitto Tire / Ford Performance Mustang RTR Spec 5-D, Gittin Jr’s day began with a bye round in the Top 32 before eliminating an under-powered Bakchis in the Top 16. His first major challenge was in the Great 8 where Gittin Jr met Kazuya Taguchi (Japan) in the JYR VR41 Nissan Silvia. Taguchi struggled for proximity in the chase position while Gittin Jr didn’t have the same problem on the second run and took the win.

The Top 4 consisted entirely of former FD Champions: Vaughn Gittin Jr (2010) , Daijiro Yoshihara (2011), Michael Essa (2013) and Fredric Aasbo (2015). Gittin Jr faced Dai Yoshihara (Japan) in the Turn 14 Distribution / Falken Tire / ENEOS Oil Subaru BRZ, who was signature smooth on his lead run, allowing Gittin Jr to get up close and personal in the chase position. On the second run, Yoshihara dropped back after initiation and made a slight mistake in Outside Zone 3 requiring an adjustment, handing the win to the Mustang man.

In the Final, Gittin Jr faced his nemesis, Fredric Aasbo (Norway) driving the Rockstar Energy Drink / Nitto Tire GR Supra. Fireworks are guaranteed when these two FD Champions meet, and we were not disappointed.

In the lead position, Gittin Jr set a tremendous pace, gapping Aasbo slightly and putting him under pressure as he tried to close the gap. With Aasbo in the lead, both drivers tapped the wall after initiation but Gittin Jr maintained superior proximity and was awarded the win on a split decision.

With Essa taking third place after defeating Yoshihara in the run off, it was a tearful Gittin Jr who collected the winner’s trophy, expressing relief and gratitude for his first win since FD Irwindale in 2018 where he also defeated Aasbo.

Catching up with him after the podium celebrations, Gittin Jr had this to say: “It was a wild weekend! This has been one of the most challenging competitions I can remember because of the weather. We had full wet, patchy, full dry, dry with slippery spots… It was super-sketchy until the last two battles but every run was different. The track kept throwing up surprises but I’m extremely grateful to the amazing team who put the Ford Mustang RTR on rails tonight. I haven’t driven that hard in years but I had the confidence to be where I needed to be thanks to the team. My family was also supporting me, which kept the good vibes flowing. I haven’t been on the podium for a year and it feels amazing to be back because we work really hard to be where we are. I look forward to going to dinner, going to bed and coming back tomorrow to do it all again!”

With several teams working into the night to prepare for Round Four, Sunday morning brought some astonishing storylines. The first jaw-dropper saw Round Three PRO Championship leader, Fredric Aasbo (Norway), failing to get his Rockstar Energy Drink / Nitto Tire GR Supra to the starting line for his Top 32 heat. A cracked inlet manifold was the culprit, and despite a Competition Timeout to buy more time, Papadakis Racing uncharacteristically failed to meet the deadline. This would certainly hamper the Norwegian’s title bid halfway through the season.

Teammate Ryan Tuerck (USA) in the Gumout / Nitto Tire / Mobil 1 Toyota Corolla had a close call but narrowly made the grid following suspension and brake repairs. Tuerck would eventually finish third after victory in the third-place run-off against Chelsea DeNofa (USA) in the BC Racing / Nitto Tire Ford Mustang RTR.

DeNofa had faced teammate and eventual Round Four winner, Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA) in the Top 4 heats when a heavy collision with the wall hampered his progress. Controversially, the RTR Motorsports team replaced the Mustang’s rear-end before the third-place run-off, taking advantage of a loophole in the regulations. However, a front tire came off the rim in the run-off, allowing Tuerck to claim the bottom step of the podium.

Gittin Jr’s run to the Final began in the Top 32 against Travis Reeder (USA) in the Travis Reeder Motorsports / GT Radial Nissan 240SX. Despite a valiant effort, a spin by Reeder on his chase run put him out of contention.

In the Top 16, Gittin Jr dispatched Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis (Lithuania) as he had done the day before. In Round Three, the Lithuanian’s Falken Tire / Feal Suspension Nissan S15 was battle damaged after a heavy practice crash. However, the team had rebuilt the car and its supercharger but a small mistake by Bakchis on his chase run resulted in a slight collision with the Mustang RTR, putting Gittin Jr was through.

The Top 8 heat would see the 2010 FD Champion face Chris Forsberg (USA) – the 2009, 2014 and 2016 FD Champion. With very different driving styles but considerable experience between them both, this was going to be a nail-biter.

At the wheel of his NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z on Nexen Tires, Forsberg drove with his signature precision while Gittin Jr brought his trademark aggression. After both runs the judges called for “One More Time” on a split decision and the runs were repeated.

After another two runs there was again very little between the drivers but a couple of small mistakes by Forsberg on his lead run and Gittin Jr’s superior proximity on the chase saw him advance to the Top 4 to meet teammate DeNofa.

Driving very similar Mustang RTRs and both renowned for their aggressive approach, this was another highly anticipated match-up. Unfortunately, both drivers hit the wall shortly after initiation on the first run, with DeNofa’s car dragged along the wall, suffering multiple hits. With the two cars returning to the pits under their own power, minimal repairs were made and they returned to the starting line for the second run. In the chase position, DeNofa again lost control shortly after the initiation and Gittin Jr completed the run to win. DeNofa then returned to the pits for a rear-end swap before losing to Tuerck in the third-place run-off, while Gittin Jr headed to the Final against Justin Pawlak (USA) driving the Roush Performance / Falken Tire Ford Mustang.

With a rich history between the two drivers, we were again assured another thrilling Final, and nobody was disappointed. The action began with the hard-charging Pawlak in the lead position. He had defeated Matt Field (USA) and Ryan Tuerck (USA) on his way to the Final and thoroughly deserved his spot.

Setting a fast pace through Outside Zone 1, Pawlak arrived at Outside Zone 3 with a lot of speed. Running deep through the turn, Gittin Jr took a tighter line and appeared to almost pass Pawlak but he hesitated momentarily. Pawlak got back on the throttle to “shut the door” and the two collided in Outside Zone 4, damaging the rear of Pawlak’s Mustang.

Gittin Jr was judged to be at fault because he failed to fully pass Pawlak and was not the lead driver at the time of the collision. Crucially, both drivers completed the run and Pawlak had 10min to repair his car, plus his 5min Competition Timeout before both returned for Gittin Jr’s lead run.

On his lead run, the RTR driver jumped into a big lead after initiation and Pawlak struggled to catch up. But he was there at the end of the run and gave the judges a conundrum. After scrutinizing the replays from every angle, the judges unanimously called for “One More Time” on the basis that both drivers made mistakes on both runs and deserved a do-over.

With new tires fitted and the cars checked for safety, Pawlak set a blistering lead run and initially pulled away from Gittin Jr. However, the pair were together again by Outside Zone 2 and remained so throughout the remainder of the course. With the positions reversed, Pawlak fought the car through Outside Zone 1 and made contact with Gittin Jr in Outside Zone 4. These mistakes were enough to hand the second Formula DRIFT PRO Championship win of the weekend to an ecstatic Vaughn Gittin Jr.

He heads to Texas Motor Speedway on October 30-November 1 for the Formula DRIFT PRO Championship Rounds Five and Six in second place, just eight points behind series leader, Ryan Tuerck.

“I don’t know where to start,” Gittin Jr said. “The battle with Odi was a barn-burner. He was down on power yesterday and nobody wants to win against a handicapped car, but I had to work hard today and I was pumped to win as he was the points leader coming into the weekend. The battle with Forsberg was unbelievable – we’ve been great friends for almost 20 years – and we went One More Time but I stayed focused and did what I had to do. Then came Chelsea, and I’d been dreaming about running against him because it made three Mustangs on the podium a real possibility. I knew he’d go ultra-hard because neither of us want to lose to each other, but he went too deep and put us both in the wall. Our RTR team put us both back together but unfortunately he had some damage that couldn’t be fixed in time and had to forfeit.

“And then there was the crazy battle with JTP – we have a long history and have been friends for a long time. We’ve had our beefs but rekindled and battled our hearts out. I’m really proud to see what he’s done with his program and commitment to the sport. So, to end it like this was incredible with back-to-back wins in Seattle. Last year was rough but I reset and refocused and I’m happy to earn what the team and I work for. We’re extremely grateful to everybody who supports us, including all our fans, partners and families.”

We then turned to Formula DRIFT president, Jim Liaw for his final thoughts on the weekend: “It was incredibly strange to run our first event without fans but we had to make concessions to the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure we’re following guidelines to keep everybody safe. We definitely missed the energy of the fans because they’re great here, but the teams brought their own energy and it’s amazing to see the PRO teams deal with back-to-back rounds during the weekend. And hats off to the PRO2 teams who had to contend with the rain.

“People had suggested this would be an asterix year because of the changes to the format but we’re seeing the same incredible competition on the track and those who are successful, despite all the challenges, really deserve the position they’re in, and the Championship they will win. On that basis, we have to recognize the incredible feat achieved by Vaughn and the RTR team. He’s been with us since the beginning in 2004 and always brings tremendous energy to everything he does. He leaves Seattle in a strong position to possibly repeat his 2010 FD Championship win as we approach the halfway point in the season.”