Ford victorious in 2023 FD PRO Auto Cup, GT Radial takes Tire Cup
We’ve been saying it for the past 20 years, but you can never predict what will happen in Formula DRIFT. Especially at the Final Round with multiple drivers chasing the title. What appeared to be a comfortable cushion for the points leader coming into the 2023 PRO Championship Round 8: Type S Title Fight dissolved as the main contenders buckled under the pressure, creating another nail-biting conclusion to the 20th Anniversary season at Irwindale Speedway, The House of Drift.
Four drivers arrived at the Irwindale oval with a mathematical chance of claiming the PRO Championship title. But after racking up an unequalled three Round wins during the season, Chelsea DeNofa (USA) appeared to hold an unassailable position. With a 53 point margin to second place Matt Field (USA), and a total of 103 points on offer for the top qualifier and Round winner, only a lunatic would’ve bet against him.
The two Norwegians, Simen Olsen and triple FD PRO Champion Fredric Aasbo, were 77 and 81 points behind DeNofa, respectively, and would need a miracle. But miracles can happen.
The K&N Qualifying session was the first opportunity for the protagonists to put some points on the table. There are 3, 2 and 1 points available for the drivers placing first, second and third, respectively. However, the top spot fell to an inspired Nick Noback (USA), who scored 93 points in the Noback Racing Co E46 BMW by Jerry Yang Racing. He was leagues beyond second place Bakchis who scored 87.6 points. Yet both would earn bye runs through the Top 32 competition heats after Ryan Litteral (USA) and Jonathan Hurst (USA) failed to qualify.
Ken Gushi (Japan) took third in the Three’s Racing Toyota GR86 with 86.6 points while DeNofa qualified seventh with an 83.3 point run in the Pennzoil / BC Racing Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD. He was the best qualifier of the leading quartet, with Olsen ninth, Aasbo 17th and Field 18th.
Field had been involved in a practice collision with James Deane (Ireland) shortly before the K&N qualifying session. Field’s Borla Performance / GT Radial Corvette was significantly damaged while Deane described it as the hardest hit of his career. The AutoZone Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD was thrown into the air before sliding its roof along the wall on two wheels, requiring substantial repairs. The shaken Irishman qualified in a highly respectable sixth place with a 83.3 point run after the entire RTR Motorsports team rallied to fix the car.
Leading Rookie and 2022 Formula DRIFT Link ECU PROSPEC Champion Robert Thorne (USA) qualified tenth with 81.6 points in the ASM E46 BMW Sedan Pro Edition. His nearest rival for the Rookie of the Year title, Diego Higa (Brazil), placed 12th with 81 points. And with a mere 16 points separating them, the title was within the grasp of both drivers.
The drama began almost immediately in the Top 32 competition heats. First DeNofa was eliminated by a rogue nitrous injection failure. He was joined by Field and Aasbo, who both hit the wall and removed themselves from the contest
Only Olsen advanced through the Top 32, but would need to win the Final Round to claim the Championship title. So no pressure!
Unfortunately, Olsen was defeated in the Top 16 by three-time FD PRO Champion Chris Forsberg (USA) after a superior chase run by the driver of the NOS Energy Drink / GT Radial Nissan Z. And in that moment, DeNofa was the 2023 Formula DRIFT PRO Champion. It came after a dominant season for the RTR Motorsports team that saw DeNofa take three wins while teammates Vaughn Gittin Jr (USA) and Adam LZ (USA) took one each. The team accounted for five of the eight Round wins.
“I’ve been drifting for 20 years, with 12 years in Formula DRIFT, and you want to win this Championship. The team and I all worked super-hard and we did it! It’s nuts!” an emotional DeNofa said from the podium. “Coming to this event I realized it might actually happen. But I’m leaving the series and if I didn’t win I’d look like an idiot and be wanting to come back for the rest of my life! But the Championship was the goal. In everything I do for the rest of my life, the first thing that goes under my name is Formula DRIFT Champion. And that’s the best!
“I owe it to everyone for getting me here and getting me through the bad weekends. I can’t wait to share what I’ll be doing in the future and drive like a maniac as I always wanted to!
“When you win one event you realize it’s what you want to keep doing but it requires effort, a plan, a team, crew, engineer, spotter, truck driver; and we did it! To leave my last Formula DRIFT Round with a Championship feels unreal. It’s been an awesome year with three wins, some mistakes, some great battles, and ultimately we ended up with the trophy. So, thank you Formula DRIFT and everybody who’s been a part of the series and my career for the past 12 years.”
The only RTR driver not to win a Round was three-time FD PRO Champion James Deane (Ireland). Following his huge crash during Friday practice, Deane managed to qualify sixth but seemed unlikely to compete given his physical condition. However, a Saturday practice run convinced him otherwise and Deane placed third on the night; his birthday. Securing his second podium of the season moved Deane to fifth in the Championship standings.
Amid the Championship celebrations, Nick Noback (USA) quietly set about creating the perfect weekend in the Noback Racing Co E46 BMW by Jerry Yang Racing. Qualifying first and winning Round 8, it was the best result of his short FD career, which began as a PROSPEC Rookie in 2020 before joining the PRO Championship last year.
It was by no means an easy path to victory. Admittedly, he avoided the Top 32 thanks to his bye run. He was on the verge of elimination in the Top 16, where the judges asked him to run One More Time (OMT) on two occasions in his battle against Jhonnattan Castro (Dominican Republic). It took six runs for Noback to finally emerge victorious over the driver of the Gerdau Metaldom Toyota GR86 by the narrowest margin.
Advancing to the Great 8, Noback faced Forsberg before Ryan Tuerck (USA) in the Final 4. The result of both heats was the same: Noback’s opponents slammed into the wall in Outside Zone 1 (OZ1) as they struggled to match the speed of the BMW. Making adjustments on the tire debris that had collected against the wall, both Forsberg’s Nissan and Tuerck’s Rain-X / Nitto Tire / Rockstar Energy GR Corolla required a tow truck to return to the pits.
In the Final, Noback defeated Aurimas Bakchis (Lithuania) in another tight contest that crowned a solid season. Arriving at Irwindale in 20th position, the win bounced Noback to 12th overall and put him on everybody’s radar.
“We wanted to finish the season on a high note, especially at Irwindale, which is where I scored my first PROSPEC podium,” the soft-spoken Noback told us. “I wanted to do my best and was lucky enough to reach the podium. I’d like to thank my family and team, the sponsors and fans, everybody at FD and anybody who helped me get here. I can’t thank you all enough. Hopefully we keep the momentum going next year and can finish in the top three.”
Reaching the Final was a watershed moment for Bakchis as well. The driver of the Feal Suspension / GT Radial Nissan S15 had dropped out of title contention at the previous round, dropping to fifth in the Championship table. However, Odi’s second place at Irwindale was the icing on an incredible season. After a Round win in St Louis, he amassed enough points to leapfrog Aasbo, teammate Olsen, and Field to claim second in the 2023 Formula DRIFT PRO Championship.
Not only was it the best result of Odi’s FD career but he’s also experienced tremendous success as the leader and manager of Team Feal. He built and ran the Pedal Commander / Feal Suspension / Koruworks / Motegi Racing Nissan S14 that gave Ben Hobson (USA) the PROSPEC Championship, as well as the Feal Suspension Nissan S14.9 that took Simen Olsen to fourth in the PRO Championship. Both drivers were new to the team this year and greatly benefitted from Odi’s experience.
In contrast, Papadakis Racing didn’t win a single round in 2023, with both the three-time and reigning FD PRO Champion Aasbo and teammate Ryan Tuerck (USA) failing to take advantage of strong qualifying performances. Aasbo achieved three podiums while Tuerck finished fourth on three occasions, including Round 8. After his Top 32 defeat, Aasbo finished the night in 21st and the season in sixth, while Tuerck was fourth and seventh, respectively.
Similarly, Field’s early demise dropped him down the table, finishing 22nd on the night and third for the season despite three podiums, which included a win in Round 1.
Robert Thorne (USA), the 2022 FD Link ECU PROSPEC Champion, won the 2023 FD PRO Rookie of the Year chase in the ASM E46 BMW Sedan Pro Edition. Finishing 12th in Round 8, he placed 20th in the Championship table, 32 points clear of nearest rival, Diego Higa (Brazil).
And to complete the awards, GT Radial claimed the 2023 Formula DRIFT PRO Tire Cup after a close battle with Nitto. Ford won the Auto Cup at the previous round and further extended its lead in Irwindale thanks to the efforts of RTR Motorsports.
To close the lid on the 20th Anniversary of Formula DRIFT, we got the thoughts of President, Ryan Sage: “Every year at Irwindale there seems to be a standout driver who didn’t achieve great results during the season but comes through at the Final event. And this year it was Nick Noback. He qualified first and beat Odi Bakchis in the Final. While Odi in second place secured second in the Championship, bumping Matt Field to third. But DeNofa managed to take the title after all the drama – his first and possibly last Championship. Congratulations to all the drivers in what’s been an amazing 20th season. And let’s do another 20!”
2023 FORMULA DRIFT CHAMPIONSHIP RESULTS
ROUND 8 FD PRO TOP 16 DRIVER POINTS
|15||Vaughn Gittin Jr||32|
2023 FD PRO TOP 16 DRIVER CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS
2023 AUTO CUP TOP 5 STANDINGS
2023 TIRE CUP STANDINGS