Denofa slides BMW sideways to victory in rainy Formula Drift opener

Gallery Formula Drift Long Beach Photo 6

Privateer had to beat three previous champions for his first professional victory

Privateer drifter Chelsea Denofa overcame two days of rain, three former champions and numerous hard concrete walls to take his banged-up 3-Series BMW to victory in the season-opener of Formula Drift.

“They were definitely hard battles,” Denofa said, using the term for the single-elimination rounds used in Formula D competition. “Our car was working out perfect. I was able to take out a three champions and a bunch of guys I always drive with on the East Coast, and it was just a great time and everyone drove straight up and had a blast.”

Remember when even the top levels of racing used to be like that? Denofa showed that it’s still like that in drifting. A guy who works on his own car in his own garage can, through perseverance and hard work, win something.

“I think Chelsea had everything come together for him today: the grip of the car, his driving ability, which is obviously amazing, his head was in the right spot, he prevailed through the raining conditions, he was just one-upping everybody else,” said second-place finisher and defending champion Fredric Aasbo. “As a fan of the sport, it’s really cool to see a guy that’s been fighting so hard for so many years break through. This is why drifting’s so big. Any one of the guys in the grandstands, they look at the guys on the track and they say, ‘I can do this.’ And you can. If you want it enough, you can be out there competing with all these guys. Chelsea is that dream come true. I love to see that.”

But it’s still a competition, so Aasbo added, “Of course, I’d love to beat his ass next time.”

FormulaD champagne

It was a heck of an interesting two days played out on four of the turns that make up part of the IndyCar street course of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The IndyCar race is held the following week.

First of all, let’s explain drifting. It’s the art of gracefully sliding your car sideways through turns, door to door with a competitor. It’s a judged sport, like gymnastics or high diving. Speed doesn’t matter, though you have to go pretty fast to be able to fling your car sideways and keep going. Competitors line up in pairs, with one driver leading the way through the circuit, which consists of four or five corners through which they drift. Then they go again with the other driver leading the way. Then three judges pick the winner. The competition is held in a bracket format, in single-elimination rounds just like that college basketball tournament. On the first day, everybody qualifies for the 32 spots in the bracket. On the second day, the 32 guys go at it pair by pair.

This time there was a monkey wrench thrown into the mix. In drought-plagued California it looked like the rain was going to be the star of the weekend, with buckets of the stuff pouring down on the first day, a day normally reserved for qualifying. Now, you’d think that rain wouldn’t matter for a sport that is essentially all about sliding around. But the cars are all set up to slide around on dry surfaces, with 900-hp engines driving big rear tires. But that wasn’t the case this time. With grip “like ice,” numerous drivers crashing into the concrete walls of the narrow street circuit, and Formula D officials decided to set the qualifying grid based on last year’s points. That put Aasbo on top and Denofa, who finished 16th last year, in midpack.

But what a climb for the previously winless Denofa. First he had to contend with fellow Philadelphian Geoff Stoneback, but then he faced three former champions with a total of four championships among them, a veritable Mount Rushmore of Drifting: two-time champ Chris Forsberg, Vaughn Gitten Jr. and defending title-holder Aasbo.

“It is like, champion after champion, all these amazing drivers, just like, somehow wiping them out, I have no idea, driving my heart out, doing the best I can,” said an almost-overwhelmed Denofa afterward. “It just feels great to be up here, man.”

Denofa on track

And it felt great to be in Formula D, which is entering its 13th year.

“I think we’re going to continue to grow,” said Formula Drift co-founder and president Jim Liaw. “I think our engagement numbers are huge, our social media numbers, we’re on the forefront of new technology, streaming video, vehicle content, Facebook Live, all these new things that are coming, out we’re trying to stay on top of all that just to be as engaged and as active as possible.”

The series has strong engagement with the coveted younger demographic that everyone is trying to reach. Slapping your company name on a drift car and then using that connection right can yield a strong result. The number of followers to the sport has been on the ups since the series was founded.

“It definitely is growing,” Liaw said. “Our livestream viewership numbers, our social media numbers, are all going up.”

The sanctioning body has been expanding, too. A feeder series called Pro2 helps newcomers step up. Last year, with races in Montreal and Japan, Formula Drift added a world championship title. Both were won by Aasbo.

“Drifting is the next generation of motorsport,” said the lantern-jawed Aasbo. “It’s basically the snowboarder/skateboarder of traditional racing. You have all forms of cars and you have drivers from all around the world: You have Captain America going up against a ninja from Japan, you have a couple clowns from Europe (Aasbo’s from Norway), it’s really diverse. It brings in another demographic to the world of racing. It’s gradually growing. Steph (Papadakis), my crew chief and I, we’re talking about this all the time, we see the trends, we see what’s happening. Right now drifting is booming. Who knows where we’ll be in 20 years? You gotta remember it’s still a young sport. It has a lot of potential.”

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