After a hiatus of two and a half years, Formula DRIFT returned to the streets of Long Beach, CA, last weekend for Round 7 of the Pro Championship series. Unlike previous events, which took place at dedicated race tracks, this weekend’s action happened on a closed course on real city streets. With tight curves and lots of concrete walls to avoid, the drivers were up against some serious challenges.
“It’s such an unforgiving track that I feel sorry for the new drivers who’ve not run here before,” said veteran driver Justin Pawlak, who earned the top position in the qualifying round. “For veterans like me, the muscle memory returns quickly and it gives us a big advantage over the new guys when running so close to the walls.”
Pawlak and his Falken Tire Ford Mustang were the stars of the qualifying round. He scored a near-perfect 97 points, beating out Fredric Aasbo (the winner of the previous Formula DRIFT event in St. Louis) and Chelsea DeNofa, who qualified second and third, respectively. While these experienced drivers shined in qualifying, the competition rounds would come with more than a few surprises—prompting a major reshuffling of the points standings.
The weekend belonged to Aurimas “Odi” Bakchis, a Lithuanian driver behind the wheel of the Falken Tire / Feal Suspension Nissan S15. Bakchis won the opening round of the Formula DRIFT season at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, but a string of poor performances has kept him off the podium since then. Despite the difficulties, he entered the weekend in a respectable fifth place in the Championship standings, unaware his luck was about to change.
He lined up against a formidable opponent in the first round: 2020 FD Pro Rookie of the Year Adam LZ. Both drivers floored it for their lead runs but faltered on their chases, and the judges had to decide the round based on the lead runs alone. They ultimately sided with Bakchis, determining he had drifted deeper, and gave him the win.
Bakchis bested Japan’s Daijiro Yoshihara in the Top 16 by once again laying down deeper drifts than his opponent, ad then he faced 2013 FD Champion Michael Essa in the Top 8. While chasing, Essa slid into a wall, forcing a correction that cleared the way for Bakchis to win and proceed to the next round.
It didn’t get any easier from there. In the Top 4, Bakchis squared off against three-time FD Pro Champion Chris Forsberg and his NOS Energy / GT Radial Nissan 370Z. As in his previous heats, Bakchis flew off the line and set a breakneck pace. That was enough to topple even the highly experienced Forsberg, who made contact while chasing on the final turn. Noting that small mistake, the judges awarded Bakchis the win in a split decision.
The final round of the night saw Bakchis line up against Norwegian driver Fredric Aasbo, the 2015 FD champion and winner of the previous Formula DRIFT event in St. Louis. It was a matchup between two highly respected drivers, and the atmosphere in the grandstands was electric. Aasbo led first, and Bakchis managed to shadow him closely throughout the run. After that, Bakchis pulled off a stellar lead run of his own to secure the win and the top spot on the podium.
“I needed this win really badly, and it’s a huge confidence boost,” Bakchis said afterward. “But we had to earn it; we had to battle through some tough competitors, most of whom were former Champions.”
Bakchis’ victory contributed to some serious shakeups in the overall FD Pro Championship standings. Bakchis moved up a spot, from fifth to fourth, which put him 43 points from the lead. With his second place finish in Long Beach (his fifth podium so far this season), Aasbo jumped from third to first place. Matt Field, the points leader going into this weekend’s event, suffered a suspension failure on his third run and finished in 11th place, putting him in third in the standings. Still, he’s just a single point behind the current second-ranked driver, Chelsea DeNofa.
There’s still one last race before the season’s outcome is decided. On Oct. 22–23, Formula DRIFT heads to Irwindale Speedway—the House of Drift—for the final round of the Pro and Prospec championship series.
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