The competitive window for the average competitive drifting chassis is probably around four years. Competitors in Formula Drift have been pushing the upper limits of horsepower and grip for the past several years, and the level of build required to remain competitive is much higher than just a few seasons ago. This year, seven competitors debuted a new chassis at the first event of Formula Drift which took place a few weeks back on the Streets of Long Beach, California. We strolled through the pits to get the details on each chassis. Photos by Jacob Leveton, Mike Griffith, and David Karey.
Kristaps Bluss – E46 BMW
Latvian driver Kristaps Bluss has competed in Europe over the past several seasons in a BMW chassis, but this chassis was freshly built for Formula Drift competition and cleared customs just hours before the first practice of the year. The car is a full-out build which clearly had no expenses spared, and should be one of the more exciting cars to watch as the team gets the car fully dialed in.
Power is generated by a MAST Motorsports 466RHS engine which is based on the Chevy small block, generating well over 700 naturally-aspirated horses. The air cleaner that covers the long horn throttle bodies is quite intimidating, and may impede a drivers’ view if Bluss weren’t 6-feet tall. The dogbox transmission and quick change rear end are almost standard issue for a Formula Drift build these days. The engine bay is devoid of the radiator as it has been relocated to the trunk along with the dry sump oil setup. As is tradition with many of HGK’s builds, Wisefab provided the steering and suspension setup to provide maximum angle, which will be controlling Work Wheels and Achilles tires all season.
All body panels on Bluss’s BMW have been replaced with Carbon Kevlar composite versions, providing a very lightweight alternative to the OEM sheetmetal. There are several vents in the rear ¼ panel to help funnel air to the rear radiator, although the openings look nearly OEM to the untrained eye. Overall, the build is very thorough and looks to be on par with any of the top builds in the series over the past several seasons. A broken axle ended Bluss’ inaugural weekend in the series, but look for him to bounce back in Atlanta.
Mike Essa – 2013 Chevy Camaro
Formula Drift’s 2013 champion had a bit of a slump in the 2014 season, and after five seasons in BMW-powered cars, Essa has shifted to a Chevy bowtie with a newly formed partnership with SLP (Street Legal Performance). Unfortunately, Long Beach wasn’t the best debut for the chassis that was built in under 60 days, but substantial changes and improvements before Atlanta should help with the competitiveness of the build.
After stripping and caging the chassis, the availability of the SLP parts helped the car come together given the shortened timeline. The roots-style supercharger was paired with the SLP long-tube headers to bump the power output of the LS3 engine close to 700hp. Similar to his last several cars, power is pushed through a Clutchmasters twin disc clutch and Driveshaft Shop driveline to a Speedway quick change rear end that Essa fabricated to fit in the stock rear subframe. Also carried over from the most recent BMW, Forgestar wheels and Yokohama rubber plant the car to the track. Essa’s title sponsor Street Legal Performance, which is a subsidiary of famed Mustang tuner Roush Performance, appreciates that the Camaro bears more resemblance to a street car than a full-on race car when compared to the other cars on grid. Essa has already identified several improvements that have been put into place since the initial outing in Long Beach, including new custom Wisefab steering arms that provide nearly 70 degrees of steering angle.
Essa barely completed the car just a few days ahead of the Long Beach event, and the lack of seat time and tuning lead to a below-average performance that left him one spot away from the top 32 tandem competition after qualifying. Given Essa’s experience across a multitude of chassis, we expect him to get the car dialed in quickly after some more seat time and chassis tuning.
Tanner Foust – Volkswagen Passat
It’s hard to find a gearhead who doesn’t know Tanner Foust’s name these days after his stint on the American version of the Top Gear TV show, which is why it’s exciting that he’s back in Formula Drift. Foust is quick to credit drifting for launching his motorsport career, so it’s great to see him back in the sport on his terms. Building on his existing partnership with Volkswagen for Rallycross, Foust built this Volkswagen Passat to take the drifting circuit sideways on a limited schedule in 2015.
Powering this Passat is not your normal VAG engine. While you may expect a turbo-diesel or 2.5 FSI engine under the hood, the decision was made to drop a Chevy LS7 motor under the hood to bypass any concerns about horsepower or reliability. Initially rated at 700hp naturally aspirated, a big bottle of nitrous was added to push the power over 900hp when needed. One of the most interesting aspects of the build is the spaghetti-like equal length tubular header that hangs off the motor, resembling something out of the movie Arachnophobia more than an actual exhaust header. Although the car utilizes a four-speed dogbox transmission that is very much a ‘race car’ part, the rear end uses the same OEM Toyota Supra rear end as Foust’s previous NASCAR V8-powered Scion tC race car that he previously drove in 2009 and 2010. The outside of the car features a custom-adapted Rocket Bunny kit, proving that you truly can put a Rocket Bunny kit on any car with enough motiviation.
At first glance, the Passat wheel base may appear to be much larger than your ideal drift car, but at 110 inches, the Passat is actually quite similar in length to E46 BMW M3 (108 inches) and the Toyota JZX110 Chaser (107.5 inches). Both the E46 and JZX110 are considered to be competitive chassis in drifting, and with the OEM suspension geometry of the Passat being a fairly good starting point for drifting, the team feels that they can dial the car into a competitive chassis even despite the short three-event schedule for Foust.
Foust’s return to the sport was a bit disappointing from his perspective, coming from seven previous FD wins and 20 career podiums, but admittedly might have been a little rusty after being away from the sport for several years. While we didn’t get a chance to get too close of a look at the car due to the team working on it fairly often over the course of the weekend, we’re working to get an up-close look at the car before the next race in Atlanta. We expect Foust and the team to be back in proper form in no time.
Joon Maeng – BMW Z4
Ever the gentleman, Joon Maeng’s new chassis is much more evil in nature than his previous builds. While Michael Essa had previously piloted a Z4 chassis that was powered by a BMW motor, Maeng went much more extreme by sourcing a Toyota 2JZ motor for his drift car. With the chassis built by Gary Castillo of Designcraft Fabrication in Westminster, CA and the engine being assembled simultaneously at Duttweiler Racing in Camarillo, CA, the car also came together in a rather short timeline leading up to Long Beach.
The Duttweiler Racing engine has been built and tested for nearly 1,200 horsepower, although the motor has been slightly detuned while the chassis gets dialed in. Utilizing a Garrett GTX3582 turbo, the car was one of eight 2JZ-powered cars to turn a wheel on the streets of Long Beach, but the only one of European descent. Maeng’s previous history in V8 and 4-cylinder cars makes this setup a bit unique for him, but one he feels can be competitive. “From the beginning, this has been a dream build with Gary at Designcraft Fabrication. I asked him to build me the best car he’s ever built and I’m not disappointed!” Maeng told us.
One of the most interesting aspects of the build is the Slek Designs widebody kit which is unlike any other bodykit we’ve seen for this chassis before. Similar to Bluss’s BMW, the vents in the rear quarter help feed air to the rear radiator. Rays G07FXX wheels will be wrapped n Achilles rubber all season, a new tire partnership for Maeng this season. Lucas Oil, one of Maeng’s biggest partners over the past several seasons, provided all the fluids for the build. Interestingly enough, Maeng also built a second BMW Z4 to use as a promotional car and a practice car while this competition chassis is on the road, so if you see a similarly-styled car driving around Southern California, don’t be surprised.
After a series of fluke issues during practice, Maeng failed to put a score up in qualifying. While the result was disappointing for Maeng and the team, they have identified several areas to improve the chassis, and hope to bring Maeng his first career podium before the season is out.
Justin Pawlak – 2014 Ford Mustang
Although this chassis looks similar to the Mustang that Pawlak has campaigned under the Falken Tire banner for the past few seasons, this is actually a new chassis for Pawlak. This chassis actually started as a Pro-Am car for Jim Guthrie that Pawlak and his crew caged at his Southern California shop Hotline Performance a few years back. Pawlak worked with Car Crafters out of Albuquerque, New Mexico to update the new chassis from what he has learned over the past several seasons with Falken Tire. Similar to his Roush Performance teammate Michael Essa’s build, the car has many more off-the-shelf parts than past cars, and is designed to be easier to repair while on the road competing.
Pawlak’s Mustang now features the 5.0-liter Ford Racing Coyote Aluminator SC motor and Roush supercharger that can both be purchased out of the Ford Racing and Roush Performance catalogs respectively. While the Andrews Racing gearbox and Winters quick change rear end aren’t quite items you would order at your local dealership, both were chosen for their serviceability and ability to handle the abuse of a Pro level drift machine. Pawlak told us that this year’s car features a different approach to both the steering angle kit and the live axle setup in the rear compared to what was utilized on the car he drove last season, which he said has already paid dividends. “My old setup was very difficult to steer, and I didn’t feel like I could drive the car with the style I’m known for. This new setup compliments my driving style better, I feel like I’ve got my mojo back and can drive the car harder and closer to the walls” said Pawlak. For the sport of drifting, driver style is one of the most important features that the judges are looking for, so finding the setup that suits your style can go a long way towards finding success.
Pawlak carries over his Falken Tire, Roush Performance, Ford Performance and BC sponsorships from the last season, while bringing on Weld Wheels and Exedy Clutches to the team. Pawlak tells us that he’s excited for the new season and his new team, as he feels this package suits his driving style much more than last years car. His new hot-rod inspired flat black livery also has us excited to watch his performance over the coming season.
Daigo Saito – Nissan GT-R
Without a doubt, Daigo Saito’s builds are the most talked about cars in drifting circles. His past Lexus SC430 was one of the first to break the 1,000 horsepower threshold in Formula D, and this season’s build was equally as hyped.
Many felt that Saito’s familiarity with the 2JZ motor makes him a threat in any car featuring that engine, but for this year’s build, Saito went a different route by building one of the most powerful VR38 cars around. Partnering with HKS for the engine build, the actual horsepower level will likely never be revealed but is rumored to be well over 1,000hp yet again. Paired with a six-speed Hollinger sequential transmission and R34 rear differential, the car is spinning a Formula D record 21-inch Prodrive wheel wrapped in Achilles tires. Inside the main cabin, a jungle gym of roll cage tubing and gusseting mirrors a rally car more than most drift cars.
Saito’s GT-R also features a full Bensopra bodykit including the front end conversion, which now has a front-pivoting hood. Unfortunately, the of Saito’s car was off more than not in the Long Beach pits due to some bugs that arose during competition including clutch and axle issues. Interestingly, Saito himself was often the one working on the car, tweaking each part to his liking before re-installing it. While the result left something to be desired, the sheer volumes of tire smoke that the car emitted when the car was running properly showed us that this car could be one of the most difficult cars to follow in tandem later this season.
Forrest Wang – Nissan Silvia S15
One of the most secretive builds of the 2015 off-season was Forrest Wang’s Nissan Silvia S15 build. Similar to his S14 builds of the past several seasons, this chassis is powered by a stroked 3.4L 2JZ engine built by Intense Power and pushing a smooth 900hp to the wheels. Similar to Bluss, Wang is running a Wisefab angle kit, which allows him to push his STR Wheels past 60 degrees of lock. However, the most unique part of this S15 isn’t what’s under the hood, it’s what’s in the passenger cabin.
Every Nissan S15 that rolled off the assembly line had the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle. Although Wang has driven RHD cars before, he feels much more comfortable on the left side of the vehicle, and thus has converted this chassis to LHD. Utilizing a carbon S14 dashboard and collapsible race steering column, getting the steering over to the left side of the car was relatively easy. The standard FD-specific roll cage and gussets are present in the cabin, as is a pair of Sparco seats and a signature Grip Royal steering wheel.
Wang had some of the most momentum entering the season, finishing 2014 off strong with a pair of back-to-back podiums in Texas and at Irwindale along with top qualifier honors at both events. Fortunately, the results have survived the chassis change, adding top qualifier efforts again at the Long Beach round of FD competition as well as top qualifier honors at the Super Drift exhibition a week later. Unfortunately for Wang, tandem battles in both events didn’t go as planned. Wang lost a tight battle to 32nd qualifier Matt Coffman in the standard Formula Drift event and lost to eventual champion Conrad Grunewald in the semifinals of the Super Drift exhibition. Last season, Wang finished the season fifth overall in the standings, and he believes he can improve on that result with this new chassis.
Masashi Yokoi – Nissan Silvia S15
After a successful Formula Drift Asia series, placing second at the FD Japan event at Fuji Speedway and winning the Formula D Asia event at Okayama circuit, Yokoi turned his eyes on the US portion of the series. To be able to compete on both sides of the Pacific, Yokoi and his MCR Factory shop built a duplicate S15 of the car they used in Japan, narrowly getting it finished and shipped to the US in time for the first event. This car is a bit milder from the car that competes in Japan, but the expectation is that this car will be developed over the course of the season to be just as competitive.
Similar to Forrest Wang’s S15, this car is also powered by a 2JZ engine, pushing up just over 700hp in the current configuration. Unlike Wang’s Silvia, this car still maintains a substantial amount of stock sheet metal, and still maintains the engine bay-mounted radiator, which seems to be a rarity these days in Formula Drift. Yokoi even prefers the stock cable e-brake, as compared to the hydraulic unit you’ll find in most Formula D cockpits. The D*Max aero on the car and the livery definitely fits the “J-style” that Japanese drivers are known for, especially cars built by MCR Factory. Although we caught our photos after some battle damage from the weekend, we expect the car to be back to top form before the next round in Atlanta.
If this car were to show up at a Formula Drift event seven or eight years ago, it would fit right in, but with the current state of the sport, it seems that this car is a bit behind the curve. We expect this to be only the first iteration of the car, and are excited to see the car develop over the course of the season.
Overall, we’re extremely excited for the season. We’ve heard of at least two new cars debuting in Atlanta (Mad Mike Whiddett’s 26B-powered Mazda MX-5 roadster and Robbie Nishida’s VR38-powered Infiniti G37), with a few other cars that may break cover before the season is over. We’ll be sure to keep you updated on the news on the Formula Drift circuit this year!