Popularity produces some problems, but they’re also opportunities for growth
What started as a “just for fun” act of sliding a rear-wheel drive car around has been pushed into an international motorsport involving drivers of every level of skill and competition car. While some still enjoy the act “just for fun,” others pursue professional careers in the sport of drift.
In Japan, several ProAM feeder series emerged for drivers to enter national competition, D1GP. However, when Formula Drift started in the United States, anyone who could pay the fees and pass tech was allowed to compete. Since the series was still in its early stages, the number of drivers entering into competition was low enough only a single competition class was needed.
Around the same time, smaller local events were being held. As Formula Drift gained popularity, more than 60 drivers were turning out for its events. That was a problem, but Brian Eggert saw it as an opportunity.
“We pitched this idea that there needed to be a [Formula Drift] ProAM series feeding drivers to FD – a tier setup like the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series,” said Eggert, a Formula Drift judge and a key person in the launch of the ProAM series in 2005.
Even before 2002, Eggert and Naoki Kobayashi from Drift Association had suggested the group sanction a ProAM series that would award Formula Drift licenses to drivers who proven ready for Pro1 competition through a four- or five-round series.
They thought Formula Drift would benefit from a program that prepared drivers to compete at a higher skill level and could raise the quality of the show.
As part of the plan, regional ProAM events across the country could set up their own tech requirements and changes to the competition format to suit the drivers in their series. Some remained close to the Formula Drift Pro1 rulebook, but stayed flexible for drivers on a tight budget.
In 2009, to address the flood of talent trying to compete in Pro1, Formula Drift moved from a top-16 to a top-32 bracket for its main event. This benefited everyone and the sport started rapidly growing but so did the gap in performance between Pro1 and ProAM.
By 2012, Pro1 was drawing established drivers from D1GP and Rally America such as Tanner Foust, Rhys Millen, Samuel Hubinette and Daigo Saito, leaving less room for ProAM drivers to move up, in large part because of finances. For example, Chelsa DeNofa entered Pro1 in 2012 after a multi-championship run in the XDC ProAM competition yet could barely qualify above 17th place in his rookie year. The gap in levels of cars and the drivers became too obvious to ignore and it got Eggert thinking.
“You guys need to add another tier in between between ProAM and Pro1 because the gap is ridiculous,” he pitched Formula Drift owners: Ryan Sage and Jim Liaw.
Pro2 was formed and had its first season in 2014. Pro2 consists of a Top-16 bracket for each of four rounds and a modified version of the Pro1 rulebook, with added limitations allowing a measured 260mm maximum tire width and a minimum car weight of 2900 pounds. These rules are meant to help keep the cost of building a car for Pro2 lower than Pro1.
While the cars are not at Pro1-level, the same level of professionalism is expected from drivers and crews, thus Pro2 acts as an affordable step for ProAM championship winning drivers to get competition experience within the range of affordability in car build, sponsorship acquisition, and travel expenses.
ClassicCars.com sponsors Formula Drift Pro2 rookie driver Andrew Schulte in his Lingenfelter V8 LS7 powered 1993 Nissan 240SX. He competed through the Vegas Drift: Southwest Drift ProAM series with the same chassis, competing between Vegas and Tucson, Denver and Phoenix to earn his way into his 2019 Pro2 rookie season.
But the success of Pro2 has created new issues. Pro2 car builds are reaching Pro1 levels, except for the tire and weight restrictions. But the rulebook is the same allowing open engine and drivetrain modifications. Cars are being built with Pro1 level suspension, then detuned by adding weight and narrower tires.
While such builds make it easier for Pro2 drivers to move into Pro1, ProAM drivers entering Pro2 are feeling a competitive strain, and the added cost of travel outside of their region.
Changes in each series are being considered to keep the feeder system viable.
Once again, Eggert is responding. In 2018 he did a survey of all US Drift and those from other series, everything from how much was spent on tires, towing, etc., to how much time off of work was needed for driver and crew. One conclusion has been that seat time is more important than travel to far-away events.
Eggert’s latest idea is The Shootout, a series of 2-day events open to 40 drivers in a double-elimination bracket. There is no qualifying, instead they draw names at random to fill the 40 slots. The top-4 drivers receive a Pro2 license.
Four such events are planned this year. June 21-23 at Dominion Raceway in northern Virginia, August 16-18 at Sonoma Raceway in northern California, August 23-24 at Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado and September 6-7 at Kil-Kare Raceway in Xenia, Ohio.
In an effort for addressing concerns about the preparation of ProAM drivers for the next level, the Formula Drift ProAM rulebook standardizes the rules closer to those of Pro2, and Eggert and fellow judges Andy Yen and Ryan Lanteigne are attending more regional events.