Back To Basics-

Last weekend, the Formula Drift Canada Series kicked-off its 2017 season at Autodrome Montmagny Speedway in the Provence of Quebec. As I mentioned in my last post, I have been fortunate enough to team up with Jonathan Nerren Racing and his Kannapolis, NC based crew to run my DVM Mustang for the full season in association with Zenna Performance Tires.

As it is a 3-car effort with Jonathan, Tyler Nelson and myself handling the driving-duties, the effort put in by the Nic Snyder led team to get everything ready for the season opener was very impressive.

In the week leading up to the event, I took the car over to 42 Autosports in Denver, NC to get a final tune-up before heading north. As always Steven Rankin did his magic on the laptop to eke out a little more power from our Comp Turbo’s and Zex nitrous system.

With the team boxed-up and headed north, Devin Bruce and I took “the easy trip” flying up to Quebec to meet them. As is unfortunately so very common these days, our flights were not as “easy” as one might have thought. Rather than landing in Quebec, our flight got diverted down to Vermont due to “weather complications”. Naturally this wasn’t going to work since the event was going to happen with or without us being present the very next morning. We then got to drive across the boarder on a 4+ hour journey that got us into Montmagny, Quebec. Non the worse for wear, we settled in for the night and arrived at the track the next morning ready to have some fun.

Apparently the team had been forced to drive through the very same storm that had played havoc with our flights so they arrived just in time for the gates to open. It was “all hands on deck” as we unloaded as fast as possible to get the cars ready for Tech and the first practice session. This also was my first opportunity to meet Simon Drolet, his brother Guillaume and their friend Jimmy Durand, all of whom would give Devin and I a hand in running the car for the weekend. Beside them just being awesome guys to hang out with, being “locals”, their first language is French-Canadian so they always kept us up to date with any conversations going on that Devin and I could not understand given our “extremely limited” French speaking skills.

This first event was actually a doubleheader with two separate events schedule for the weekend. Once we got everything unloaded, organized and the car through Tech Inspection, we managed to get in just 1-lap at the end of the first practice session. With Simon on the Spotters-radio, we made 5-more laps during the second session trying to get a handle on this new (to me) track, the amazingly-grippy Zenna tires and everything else that was going on around us.

These few practice laps proved to not be enough for me as come the Qualifying session, I logged in my two laps that left us 18th in the order and in this series, they only take the Top-16 into the Elimination rounds. It was a hard pill to swallow but considering all the adversity that we had endured the previous night and morning, we felt fortunate in that both our laps scored the same which meant our consistency was there, so we just had to step-up our game just a little bit the next day and we’d be right in the thick of it.

Determined not to let this set-back bring us down, we set about getting the car cleaned-up and checked over everything making sure it was ready to go for the second day of competition. Satisfied with our prep, we put the car cover over it and concentrated on watching the day’s competition, analyzing the track, the different drivers lines and cheering on our Zenna team mates Tyler and Jonathan.

As luck would have it, Jonathan and Tyler’s qualifying scores matched them up in the first round. With three team-cars competing this year, I think this is going to happen a good bit this season. Unfortunately for Tyler, he had a significant issue with his engine so he was not able to bring his car to the line handing Jonathan the first-round win.

In the second round, Jonathan matched up against Mark Landerville who was the 2016 Formula Drift USA Pro2 Champion. The two drivers put on an amazing show of speed and skill as they battled it out through their runs. In the end, Landerville got the win and Nerren’s day would come to a close in the Top-8. Not what Jonathan was hopping for but a very good start to the season, nonetheless.

The first day of competition would come to a close with Landerville taking the top spot and us taking notes on every driver, how best to run this track and excitedly looking forward to Sunday and round two of competition.

With a good night of rest behind us, we were determined to get in as many practice laps as we could so I could get my head around the car, the track and the other drivers. When the first practice opened, we were first out on the track and I set out reminding myself of the basic driving principles I teach my coaching-clients everyday, “look where you want to go, hit your marks and be smooth on the controls”.

Through the two practice sessions, we got to where our “lead runs” where solid but I was really struggling with the ”follow” laps thanks to a super-slow section of the track. It this first “touch and go” section, after coming around the first bank flat out in 4th gear, I had to use the hand-brake to delicately place the rear bumper of the car into a 1-car width long section right next to the outside wall. Then once the car’s angle was set, drop the car down into 3rd gear and drive it down into the first inside-clipping point, all the while maintaining as close of proximity to the leading car as possible. My Mustang tends to be pretty fast in these slow sections so getting it close to the clips while not running over some of the slower cars was proving to be pretty difficult to say the least.

Luckily for us the car was running great lap after lap so we just kept putting in more VP fuel and Zex nitrous bottles into it and bolting on new Zenna Tires. With practice finished, we figured we had something we could work with in terms on consistent-quality laps.

Again, we ran our two Qualifying laps and while they weren’t as strong as I had run in practice, they were good enough to get us in the show in the 14th position with a high score of 70 out of 100. I’d have to say that after my “just ok” qualifying performance, I was more relieved than happy that we made it through to the Elimination rounds. I knew I could do much better than that so I felt pretty optimistic going forward.

By starting in the 14th position in the pairings-bracket, we would go up against the number-3 qualifier, Bass Gauthier in his smartly prepared Nissan and since he was the higher-qualifier, he would lead the first lap, I would lead the second. Knowing I had struggled with my practice “follow” runs, I gave him a bit of a gap starting out. This would allow me to go through the super-slow first “touch and go” section that was on the wall, right in front of the judges at my own speed and not be choked-up should he slow down more than I. The bad part about this strategy is that I would then be far enough back that Bass’s tire smoke would make it really hard/impossible for me to see where I was going at times. This was a risk I would have to take, as I knew how much that section had given me grief in practice.

As a good plan sometimes works out, I judged the gap I gave Gauthier at the start just right and exited the slow section of the course right behind him. With my Comp Turbo’s wailing away, the Mustang dug-in hard and fired itself down the back straight away giving me close proximity to the rear of Gauthier’s car. With the first lap done, it was my best “follow lap” of the weekend so far and I was feeling pretty good about it. On the second lap, I ran a pretty good line, got to all of the clips and kept pretty-good angle through out the track and apparently so did Gauthier as when we presented ourselves to the judges, they said that the battle was just to close to give either of us the win so we’d have to go at it again.

We lined up for our “One more time” battle and sure enough, the 3rd and 4th laps would play out very similar to the first two, I would excel in parts of the runs and then Bass would do better in other sections. This again caused the judges to have a split decision and we would have to go at it “one more time”.

During the 3rd of our 1st round battle, I was finally able to separate myself from Gauthier enough that the judges awarded me the win and it was off to the Top-8 I went. Having run good lead-runs was what I expected to do but having laid-down three consistent “follow” runs had me pretty pumped-up coming out of this battle.

Next on the bracket was Kevin Morin in his purple & black Nissan. Morin arrived at in the Top-8 after getting past my Zenna Tires teammate Jonathan Nerren in what was a very controversial judges-call after Morin had run into Nerren, sending him hard into the outside wall. Later video and pictures showed that Nerren was not at fault in the contact but I guess the judges made the best call they could with the information they had at the time and the competition moved forward.

With Morin, he again led the first lap and I was able to stay fairly close. On my lead run I manage to pull a pretty good gap while maintaining good angle and a solid line. After just a short deliberation, I was awarded the win and on to the Final-4 I went.

At this point I was feeling like my old-self again and peaking on the rush of the competition. As I sat in my car, the crew was busy installing another fresh set of Zenna Tires and Devin was installing another fresh Zex bottle of N2O, my team mate Tyler Nelson came over to me and told me how amazing those last two runs were that I had just laid down. Our brief conversation only lasted 40-seconds or so but it really meant a lot to me to hear that coming from a guy that save for an engine failure, I’d probably have be battling just to make it this far. It’s funny the things that stick out in your mind in the heat of the battle…

Next up would be my longtime friend and competitor Dave Briggs in his amazing Ardo-prepared twin-turbo Nissan. Like me, Dave is usually a better competitor than he is a qualifier so I knew he’d be on his game and super-tough to battle.

As he led out the first lap, I gave him the normal gap but when we got through the slow “touch & go” section, his car really pulled out on me. Lucky for me my Zenna tires gripped hard and I was able to gain a little ground back going through the fast sections of the coarse. For my lead run, I did a really clean pass, hitting all of my points and throwing in really good angle. Briggs struggled a bit on his follow and when we presented ourselves to the judges, again it was a split decision and we would have to go at it again.

With the cars refreshed with new tires and fuel we headed off on our 3rd lap. This time, Ardo had tuned on Dave’s car a little bit more because at the “touch & go”, Briggs literally left me like l was strapped to a post. His white car nearly disappeared in a cloud of tire smoke as I struggled to find the speed to catch back up to him. This was a very bad run for me and I knew it would take a miracle to turn this battle around.

Not leaving anything to chance, when the Starter gave us the go, I left as hard as I could and carried as much speed into the first banking that the Mustang could handle. Knowing that I, the lead car, is supposed to hit all the clips as close as possible, I did my normal e-brake entry into the first “touch & go”, I maneuvered the car around the corner and drove it tight towards the first inner clip. From there I buried the throttle and tried to put as much distance in between our two cars as possible. As I cam around the final corner looking down the front straight toward the infamous “touch & go” I saw Dave’s car sitting there. What had happened? Why where his bumpers off of his car?

As it turned out (from what I’ve been told as I’ve yet to see a video), Briggs in trying to stay as close to me as he could, carried a bit too much speed into the slow-down area of the track, I also carried a bit too much speed in and stayed off gas long enough so that I could correct my line. Briggs then contacted the wall (and maybe my car though we found no evidence of that) either by not slowing enough or anticipating me accelerating off the corner sooner, jumping back on the gas a bit… its really hard to say…. What I do know is that while we are competitors on the track, we are friends and there is no way either of us would do anything intentionally to mess each other up. What I know is that I ran a similar lap to what I had run all day and made a small adjustment on the way to the inner-clip to maintain my line.

As it turned out, the judges ruled that my line adjustment caused Dave’s car to hit the wall and he was awarded the win. Again, until I see video it’s hard to know for sure what happened behind me. Beside not going on to the Finals, because of a policy that I have never agreed with in both the Canadian and US based series, they do not hold a run-off of the two-drivers not advancing to the Finals, to see who will win 3rd place. Instead they award third place to whatever driver of the two was the higher qualifier. This in my opinion robs the fans in attendance of seeing a battle for the 3rd-step on the Podium. It all is a bit anticlimactic if you ask me but as of yet, know one has so there it is, we got 4th place.

To be truthful, I am completely over the moon with 4th, especially considering how much we struggled on Saturday. The 42 Autosports tuned Mustang ran flawlessly through out the event, my team was awesome working their tails off all weekend and my heart goes out to the guys who drove 20hrs. each way to get our equipment up there.

Save for a couple of calls I’m not all too sure of, I really like the Canadian Series and am very happy to be running with them this season. The drivers, cars and teams are top-notch, the organizers were great and did everything they could do to make us feel welcome and the Judges did a great job of laying out a really fun track that really tested the driver’s skill. That’s a tough part of this sport of drifting, there’s probably only one guy who’s happy with every call of the weekend and that Mark Landerville who won the event. I’ve judged (amateur) events myself and it’s by far the hardest job of all and I truly believe the calls where made with the information they had available at the time with the very best of intentions. It’s the nature of the sport that you always want things to go your way but so does your fellow competitor and not everyone gets to win, it’s just the way it is… I’m sure, sometime this season, a call will go our way and we’ll think it is the very “best call ever”… lol

So now Nic and the guys are busy getting the Mustang ready for round-3. I’m excited for this one because it’s run in conjunction with the US based series so I’ll get to see some old friends. The remainder of the calendar looks like this:

Jul 13-14                   FD Canada- 3 @ Autodrome St-Eustache, Montreal, QC
Aug 5-6                      FD Canada- 4 @ Grand Prix Street Circuit, Trois-Rivieres, QC
Aug 19                       FD Canada- 5 @ Montmagny Speedway, Montmagny QC
Sep 3-4                      FD Canada- 6-7 @ Autodrome St-Eustache, Montreal, QC

If you happen to live anywhere close to Montreal, please check out this link and see if you can’t make it out to one of the events.

PS: Oh and did I mention that on the way home, Devin and I got to go through nearly (but actually worse) the same travel nightmare as we did going up. To this day, I have still not flown into or out of Quebec Airport but I do have the drive to/from Burlington, Vermont to/from Quebec Airport totally wired… Thanks American Airlines, super sweet trip… and thanks National Rental Car for getting me two 1-way rentals so we could even make all of this happen!

Thanks for taking the time to read this and I’ll talk to you again real soon…

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