The Midwest Drift Union kicked off its 2017 Formula Drift pro-am season at one of its staple stops on the regional circuit at Gateway Motorsports Park. There were plenty of new faces, familiar faces in new or upgraded cars, and a handful of veterans returning in the cars they’ve been fine-tuning for years.
Several drivers were experiencing Gateway for the first time. As usually and if not THE fastest track the series visits, it can be intimidating to newcomers.
Early morning conditions were less than ideal, with plenty of cloud cover, constant winds, a fine mist, and a standing water obstacle and organic side skirt remover towards the end of the track.
Wet grass played a large role in the numerous off track excursions experienced throughout the day, with the first major incident coming during practice. Allen Boss and his 350Z slid off track at the sweeper, parking the car on the tires that line the outside wall. A frequent driver in demolition derbies, Boss said the incident didn’t really phase him. The car wasn’t badly hurt, and he was back out for more practice later in the day.
Among some of the returning faces was Noah Michaels, who ran, and won, his first MDU event last year when he took first place at Lucas Oil Raceway Park.
Shane Whalley was one again representing American muscle in his GTO, which has been a familiar sight at MDU events for several years.
Some new faces included Brett McNamara in his G35, who made a solid showing. And if we learned anything from the Southeast Drift Union event the week before, it’s to never rule out a G35 with a largely stock appearance.
Though he showed up to No-Star Bash last year, Matt Soppa’s Foxbody made its official Midwest Drift Union debut.
After suffering a crash at round four last year that damaged his S13, Frederick St. Hilaire returned in 2017 with a new platform.
As qualifying time drew near, the sun had come out and temperatures started to rise.
Crew members made sure cars received any necessary cooling assistance between passes.
After last driving an MDU event about a year and a half ago, Garrett Denton came out swinging in 2017, earning himself the top qualifying spot. Due to some problems with other drivers in qualifying this top spot also earned Denton a by-run into the top eight.
Two other drivers also found themselves with by-runs in an effort to maintain a top sixteen bracket instead of the option to go straight to top eight. One of those drivers was 2016’s fourth place overall finisher, Geoff Donati.
The final driver to earn a free pass to the great eight was Jonathan Hurst, who piloted what was likely the most powerful car in the field, putting down 764HP to the wheels, with the option to add more at the flick of a switch. As he uses the same car for drag racing, Hurst said the only difference in setup is switching to drag radials.
“I have a low tune I run for drifting and when I’m using it for drag, I run the high tune,” he said, adding the high tune puts down 1,100 to the rear tires. “I haven’t tried drifting the high tune yet, but I have a switch in there I can flip to add it immediately if I feel I need more horsepower.”
Kicking off the first set of battles was McNamara and his G35 against Brandon Kutrovacz’s S13, a new platform for the latter, who last year drove a Z31 300ZX.
Dan Nikov, who is no stranger to MDU, defeated Joseph Lampe to claim his spot in top eight. Though MDU has had its share of BMW drivers before (namely Steve Topping and David Mesker), Nikov looked very strong during the first round of the year and so far carries the German flag alone as the only European car in the field.
Whalley would next defeat Scotch McDonald to climb the GTO up the next rung of the competition ladder to top eight.
Despite a strong initial showing from Soppa, Michael’s S13 proved too formidable of a competitor, and the S13 grabbed the win.
Since making his MDU debut a couple years back in the only F-Body to compete in the series, Reeh had so far only qualified for the top sixteen. He would get the win against Connor Huppert to put his 3/5-gen Camaro into the great eight for the first time and conclude the top sixteen portion of competition.
Denton would face his first competitor, McNamara, in top eight.
“That was a really good battle,” Denton said. “The first run I just laid down the qualifying run. The second run I just stuck it to his door. I like to be aggressive and get in really close, so I just used that as practice for what would hopefully be my next battle.”
Whalley and Nikov’s next battle was also close, but the Goat would soldier on past the E46.
In another heavyweight battle, the insane 350Z of Hurst would take the win over Michaels. After Donati took out Reeh in the final match of the great eight, the carnage that was the final four would begin.
The battle between Hurst and Donati may have been the most colorful of the day, but on Hurst’s lead run, trouble arose.
The 350Z dropped tires in the wet grass, shooting the car into the wall on the outside of the sweeper.
“I was pushing it really hard and had a lot of grip in the car, and the driver rear tire dropped off a bit and sucked me right off the track and into the grass,” Hurst said. “There’s no slowing you down. I didn’t want to hit with the front of my car so I ripped the hand brake and turned it backward. I think that’s the only thing that saved me.”
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but that doesn’t exactly hold true with what happened next. In his battle against Denton, Whalley suffered a hard hit to wall along the outside of the sweeper at almost the exact spot Hurst did just moments before.
“I think I just went in a little too hard, dropped two tires off and as soon as you’re in that wet grass, it sucks you in,” Whalley said, echoing Hurst’s sentiments. “Knowing I was going into the wall, I had two options – either try and come out of it and I probably would have gone the same speed into my door, or instead I just end steered and tried to put the front end into the wall to take all the impact. If I wouldn’t have done that I probably wouldn’t have been walking away from it as easy as I did.”
On the up side, Whalley walked away not only without injuries, but with a fourth place finish.
“We’re gonna get the car back to the shop, pull the engine and measure the frame to see if we can pull it and make sure it is repairable,” he said. “I do have another car I’m building but it definitely won’t be done in time for round two.”
With no battle possible between Whalley and Hurst due to their crashes, Hurst would bring home the bronze.
After the carnage was cleared, it was time for the finals between the top two qualifiers, Donati and Denton.
Though a close battle on Donati’s lead run, Denton went off course during his lead run, giving Donati the first win of the season amidst a day of frantically trying to find parts for his car.
“It feels amazing,” Donati, who finished third at Gateway last year during round one said of his win. “The biggest difference between last year is that my car didn’t work all day. I broke parts, didn’t have spare parts, but found parts. I have spare parts at home, but they missed the boat out here to St. Louis. My amazing girlfriend actually ran 30 minutes away to get me some axles and a couple other amazing people dropped off some spares, so when we got going, we got less than 10 practice laps in total but it worked out.”
Donati said despite the drastic color change from silver to blue this year, the car otherwise remains relatively the same, with its 6.0L LS engine, Wisefab bits and a dogbox.
“The core of the car is the same,” he said. “It’s simple and reliable, and that’s all I want.”
Denton said his second place finish came as a surprise. His 2JZ-swapped S13, with its Wisefab front and PBM rear suspension and coilovers, had a habit of destroying serpentine belts.
“We came in with only a couple days of testing,” he said. “The car, the crew – everything exceeded my expectations. I have no words for this. Going into this season, we definitely had plans on just qualifying. I think after this we might step things up a little bit.”
Nick Swann, director of operations for MDU, said he felt the season kickoff was a success.
“It was really good to see a lot of new faces, and possibly more new faces than I’ve seen at round one in a long time,” he said. “And not just new faces in attendance, but all the way up into qualifying, competition and finals. To top it all off we finished with a final battle between our top two qualifiers. Though ualifying had some speed bumps, and we resorted to three by-runs, which is not very characteristic of MDU, we whittled down to an incredible eight, four and finals.”
|Position||Name||Qualification Points||Competition Points||Total|
The second round of the 2017 season will take place at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan on July 1.