I realize I am a little late to the party when it comes to this but better late than never right!? Ok, I apologize! Forgiveness please! Anyhow let us get to business. Just like the year before, the final round of Formula Drift at Irwindale Speedway AKA “The House Of Drift” was the most intense due to a very close points battle. Things were so tense and close that just about every drift fan in the tri-county area wanted to see how it played out. Not only did the event sell out, but it sold out before the gates even opened which is a first for Irwindale Speedway and Formula Drift. A crowd of nearly 20,000 packed Irwindale to see how things were going to play out at the “Final Fight”. Falken driver Vaughn Gittin Jr. was on top of the points coming into the weekend but mathematically speaking had 6 drivers who could have taken the title away from him at Irwindale. Realistically speaking there were only two drivers who posed a threat to Vaughn: Daigo Saito and Rhys Millen who were second and third in points respectively.
To hold off most of the mathematical points contenders Vaughn simply needed to qualify well and make it past the “Top 16”. Unfortunately he kind of stumbled on one and completely botched the other. Vaughn qualified 9th, which seemed decent at first but then lost its luster when Ryan Tuerck, Justin Pawlak, and Rhys Millen all qualified ahead of him. In fact Rhys Millenwas the #1 qualifier with a nearly perfect run at 97 points. Pawlak and Tuerck did not gain much ground because of this but now Rhys was in serious striking distance. Vaughn out-qualified Saito but only by a few places as Saito qualified 13thdue to troubles with his car.
All the necessary players made it past the Top 32 but after that is when things got interesting. Vaughn Gittin was paired up against Pat Mordaunt in the Top 16 and when Vaughn was on his chase run against Pat he spun out on the infamous transition on the front straight, thus handing the win to Mordaunt and gleaming, glittering, golden opportunities to Millen and Saito.
There was potiential for two great stories. For Millen, winning the championship would mean the ultimate redemption after Hyundai announced they would not be backing his program in 2013. For Daigo Saito it would mean solidifying himself as the current world’s greatest drifter after winning a D1 championship and Formula Drift Asia. He would have also been the first person in Formula Drift history to win the title in their “rookie” season.
To make things even more dramatic Millen and Saito were on the same side of the bracket. So, it would literally come down to a battle between the two to decide the 2012 championship. Rhys had been at the top of his game all night and Daigo was killing it as always so the capacity crowd knew that once the two met in tandem it would be an epic battle. “Epic” turned out to be the correct word as the two drivers drove as hard as they could but Rhys unfortunately drove a little too hard and during his chase run he over cooked it coming into the hairpin and slapped his Hyundai Genesis coupe against the wall right in front of the judges. His car was done for the night which gave the Championship to Daigo Saito. Rhys’ DNF also handed an automatic third place podium finish to Ryan Tuerck.
The final battle of the night came down to the new 2012 champion Daigo Saito and Justin “JTP” Pawlak. These two may not have been close to each other in the points but they do have a history with each other as Pawlak once got very angry with Saito after he felt that Saito brake checked him in the Florida round. Many wondered what would happen if Saitodid anything that might look like a brake check this time with such high stakes. However things did not quite get that far as JTP pretty much made the same mistake Rhys did while chasing Saito and hit the wall HARD in front of the judges at the hairpin.
With that it was over. Daigo Saito was not only the 2012 champion but he was also the winner of the “Final Fight” at Irwindale Speedway. As I mentioned before Daigo is the first driver in Formula Drift history to win the championship in their rookie year. He is also only the second ever Japanese born champion (Dai Yoshihara was the first). He is also the first Formula Drift USA champion to have already won a D1 championship. And he did all of this on one of the lowest funded teams on the grid, without a V8. The last person to win a Formula Drift championship without a V8 was Tanner Foust who won back-to-back titles in his V6 Nissan 350Z.
With this championship Daigo is arguably the best drifter in the world right now. What a season! What a champion! What a final round! If you did not make it out to Irwindale because tickets got sold out or you just were unable to make the trip then I highly recommend trying again next year and being very proactive. The good news is that tickets for the opening around of Formula Drift’s 2013 season at Long Beach are already on sale. Pick yours up ASAP and go on another ride!
For our full gallery of Formula Drift “Final Fight” Irwindale 2012 check out our Facebook gallery.