As much as we look forward to the start of the Formula DRIFT Pro Championship each year, lately Pro 2 has earned more and more of our attention. The feeder championship that only does half as many events as Pro does an exceptionally good job at producing top-level drivers, from the likes of current pros Alex Heilbrunn and Kevin Lawrence to the new hot trio of Travis Reeder, Dylan Hughes, and Sebastien Gauthier, and for being effectively a "sideshow" sometimes puts in a more entertaining tandem eliminations than the big boys. But if Pro 2 is the hot ticket at an FD weekend, it looks like the secret is out, because for Round 1 there were more than double the entries for the spots available in qualifying, which meant a lot of hearts were going to be broken before a single engine was fired up for Top 16.
Specifically, there were 35 cars vying for 16 openings - not the best odds if you happen to be a fresh-faced pro-am stepping up to Pro 2 for the first time. Among them, YouTube celeb Adam LZ, who followed through with his stated goal to campaign in Pro 2 that 2JZ-GTE Nissan S15 we spied at the SEMA Show last year. Teen driving brother-sister duo of Branden and Amanda Sorensen, now in what we understand are F82 M4-bodied LS V-8 E46, also made their Pro 2 debuts in Orlando, as did Karolina Pilarczyk from Poland, who appears to be in Jeff Jones' old LS V-8 S14 for the season.
Like the Pros, the Pro 2 field adapted to the short oval-based track layout at Orlando Speed World quickly, with several hot shoes laying down qualifying scores on Thursday in the 90s (out of 100) - a phenomenon a little more common in Pro, but much less so in Pro 2. Trenton Beechum in the Beechum Racing Mustang cracked into the 90 club first with a score of 92 on his first lap, helping to make the grading curve so high that after the first runs were done, the point-cutoff to advance to Top 16 was a lofty 78. As Branden Sorensen earned a 90 on his second lap, drivers on the bubble were slowly starting to miss the cutoff, like Branden's sister Amanda, Adam LZ, and even last year's Pro 2 points runner-up Riley Sexsmith. The threshold got as high as an incredible 83 before we had a full field of 16 for eliminations, with Beechum holding on to number 1.
In fact, Trent was just warming up for his remarkable event; the alumnus of Just Drift's Top Drift pro-am series in Southern California drew Olympian (we're serious - look it up) AJ Muss in Top 16, but Muss was a mess, unable to maintain proximity or hold the car at angle. Beechum and Dustin Miles in his S13 lined up for Great 8, but again in the lead the Mustang had a big jump, and chasing was able to apply a fair amount of pressure to his opponent, especially through Outer Zone 2. For the Final 4, it was Beechum and Jonathan Hurst in his Dynosty G37, who actually had to hustle for tires just before the tandem; Hurst hung tough on the chase, but in the lead he went way wide entering Zone 2, enough of a mistake to cost him the tandem.
The other half of the bracket was led by another Southern Californian and Top Drift veteran, Rome Charpentier and his V-8 E36. This is Rome's rookie season in Pro 2, but you couldn't tell from his driving; right out of the gate, he scored a huge win to kick off Top 16, dispatching Josh Robinson and his Ute. In Great 8, Rome's adversary was Troy Manners and his S-chassis, but Manners struggled mightily, unable to keep pace with Rome or even get the car to angle smoothly in the lead. That left Geoff Donati and his 240SX in the Final 4, a pairing that looked very evenly matched, but judges awarded the win to Charpentier.
That left just the showdown for all the marbles between the Cali boys. Both Beechum and Charpentier had great lead laps that were very hard to distinguish between; these runs came down to the chase laps, and just as the judges saw, Trent was able to hold on to better proximity for longer, making the decision clear. Hurst ended up in third place for out-qualifying the semi's other loser, Donati, 5th vs. 14th.
What a great start to the season - high fives to all the competitors! We don't have to hold on for too long to see these guys go at it again; Formula DRIFT Pro 2's Round 2 is set for May 9th and 10th at Road Atlanta in Braselton, Ga.