Final round of the 2023 Formula Drift ProSpec Championship! Join Alex Lichliter as he takes you through his FD Utah journey, recapping the event, the season, and sharing his feelings about the future!
NST - NonStopTuning
Utah was hectic from the moment we arrived. After discovering some troubling things in the 2JZ's top end during testing two weeks prior, we made the call to swap to a spare engine to prevent a major failure. Some issues during that process meant that we ended up having to do some additional work to the new engine and we arranged for dyno time on Tuesday on site at Utah Motorsports Campus.
After the low RPM engine protections were set, it was time to move on to dyno pulls - unfortunately the engine developed severe rod knock after the first pull, and we were immediately into problem solving mode.
Luckily, we had the engine that had just been pulled out of the car with us in the Drift Cave trailer - we made the call to reinstall that engine, but during that process, a closer inspection of its top end revealed mushrooming valves. We then decided that the best way forward would be to combine the undamaged parts of each engine to make one engine that would at least last the weekend.
Once again, my crew demonstrated how dedicated, professional and efficient they are. From engine failure on the dyno to making it to the line for practice was less than 24 hours, but we got it done, with special help from Jerry at GT Radial (engine crane), Daniel Stuke (Cam Seals), and Brandon Wicknick (head gasket).
Due to all the attention being on the engine, our practice session on Wednesday consisted of gradually increasing boost while monitoring engine health, making suspension adjustments, and looking for any other issues with the car.
It was not perfect (still a drift car!), but I was starting to feel pretty good, until I had a sudden very obvious toe change in the rear - we discovered that my rear subframe had sustained some damage when I hit the wall in New Jersey, which we didn't notice when getting the car back together in the 30 minutes before my top 32 battle. That meant a longer day for my crew again as we finally corrected that issue.
In Thursday morning's practice, we added nitrous back into the equation, continued logging and everything really started to come together. My last lap in practice felt like exactly the lap I wanted to take into qualifying.
Unfortunately, I got a little bit overexcited on my first qualifying lap, and initiated too deep for the speed I was carrying, and overshot OZ1, resulting in an incomplete. On my second qualifying lap, I made a mistake between OZ1 and OZ2, which caused the judges to consider my second lap incomplete as well.
With everything my crew went through to get the car to the line, as well as the support from my partners and the fans, I really felt like I let a lot of people down. This sport in general is an emotional roller coaster, and I am in this for the long haul, so I am doing my best to focus on the positives: I feel my driving has made tremendous gains over the season, thanks in no small part to my team enabling me to be able to focus only on driving, and to the insights of my coach, Taka Aono.
I also had the opportunity to give lots of fans tours of the car, give ride-alongs to my crew for the first time on the skid pad, as well as getting some younger fans sitting in the car so they experience a racecar from the inside, which is one of my favourite parts of fan interaction at drift events.
Overall, I can say while I didn't have the inaugural season I was hoping for, it was extremely educational. Developing a car to compete at the pro level can only go so far without subjecting the car to the level of force and abuse that FD tracks require. Utah's entry speed and track speed in general especially exposed some areas where the car needs reinforcement and refinement. Going into the off-season, I have some areas to improve on the car, and a plan for driver development as well.
It's crazy to think how much goes into "only" 4 weeks of the year, and also how much comes out of it. I am so grateful for my crew and the relationships I have built that already feel that they have existed for years.
I really want to thank Mike and the NonStopTuning team, as well as my teammates, Alec Robbins and Alex Lichlighter for making me feel so supported through the good times and more importantly, during the struggles which are a big part of any motorsport experience. My season (and my mental health) were so greatly improved by these relationships, and I am really looking forward to continuing to develop them throughout my FD career.
WORDS: Zandara Kennedy
NST - NonStopTuning
Another round in the books! This one going down at Utah motorsports campus just outside salt lake. This is my favorite track of the series with its open and super fast banked corners. Hitting entry speeds into the triple digits and carrying 50-70 mph through the course is wild!
Practice went well and we nailed the car setup right off the trailer. We were able to get all of our runs in and the car was running great! We focused heavily on chase runs in practice knowing competition would likely come down to that.
Our qualifying run suffered a little bit from that, having a little bobble on initiation that cost me severely in points. However the rest of the run was awesome. Judges scored us pretty harsh and we ended up back in 24th place.
This put us up against Dean kearney in the top32. I knew I had to drive hard chasing first. And our chase practice payed off. I was able to initiate on his door and had a great chase behind him. However his lead was also super good. In the lead position I knew I had to just hold things together with a good line and we should be good! I had a good initiation and nailed the first inner and outer zones. Coming into outer 2 I was right on going into the zone but when I got back on throttle the car pulled into the corner and I fell out of the zone for a second before working the car back into it. Then in zone 3 I pushed hard and dropped one tire off the track while filling the whole zone. Meanwhile Dean was a few car lengths back the entire run. I felt great and thought for sure we had the win, however the judges sited kearneys poor follow to the few small mistakes in my lead and my great chase was because of his great lead. It was definitely an odd call in our eyes. However we put the car back in the trailer running and ready for round 8 in a few weeks!
WORDS: Alec Robbins
NST - NonStopTuning
Tuesday – Load in
This is our last PROSPEC round of the year! It happens to be my favorite track in the series. We get to drive our cars extremely fast and send it! At this venue, there are no lights shining on the track at nighttime, so that’s why this event starts a day earlier. Each day is over by sunset. This makes things much easier, it’s not so chaotic each day. We were able to get the pit set up, tires over to TireStacks for them to mount, nut and bolt check, and we were prepared for the morning.
Wednesday – Practice
Drivers meeting started at 10:00am. We were granted 3 ½ hrs of practice from 11-2:30pm (which is the most amount of time we have had yet in the series). This track is very fast, making it extremely fun for all the drivers. I was feeling extremely good. I honestly felt like I had this track down and the car dialed! Team was functioning well together and I was just all around happy. Weather was good, we didn’t have any mechanicals, the car was running great! We got 8 practice laps in and was ready to qualify tomorrow. We ended the day with another drivers meeting at 4:30pm. During the meeting, I asked which part of the track would be heavily judged/rewarded if we really dominated that section. I was told that they want us to hit all 3 Outer Zones correctly, however the two transitions on track will be heavily judged. If we look fluid and are snappy through our transitions, then we will get more points. This was my new focus going into tomorrow.
Thursday – Qualifying
We started the day bright and early at 6:30am. Practice was from 7:30-9:30am. Between yesterdays practice and todays, we had 5 ½ hrs of practice! What a treat! I was so confident in the car and the track and I knew I was going to be a high contender! Right at 9:30am, we went straight into qualifying. I go out, do my run and went a little heavy on OZ1. I hit the Outer Zone pylon, and shredded my rear bumper off! Not phasing me, I continued to OZ2, where I was definitely shallow. I wish I would have been in the zone, but I missed it. In the drivers meeting, the judges told us if you are not in the zone all the way you will get docked points. However, if you make aggressive corrections to your line in order to correctly put the car into the zone deeper, you will be docked MORE points. They said that they would rather see a clean, fluid line as opposed to making adjustments to get the car in the correct place. So, I chose to be settled, full throttle and get ready to transition into OZ3. OZ3 looked decent, I rode the line the entire zone. Would have liked to be a couple inches deeper, but who doesn’t am I right? This run was scored at 59.33 which is a VERY low score. I knew right away that this would mean that I would have to redo my qualifying run. Angered, I start questioning myself as to why I was so off line in comparison to practice? Was I nervous? Not at all. I was doing so good. I had all the confidence to lay down a great run and for some reason I was unable to pull that off. So now I had to wait for every driver to do their qualifying run before they went into the “Knock Out” category. This down time is a couple hours, which sucks. I watched 11 of my peers get incompletes and this fueled my disappointment because it would have been a walk in the park if I had just laid down a decent run.
But all feelings aside, it was time for my second qualifying run. As I initiated, I pulled my ebrake and to my surprise, the car didn’t snap to angle as fast as previous runs. It had just started skidding in a straight line. I quickly turned the wheel aggressively to get the car to rotate into a drift, and throttled through it. This caused me to have a shallow initiation, hitting the inner clip. This put me into a goofy line. I had to readjust in the transition between OZ1 and OZ2 to get back on track. This adjustment allowed me to put the car deeper into OZ2 then the first run. I completed the run a little bit more shallow on OZ3 than the 1st run. I was so disappointed. I knew this run was worse than the first! The only thing I knew I did better on this run was OZ2. The score came out – 65.33. How? I’m happy that I got a better score than the first run, but it was not very good in comparison to run 1. This tells me that OZ2 was the most heavily judged section of the track. Good to know that for next year. After the KO qualifying runs were over, the results were in and we came in 33rd place. In order to make it into the show, you got to be Top 32, so our weekend came to a sudden halt!
Devastated….for my sponsors… my team… and most importantly – myself. This is my 3rd year in FD. Every year I have gotten better. Both statistically and skillfully. But this year, this year was absolutely rough. To sum it up, there are only 4 races. I did not get to compete in 3 of them. I only got to compete in one where I ended up having an issue at the beginning of that run causing me to lose. Lots of emotions over here. The thought that I could potentially lose my FD license because I didn’t rank high enough is absolutely appalling.
I spent the rest of the weekend team working with my title sponsor NonStopTuning. At this round, they had a booth selling their products so I brought the car over to their booth and hung out. The team and I had entertaining nights, long lasting memories, and constructive thoughts/ideas about the future.
We ended Saturday night with attending a banquet. FD had put together a dinner party for all drivers and their family/teams to celebrate another year ending. It was a blast! Unlimited beers/tacos and lots of emotions.
This is me being 100% real with you guys. I will fight every moment to stay in this. I hope that when you are reading this, you can feel my emotions. This is not something I’m going to give up on. I will be back next year. I will be more successful. Thank you to all who support me, you are my motivation to become the best that I can be, and that, I will become.
See you in 2024 =]
WORDS: Alex Lichliter
PHOTOS: Ignition Source TV / drivenby.shootings
NST - NonStopTuning
NST - NonStopTuning