This time last year, Vaughn Gittin let the motor racing world in on his plans to take an indefinite break from competitive drifting.
“What’s up, friends?” wrote Gittin in a Facebook post. “For the past 20 years, competitive drift has been a huge part of my life. And with that, I’m announcing today is that we have decided to step back from competitive drifting for a little while. This is not a retirement. This is not a good bye. It’s see you later. I’m still going to be continuing to drift.”
Fast-forward one year to Irwindale Speedway, and the asphalt-wrinkling Formula DRIFT PRO Championship. Gittin was on location to guide team driver Chelsea DeNofa, the RTR Vehicles team driver who currently holds third in the 2022 Formula Drift championship standings driving the Pennzoil / BC Racing Ford Mustang RTR Spec 5-FD.
“It’s crazy,” said Gittin, cracking open a can of Monster Energy. “It is a golden age for the sport. I said it last year, and then this year it’s that way even more. The sport is exploding. This has been very eye-opening and reflective year for me. Drifting has continued to blossom beyond my wildest expectations. Sitting back this year and observing, I went to the first two rounds and was at Irwindale this past weekend and there is no slow-down in sight, both on the progression on the track and just the massive and diverse fan base. It’s all just continuing to grow. Events are sold out, there are massive numbers on the livestream and it’s a golden age. I thought last year was pretty epic and this year is just going on another level. And there s no end is in sight and it’s really, really cool to see.”
Seventeen years ago, Gittin and his American-built Falken Mustang went toe-to-toe, lock-to-lock with Japanese ace Tatsuya Sakuma in the D1 final at Irwindale. Everything boiled down to the Sudden Death match where Gittin was able to take the measure of Sakuma, and in doing so, instantaneously legitimized American drifting. Nearly two decades removed, Gittin is excited by what he sees before both himself and the sport.
“I think there are quite a few things going on,” he said. “There are some great personalities that have been in the sport and that continue to get into the sport. There are also some large influencers from other walks of life that have been getting into the sport. Our driver Adam LZ is a massive YouTube content creator who started at the events and got into drifting. Adam and others just kind of brought their audience into the scene.
“However, I think the real root of it is that this just didn’t start out as a motorsport – this is youth automotive culture. This is youth lifestyle that a motorsport blossomed around, if you will. Even if you are not drifting or competing in drift, you may have a car that is styled after it, or you may live the lifestyle and go to the car meets and hang out with people. You know, it has become the hot rodding of today. You go back to the 1960s or 1970s and my dad and your dad were out at the local drag strip and hanging out and driving and building their car in their garage. It’s no different now, but it’s drifting and the other thing from the competitive level is that you can’t deny how exciting it is to watch drifting.
“It’s literally sensory overload for spectators and drivers alike. No matter who or what you are, you can’t say that you don’t like 2,500 horsepower in the track, door-to-door, tires screaming and inches from the wall, it’s like a train wreck waiting to happen at any moment. It’s very well suited for the attention spans that us humans have evolved to these days because cars are on the track for 30 seconds to a minute each battle round. I think it’s just a culmination of a lot of things. Movies are being based off of it and people are just gravitating towards cool shit like drift.”
Gittin believes that drifting and all that surrounds it adds up to a sport that is much a lifestyle as it is a discipline of competition.
“When I got into this, I got into it because it was like skateboarding with cars,” he said. “It was a way to show your style and personality. Skating is so much more than just the act of skateboarding and, to me, drifting is very similar to that. It’s like the clothes you wear, the wheels on your car, the style of the car, how you hook it up… Drifting is just really an extension of personality.
“It’s also extremely accessible. Not only is the aftermarket making parts that you can bolt on to your car and things like that, but it’s just extremely accessible. I mean speaking of growth in drift, Ford just launched a new Mustang where they announced that they were coming out with the car with an electric drift brake in the car. They came to me and my teammate and fellow Monster Energy athlete Chelsea DeNofa to help them develop it. It was like, ‘What?!’
“Then there is the competition. You have your car styled, you’re going to weekend events, you go to Pro-Am, you want to go to Pro. There is a path for drift, it’s accessible and it’s one of the most affordable forms of motorsport to get into. It’s just fun. It’s so challenging and there are so many elements about it to kind of draw you in. I thin the past 20 years of the sport are really coming to a head now and it’s really just taken over. For somebody that has been in the sport since the first wave here in the U.S., I’m ultra-proud of all the drivers who have been doing it for so long. And there are the young guns coming up. It’s all just really cool. The talent and progression on the track, man, I can’t believe the tings that are going on out there. It’s just absurd with the speed and the levels of these cars out there in the Formula Drift paddock. It’s really nuts.
“Look, the game has changed, right? In 2004, right before I got started, my first car was 400 horsepower and 300 foot pounds of torque. I built in my garage and now there is not a car out there that that’s got less than 1000 horsepower. I mean we are running single digit tire pressures. We’ve got three-way-adjustable shocks. We’ve got adjustable sway bars. The cars have got full carbon fiber bodies. It’s all about traction and grip and forward drive while you’re spinning the tires. These cars are pulling up the front corners because they’ve got so much grip. These cars are lifting the corners like a dirt track car in the dirt. It’s just this massive progression. All the teams have engineers now and everyone is just extrapolating every bit of performance out of the car in every moment. That’s what makes it so exciting.
“These weekends of Formula Drift are so daunting for a driver and team because every lap you’re just trying to get more and more. It’s the ultimate physical and mental challenge over three days because you’ve got to be perfect. You don’t get 500 laps, you know? It’s not to discount the NASCAR drivers that are doing 500 laps, but you don’t get 500 laps to make a mistake or two. You literally have to be perfect or you get a zero in this sport. The sport has just evolved as a result of passion and commitment of the teams and everyone involved. It’s super-special, man. It’s only been happening for 20 years and look where we are at.
“Obviously, NASCAR and Formula 1 have been around forever. We’re still infants compared to their line of history. Everyone here is evolving into professionals and evolving everything. Everybody here is stepping the business game up.
“One big thing about drifting, as well, is that we’re so accessible in the pits. The pits are always open and the fans can come and mingle and say, ‘What’s up?’ to the people they are inspired by or want to support and it has just been great to see that blossoming. I’m proud of the other teams for getting out of the ‘Hey, I’m just here to race’ mentality. This is lifestyle and this is bringing people in to experience what we do. They can touch and feel and relate to our partners. Formula Drift has really given the drivers a great platform to do this.
“The other side of this is content. A number of the other series want to block content and not let the drivers build themselves and their partners. Formula D has been forward thinking and realizing how important content is for these drivers and teams. In the end, all of this only helps Formula D grow. I think that is another massive reason why we are seeing the success that we’re seeing.”
A consistent player in the 2022 Formula drift season, DeNofa hovered in and out of the top five all season long, a win coming at Evergreen Speedway in Washington. After the season had wrapped at Irwindale, DeNofa found himself fourth in final points. All things considered, team owner Gittin was good with it.
“I think we had a pretty solid year,” said Gittin. “Chelsea was gunning for a championship and a few “that’s racing” mistakes happened and we are here at the final round and he wound up in fourth place overall. Our new driver, Adam LZ, he had a season that was full of learning and we knew that was going to be the case. The results that he and the team worked for were not there, but that’s all reflective of just how tough this sport is.”
So with the curtain coming down on Irwindale Speedway, the 2022 Formula Drift season done and dusted, what’s next for Gittin?
“This break I’ve taken from drifting was not forever,” he said. “This wasn’t a goodbye, it was a see you later. I still very much have that mindset. In general, it has been cool to be a team owner here and to be experiencing all of this. I went to three of the eight events this year and so I was engaged on livestream and watching everything and just being fun. It was the first time in my life that I was ever able to do that and it was cool.”
What about the possibility of Gittin climbing back into his Ford Mustang and competing again?
“Yeah, it is definitely in my plan to come back,” he said. “I’m not exactly sure when that will be, but I will definitely be coming back to Formula Drift.”