The tire-smoking, inch-perfect, sideways world of Formula DRIFT and the nitro-burning, 11,000hp, 330mph blur of NHRA Funny Car drag racing have more in common than you might think.
Both were borne of a car-obsessed youth sub-culture with a penchant for rebellion, albeit in Japan and Southern California respectively. Both feature a head-to-head racing format, and both are dazzling displays of outlandish power on the very edge of control.
In 2022, they also share one more thing: Both crowned champions driving a GR Supra honed for competition by Toyota Gazoo Racing North America.
Moreover, both drivers soaked up the pressure and brought their A games to secure their respective championships on the final day of competition. Ron Capps took the honors in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series’ closely fought Funny Car class, while Fredric Aasbo came out tops from a stacked Formula DRIFT PRO field. Coincidentally, both drivers are now three-time champions as well.
CAPPS RACES TO THE FINISH
In the case of Capps, who joined the Toyota Gazoo Racing North America lineup as both a driver and a team owner in 2022, it all came down to the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif., where he overcame a 61-point deficit by securing the top-qualifying spot and advancing through to the final.
In that final, all he needed to do was to show up on the start line and not take any risks. An errant run across the center line could have meant a points deduction penalty taking the title from his grasp. But to the plaudits of competitors and fans alike, Capps put on a show, missing out on a final-round win by just 0.011s. No way was he going to disappoint those who’d paid to watch a drag race by winning a championship without actually giving it his all in the final.
“As team owner, it was the first time I had to have a closed-door meeting like that. I went right up in my firesuit to our crew chief to go over the dilemma,” recalls Capps, who says he still feels butterflies just talking about it. “We’ve seen others in the past (under similar circumstances) just go to the start line and shut it off. I wasn’t aware at the time that the P.A. announcer had let the crowd know about the penalty risks.
“I stayed in the car and told my crew chief I’m going to try to go quicker, and if we do everything right, it might go 340mph. We didn’t, and we could have put a cylinder out and it shoves me over (the center line) and we’re the biggest dummies in the world, losing the championship by two points because I got greedy.
“But at the same time, I’m like, ‘Man, I was a kid sitting up in those stands many times, wanting to see a special moment,’ and I just didn’t want the fans to feel like they were robbed.”
AASBO REIGNS IN THE RAIN
Just a few miles west of Pomona is Irwindale Speedway. The “House of Drift” is the perennial home of the Formula DRIFT season finale, known as the “Title Fight,” and Aasbo arrived needing to overcome a 14-point gap if he were to win the title for a third time. Unseasonable rain in the area added to the tension for everyone, except maybe Aasbo.
“I went into the season finale this year a few points out of the lead and Mother Nature threw a crazy night at us, with the kind of rain you don’t often see in Southern California,” recalls Aasbo.
But the Norwegian is well accustomed to slippery surface conditions, and he made the most of it.
“The track was really tricky,” he says, “and we made some choices in setup and driving that were different from what we’d normally do, and different from what everybody else was doing. It was risky, but it paid off for us. And that’s what you have to do to keep on winning. You can’t fall back onto what you’ve always done, or somebody else will try something new and sail past you.”
Despite the rain wreaking havoc across the field, Aasbo methodically worked his way through each round, fast, clean and accurate. Similar to Capps, he needed only to finish the final to secure the championship, but he too put on a show, winning a head-to-head contest with Papadakis Racing teammate Ryan Tuerck to secure that third title.
Adding to Aasbo’s championship and two event wins, Tuerck earned a debut win for the Toyota GR Corolla in the Long Beach season opener, drift legend Ken Gushi put his GR86 in the winner’s circle in Utah, and Toyota took the Formula DRIFT PRO Auto Cup for manufacturers in a stellar season for TGRNA-supported teams and drivers.
WEAPONS OF CHOICE
“The GR Supra that Toyota Gazoo Racing North America gave us, and Papadakis Racing developed, is by far the most competitive car I’ve been in,” says Aasbo. “This is a team that has won a total of five drivers’ titles and eight manufacturers’ trophies with Toyota. I’ve been behind the wheel for three of those drivers’ titles and, for me, it starts with leaving the shop with the best car and tire, and then the team putting it all together each weekend.”
Like Aasbo, Capps also gives the behind-the-scenes crew enormous credit for his success, which went up another level as a Toyota Gazoo Racing team. From the moment he first sat in the new-for-2022 GR Supra Funny Car, Capps knew he was in for something special. From dramatically improved front and side vision, to enhanced driver ergonomics, and a raft of safety improvements, he knew from the outset that partnering with TGRNA would bring gains in every area, especially during race weekends.
“My crew chief (Dean ‘Guido’ Antonelli) was always looking for more data,” explains Capps. “In the past, like all teams, we had a track specialist who relays information back to the team about track conditions, like temperature or where the track is peeling. With Toyota we now get 50 times the data sent back to us. The crew couldn’t believe it. They were like kids in a candy store.”
Leading the engineering charge from the Toyota Gazoo Racing side is Richard “Slugger” Labbe, Engineering Manager, Vehicle Support for TGRNA and TRD. A 35-year veteran of the NASCAR garages, NHRA was new to Labbe when he joined TRD in 2018. He turned that into a positive. With fresh eyes, and perhaps a touch of not knowing any better, Labbe looked at every aspect of competing in NHRA from performance, to preparation, to safety, and found areas to make significant gains.
“I knew right from the start that engines, clutches and blowers were the teams’ specialty, so I went about looking at anything else where we could raise the bar to find those little increments of speed,” says Labbe, who set about tackling everything from driver ergonomics and safety, to working with TRD and Toyota’s Calty design studio to track-ready the GR Supra’s body in the wind tunnel.
Following car development, the focus turned to improving data gathering at the track. Labbe and his team get to work before they even get on site, conducting a wealth of weather analysis and even going as far as pinpointing the angle of the sun at various points throughout the race weekend in case it may affect visibility for the drivers.
Once they’re on scene, Labbe and his team have developed a machine that they push down the track to map bumps, dips and elevation changes, while a second machine skims across the surface of the track at 8mph and measures grip and rolling resistance. All that data, and more, is communicated to TGRNA’s partner teams equally and transparently. It’s then up to each one to decide how best to use it.
“For instance, teams can take the profile information and match it up to their data,” explains Labbe. “If a driveshaft got noisy during a run, for example, they can check and see if it was caused by or bump or dip in the track, or whether they were being too fast on the clutch applications.”
Whether in Formula DRIFT or NHRA drag racing, the collaboration between Toyota Gazoo Racing and its teams is constant, with the primary focus on continuous improvement from both sides.
“Kaizen is one of the core principles at Toyota, and I think it’s the best way to sum up how we operate as a race team,” says Aasbo. “We’re always pushing for continuous improvement in everything that we do. We don’t ever stop developing and experimenting and pushing forward. The Rockstar Energy Toyota GR Supra was competitive out of the box: it won its debut event. So, we started in a great place with the car three years ago and as we continue to work with TGRNA, we’re not at the limit yet.”
• Find out more about Toyota Gazoo Racing North America in competition at toyota.com/racing/tgrna. And check out Toyota Gazoo Racing’s family of high-performance, high-fun street vehicles, including the GR Supra, GR86 and new, rally-bred GR Corolla, at toyota.com/grfamily.