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Matthew Johnson’s rallycross RX-8 dominates the dirt

Matthew Johnson is new to the Mazda nameplate, very new. A scant week before the inaugural Global RallyCross Championship event at Irwindale, California in March, Matt found himself on the ultimate road trip a crosscountry tow that landed his new pride and joy—the Nitro Circus Mazda RX-8.

“I bought the car from Bob Olson in Minnesota; he's campaigned several rear-wheel-drive rally cars over the years and enjoyed his street car RX-8 so much he decided it would be a good rally car platform,” says a prideful Matt. “The car competed in about five rallies before I bought it.”

During his westward pilgrimage Matt made a quick pit stop at Jon Rood’s shop, Roodwerks, in Arizona to fit the seat and add a much-needed skidplate. Matt didn’t drive the RX-8 in anger until it was off-loaded at Irwindale Speedway for its first race, the Global RallyCross Championship season opener.

So he had mere hours to dial in a car he had never driven more than up and down the trailer ramp. Matt missed valuable track time during Day 1’s SuperRally qualification activities to get to know his new steed. Then Matt stepped it up in competition, placing second to Dillon Van Way.

In the midst of a qualifying run for the event’s biggest race, Saturday’s RallyCross, Matt skimmed a tire barrier and wound up on two wheels stuntman style, eventually scraping the side of the Mazda for about 10 or 12 feet. Would you expect anything less from a Nitro Circus ride?

The Nitro Circus is a popular MTV series with Travis Pastrana and a number of wheeled crazies performing stunts of all kinds. Matt’s Irwindale antics earned him the nickname “Mr. Spectacular.”

“The strengths of the RX-8 for rallycross are its excellent handling and ability to put power to the ground,” says Matt who races out of San Diego, California. “Although we are still trying to maximize the suspension setup, I'm still able to drive the car quite aggressively even given its natural sports car disposition.

“Also, this car is strong! When I hit that tire at Irwindale and skidded up on the side I was sure several things would be damaged beyond repair but the Mazda just needed an alignment tweak and the next thing you knew we were posing for pictures in the Winner’s Circle.”

The RX-8 features some well-focused mods that help transform the car from freeway cruiser to trail and tarmac bruiser. The Renesis rotary has been boosted with a Pettit Racing supercharger that features a large-plenum Pettit Racing intake manifold, cone air filter and tuning.

Making power is important but getting it down to the ground in the harsh rally environment is the real trick. Matt’s Mazda runs a fortified Gearbox Guru dogbox transmission for super-fast, no-lift shifts, an FD3S RX-7 steering rack for added steering angle and a Kaaz limited slip diff to apply the power. Wilwood brakes and a Hot Bits suspension also play a decisive role in maximizing the Mazda’s potential.

“In the future we're going to spend the most effort on the suspension setup,” says Matt. “An important aspect of RallyCross is getting a hard launch and racing to the first corner, the car has to be optimized for that, and able to handle jumps, rough dirt sections and still generate cornering grip in the high-grip areas. Next, I think we'll focus on lightening the car. I think we're still at 2,800 pounds and the competitive RX-8s in Europe weight much less than that.”

Matt plans to compete in the final Global RallyCross event in June in Colorado Springs then he may have an opportunity to participate in the X Games after that. In the fall he plans to contest the U.S. Rallycross Championship, which will continue as part of the TORC off-road series in Crandon, Bear Creek and Chicagoland in late August through September.