Mazda drifters see mixed results in Formula D season finale, capping a highly competitive 2011 campaign

The 2011 Formula DRIFT championship was a bruising one. As the professional drifting series finished off its eighth season at the “House of Drift,” Irwindale Speedway, October 8, it also decided the closest title race to date. While no Mazda teams were part of that chase, Kyle Mohan and the Kyle Mohan Racing team did succeed in finishing top 10 in series points for the season after a strong year in the Nexen Tire MazdaTrix Mazda RX-8.

The Irwindale finale presented a new challenge for all of the drivers: a change in the racing course. For the last seven years, competitors have rocketed down the ½-mile oval’s backstretch to initiate drift on the northwest end of the banked bowl, transferring sides at the end of the bank to enter the less banked, 1/3-mile infield oval on the main straightaway. The course wrapped up with another long left-hand slide along the southeast end of the smaller oval and then a tight right hander to the finish.

This year a few extra hundred feet were added to the end of the track so that once cars exited the lower bank they had to transition to a final tight right turn diagonally across the infield (akin to the “Power Alley” found at Formula D Evergreen Speedway in Washington). Drivers needed more momentum coming out of the second-to-last turn but no one seemed too phased by the rearrangement.

Mohan and KMR entered the event having qualified for every Top-32 eliminator in 2011, earning as high as third out of the six rounds (at the Long Beach opener), and twice finishing in the Top 8, in Long Beach and Round 5: Evergreen Speedway. Qualifying for the finale, however, proved to be a struggle as track conditions and temperatures changed and Mohan qualified 20th for Top-32 tandems, setting him up to face Norway’s Frederic Aasbo and his Scion in the first round.

Aasbo led the first run of the Top-32 battle but slid up the wall along the speedway’s outer bank, making contact and damaging his Scion. Mohan avoided Aasbo and completed a strong run in front of the packed Irwindale audience, and was awarded the win after Aasbo’s car could not be repaired in time for a second run.

In Top 16, the Nexen MazdaTrix RX-8 faced off against Ryan Tuerck in the Gardella Racing Mobil 1 Chevrolet. Mohan lost ground early in his chase run but closed the gap on Tuerck in the second half of the course. On Mohan’s lead run, he maintained impressive angle and speed on the outer bank but Tuerck closed in on the inner bank. As a result, the judges moved Tuerck into the round of eight and Mohan’s 2011 Formula D season was over.

Mohan vastly improved on his 18th-place finish to the 2010 campaign, and at 377.50 points this year became the first Mazda driver to crack the top 10 since Justin Pawlak did it in 2009 with the Bergenholtz Racing RX-8.

The Bergenholtz squad and driver Joon Maeng had a forgettable close to the season after failing to qualify the Nitto Tire Mazda RX-8 for a second straight round due to mechanical issues. Though they had their moments in 2011 – like qualifying third at Round 2: Road Atlanta – they only made the Top-32 cut for five out of 2011’s seven rounds, and then were able to escape the first round only once (making Top 16 at Evergreen Speedway). After a career-high 14th-place finish in the standings in 2010, Maeng finished 2011 25th with 165.5 markers.

Finally, privateer Jeff Abbott in the Millennium Motorsports Mazda Miata finished the year a lowly 41st in the drivers table but made a huge impact on the series as the first to see any sustained success with the compact roadster platform. While he only contested West Coast events this year (namely Long Beach, Las Vegas, and Irwindale), he managed to qualify in the Top 32 twice, in Irwindale getting eliminated by eventual Formula D 2011 Champion Dai Yoshihara.