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Clutch Kickin', Takin' Names
Mazda's sliding stars shine in the opening round of 2012 Formula Drift

America's only professional drifting championship – Formula Drift – roared into downtown Long Beach in southern California this April to stage round one of its ninth season. The series which put the over-steering competitive motorsport on the map in North America and furthered it across the globe drew another capacity crowd to turns nine, ten and eleven of the city's grand prix street circuit, and again Mazda teams were in the running. RX-8 fielded by sport compact luminaries Bergenholtz Racing and rotary specialists Kyle Mohan Racing duked it out with heavy hitters fielding BMW, Chevy and Ford, among others, in the battle by the sea.

While pro drifting has occupied Long Beach since 2006, everyone driving faced a new challenge this year in the freshly paved course. For years the three-turn segment has been a mishmash of surface finishes, making adhesion traditionally one of the big puzzles of the opener, but 2012 featured fresh asphalt down the opening drag strip and through the right-hand turn nine and sweeping left ten. However, the concrete around turn eleven stayed the same, creating one final grip challenge as car's have to slow down significantly – traveling sideways, of course – to negotiate the closing hairpin before dashing to the finish.

The new surface wreaked havoc initially, making for interesting opening practice sessions as many drivers had to refigure where, when and how much their rear-ends would break loose. As the circuit rubbered up it became more predictable, but the track seemed to come back and bite several teams well into the weekend, especially as afternoon temps for tandem eliminations crept into the low 80s and "grippy" became "greasy."

One to suffer the pitfalls of Long Beach's new asphalt was Bergenholtz Racing's Joon Maeng. Piloting the Nitto Tire Lucas Oil Mazda RX-8, the local hot shoe couldn't quite put down a smooth, committed run, qualifying 26th of 32 in what was admittedly a very tough 50-car-plus field that featured many strong competitors. Still, the ranking was enough to move him to eliminations and make a go at the round title.

From the start against his opening faceoff with Tyler McQuarrie's Camaro Joon "gripped up" at inopportune times, falling out of drift as he chased his challenger just after the first turn and never really recovering. Joon's second run – this time in the lead – featured a very shallow slide through turn ten, and at the end of the battle judges unanimously handed the victory to his opponent.

Wanting to put on a strong show in front of his hometown crowd and get his championship off to a strong start, Kyle Mohan was looking for a strong qualifying run when he rolled the Nexen Mazdatrix Mazda RX-8 to the starting line for his first of two qualifying runs. What he didn't have in mind, however, was nosing his car into the turn ten tire wall after making contact with the wall in the first clipping zone of the track.

Setting up an all-or-nothing second qualifying run, Mohan scored an 85.5 which would ultimately put him 13th in the field for the Top-32 competition, meaning he would face Mike Essa's Z4 roadster in the first round. After two close runs, Mohan would defeat Essa and move to the round of 16. In front of a large and supportive crowd, including a large contingent of Kyle Mohan Racing supporters, Mohan's day would end after a close battle in the Top 16, losing to Justin Pawlak, who would go on to win the event for a second year straight in his Mustang.

After the first round Mohan sits 14th in the Formula Drift Pro Championship standings with 55 points, while Maeng is 24th with 24.25 points. The next round of the 2012 Formula Drift Pro Championship is the Road to the Championship at Road Atlanta, near Atlanta, Georgia on May 11-12.