I've watched drifting long enough to see more than a few drivers come and go. There has been a mainstay, though, who's been around since the very beginning, a driver who, like me, followed the sport from the start. Kyle Mohan started out as a kid from Long Beach (LBC represent!) but became one of the most tenacious drivers on the grid and a devout follower of the church of rotary. I sat down with him before the first 2019 round of Formula DRIFT to learn about his roots and how he overcame physical obstacles and personal tragedy to build a successful career in motorsports.
ANDREW BECKFORD: You've been at this drift game for more than a while now. You're pretty much a staple of the series. But how did it all start? What's the origin story of Kyle Mohan falling in love with drifting?
KYLE MOHAN: I was working at Mazdatrix [a rotary engine shop in Signal Hill]. My first race car (an RX-7) was built and I began to do local track days. I also occasionally drove the canyons with it and other things you're not really supposed to do. Then this guy named Henry Shelly started working at Mazdatrix and he showed me my first drifting video.
Back then, even if you typed "drifting" into Google, almost nothing would come up. There was nothing! You had to be specific and type in something like "D1 Japan Drifting" and then maybe you'd get a couple photos.
Henry found out about it because he had a Japanese exchange student living at his house. That guy showed Henry drifting, which is what led him to show it to me.
After we saw it we were just hooked. All of a sudden, my race car which was meant for SCCA autocross transformed into a canyon drift car. Obviously, my parents hated that. My dad was ready to kick me out of the house, Mazdatrix didn't understand it, and it was just so unknown at the time. Then a few years later, D1 Grand Prix came to the USA, and there were the Drift Showoff events with Falken Tire and RS*R. That was when drivers like Alex Pfeiffer and Ken Gushi were coming up, though my old Mazda drift car wasn't very competitive against those guys.
I realized if I was going to keep up with the sport, which was evolving fast, I needed a better car, so that is when I built my FC RX-7. I kind of forced Mazdatrix to help me build that car because I knew drifting was going to be big (laughs).
AB: There are more than a few drivers in the series who started out racing for big teams but eventually split off and started their own program. You on the other hand have pretty much been doing your own program since the beginning, especially when you consider you've been operating on a shoestring budget for most of your career.
How do you manage staying competitive against the big-money teams like the Falken's and Rockstar Energies despite having only a fraction of their budget?
KM: Since the start of the team everything has been done in-house. Even though Mazdatrix sponsors me, I was their engine builder for 15 years. I was essentially employing myself during that time. If I sold motors, I got to come to work the next day. I still build my own motors.
The car is maintained by me and my friends, so I am proud to still be able to compete on a professional level in Formula DRIFT in 2019 against, frankly, million-dollar programs. Despite the fact that we put together my RX-8 this year in just two months, it still feels like the progression of the car I started out with. I think of everything as one big passion that we live and breathe. And this car represents everything I believe in. All the companies that sponsor us are brands I believe in. I'm also a surfer, I live next to the beach, and my wife is an environmental scientist. So who do we have as one of our sponsors? American Ethanol. I run a clean fuel that's made in America.
AB: Can we talk about your obsession with the rotary engine for a bit? Throughout the history of Formula D many drivers changed up engine configurations. Then obviously came the V-8 invasion. Yet, you have remained a diehard rotary head the whole time. Why do you choose to stick with the rotary?
KM: There are so many answers for that. The uniqueness is one aspect. I think it's really interesting to have a 2-liter motor make 1,000hp, be reliable, and compete against other engine types. That is part of what makes drifting cool; not everyone has to do the same thing.
Also, people tend to forget or don't know that I did three years in SR20-powered cars—those motors blew up all the time on me. Since I had so much experience with the rotary through my career and spending so much time building them, I knew how to make them reliable and it just worked better for me.
AB: Alright, I'm going to switch gears a bit here. No matter what the budget, running a professional motorsport team is hard especially when you're doing double-duty as a driver. Something like that has to spill over into other avenues of your life. How has being a professional drifter affected your personal life?
KM: I don't have a "personal life"! (laughs). I was talking to Ross Petty the other day and we came to the conclusion that drifting is our lives. Our crew is our family. People ask me "how was your offseason?" and the answer is "I spent it in the shop!" I didn't see anybody except my crew (laughs)!
One of the big sacrifices is spending time with your loved ones. Deadlines don't change so if you're out, you're out. So you either enjoy this and commit to it or you don't. It is sacrificial in all aspects. My wife is pregnant, and I hadn't seen her for a month. That's just one example of the sacrifice. The upside is that I get to meet people all over the world, so it has been a great opportunity. I have friends in China! There are people I see on TV and it's like "hey, I know that guy!" It's funny to have friends all over the world because of this sport.
AB: Competing at this level consistently must be especially difficult. What were some of the toughest moments of your drifting career?
KM: To have my buddy Matt Hill pass away, who had been helping me with our program for the past 7 years, was a really though moment in my life. Then deciding that we were going to press forward and build the car the rest of the way that he had started and dedicating ourselves to making it the best car we've ever built. We did it for him, for the fans, and we also wanted to make it a true culmination of everything we've learned so far from all of our past builds. From the D1 days until the crazy MX-5 we ran last year. My friends all banded together and even shut down their own shops to finish the RX-8 in time for Long Beach. In total we closed down three independent shops to get the car done!
For me, it's been a 15-year journey and it's always been about family and friends. I wouldn't drift if I wasn't still having fun. But now I also represent my own business, I build engines, I am even a driving coach for Porsche.
I get asked a lot "how do you do it". It's a lame answer but it really is about just trying your hardest and not giving up. We were up at 4am working on this car in the shop and I told all my guys that no one was going to sleep until we had it ready for tech. That is the kind of commitment it takes.
AB: Alright, last question. How has drifting changed your life?
KM: It gave me a career. I wouldn't have the career I have right now if it weren't for Formula Drift, D1, and drifting in general. I had no career path at 18. Maybe I would have been an artist but I had no plan for it. Drifting gave me the opportunity to be a professional driver, not just pro drifter but pro driver. I've worked with Mazda, Porsche, Lamborghini, I've done stunt driving on Fast & The Furious 4 & 5, I raced on ice in Finland, all kinds of stuff, and none of it would have happened without drifting. This career found me, and I just want to build it. I'm also having a kid, so I have a future racer on the way. It's a boy! We're going to name him Maxwell and he's coming soon!