Mad Mike's Drift Shifters will soon be tearing up the UK – we join him for a shakedown ride in his ear-splitting RX-8.
Nothing can prepare you for just how loud Mad Mike's drift spec Mazda RX-8 really is. Tuned rotary engines can be pretty brutal at the best of times but when this thing lights up it's like the sky is being ripped apart in some apocalyptic, end of days catastrophe. Never mind making your ears bleed, this thing makes your eyes fizz it's so noisy. And after the first shakedown run, the wafting exhaust fumes and tire smoke set off the fire alarms of the adjacent Liverpool Exhibition Centre, causing a full evacuation of everyone inside.
Mike's pretty casual about it, hopping out of his car and smoothly swapping his crash helmet for a Red Bull baseball cap as the howl of a strung-out rotary is replaced by a cacophony of sirens and alarms from within the building. But then making noise is what drifting is all about and, while this may only be a shakedown for the Drift Shifters event coming to the city in August, he's already making his presence felt.
We meet up the day after the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Mike's first appearance there five years ago was nominated by none other than the Duke of Richmond himself as one of the most significant moments of the event's 25-year history. When you consider the motorsport legends and incredible cars that have also graced his lawn party, that's a pretty incredible accolade, but Mike's keen to bring drifting to a bigger audience and exporting Red Bull Drift Shifters from his native New Zealand is all part of the plan.
Mike's dream with Drift Shifters is to make the sport even more exciting and accessible to the fans. Proximity sensors and other tech offer instant, automated scoring so that spectators can enjoy in real time as the action plays out in front of them.
"We're not trying to reinvent the sport," he says. "I think drifting is the most fun, explosive and exciting way to drive a car and watch as a spectator and it's just about making it more simple. I thought if we could eliminate the variable side of the judging and make it easier for the spectators it makes it even more exciting. You could be watching a boxing match or gymnastics and not have a clue how the judges are scoring but with Drift Shifters there's a fully automated scoreboard showing speed, proximity, and angle so you can see what's going on."
When the event comes to Liverpool's streets, it'll play out in front of some of the city's most famous landmarks and provide an incredible spectacle for the fans. For this run, we're in the more confined space of a walled-in parking lot with a couple of Red Bull branded poles to drift around and a semi-circle of cones for Mike to demonstrate his precision.
We strap in, exchange a thumbs-up and then we're off. You might think a helmet would shield you from some of the noise, but no. Inside the car, it's even more terrifying. There's a screamer pipe poking out of the hood but it really is a 360-degree noise terror experience, the shriek of the turbocharged 20B triple-rotary seemingly entering your body through your skin as much as your ears. How Mike's got any hearing left after years of doing this is a mystery but for all the mayhem going on outside the really impressive bit is how relaxed he looks at the wheel.
With more than 800 hp clawing at the concrete surface, the RX-8 doesn't need too much provocation to slew this way and that. Even in the space of a few hundred yards it picks up incredible speed, the sense of it increased by the proximity to the walls, fire escapes and other obstacles around us. Mike's hands flit between the shifter for the six-speed sequential Holinger gearbox, the drilled aluminum lever for the hydraulic handbrake and the fast-spinning wheel in front of him, his experience meaning he always knows exactly when to catch it and hold the drift. It's absolutely mesmerizing.
The most impressive bit is when he looks over his shoulder as we carve a long, high-speed slide around the cones with the rear of the car skimming them as we go. The changes in pace from near stationary donuts around the markers to sudden bursts of acceleration across the parking lot are difficult to take in. And then in a moment, it's all over. We slide sideways into the bay from where we started.
As Mike's team check the car over we chat about what got him into drifting and why Mazdas play such a part in his life. "I must have been about seven years old when I heard my first rotary and I remember thinking what the hell kind of motor is that!" he says. "We'd holiday by the beach and these teenagers would turn up with their rotaries and I thought I've got to have one when I'm older and it kind of started from there. My first car was a 1978 323 – my buddies and I swapped a hundred bucks and a skateboard for a crashed RX-7 and swapped out the rotary into the 323. We were like 13 years old or something ridiculous but we just learned from pulling them apart and putting them back together. It's progressed to being now fully supported by Mazda, which is just unreal."
So what makes them good for drifting? "Well, they're probably not the easiest engine to use but they make a lot of horsepower and the main thing for me is that they're exciting, they scream, they're loud and whether we're building the cars or competing it just kind of fits with Mazda's motto of never stop challenging – it makes it all the more rewarding when the team gets a win."
And what can we expect to see when Drift Shifters hits the UK? "High-octane pinball is kind of the tagline," he laughs. "When we were brainstorming the idea of it we were saying it's like a giant pinball machine, only instead of a little ball you've got a 1,000hp drift car sliding around!" If you can get to Liverpool on August 19 you'll be able to see for yourself how that plays out. Just don't forget your earplugs.
For more info see the Red Bull website.