One of Myanmar’s brightest car racing prospects, Kyaw Zin Oo, is making it big in Thailand but his sights are set on the biggest drifting tournament in the world. Words by Min Ye Kyaw. Photos by Gerhard Joren.
Since he was a child, Kyaw Zin Oo has nurtured a passion for car racing, or more precisely, drift racing. This style of racing was popularized in a 2006 Fast and Furious movie instalment called Tokyo Drift and paradoxically is done best when the driver controls the car while their tires no longer grip the road.
Kyaw Zin Oo will force his car to slide sideways through a turn, until the front wheels are pointing in the opposite direction to the turn. Search the stunt on YouTube: cars precariously tail-whipping over piers, or tearing through tight city corners. You’ll get the, um, drift. So the 23-year-old racer began falling for drifting six years ago when he watched racers compete on Yangon’s old go-kart racing track in Thingangyun Township. By 2013 he had won several prizes including first place in drift and ‘time attack’ races.
“From hands-on learning and watching others at the track, I picked it up quickly,” he said. But in a blow to Yangon’s already microscopic racing scene, the track closed down in 2016 and any budding racers who had the means left the city; others abandoned the pursuit. The dour mood among the racing community contrasted to the previous year, when it was still common to see modified cars testing the city roads in the early hours. In fact, in 2015, I had enjoyed a late night out in Yangon, and Kyaw Zin Oo had kindly agreed to pick me up.
I stepped into his upgraded Nissan Fairlady and on the way to 365 Café we spotted at least four other modified cars cruising the quiet streets, an unfamiliar sight these days, as soon after police led a crackdown on racers and speeders.
“Myanmar is the country where I was born and raised,” said Kyaw Zin Oo, now a university student in Bangkok who spends any free time on the race track. “I would be much more excited if there were race competitions in Myanmar, but the sad truth is we still don’t have a motor racing park to practice. That’s a major hurdle for drift enthusiasts. Once such parks are developed, I believe we will see many professional racers come out.”
Leaving Yangon for Bangkok in 2017 was a shrewd move for Kyaw Zin Oo, whose racing career has since been enhanced by exposure to top car models and racing talent.
Getting to grips with a new country and a new language presented “a time of mixed emotions,” he says. “Excitement and anxieties were on a high level. The opponents were as skilful as one another in draft racing so I had to undergo fierce challenges.”
The young racer took to the track once every two days about three weeks before a competition so he could get a feel for the turns, and last December he scored his first major achievement in Thailand, coming second place in a PTT BRIC Drift Attack race on Chang International Circuit.
Before his next big race—North East Underground Drift in Thailand’s northeastern region of Isan— Kyaw Zin Oo accidentally cut his hand with a scissors, causing him tremendous pain when he applied the handbrake or gearstick.
However, he endeavoured and came second place in the ‘new generation’ category of the competition in March, and fourth place in the Class C drift race. He sees the accomplishments as a defining moment.
“I am overjoyed at my achievements,” he said. “At last I have fulfilled my childhood dream—to win titles in drift racing and to hit the international racing tracks.”
Kyaw Zin Oo is carving out a name for himself on the Thai circuit with the help of his steed, a Nissan 180SX with a 1JZ engine. Caring for his car makes the difference for performance, he said. Upgrades as well as practice are essential. Describing the costs, he says the body of the car is two million kyats (US$1,500), and a strong engine can cost up to 10 million kyats ($7,500). “All in all, the extent of the running cost is up to you,” he added.
Ultimately Kyaw Zin Oo aims to compete in the crème de la crème of international drifting—Formula DRIFT. “For me, the attitude comes first. You must be consistent and committed in your passion. Whenever you have free time, you should go to the motor racing track to learn and practise and better spend your free time to become a good racer. Next, you must be able to pay the expenses as you will see the maintenance cost is high.” The road to success continues for Kyaw Zin Oo, a journey which he hopes will not only end in international recognition but also the ability to turn his home country into the racing mecca he has always dreamed it would be.
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