Formula Drift kicks off the 2011 season in Long Beach

2011 Formula Drift Streets of Long Beach – Click above for high-res image gallery

A handful of well-known drivers and manufacturer-sponsored cars typically dominate the Formula Drift circuit – Foust, Gittin, Hubinette and Millen. At the opening event in Long Beach this past weekend, though, the big names were noticeably absent from the podium.

Perennial contender Tanner Foust retired from the sport last season to focus on his rally and television careers, Sam Hubinette couldn't manage to get his new Dodge Challenger to the starting line, and last year's champion, Vaughn Gittin Jr., failed to qualify for Saturday's knockout round. Rhys Millen in his newly painted Hyundai Genesis Coupe only managed to make it into the quarter finals.

The eventual podium featured first time winner Justin Pawlak, who drove to victory in Gittin's hand-me-down Mustang, Matt Powers, another newbie to the podium, and Daijiro Yoshihara, who finished fourth last season. You can read more about the event in the press release after the jump or browse through our photos from the event in the high-res gallery below.

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Photos copyright ©2011 Drew Phillips / AOL
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Long Beach, Calif. – Justin Pawlak in the Falken Tire Ford Mustang earns the victory at the first event of the 2011 Formula DRIFT season. Matt Powers in the Need for Speed Nissan S14 takes second place with Daijiro Yoshihara in the Discount Tire / Falken Nissan S13 rounding out the podium in third place.

Round 1: Streets of Long Beach provided fans with action and excitement through the weekend. The debut of new vehicles and new drivers added to the anticipation for the new season. The Driftstream brought live coverage to fans watching at home.

"With any new season comes change, so seeing fresh faces to the podium is a part of that," says Jim Liaw, president and co-founder of Formula DRIFT. "The level of driving skill continues to elevate. It is a sign that the 2011 season will be as competitive as ever. I would not be surprised to see more upsets and new faces to the podium."

Justin Pawlak finds the top of the podium for the very first time in his career. Pawlak remained consistent through the rounds advancing to the Finals against Matt Powers. His consistency paid off and Pawlak was able to secure the victory. The consolation round pitted Daijiro Yoshihara in the Discount Tire / Falken Tire Nissan S13 against 2009 Formula DRIFT champion, Chris Forsberg in the NOS Energy Drink Nissan 370Z.

"I owe it all to the guys at ASD and Falken Tire for this victory. Without them this could not have been possible," said Justin Pawlak, winner of Round 1: Streets of Long Beach. "This victory feels unreal. I have worked so hard for this and can't believe I'm on top to start out the season."

The 2011 Pro Championship season continues for Round 2: Road to the Championship at Road Atlanta on May 6-7. Tickets are available to purchase online now.

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