Story and photos by Thomas Barker

About 1000 years ago, Scandinavians led by Leif Ericsson arrived in northeastern North America, intent on colonization. For reasons not yet fully understood, the venture failed and the Norse returned to Europe. Now, Scandinavian motorsports drivers and teams have arrived in the Northeast of the U.S. once again, seeking the top places in the AWD class of fledgling U.S. series of European-style rallycross.

The event which leads us to this conclusion is the final weekend of the RallyCar Rallycross Championship at New Jersey Motorsport Park, Millville, New Jersey. (The weekend was split into two race days, with round 3 on Saturday and round 4 on Sunday.) Those who followed the first two rounds (also at NJMP) are aware that Andreas Ericksson’s Olsbergs MSE team with American driver Tanner Foust, had won the 4wd portion of both previous rounds (driving a Ford Fiesta), and Finland’s Jussi Pinomaki finished fourth in round 2. We have also seen rising British star Liam Doran, in the Kenneth Hansen Motorsport Citroen C4 place third in round 2. (A quick check of the facts reveals that Olsbergs MSE and Kenneth Hansen Motorsport are based in Sweden.)

In November, with the European season over and time to ship equipment over by sea, fans were treated to some of the top talent from the all-wheel-drive class of the Euro series. Most notably, Norway’s Sverre “the Viking Warrior” Isachsen entered his Ford Focus coupe, with which he had taken the top class in the 2009 and ’10 European championships. We also had Toomas Heikkinen in the Per Eklund Motorsport Saab 93 Aero (young Toomas is from Finland, the team is Swedish) and Frode Holte (from Norway) in his Volvo C30.

This is not to say that the North American-based teams planned to hoist a white flag at the first sign of this invasion. Subaru Rally Team USA was back with drivers Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra (Subaru Impreza WRX STI). Canada’s Andrew Comrie-Picard (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo) and California-based New Zealander Rhys Millen (Hyundai Accent WRC) were back as well.

For added interest, fans could follow a sub-plot in the 2WD category, where rallyists – most notably Round 1 winner Josh Wimpey (VW Golf GTI), Round 2 winner Matthew Johnson (Ford Fairmont station wagon), and Round 2 runner-up Dillon Van Way (Ford Focus turbo), faced a challenge from a group of road racers in Mazda Miatas and BMW sedans.

The format for each round was as before, following the European model, which is distantly similar to what is used in sprint and midget racing. There was qualifying, then a series of “heat races” to establish who earned his way into the final, which rallycrossers call the “A main.” The top five from the heats go directly onto the grid of the A main. The next five to into the B main (roundy-round racers would call it a “consolation race”) from which only the winner advances. And the next five heat race performances earn a spot in the C main, with only the winner advancing to the B main. Got that?

The course, on the other hand, was new. After the first two rounds, rallycross veterans counseled the organizers that they needed to replace the nearly two mile, largely paved circuit with something shorter. The organizers responded by taking a section called the “light bulb,” deleted from the course in rounds 1 and 2, and building a course around that. To visualize the result, imagine an oval which is larger on the first turn side, with dirt zig-zags in place of the last turn, and diversions onto dirt on the front and back straights. There were actually two ways to run the last turn area, the outer lane – called “the Joker” – had a tight hairpin and a crest, and needed to be taken once by each competitor at some time during each race. A complete five-lap final could be run in less than four minutes.

Saturday 2WD Eliminations

Fastest among the front- and rear-drive contingent was Dillon Van Way, who put the Focus on top in qualifying and then won two of the heat races. Matthew Johnson’s Ford was also quick, faster than any station wagon had a right to be. But equally impressive was the speed of some of the road racers, in particular local driver John Tancredi (Mazda Miata), who was also a heat winner.

Saturday 2WD A Main

Johnson took the lead on the start with the wagon, but Tancredi (Mazda) took over on lap 1 and led all of the succeeding laps. Johnson dropped down the order, but worked back to runner-up, three seconds behind Tancredi, and about half a second ahead of Josh Wimpey (VW). Van Way broke an axle on the first lap, and didn’t get a chance to perform.

Results:
1. John Tancredi (Mazda Miata)
2. Matthew Johnson (Ford Fairmont station wagon)
3. Josh Wimpey (Volkswagen Golf GTI)
4. Mark Abel (Mazda Miata)
5. Kyle Gagliardi (Mazda Miata)
6. Dillon Van Way (Ford Focus)

Saturday AWD Eliminations

Isachsen (Focus) showed that his European championships were no fluke in the AWD heats, winning his heat races, although not in any kind of walk-over. Heikkinen (Saab) and Holte (Volvo) also showed impressive speed. Foust placed last in his first heat race, but coolly came back to win another. Pastrana (Subaru) was quick, but his best performance came when he won a heat race where the competition broke down – we would have to wait for the A main to see him face off against the Scandinavians and Foust.

Doran (Citroen) didn’t show enough speed early in the day. He was gridded in the C main, which he won, beating a field which included Mirra (Subaru). But in the B main, Doran and Millen (Hyundai) were beaten by Pinomaki (Ford) who led every lap to advance to the A main.

Saturday AWD A Main

The main event can be summed up easily: Isachsen (Ford) led every lap until the race was stopped, when someone nudged some tire markers onto the course. When action resumed, he led every lap until the checker. This was the performance which made him and his team Europe’s best. Heikkinen (Saab) was in mid-field initially, then second on every lap after the re-start. Foust (Ford) was second or third initially, then in the pack when they restarted, working his way back up to third by a few feet (0.18 sec.) over a determined Pastrana (Subaru). Pinomaki (Ford) placed fifth, with the outer skin of the passenger’s door missing at the flag after being removed by a tire barrier. Holte (Volvo) raced Foust and Pinomaki initially, but went out with unspecified mechanical problems.

Results:
1. Sverre Isachsen (Ford Focus)
2. Toomas Heikkinen (Saab 93)
3. Tanner Foust (Ford Fiesta)
4. Travis Pastrana (Subaru Impreza WRX STI)
5. Jussi Pinomaki (Ford Fiesta)
6. Frode Holte (Volvo C30)

Sunday 2WD Eliminations

A heat win each and some other good drives put Wimpey (VW) and John Hall (Nissan 240SX) into the A main, where they would be joined by Johnson (Ford), Tancredi (Mazda), and Wyatt Knox (Mazdaspeed 3).

Jordan Guitar (production Honda Civic Si) earned lots of respect when he won the C main, then drove from the back of the grid to win the B main as well. And Dillon Van Way earned lots of sympathy when the Ford broke again, this time the right front suspension, when he had the B main in the bag.

Sunday 2WD A Main

Johnson (Ford) took the lead on the first lap from Wimpey (VW) with Knox (Mazda) third. The V8-powered Ford wagon was faster on the pavement, but the Volks was quicker in the dirt. Johnson took the Joker section on the next-to-last lap, handing a temporary lead to Wimpey. But when Wimpey took the Joker on the final lap, his compact finished on the wagon’s tail, officially 0.6 seconds behind. Knox was two seconds further back in third, ahead of Guitar (Honda). Tancredi (Mazda) placed fifth. John Hall exited the race early due to a broken front suspension.

After the race, representatives of RallyCar announced that a win in the first round and consistent finishes thereafter earned Wimpey the first U.S. Rallycross Championship in the 2WD category.

Results:
1. Matthew Johnson (Ford Fairmont station wagon)
2. Josh Wimpey (Volkswagen Golf GTI)
3. Wyatt Knox (Mazdaspeed 3)
4. Jordan Guitar (Honda Civic Si)
5. John Tancredi (Mazda Miata)
6. John Hall (Nissan 240SX)

Sunday AWD Eliminations

Wins in the heat races put Doran (Citroen), Heikkenen (Saab) and Foust (Ford) into the A main, along with Pinomaki (Ford) and Mirra (Subaru). On the other hand, Pastrana (Subaru) and Millen (Hyundai) could manage only grid positions good enough for the B main. A mechanical DNF plus two non-starts in heats put Isachsen (Ford) into the C main.

Would you expect someone who is called “the Viking Warrior” to be deterred by having to start in the C main? Of course not, and Isachsen showed speed from the starting light, dominating the C main.

In the B main, Isachsen repeated the performance, but this time Millen was there, and racing with him. (We have been told, off the record, that some of the Europeans present were impressed with Rhys’ speed and boldness, as not everyone can run fender-to-fender with Isachsen.) On the last lap, Isachsen’s Focus touched the tires of Millen’s accent, and went into the tire barrier to suffer serious front end damage- fortunately without damage to the driver. Pastrana (Subaru) drove past them to win, Millen salvaged second. This was arguably the best race of the weekend.

After the B main, the promoters exercised their option to allow Millen to advance to the A main, as well as winner Pastrana.

Sunday AWD A Main

At the start of the final, Heikkinen (Saab) got a better start than pole-sitter Doran (Citroen), and led the race narrowly from flag to flag. Ford teammates Foust and Pinomaki were racing for second, perhaps two seconds behind the leader. Foust seemed to have the upper hand, when a ball joint and brake disk on Pinomaki’s car failed on the last lap, putting him out. Doran placed third, beating Pastrana. Millen came home fifth, and Mirra sixth.

RallyCar has no plans to award an AWD championship this season, but if they did, two wins and a pair of podium finishes should have earned the trophy for Foust.

Results:
1. Toomas Heikkinen (Saab 93)
2. Tanner Foust (Ford Fiesta)
3. Liam Doran (Citroen C4)
4. Travis Pastrana (Subaru Impreza WRX STI)
5. Rhys Millen (Hyundai Accent WRC)
6. Dave Mirra (Subaru Impreza WRX STI)
7. Jussi Pinomaki (Ford Fiesta)

So at the end of the initial campaign of the Scandinavian Invasion, the results are mixed. The Nordic competitors have shown that their reputations are well-earned, but the American drivers and teams have performed well in a form of motorsport in which they have more limited experience. Indeed, the most consistent performer came from a Swedish team with an American driver. We can only hope that rematches are possible. After all, what fun is an invasion that ends after a few skirmishes?

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