An “Op-Ed” piece by Thomas Barker

Now that the exhaust noise, fan noise, and hype of RallyCar’s first season of European-style rallycross at New Jersey Motorsport Park has quieted down, consider what this may mean to the shape of our sport down the road.

First, the Matter of Names
What the Europeans call rallycross grew out of some short special stage rallies (actually rallysprints) which British promoters staged for television in the 1960s. In 1967 the organizers at Lydden, England put on an event where several cars raced wheel to wheel around a circuit, and the format caught on. Thus, when rallycross fans talk about it being “made for television,” this is literally true. It spread to continental Europe quickly, and the F.I.A. sanctioned the first official European Rallycross Championship in 1976. It seems to have remained a European specialty since.

Moving along a separate line of development, fans in the U.S. adapted the autocross format (course marked by cones, drivers running against the clock) to dirt, snow, and ice as training events for rallyists. In the 1990s the S.C.C.A. christened this sport “RallyCross,” probably unaware that the name rallycross was already in use for a different kind of competition.

When the X-Games had their “SuperRally,” and then RallyCar ran its first European-type series, North America suddenly had both forms, the wheel to wheel style and the solo style. Would someone like to come up with terminology so that we can distinguish them?

Action
The races themselves are quick. With a tight circuit of a mile or less, as was used in rounds 3 and 4, a complete five-lap A/B/C main can be run in less than four minutes. More than one person has called it racing for people with attention deficit syndrome. But if the races are short, they can often be intense. Those fortunate enough to watch the 4WD B Main in round 4 saw fender to fender racing between Sverre Isachsen and Rhys Millen which will not be forgotten soon. If RallyCar car provide a few races such as that during every race weekend, they should be well on their way to success.

Driver Reaction
The North American drivers with whom we talked were speaking positively about Euro-rallycross from the beginning of the first race weekend. It presented a challenge to drive, they said, and it provided a lot of action for the spectators in a small space. Even drivers with no pavement experience, and no wheel-to-wheel racing experience, who would have rather spent the weekend tooling around a forest or a desert, were putting a positive spin on the experience. Why? Part of the reason must be that they were honestly having fun. For competitors in a sport which prides itself on being able to race anywhere, under any conditions, this was just another set of conditions. But at least as good a reason for enthusiasm was the crowd who stood at the fences, and stood in line for autographs in the paddock. Where rallyists normally perform for hundreds, in NJMP there were thousands of fans. Even more people saw highlights in the NBC telecast of round 1. This can only be a blessing for a sport which is trying to get enough exposure to justify sponsorship for its expensive machinery and long travel to events.

Interestingly, the visiting European teams were saying nice things too. Their events have slicker organization, some of the tracks have been refined for several decades, and there is more depth of competition. But everything we heard suggested that the visitors were offering suggestions, not criticism. This was understandable. If someone can put on a couple of North American races which are on a par with the European ones, then you have the possibility of a world championship, which would certainly enhance the stature of their sport.

The AWD Field
No one came to New Jersey for round 1 better prepared than Tanner Foust and the Olsbergs Motor Sport Evolution team. OMSE has many seasons of European rallycross under their collective belts, and two successful X Games. Foust entered half of the European Rallycross Championship rounds to learn the craft, and won both gold medals in the 2011 X Games. OMSE’s Ford Fiesta could win against North America’s best, and had a fighting chance against Europe’s stars. According to the Ford media kit, the RockStar Fiesta generated 525 horsepower from 2 liters, moving the 3,000-pound car from 0 to 100 kph (62 mph) in 2.5 seconds. Even the most casual examination showed that this was yet another incarnation of the full competition car built inside the shell of a road vehicle, in this case with longitudinally-mounted engine and a radiator in the trunk.

The Subaru Rally Team USA brought their regular 2010 Impreza WRX STI special stage cars (known internally as VT9r) to round 1, but re-engineered their X Games racers (called VT10r) in time for rounds 2 through 4. (Check them out Subaru’s “Drive Performance” magazine, which is available online at www.driveperformance.subaru.com.) The production architecture was retained, but the new car was lighter by over 200 pounds, and on a par with the competition in the power stakes. Drivers Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra were on the podium, or very close, several times. Their results suggest that they were never far behind the Europeans, and they were learning quickly. We would like to see what they can do with another year of driver/team practice and car development. However, Pastrana recently admitted to Tech, House & Speed web radio that he will not compete in a full season of rallies or rallycrosses in 2011, in order to pursue other opportunities. Not having their fastest driver available full-time is likely to hurt SRTUSA’s chance of success.

SRTUSA certainly had the largest, most vocal cheering section this season. Subaru U.S. emailed their owners in the Northeast, announcing the rallycross series and inviting them to attend. The track even provided Subaru-ites with their own parking area near the paddock, which boasted more Subies than many dealers. Ford, VW, Honda and Saab may want to take notes.

Just about everything that we’ve said about OMSE is also true of the other European teams who visited later in the season, and most of them also had the radiator in the trunk. Apparently that helps to keep it from plugging up with mud, but maybe it’s also helpful to keep the radiator away from potential damage at the beginning, or end, of a race. We were particularly pleased to see Sverre Isachsen attend (Isachsen Motorsport Ford Focus) since he’s won the European Rallycross Championship for two years running, and so is probably the best at this.

Rhys Millen entered rounds 2 through 4 in a Hyundai Accent WRC. He was clearly pleased to be back to his roots – remember that the drift champion started as a rally and hillclimb driver. According to Millen, his car was generally in keeping with its original world rally specs, not the more liberal rallycross rules. But if sponsors Hyundai U.S. and Red Bull are willing to ante up, he has a new car in mind for the 2011 U.S. rallycross season, based on a soon-to-be-introduced Hyundai model. Now if we can arrange for a rematch (of round 4) between Millen and Isachsen…

Several representatives of the North American special stage rally community entered what were essentially Open class rally cars, retuned as much as their budgets would allow. The consensus seemed to be: take out the odometer, the jack, the spare tire, and the tow rope, stiffen the suspension (but don’t sacrifice too much ground clearance if the course has a jump), mount tires with minimal tread, install a bigger turbo if you can, and drive very sideways. Andrew Comrie-Picard (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 9) and Chris Duplesis, (Subaru Impreza WRX STI) both made the A final one or more times. The others have some work ahead of them.

We would like to note that (no surprise!) the drivers and crews were as friendly and approachable in the paddock at NJMP as they have been in the service areas of rural America. Rally people are still among the best in motorsport at talking with the spectators, one motorsports fan to another. We hope that they never lose that.

What’s the 2WD “Hot Set-Up”?
Rallyists Matthew Johnson (Ford Fairmont wagon), Wyatt Knox (Mazdaspeed 3 turbo), Dillon Van Way (Ford Focus turbo), and Josh Wimpey (Volkswagen Golf GTI), and road racer John Tancredi (Mazda Miata) were all on the podium during this season. And please note that while Johnson’s and Tancredi’s cars were RWD pavement vehicles which were adapted for rallycross, the others were modified front-drive rally cars. If you’re preparing for the two wheel drive class in the future, should you be a road racer or a rallyist, should you have a track car or rally car, should it be front- or rear-drive? The jury is still out.

Telecast
NBC broadcast the 4WD A main of round 1 on November 14 as part of their “The World of Adventure Sports” program. The cameras followed Pastrana and Foust, and included some good in-car footage.

At the track on the round 1 weekend, there was talk of an ESPN telecast which would cover more of the race weekend, but so far this has not come to fruition. Perhaps letters and emails from a few thousand motorsport fans would help.

RallyCar?
The rallycrosses for 2010 were held under the recently-announced name RallyCar. Apparently this is not a separate organization from Rally America, but a separate brand name, rather like the now-defunct CART organization operating as IndyCar.

Where Does it Go from Here?
So what’s next? RallyCar has promised a coast-to-coast series in 2011. We’ve heard a rumor of two races in the West, one in the central part of the country, and two in the East, but so far no official comment from the Rally America/RallyCar home office.

It is likely that we will see more rallyists try Euro-style rallycross, especially as it’s probably less expensive and less taxing on the equipment than a 200-mile special stage rally. Well, it’s less taxing if you don’t collide with a competitor. Tanner Foust predicted that we will also see more racing teams and drivers try it as well, as many of his racing friends have admitted to a curiosity about rallying.

The arrival of Euro-rallycross might actually help the development of the solo-style sport, such as the S.C.C.A. RallyCross series, since this becomes a logical training/practice venue for the RallyCar series. Whether Euro-rallycross will reduce the size of special stage rally starting fields remains to be seen. The Europeans manage to have both the stages and rallycross, and off-roaders in the western U.S. have both desert races and short course events. We hope that there is room for rallies and rallycrosses in North America.

Photos by Thomas Barker

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