I’ve been a fan of rallying – honest-to-goodness, endurance racing on real roads, with real cars going real fast – for many years. The drivers’ mastery of vehicle dynamics is superhuman. The cars are relatable: they look just like models I can buy at the dealership (but they sound so much better). And in the pits, I truly believe the mechanics are unmatched in motorsport for their dedication to their craft and ability to improvise.
I’m such a huge fan that – back in the day – I took the plunge and bought a car to drive (I’m not very good at it) and I still occasionally co-drive (I’m better at that). But these days, I almost never go and watch a competition in person. That’s because my favourite motorsport takes place under extreme conditions and being a rally spectator can take some real effort and commitment.
There’s an incredible romance to the experience: to being out in the fresh air and hearing the deep grumble of a race engine echo through trees as a car approaches, then the sensory assault as it roars past in a blur of lights and glowing hot rotors and flying dust. But I’ve seen the mercury dip to minus-50 in Maniwaki, Quebec, while I huddled up for warmth with friends watching cars skip over frost-heaves and drag their bumpers through chest-high snow banks. I’ve shoehorned my street car into a slim spot on the side of a dirt trail near Bancroft, Ontario, and hiked for nearly a mile past bumper-to-bumper parked cars to a spot where I could stand in the woods with 5,000 other rally fans and watch the dirty ballet. I love it. I really do.
But sometimes I just want my car racing without the side serving of adventure. That’s rallycross.
Rallycross is a motorsport that takes the best elements of rally competition and delivers it to fans seated comfortably in grandstands, where they can eat hot dogs and drink beer, and where there are restrooms nearby.
Although “rallycross” is a word sometimes used in Canada and the United States to describe club-level autocross on gravel, the type I’m talking about here is the pro-level, door-to-door kind that features superstar drivers like Petter Solberg, Tanner Foust and Ken Block slinging highly-modified 600-hp cars over a mixed-surface track. It’s perhaps best described as a hybrid of action sport and motorsport, and after operating in relative obscurity for many years, it’s fast gaining popularity around the world. “I love the combination of dirt, pavement, jumps and door-to-door action – it’s like a real-life video game,” said driver Foust back in 2010 when he announced he would step away from drifting to compete in rallycross full time. He’s since won three U.S. rallycross championships for Ford, become the most winning American driver on the international circuit and is now competing for the Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team.
The cars are serious machines, valued at more than a half-million dollars apiece. Although production based, they are heavily modified, all-wheel drive, turbocharged machines that are designed to start fast, handle on tarmac and dirt as well as manage jumps. Their sub-two-second 0 to 60 mph times rival that of a Formula One car. Ken Block and Lewis Hamilton tested that claim when both were in Barbados earlier this year (Hamilton for the Top Gear Festival and Block for the first round of the Global Rallycross Championship) and Block, who described his first rallycross car as a “modern day Group B monster,” definitely got the jump off the start line. Check out the video here. Rallycross races follow a progressive heats format with a series of short heat races leading to a winner-take-all main event. Unlike conventional track racing where a race can take hours and most of the good stuff happens within the first and last few laps, rallycross heats are five to 10 minutes of non-stop action: every lap has a start, a finish or a pass. While overseas competition is typically held on permanent tracks, the sport is new to North America so races take place anywhere – often at non-traditional venues – on temporary tracks designed and built for each race. A typical course lap is usually between a half and a mile in length, and features a mixed surface of at least 30 percent dirt or gravel, with the rest paved. Jumps are usually included, and a “Joker” adds an element of strategy.
The concept of a Joker lap might seem a little confusing, but trust me when I say that it instantly makes sense when you see it in action. It’s an alternate route or lap (usually a few seconds longer than the main lap) that drivers are required to take once per race – at their option. It can be used strategically to make a pass or to make room to race by getting out of tightly bunched traffic. For fans, it adds suspense to the racing because it’s only on the last lap, once every driver has taken the Joker, that the leader can be readily identified. It affects the racing a lot like a pit stop – everybody’s going to have to come in, it’s just a matter of when.
The format, as we’ve come to know it, originated at England’s Lydden Hill Circuit in February 1967. Early competitors included 1968 Rally Monte Carlo winner Vic Elford in a showroom Porsche 911, Brian Melia in his Ford Lotus Cortina and Tony Fall in a BMC Mini Cooper S.
In recent years, agency powerhouse IMG has taken over the promotion of the European Rallycross Championship and in 2014 it is an official FIA World series that draws big crowds. This year, 2003 World Rally Champion Petter Solberg was dominant and took his first World RX title with three rounds to go. In the U.S., the promoters at the Global Rallycross Championship have rapidly grown the sport since its 2011 launch to become the second-most watched motorsport series in the nation (behind juggernaut NASCAR). The November finale in Las Vegas saw gymkhana star Block duking it out in a four-way battle for the title with ex-Formula One drivers Scott Speed and Nelson Piquet Jr., and rookie Joni Wiman – a protégé of WRC champion Marcus Gronholm.
That finale underscored one of the most interesting things about rallycross right now. The sport has attracted drivers of wildly divergent backgrounds – with more talking about it in the press seemingly every day. The sport’s mixed-surface tracks, demand for good racecraft and the daredevil jumps all reward different strengths so, where ex -F1 driver Speed can make up time in a technically precise tarmac corner, motocross racer Brian Deegan gets an edge bumping through dirt.
“I think rallycross drivers are some of the best drivers in the world, bar none,” said Ricky Johnson, who should know what he’s talking about when it comes to driver chops. He is an AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame inductee (1999), a Motorsports Hall of Fame of America inductee (2012), the 1997 and 2003 Baja 1,000 winner, a two-time Pro2 Short Course Off-Road Champion and an ex-NASCAR racer.
“You’re going from asphalt to dirt, dealing with a turbo, dealing with a slick tire on dirt – there’s a lot of factors that aren’t normal,” says Johnson, who debuted in rallycross this summer at X Games. “The sheer horsepower and power-to-weight is unbelievable. The cars might look like toys, but they’re weapons.”
For World RX’s Canadian debut, the circuit was built into a former horseracing track at the Grand Prix of Trois-Rivières. It featured multiple jumps, rough gravel and a fast, 400-metre (1,312-feet) long straightaway that saw drivers reach top speeds of 190 km/h (120 mph). In the Global Rallycross Championship, the 2014 season has seen an incredible diversity of venues, with events held in a century-old logging mill, a parking lot on the coast of San Pedro and the grounds of a D.C. sports stadium.
In Quebec this summer, more than 30,000 people turned up to watch these insane flame-spitting machines race head-to-head. Three Canadian stars helped draw the passionate home crowd. Six-time Canadian Rally Champion Antoine L’Estage competed in a development class called RX Lites, as well as Formula One champion Jacques Villeneuve, a regular series driver, and former IndyCar star Patrick Carpentier.
I’ve been to every single race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross championship since the series began in 2011, and quite a few overseas. I have never been to a rallycross competition that didn’t end with thousands of people in the grandstands on their feet screaming during the finale. Motorsport fan or no, I promise you’ll love it. Check it out the next time it makes a stop near you. You can thank me later.