In early March, when ESPN and RallyCross Management suddenly announced a three-race series called the Global RallyCross Championship (GRC), casual Rally fans experienced two emotions. The first was excitement: sweet, more races! The second was confusion: How does the 'cross factor in? What is RallyCross, anyway?
Allow us to enlighten you: RallyCross is Supercross on four wheels. Unlike traditional Rally Car racing, in which drivers race against a clock over hundreds of miles of open roads, RallyCross involves multiple drivers racing "wheel to wheel" on a tight track littered with dirt, gravel, pavement, hills and off-camber turns. Both sports use compact, all-wheel-drive, production-based vehicles, but that's more or less where the similarities end. "[RallyCross] is like taking rallying and supercross and a bunch of talented drivers and putting them in a bowl and boiling them down to a super reduction sauce," explains Andrew Comrie-Picard, X Games 16 Rally Car bronze medalist.
Invented by European rally racers in the 1960s, rallycross has blossomed into a continent-wide fascination -- and it's looking to jump the pond. What took so long? "We're one of the last countries to hold out on accepting small cars as performance cars," says Tanner Foust, a three-time XG gold medalist and the only American to compete in the European Rallycross Championship. "Some of the smallest cars out there that really have power and are seen as being really cool are four-door Evos and Subarus, but smaller cars like the [Ford] Fiesta have so much speed potential. The rest of the world recognizes that, and we're kind of the last in line. I think RallyCross will be a catalyst."
One element that could help American RallyCross take off -- literally -- is "The Joker," a mandated section of track that takes at least two seconds longer to run than the normal course. During a given race, each driver has to take one Joker lap. It's kind of like a NASCAR pit stop, preventing any one driver from getting a big lead and running away with the race.
In the U.S., the Joker lap could include a massive jump. Sound familiar? At X Games 16, where RallyCross had a soft debut in the form of "Super Rally," the Joker was a 70-foot double jump. As you can imagine, this kind of thing adds a whole new dimension to the sport. "Whatever we do, we're always going to have some kind of identifying feature with each race venue," says GRC organizer Brian Gale. "When people look at it, they will understand where that is." For example, the race in Snoqualmie, Wash. on April 16 is at an old paper mill, and it will run through an enormous paper warehouse.
Adding to the excitement and unpredictability of the Joker is the fact that drivers who race traditional Rally cars are not necessarily good RallyCross competitors. "Anybody thinks they can do it, and that attracts lots of people, but to really do it well you have to have a pretty special set of skills," said Comrie-Picard. "The guys who are going to win are the guys who both have exceptional talent on the different surfaces but also can deal with the intensity of wheel-to-wheel. A lot of great drivers don't have wheel-to-wheel experience. Probably the guys who have done some rallying and some drifting will have the advantage."
Comrie-Picard is seasoned, but Foust is the only American with European Rallycross experience. In 2010 he competed in half the series, and he has committed to the full season in 2011 along with his entry in the GRC series. He believes that discipline is the best skill a driver can employ to win a RallyCross race. "The car wants to go faster than it should," he says. "You'll over jump the jumps, you'll hit people too hard and when people make contact with cars you tend get something called the 'red mist' where the blood fills the eyes and you just start doing things that aren't the best decisions and not the fastest way through the corners. You start battling with people instead of driving quick."
After the final stop on GRC series, qualified drivers head to X Games 17 in L.A. You'll probably see some familiar faces there -- Travis Pastrana (NASCAR scheduling permitting), Ken Block (ditto with WRC), Brian Deegan, Foust, Comrie-Picard -- but there will also be some big-name European drivers looking to collect a piece of X Games hardware. And while last year's X Games Super Rally race took place inside the L.A. Coliseum, this year's event will be held on city streets, right in downtown L.A. This will add yet another wild card to an already wild card-saturated event. "[RallyCross] isn't about the most pristine line through the corner. You still want to maintain speed and go fast, but you have to protect your position if you're in front, and you have to figure out a strategy and way to get by the guys in front of you if you're behind."
Might want to add "don't crash into a building" in there as well, Tanner.
The Global RallyCross Championship will run three events between March and June. The first event will be at Irwindale Speedway in Irwindale, CA on March 25-26, 2011. More information on Global RallyCross Championship can be found on www.global-rallycross.com.