The rally events in X Games have always been purely American. Jumping? Peristyles? And now they will be shutting down the streets of Los Angeles. After five years and six events all but one of the gold medals have been won by American drivers. The lone foreign-born driver to win a gold medal was Sweden's Kenny Brack in 2009 and he was a retired IRL driver with little rally experience.
Despite being largely shut out of the X Games medal count, the Europeans are the best rally car drivers in the world and this year's roster in both Rally Car Racing and RallyCross will feature five drivers from the other side of the Atlantic, four who have never competed at X Games but all bring serious clout and credentials. "XG gets a huge amount of attention overseas," said five-time medalist Tanner Foust. "Marcus Grönholm is one of the best drivers to ever walk the planet. Liam Doran is a quick guy and Michael Jernberg is old and fast so there are a lot of very interested people that want to participate in X Games and they bring big games with them."
Grönholm is a two time World Rally Champion and has beaten Foust in three of the four races he's competed in on the 2011 Global RallyCross circuit. At 43, Grönholm is still one of the fastest drivers in the world but as he sits in the paddock, legs crossed, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, he could easily pass for a high school chemistry teacher who also coaches the varsity basketball team (he's 6'3"). With his Finnish accent he speaks like he drives -- careful and calculated. "I know there is a really good chance to win [XG] because I have won two of the Global RallyCross races against Tanner," he said. "But it's so unpredictable because if you get a bad start and you get into traffic you cannot pass and that's it."
Liam Doran is 24 and stands at 6'1 and 200 pounds. He is the complete opposite of Grönholm in every way. His personal motto is "fear nothing, risk everything" and his driving style shows. He's only in his second year on the European RallyCross Championship and he has two wins. He speaks quickly and with a lot of energy. "European RallyCross is really experienced-based," he said. "You have to earn your place and get some respect and work your way up. I sort of did that from the very bottom to the middle stage of the sport and then from the middle stage I didn't really earn my place. What it means is that I can get away with what I want. I can sort of do my thing. If I want to try more than everyone else, I will. If I want to hit harder than everyone else, I will."
Doran said if he took his style to a sport like Formula 1 he would be kicked out of the series after one weekend. His official plan is to have no plan. "Wing it. 100 percent. You can't have a plan in RallyCross because it is sprint racing. Attack. A lot of people can say that's not the best way of doing it but in RallyCross, especially here in the X Games, that's what people are going to want to see so that's what I do."
The Isle of Man's David Higgins and Sweden's Michael Jernberg are closer to the temperament and style of Grönholm than they are Doran. At 48, Jernberg is twice Doran's age, yet they tied in points in the 2010 European RallyCross Championship. Higgins recently won the 2011 US Rally Championship, his third U.S. title. "Liam, from what I've seen, is very spectacular and quite a wild driver to watch," Higgins said. "If it works for him and he gets results then fine. I think the Euro style in general is a little bit smoother and probably not so spectacular. The hardest thing with the RallyCross cars is that they want to go really wild and spectacular and sideways but unfortunately that's not the fastest way to be in them so you have to discipline yourself to hold back."
Foust, the defending XG gold medalist in Racing and RallyCross, and who leads the points in both the European RallyCross Championships and the Global RallyCross Championships said he expects the most pressure to come right from his own paddock where he's Ford teammates with 2010 double silver medalist, Brian Deegan, and Grönholm. "I think the biggest threat is Grönholm and I think he's the biggest threat in any race that he enters. And because he's in a Fiesta and I know his equipment, speed and tires, I know he's going to be fast."
The streets of LA shut down for Rally Car Racing Saturday, July 30 at 4 p.m. ET. The RallyCross finals start Sunday at 5 p.m. ET.