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Adrenaline in a Shot Glass

Story by Steven Cole Smith • Photos as credited

There’s a compelling tale to be written about the Red Bull Global Rallycross series.

No, not this one necessarily–we were thinking more along the lines of a master’s thesis for an MBA. The working title? “Launching a Major Motorsports Series: A Case Study.”

Think about it: You can count on one hand the number of major startup series we’ve seen in the past five years. There’s Robby Gordon’s Speed Energy Formula Off-Road Presented by Traxxas, named for the Speed Energy drink company that Gordon owns. He also owns the brand-anonymous trucks that star in the series and the aluminum ramps they leap from. Want to race? That’ll be $25,000 a weekend per seat. And good seats are still available.

There’s FIA Formula E, known for its single-seaters with electric motors and not-very-electrifying races. “EJs,” or electric disc jockeys, play loud music during the competitions to try to replace the excitement that normally comes as standard equipment with regular racing. With its Miami date canceled for 2016, this championship series will only race at Long Beach in the U.S. this next season. Formula E did draw a good crowd at that location for its 2015 debut, though. Did we mention admission was free?

And then there’s the Red Bull Global Rallycross.

The Birth of a Series

Photos courtesy Red Bull

Photos courtesy Red Bull

Let’s start with some history. Rallycross was perhaps among the first forms of motorsport to begin as a television event: A rallycross competition held at England’s Lydden Circuit was featured on a February 1967 broadcast of the ITV network’s “World of Sport.” The sport jumped to Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular in 1969, the same year it invaded Australia.

It didn’t really come to the U.S. until 2010, when Rally America staged some events at New Jersey Motorsports Park and ESPN aired a Super Rally event from X Games XVI in Los Angeles that July. Tanner Foust won the Super Rally, and Brian Deegan took second; both remain staples in Red Bull Global Rallycross competition.

What we now know as the Red Bull Global Rallycross launched in 2011, with four events in California and one in Colorado. The first was at the Irwindale, California, oval track, where 10 cars competed. Markus Grönholm won, Tanner Foust was third, and Rhys Millen took seventh. You’d have to be a dedicated rally fan to recognize the other names.

There were seven events in 2012. In 2013, there were events at nine venues in places like Brazil, Spain and Germany. The roster for the season opener in Brazil previewed the series’ abstract variety of drivers: Scott Speed, Travis Pastrana, Tanner Foust, Ken Block, Nelson Piquet Jr., and even Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice. Since then, the series has stayed closer to home, with only a Barbados weekend straying outside the lower 48 in the last two seasons.

What really launched Global Rallycross was an announcement made in November 2012: Businessman Colin Dyne and Europlay Capital Advisors would take over the series from founders Chip Pankow and Brian Gale. Dyne, a selfdescribed professional brand-maker, worked his magic with William Rast, the clothing company co-founded by Justin Timberlake that sponsored Dan Wheldon’s car in his 2011 Indy 500 win.

Europlay Capital Advisors is headed by Mark Dyne, Colin’s brother. Mark was CEO of Sega, CEO and chairman of video game publisher Virgin Interactive, and one of the earliest major investors in Skype.

On July 11, 2013, a press release noted that 20-year-old NASCAR K&N Pro Series driver Austin Dyne—Colin’s son—would make his first Global Rallycross start in the entry-level Lites class, turning the series into a true family affair. The release did not mention that his father and uncle owned the series.

In November 2013 at the Las Vegas SEMA Show, news came of a partnership that would genuinely boost Global Rallycross into the big leagues: Red Bull would be the title sponsor beginning in 2014. It seems irrelevant whether Red Bull ever actually invested much in the business beyond its massive marketing clout and individual car sponsorship. Let’s face it: Even if, say, Lumpy’s Minnow Farm were kicking in millions, Lumpy’s Minnow Farm Global Rallycross is not likely to stir the souls of many major marketers.

And Red Bull has.

Ford, Subaru and Volkswagen are firmly aboard, and strong rumors are circulating that Honda will jump in soon. Hyundai dropped out at the end of 2014, a puzzling call since they had a winning program and a high-profile leader in Rhys Millen. Dodge and Chevrolet are no longer actively involved, though few would be surprised at a Chevrolet return.

The arrival of Andretti Autosport as a factory Volkswagen team in 2014, with drivers Scott Speed and Tanner Foust, got a lot of attention. It also likely encouraged the addition of twocar teams from Chip Ganassi Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport this past year. Unlike Andretti, however, those two teams are leasing Fords from longtime series stalwart Olsbergs MSE rather than building their own cars.

Colin Dyne recently told Autoweek that a team can contend for the championship on a $1 million annual budget. He must be talking about teams that lease cars, because after a tour of the Andretti shop in Indianapolis and a weekend spent with the Subaru team, we’re confident that both efforts are way, way past $1 million from developing entirely new cars this year.

Still, of all the marketing moves Red Bull Global Rallycross has made, the crowning touch came with the April 2014 announcement that NBC would televise the races in 2014 and 2015. This past year, 11 of the 12 races were live on NBC, with rebroadcasts on NBCSN.

That is the best TV package of any motorsports event– period. Better than NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula 1.

What the series and Red Bull are paying to get live network TV on Saturday and Sunday afternoons is anyone’s guess, but if it were cheap, everybody would be doing it. Imagine walking into a potential sponsor’s office and offering them live network TV: You might not leave with any money, but you will get their attention. Is the series buying credibility? Absolutely. But that’s a lot quicker than earning it.

And it doesn’t hurt that Red Bull Global Rallycross has the youngest demographic, by far, of any series. The short races and bright colors are capturing the distracted-by-shiny-objects generation, and they’re bolstered by the social media savvy of drivers like Ken Block and Tanner Foust.

So that, MBA candidates, is the official Grassroots Motorsports Cliff ’s Notes for your thesis. At least give us credit in the footnotes, okay?

Short Attention Span Theater

Let’s face it: Red Bull Global Rallycross was designed to appeal to today’s abbreviated attention spans. Understand that, and a lot of what this series does makes sense.

Audiences with an attention deficit are a problem NASCAR is battling. The STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway, for instance, took 3 hours, 49 minutes and 13 seconds, a long time to sit in the stands. But if NASCAR tried to shorten that race to, say, the STP 300, traditional fans would probably suggest that if they’re seeing 40 percent less racing, they should pay 40 percent less at the gate.

To which NASCAR would respond, “Um, no.”

Even IndyCar faces that concern to a lesser degree. The MAVTV 500 at AutoClub Speedway took 2 hours, 57 minutes and 40 seconds. That’s a minute longer than the Kevin Costner flick “Waterworld.”

So Global Rallycross is served in bite-sized bits, both for the at-the-track fans and the TV audience. And as F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone once said, “The fans in the stands are the studio audience,” and he just worries about the fans in front of their TVs. Or laptops. That’s where the money is made, the sponsors are satisfied, and the racers get famous. Television rules Global Rallycross.

The Global Rallycross tracks are typically shorter than a mile and are a mix of tarmac and trucked-in dirt. The dirt goes in the corners, allowing for lots of sliding as the drivers try to outbrake each other for a pass. The jumps, also dirt, feature a “tabletop” design to give the cars some air and a relatively low-impact landing. At least that’s the idea–the makeshift, last-minute jump at the 2015 Fort Lauderdale opener was abrupt, breaking multiple front suspensions on landing and injuring at least one driver’s back.

That’s one of the issues Global Rallycross must address: consistency. Not only was the Fort Lauderdale track a problem, but the track at the ESPN X Games at Circuit of the Americas this summer was dangerously dusty in the dirt portions. Drivers complained that once they’d launched on the jump, they couldn’t see where they were landing. Global Rallycross and COTA knew the problem existed on Friday, but they did nothing to fix it for Saturday’s races.

A Global Rallycross race weekend begins with two rounds of heat races, usually four cars and six laps each. The field is then combined into two groups of equal size for the semifinals, which are also six laps each. The top three finishers from each semifinal transfer into the main event, giving those teams time to work on their cars while others continue to compete.

Drivers who do not make it into the main event via heat races will compete in the four-lap, last-chance qualifier for the remaining qualifying spots. Ten cars then compete in the 10-lap main event.

This is a problem: Have a bad heat race and then finish outside the top four in the last-chance qualifier, and you go home. This scenario often leaves some of the most popular drivers, including Ken Block, Bucky Lasek and Travis Pastrana, watching from the sidelines. The format is certainly true to the European model of rallycross, but it’s contrary to the American ideal of getting to see all the big names in the main event. NASCAR, for instance, has rewritten the rules, packing them with provisions to make sure Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes every race, no matter where he qualifies.

The 10-lap feature race goes by very quickly. There is a shortcut called the Joker Lap that a driver can use once–usually at the start or near the finish. There is also a Penalty Box, a 50-meter lane off the racing line where officials will occasionally hold a driver for an infraction, such as jumping the start or rough driving. A red flag falls only when the track is blocked or there’s a particularly bad crash.

The races air live on NBC, and consequently they are scheduled around NBC’s availability. The Detroit doubleheader, for instance, aired at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, and 4:30 p.m. Sunday. Also, “live” means that the feature will air live, with preceding heats and other events done far enough in advance to make sure the big show is ready to roll within the allotted time slot. This means there’s plenty of time between races to visit the pits and vendors. As with the NHRA, every ticket is a pit pass, and the drivers are typically very accessible.

The races rerun on NBCSN–that’s NBC Sports Network, the cable station. Lites, the spec series that serves as a training ground for Global Rallycross and as filler for the big events, airs separately on NBCSN.

The pay-for-play format on NBC guarantees a healthy, but expensive, audience, but the in-person crowds are a work in progress. While the fan count at the Daytona International Speedway doubleheader this year was modest–our guess is 2500–Track President Joie Chitwood III says it was a win for the venue. “These are fans we may not see at any other event all year,” he said. “And the percentage of young fans was bigger than any other race, except perhaps [Monster Energy] Supercross. This is a good event for us, and I think it has a future.”

The Cars Are Also the Stars

It’s by design that the Red Bull Global Rallycross supercars are based on affordable street vehicles. They’re the sort of cars that series fans are likely to drive, like the Volkswagen Beetle, Ford Fiesta ST and Subaru WRX STI.

Recently GRM was allowed an allaccess look at the brand-new 2015 Subaru WRX STI rally cars driven by Bucky Lasek and Sverre Isachsen. The cars are built and operated by Vermont SportsCar, one of the oldest and most successful rally teams in the country. Their Subarus are typical of all the entries in the Global Rallycross class. They begin with a stock Subaru WRX STI off the showroom floor. The interior is stripped and a multipoint roll cage, built from T45 steel, is then welded into place.

The race car weighs about 2600 pounds, about 600 less than the stock version. Minimum weight, with driver, is a Global Rallycross-mandated 2866 pounds. Lasek weighs a lot less than Norwegian rally star Isachsen, whose nickname is The Bear, so ballast is added to his ride to meet the minimum.

The engines in all the cars are 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinders. They pump out between 550 and 600 horsepower, with about 650 ft.-lbs. of torque. Global Rallycross does surprisingly little performance balancing–a 45mm air restrictor seems to keep everybody in the ballpark. After all, the slick 17-inch spec Yokohama radials are constantly spinning, so a difference of 10 or 20 horsepower is academic. The radiator is moved to the rear of the car to better protect it. Cooling air for the radiator enters through custom carbon-fiber ducts on the back doors and exits from the rear end. The cars have launch control, a turbo anti-lag system and a hydraulic handbrake.

The Subarus use a Sadev six-speed, close-ratio, dog-engagement gearbox that allows for clutchless shifts. The rear differential is also from Sadev; the front diff is a Sellholm.

There’s a 20-liter FIA-spec fuel cell, an electric water pump and electric power steering. Suspension is by Öhlins, the turbo is a Garrett, brakes are by Alcon, Tilton makes the clutch, and the oil is Royal Purple synthetic. The seat is a HANS-friendly Recaro Ultima with a Sparco harness. That’s just a sample; a great many of the parts are fabricated by Vermont SportsCar, and those guys know what they’re doing.

Last year, GRM snagged a ride in one of Rhys Millen’s Hyundai Velosters, driven by New Zealand rally champ Emma Gilmour. As you’d expect, the launch was amazing–zero to 60 mph in 1.9 seconds–but after that, Gilmour was all arms and elbows, even on the Daytona track, which is one of the longest and straightest on the schedule. Constantly shifting, braking with the handbrake, fighting for traction, and then the jump–more benign than you’d expect, with a surprisingly soft landing thanks to the sophisticated suspension.

Like almost all racing, it looked pretty easy and like a lot of fun when we were out there alone. In the middle of a pack with nine other cars? Yeah, that’s probably a different story.

Rallycross for the Rest of Us

So you want to be a Red Bull Global Rallycross driver?

Yeah, so do we.

Looking at the roster of stars in the series, it helps if you are already famous (Ken Block, Bucky Lasek, Travis Pastrana, Jeff Ward, Nelson Piquet Jr., Scott Speed, Tanner Foust); a winning rally driver from elsewhere (Norwegian Sverre Isachsen, Swede Patrik Sandell); the son of the series owner (Austin Dyne); or rich enough to pay your way (most of the rest of the field, and pretty much all of the Lites roster).

For inspiration, though, let’s look at the series’ most popular driver, Ken Block, who came up the traditional way.

Indeed, Block’s resumé is a strange one for a global superstar: The 47-year-old began his professional rallying career in 2005 by racing in the Rally America series in a Subaru built by Vermont SportsCar, which now builds and operates the Subaru Global Rallycross team.

He was the Rally America Rookie of the Year, and that was also about the time he discovered that stunting on TV and the Internet got you a lot more attention than rallying at, say, the SnoDrift in Michigan in January. We covered the SnoDrift in 1983 and thawed out for the next, like, three years.

But by rallying with Rally America and the Canadian Rally Championship, Block learned his chops. Rally America (rally-america.com), based in Williston, Vermont, is a relatively young organization. It assumed the SCCA’s ProRally Championship at the end of 2004 and has worked hard to keep rallying alive in the U.S.

It hosts eight national championship events from Portland, Oregon, to Newry, Maine. In 2010, the group held the first European-style rallycross in the country at New Jersey Motorsport Park.

The championship events have attracted top names. Pastrana is a four-time champion, Block is a 16-race winner, and Foust and current Global Rallycross racer Brian Deegan have raced with Rally America.

Rally America’s regional events are most likely to appeal to GRM readers. The bad news: If you live below the Mason-Dixon line, you’re probably out of luck. The farthest south the series travels is Missouri.

But at least you don’t have to spend a fortune to compete. In the 2014 Rally America Show-Me Rally in Potosi, Missouri, the winner was a 1991 Subaru Legacy, followed by a 1970 Volkswagen Beetle, followed by a 1994 BMW M3.

And if you want to spend some money on a newer car, consider this: Rally America has an affordable B-Spec class that uses the factory-supplied kits designed for road racing. Eligible cars are the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, Chevy Sonic, Nissan Versa, Fiat 500, Kia Rio, MINI Cooper and Ford Fiesta.

The 2015 B-Spec champ is James Robinson, who drives a Honda Fit–appropriate since he works as an engineer for Honda. The manufacturer sells a rally kit for the Fit, and Robinson said maintenance is minimal. Aside from his initial investment, entry fees and travel, he said he “spent less than $5000 to win a national championship.”

And while the SCCA moved away from professional rallying, its Rally- Cross program is going strong in certain parts of the country. Essentially an autocross on dirt–but with no car-killing jumps–SCCA RallyCross is open to most any vehicle that can pass the basic technical inspection.

There are nine classes divided into front-, rear- and all-wheel drive, and then further divided into stock, prepared and modified. Aside from regional events, the SCCA has RallyCross National Challenge events scheduled from California to Georgia.

And then there’s the big one: the RallyCross National Championship. The 2015 event took place in Indianola, Iowa, August 7-9. There were 105 entries, including lots of Mazda Miatas, Subaru Imprezas and one 1983 Volkswagen Rabbit pickup truck. You don’t need a lot of muscle–we counted just one V8, a Ford Mustang, on the list of entries.

And there are contingency sponsors for the national events: Honda, Subaru, Mazda and Hawk Performance. For more information, visit the SCCA RallyCross site.

And finally, NASA has a Rally Sport series made up of multiple events, including the 2WD Challenge. That one has three separate races in June, August and October, with a total purse of $6000. There were 48 entries in the June event held in Idaho.

NASA’s National Championship is held in Prescott, Arizona, October 2-3, with qualifiers coming from the Atlantic Rally Cup and Pacific Rally Cup’s regional events. NASA also has a great online tutorial called Rally University that covers everything from spectating to building a car. Find it at nasarallysport.com.

One more way to get involved: Like any racing series, the SCCA, NASA and Rally America need volunteers to help run the events. It’s a great way to see what it’s like up close before you decide whether or not to go racing. And if you do, consider spending some time at one of the many rally schools scattered across the country, including The Florida International Rally and Motorsport Park in Starke, which has a basic class starting at $695 and a five-day course of “intense” rally training for $6195.

Maybe you’ll make it to the Red Bull Global Rallycross. Or maybe you’ll just have fun trying.

This article is from an old issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Get all the latest how-tos and stories for just $20 a year. Subscribe now.

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Comments

View comments on the GRM forums
sachilles
sachilles UltraDork
2/10/17 2:42 p.m.

It's evolved a bit since this story as well.

92dxman
92dxman SuperDork
2/12/17 9:21 p.m.

Great article. I've watched it on tv for a couple years now and attended the practice/qualifying day of the Atlantic City stop this past summer. It is very fan friendly and easy to watch. GRC is the only motorsports series I follow on a consistent basis anymore.

GalaxiePacerVegaProbe
GalaxiePacerVegaProbe None
2/18/17 8:02 a.m.

At the Top Gear Festival in Barbados (2014) the GRC competition was as exciting as anything except for Jeremy Clarkson offing his Ferrari for a DNF. Hopefully more regional events will built the rally car crowd.

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