Dirt, dust, fun | An introduction to rallycross

Staff
By Staff Writer
Sep 24, 2022 | rallycross | Posted in Features | From the April 2010 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Wayne Flynn

Story by Paul Eklund

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

Spring is fast approaching, and daydreams everywhere are beginning to feature adrenaline-soaked racing sessions. Tired of going around in circles? Try rallycross. Whether you drive a Saab, Saturn or Subaru, this is an excellent venue for low-buck fun.

Rallycross is kind of like autocross, but on the dirt. Well, not really. The surfaces can vary in composition—think dry desert lake beds, gravel pits, soybean fields and grass parking lots.

Cones often define the courses, but bridges, trees or oil drums can add a third dimension. Courses are often about a mile long and take two or three minutes to cover. Timing is done using stopwatches or electronic eyes adapted for dust and debris. 

As in autocross, time penalties are given for hitting cones or gates. Workers stand by to report off-course excursions and replace wayward cones. (Little landscaping flags are often used to mark where the cones should go.) 

But here is what we really like about the sport: The best driver usually wins, as car setup takes a back seat to old-fashioned skill behind the wheel. Rallycross also costs little to enter, is accessible to most enthusiasts, and doesn’t require a special license or top-level equipment to succeed. Just bring a “regular” car—nothing low-slung, super-expensive or prone to rollover. The sport retains that sense of grassroots camaraderie we all enjoy. 

When the time comes to move up the equipment ladder, you often just need a better set of tires. The pressure placed on equipment is just that minor.

Sure, it’s fun to fantasize about running on the FIA World Rally circuit, but that takes millions of dollars and some serious skill. For less than $30 or so, anyone can go rallycrossing this weekend.

Easy Entry

We’re big proponents of rallycross because it pushes so many hot buttons. You get to slide your car around like a Formula D drifter and challenge the terrain like Petter Solberg, all without worrying about crashing or getting hurt. Rallycross also retains that hard-to-fault timed element where the fastest driver wins. 

Unlike track racing, the rallycross course is in a constant state of flux, further adding to the challenge. Rallycrosses typically enjoy smaller turnouts than autocrosses, meaning a better ratio of driving time to waiting time. 

Most large events use a run-work format to help share the load, and it’s not uncommon to see 80 to 135 entrants broken up into two groups, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. As a result, this can be a half-day endeavor that still includes four runs per person. Smaller turnouts frequently allow many more runs per competitor.

Growing and Gaining

From humble beginnings, the sport has grown under the guidance of the SCCA’s Pego Mack plus many hardworking local organizers, regions and clubs. Although the SCCA puts on the most events—and has service marked the term “RallyCross”—events are also sanctioned by NASA and other groups. There are also some long-running “grass gymkhanas” organized by independent clubs such as the Emerald Empire Sports Car Club.

While relatively new to the national scene, the SCCA held their second true RallyCross national championships this fall. Sixty-four competitors vied for titles in seven SCCA classes.

Competition was extremely close in some classes, with Robert Johnson landing his second consecutive national title by less than a second after 13 minutes of timed runs. By comparison, the 2009 Tire Rack SCCA Solo National Championships for autocross saw more than a thousand entrants in dozens of classes. At that event, the closest margin of victory occurred in Formula SAE: one thousandth of a second. 

Like Falling Off a Log

If you’re new to rallycross, first focus on simply getting to the events. Spend your hard-earned bank on travel expenses and entry fees—no need to make upgrades to your car or buy a different vehicle. Take a beater or your daily driver. Better yet, co-drive your buddy’s WRX wagon. 

If you have an aversion to cleaning your car, rallycross may not be for you. 

The events may not be close by, and to find one you’ll often have to search through the SCCA regional Web sites, newsletters and posts on message boards such as SpecialStage.com or DirtyImpreza.com.

Our advice: Show up to a few events, meet some other participants, make friends, and then consider getting some professional help. Yes, we mean head back to school. The key to success is not investing in equipment, but investing in yourself to learn driving skills. Once hooked, you’ll want to speed up the learning curve. 

Beater Basics

While rallycross places a premium on driving ability, it’s impossible to ignore car prep. On that note, there are many misconceptions about rallycross car setup.

The first is that suspensions need to be stiffened. The reality is that unless the dampers’ bump and rebound are also greatly increased, stiffer springs will not keep the tire on the ground when encountering uneven surfaces. 

We recommend a balanced system that features stiffer springs, robust struts and adjustable ride height. Most street setups are much too stiff and have linear rather than progressive spring rates. They’re great for a flat tarmac track, nasty for a rutted field.

You don’t need to spend a lot of money on setup, either. The best homegrown system we have seen was on an Audi. The spring rates—not the springs themselves—were cut in half from stock, but the coils were long enough to raise the car slightly. This was combined with vigorously cut snow tires—a nice, soft compound and tall, soft sidewalls. Tire pressures were around 14 psi, and the tire beads were screwed directly to the rim to prevent de-beading.

We were initially skeptical, but the soft springs, tires and pressures allowed that 80-horsepower Audi to cremate every STI, Evo and wannabe at that event. Although the Audi appeared to wallow a lot, its driver could keep the power down all the time. The thing simply turned without a lot of pendulum setup.

Our advice: Aim engine mods at reliability, aim suspension mods at strength and softness, and don’t forget to keep the cockpit comfortable. A roof vent permits air flow if you’ve gutted the a/c system. It also pressurizes the cabin to keep out the dust. We’d also recommend a good seat and harness to hold you in place.

Going Faster

There are key elements that separate rallycross from its tarmac brother. For one, in most regions, every run counts.

In autocross, the strategy is usually as follows: Post a solid first run, go all out on the second run, then make one last-ditch attempt to lower the class record on the third run. Rallycross, on the other hand, follows true rally form: Be on time, all the time. 

In other words, post consistent, good runs every time, even if none of them are the single fastest. They all add up. Pretend those cones truly are trees and don’t hit them. That two-second penalty can kill a winning set of times. 

Before heading out, walk the course. This takes some time, but you will notice holes, ruts, surface changes and slight alterations in camber. The fastest line through the course should come to you while navigating the course at a slow pace. More importantly, this reconnaissance should help identify alternate lines in case the primary one becomes rutted, wiped out or slick from a water truck pass.

Once on course, work to go fastest in the slowest spots. Walking will help you identify these places. Your mission: Sacrifice entry speed so you can maximize speed past the apex and out of the turn. Those gains will grow down the following straight.

Unlike asphalt parking lots, dirt surfaces tend to change a bit with each passing car. Deep ruts and other features can form over time, adding to the challenge.

Remember, it’s about the driver, too, not just the car. People will spend hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars so their cars can pick up 1 mph on a straight. Then they will overdrive a 10 mph corner, drop to 7 mph at the exit, and lose much more time than they gained. Watch for it the next time you’re at an event; you’ll see it happen.

Now, if those same people invested some of that money in driver education, they would know to take that 10 mph corner at 10 mph. The result: better times and a stronger finishing position.

Sometimes a run is tossed to account for the insidious water truck or general course degradation. Use this blessing wisely. It’s no excuse to make a banzai run—such attempts usually end with a blown tire bead, a bunch of dust, and course workers running ragged.

Make Mud Pies

The beauty of rallycross is that just about any car can participate. The rules are generally very loose and simply separate cars by driveline configuration and tire type. For the most part, someone will be there to help regarding the classing.

It’s also an economical motorsport that yields big thrills. Yeah, it’s fun to play in the dirt, but it’s especially sweet when it doesn’t cost much.

Many stage rally competitors use rallycross events as test-and-tune sessions for their race cars. Ronald Meyers and Devin McKenna normally campaign this 1984 VW Rabbit in Rally America and NASA stage rally competition.

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Comments
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AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter)
AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
1/25/22 11:08 p.m.

Heck yeah!  Rallycross season starts for North TX on 3/5 at the Offroad park in Ardmore, OK.  I will be there.  I share my car if you don't have one.  I do not share helmets, that's gross. 

P3PPY
P3PPY GRM+ Memberand Dork
9/25/22 11:13 a.m.

I can't wait to get the last repairs done and see if anything's running this fall/winter in MI. Press On Regardless was fun and all but 375 miles...! I can take my fun in smaller increments, too

bcorn
bcorn
9/25/22 12:56 p.m.

If you are interested and are in or near Texas, SCCA host RallyCross in Houston (Alvin actually) (Track down Lenny Kirk) a few times a year. Austin Rally Project also host races monthly, sometimes more. There are also Southern Oklohoma events and some North Texas events. And Lone Star RallyCross has been hosting Rallycross in Maxwell Texas for the last 10 years.

 

https://www.northtexasrallycross.com/

https://austinrallyproject.wixsite.com/home

https://www.lonestarrallycross.com/

P3PPY
P3PPY GRM+ Memberand Dork
9/25/22 2:03 p.m.

I wish. I just looked on MotorsportsReg and don't see anything much happening around MI for the next few months. Dunno how I'm going to stay entertained over the winter if that's the case!

dps214
dps214 Dork
9/25/22 3:13 p.m.

In reply to P3PPY :

Not sure why there's nothing on motorsportreg yet but Detroit scca has events planned in November and December and usually runs through most of the winter as well.

http://drscca.org/rallycross/

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/25/22 8:08 p.m.

In reply to dps214 :

They usually do not put an event on MSR until the previous one is done.  Then you have like 24 hours to register before all the slots are full.

 

I don't get to go up to DRSCCA much anymore.  I96 is fun and Crystal in the winter is a blast.

P3PPY
P3PPY GRM+ Memberand Dork
9/25/22 10:18 p.m.
dps214 said:

In reply to P3PPY :

Not sure why there's nothing on motorsportreg yet but Detroit scca has events planned in November and December and usually runs through most of the winter as well.

http://drscca.org/rallycross/

Cool! Thanks, man!

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