Learn the mudslinging secrets of top rallycross driver Paul Eklund

Staff
By Staff Writer
May 16, 2022 | rallycross, rally, Speed Secrets | Posted in Features | From the Dec. 2011 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by Wayne Flynn unless otherwise credited

Story by Paul Eklund

So you’re a pretty good rallycross driver. You can handle the ruts with panache, and you look pretty good out there during those 85-second runs. 

And yeah, you can best all your buddies, but you still can’t seem to catch the top guns in your class. They must have spent a bunch of money on go-fast bits and the best tires, right? Maybe. 

It’s more likely that the advantage lies in the drivers themselves: They’re prepared, they’re focused, and they pay attention to feedback. Nail these elements, then watch your times drop and your standings climb. We’ve compiled a list of 10 top tips to help you develop your skills and maximize your performance when the going gets slippery.

Early Preparation

Top competitors begin a race long before they reach the start line. They dive into preparation weeks or even months ahead of time. 

First, most of these guys have taken at least one professional training course. Why spend those dollars on something other than a sanctioned event? Simple: Training outside the realm of competition gives even the best drivers a chance to practice as well as receive feedback from independent observers. 

Think of these events as settings for conducting driving experiments. Repeating a corner or sequence allows drivers to test different lines and car balance techniques. The goal: Discover the ideal method for handling different obstacles. Top drivers investigate and test performance parts, too. Rally cars are a system, and they must be evaluated after each new part is introduced.

Adding a big turbo, for example, doesn’t necessarily make a rallycross car faster on every course. Doing your homework and working with the supplier can help ensure an integrated product and the best chance for success. The shotgun approach—picking up this item here and one of those over there and sticking them on the car—can lead to a modified vehicle that’s actually slower than stock.

At the Course

The prep continues into the days before the event. This is the time to check weather forecasts as well as investigate the composition and condition of the course. The fast guys use this information to make subtle setup tweaks and determine tire choice. Most competition cars these days are rather adjustable—the trick is knowing what to adjust before the green flag falls. 

Slippery or really rough conditions generally call for softer, more forgiving suspension setups. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the time or money to change out springs or struts for each event. Still, there are ways to soften a suspension on the cheap: You can loosen or remove the anti-roll bars; switch to a higher-profile tire; lower tire pressures; adjust for zero toe up front and a little toe-out in the rear; and soften the shock valving, if possible. 

Softening the suspension causes the car to react in a slower, more stable manner. This will make it easier for you to feel your way around tricky corners and keep the tires planted on the ground. If the rallycross surface is going to be smooth and fast, then make the suspension stiffer. The key, of course, is being prepared before encountering that first turn.

Walk the Line

Some experience can also help with your setup. Most beginners make the mistake of stiffening the suspension too much for rallycross. Bringing road race-type setups to a bumpy field is another common blunder, one that often results in embarrassment as the tires skip from bump to bump. And yeah, the big slides are often spectacular, but they aren’t really fast. 

Be sure to walk the course before that first run. Repeatedly. Being intimately familiar with the track has all kinds of advantages. 

Something to think about while hoofing it around the course: Are there any turns that you can link together, even if that means sacrificing one to maximize a series or the following straight? Any ruts and/or rough spots to avoid? Where’s the best traction? What’s the fastest line through the turns? Any alternate routes to tuck away in case the primary line gets obliterated?

Two more tips: Find the slowest point on course and figure out the fastest line through it, even if it means sacrificing a little speed before that turn. Also, use a late apex to maximize exit speeds onto the straights. A little speed gained at corner exit can pay big dividends when it’s time to slow for the next turn.

Mental Focus

Once you’re staring down the course from the starting line, mental focus becomes critical. Sure, driving is a physical activity, but it’s also very much a thinking game.

Before taking the green flag, you should be able to close your eyes and visualize traveling through the entire course on your planned driving line. If you can’t remember each corner or where you plan to place the car, then you haven’t walked the course enough. 

Any hesitation out on course will cost time. How much? Enough. Being only 6 feet off the line through a turn, for example, can easily add 20 feet to the distance traveled. 

Now do the math. Twenty feet at a 27 mph average speed through the corner works out to half a second lost: 20/5280 x 60/27 = 0.5 second. 

That means you’ll lose half a second for each corner you take wide. However, if you follow the shortest path at a decent speed and avoid the big, beautiful slides, odds are strong that your times will drop. 

Better Braking

At some point, you’re going to have to slow down to make a turn. Before entering the turn, brake in a straight line—tires don’t like to brake and turn at the same time, so do one or the other when you can. 

However, with some finesse you can perfect a particular mix of braking and turning—yep, trail braking. Start the hard braking in a straight line, but carry some of the braking into the turn. Then, gradually ease off the brakes as you add steering input. This helps rotate the car into the corner. 

As the corner opens up at the apex and the exit route is just becoming clear, apply a bit of power to stop the rotation and get the car to drive out of the corner. This technique can be performed very early on a late-apex approach and leads to good exit speed. Plus, there’s always the thrill of simply nailing the corner. 

Keep Your Cool

Don’t let the adrenaline build so that a red mist takes over. The cold, calculating part of your brain needs to control the emotional, fun-loving part that is now driving the car. Of course this is fun, but winning takes a well-crafted plan.

All of your senses need to work together to execute that plan. Keeping your sights far ahead is vital, so don’t get caught watching the cones disappear under the hood. You should be scanning down the course and planning where to put the car. 

Pull Your Weight

A good driver is also a master of car balance. Whether we think about it consciously or not, we all know a couple basic facts about this subject: When accelerating, the weight of the car shifts to the rear wheels; when braking, the weight shifts to the front wheels. 

The great drivers wield a car’s weight like a fine tool, adjusting and readjusting its trajectory at all times into and through a corner. You should become familiar with how your car reacts as its weight shifts—driving a dirt skidpad is a great way to learn.

Downtime

While all of these factors are important, don’t forget that a driver’s body needs to be properly maintained, too. Be sure to have supplies on hand to refresh your brain between runs: cold water, snacks and a place to sit in the shade. 

When you get back up to the start, think of improvements that you can make on your next run. There’s always more time waiting to be found. Remember that every run counts—unlike autocross, rallycross doesn’t allow you to throw away runs in search of one glorious time. Be fast and be consistent. 

Feedback

Due to their soft nature, rallycross courses constantly change throughout the day: Ruts form, snow melts, grass turns into mud. During the day’s competition, be vigilant of any major changes to the course. 

More subtle observations are important as well. How are competitors taking the turns? Are your tire pressures keeping steady, or are they creeping upward? Do you need to make chassis changes as the course becomes smoother and faster? 

Champions and key competitors often have an attentive audience of rallycrossers hoping to answer a simple question: Where are the fast guys shaving little bits of time? Keep in mind, however, that consistency matters in rally. If you’re running good times, don’t try an entirely new line or approach unless there’s a compelling reason. Aim to clean up a specific portion of the course or a certain technique: a better entry position, earlier turn-in or a better track-out line. 

And remember: As you clean up your runs, you’ll be going faster and will therefore need to brake earlier and harder for the turns. Many a novice student has improved a tricky corner only to throw away that advantage at the next one. Adjust your braking point in response to any newfound speed. 

Close Shave

No matter what your car or class, putting these suggestions into practice should lower your times at your next rallycross event. Shaving off those last few tenths will require a lot of hard work, time and attention to detail. 

Paul Eklund is a two-time SCCA Solo champion driver, Performance Rally champion, co-driver national champion and frequent rallycross class winner. He also runs a small rally driving school on the West Coast under the Primitive Performance banner.

Join Free Join our community to easily find more rallycross, rally and Speed Secrets articles.
Comments
View comments on the GRM forums
Our Preferred Partners
WAs83Gi9bcoSUAWiPFjKA9xQj2SFE66PDCGFGc6Brp07bYSggajq2m3HwoV4ZZej