Contributed article by Mike Shaw (@oregonwings) —
So the first round of Global Rallycross Championship took place two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Unusually this GRC event was 100% tarmac instead of the 50/50 tarmac and dirt split. Apparently the folks at Charlotte didn’t like the idea of a couple of tons of gravel and dirt being dumped onto their precious asphalt and being ground in by 600 plus horsepower fire breathing 4wd rally cars. That meant the 70ft gap jump present at all rounds last year was missing as well (bummer!). I guess it is understandable as part of the course was on the main strait of the Charlotte speedway and the rest of if using the pit lane. Probably not a huge deal, but this was the night before the big NASCAR Sprint Cup race and they probably didn’t want another Montoya type track issue. The only real “features” added to this course were a large number of water filled barricades to that leaked regularly causing wet tarmac in some areas, and a small jump on the main straight.
This year tape-delayed coverage was via ESPN2 on Saturday night with British host Toby Moody and the well known Jen Horsey providing the commentary. If you have aren’t home and don’t have a DVR, you can also catch it on the WatchESPN website (which is what I had to do because it went well over the one hour it as meant to be on ESPN2). Much improved from last year, there was minimal delay between the different heats and the track workers seemed like they knew what they were doing. There were 2 rounds of heats with each heat consisting of 4 cars going 6 laps. The top 2 cars from the second heat would progress to the finale and the losing cars got one more chance with the “last chance qualifier.”
Heat 1 consisted of two time WRC Champ Marcus Gronholm in his Best Buy sponsored Fiesta, as well as Ken Block in his Monster World Rally Team branded Fiesta, Dave Mirra in the Puma Subaru WRX STi, and finally privateer Richard Burton in an older Subaru WRX. By the second lap in the first heat, Burton’s car broke. Then on lap 3 Block took what would normally be a small jump and simply launched off of it closing the gap behind Gronholm. He got up right behind Gronholm and then disaster as they went into a sharp left-hander. Block slid wide on the wet tarmac and bounces off a barrier. When he tried to turn right at the next turn, the broken steering arm caused Block to just go straight into the water filled barricade. Heat one done for Block, but might be able to get into the main via the “last chance” qualifier. Mirra drove smart and held position for second behind Gronholm.
Heat 2 had Tanner Foust in his Rockstar sponsored Fiesta, European Rallycross champ Sverre Isachsen in another Puma Subaru, Stephan Verdier in the Disney sponsored Hyundai Veloster, and privateer Patrick Moro who is well known in his history with Rally America in a privateer Subaru. Moro’s car broke on the starting line proving how difficult it is to get all that torque to the wheels without something giving way. This was one of the more exciting races with Isachsen.
Heat 3 featured Travis Pastrana who was in the earlier Nationwide NASCAR race, and now was in the Red Bull Discount Tire sponsored Dodge Dart. Brian Deegan, last year’s X-Games GRC Champ was also in this heat in his Metal Mulisha Fiesta along with teammate and British Rallycross driver David Binks in yet another Fiesta. Finally there was also privateer Tim Rooney in an older Subaru. An interesting side story is that Travis Pastrana’s Dodge Dart was actually built by the same team that builds all the Ford Fiestas in Sweden. This was done with complete support and even encouragement from Ford. Apparently Ford really wants to see GRC be competitive and succeed with American audiences. Pastrana and Deegan took the “Joker” short lap right away, and when they went into the first hairpin Pastrana was right behind Deegan who had a half spin and Pastrana wasn’t able to stop due to the wet pavement and went slid into the back of him breaking a wheel. So by Heat 3 the two top names that I’d bet most people came to see were out with broken cars. The rest of the race was all Deegan with Binks finishing second and Rooney getting third even though he almost got lapped in his older less powerful privateer car.
Heat 4 had and final round 1 heat was somehow cut off and I missed it. The lineup was privateer Saab ERC drivers Samuel Hubinette and Andy Scott, with Rhys Millen in his Hyundai Veloster, Bucky Lasek in the third Puma Subaru, and young Fin driver Toomas Heikkinen in the last of the Fiestas. Toomas Heikkinen won.
The first two heats of the second round were much less exciting. Heat 1 featured only 3 cars as Block’s wrecked fiesta wasn’t ready. The last chance qualifier would be his only shot for the final. Gronholm easily won the heat with Mirra just behind. Heat 2 had Foust once again take the lead with Verdier in the Veloster following till the end. Sverre Isachsen broke at the start line, likely a drive shaft snapping from the torque and Pat Moro was way back in third and also has one last shot at the LCQ.
Heat 3 however was probably some of the best Rallycross action of all. Deegan got the leap on the start and went straight for the short joker which left Pastrana and Binks battling it out on the longer way around. They bashed into each other multiple times halfway around the track, but Pastrana was just a bit faster. Binks suddenly caught up to the backend of Deegan who was slowly coasting from a broken gearbox almost plowing into him. The next lap was Pastrana’s turn to take the short shoot and slid out nicely in front of Binks reclaiming the lead. Pastrana would hold on to win that heat and progress to the final.
Round 2 of Heat 4 would prove also very exciting with 5 cars in the heat . The European Saab 9-3s proved just as fast as the Fiesta driven by Heikkinen. Millen’s heavier Veloster couldn’t quite stay with them, and unfortunately Bucky Lasek in the Puma Subaru just wasn’t able to keep pace.
The LCQ – Last Chance Qualifier
This is a 3 lap sprint of 8 cars vying for 2 spots in the final. Block, Isachsen, Lasek, Scott, Millen, Moro, Rooney, and Burton. Deegan didn’t make it to the LCQ because they didn’t have time to fix his broken gearbox. At the start Block stalled and appears to have possibly broke something. Millen took the short joker and the lead with his 3rd door flapping open. His lead wouldn’t last last as Isachsen took the joker on the very next lap and took the lead from Millen. Just as you thought Isachsen had it in the bag, his car begins to slow on the back stretch putting Rhys Millen back in the lead closely followed by Andy Scott in the Saab. Millen goes a hair too wide locking up the brakes on the last lap and Andy Scott snatches the lead from him. Scott and Millen advance to the final.
10 cars over 8 laps is the final race. On the pole is of course Marcus Gronholm and next to him Tanner Foust both in Fiestas. Travis Pastrana was next and on the outside was Samuel Hubinette in the Saab 9-3. Second row was Toomas Heikkinen and David Binks in Fiestas on the inside, and outside Stephan Verdier in the Veloster with Dave Mirra on the end. Final row was only two wide with Andy Scott in a Saab 9-3 and Rhys Millen in the second Veloster.
This is what Rallycross is really all about. The cars lept off the start and instantly split into two groups. Group 1 led by Gronholm turned into the short Joker with teammates Heikkenen and Binks colliding as they followed close behind with Millen, Mirra, and Hubinette staying in the pack. Group 2 was led by Tanner Foust and went the long way around with Pastrana in hot pursuit. Foust and Pastrana take the Joker on the next lap merging with Group 1, putting Foust in second and Pastrana battling with young Heikkenen for third. Pastrana was ahead going into the hairpin but the young Heikkenen cut to the inside of Pastrana and wasn’t able to turn as sharp as he wanted on the wet pavement. Pastrana had nowhere to go as Heikkenen wedged him right into the outside barrier. Pastrana tried o keep going but his front right was bent badly and he had to pull off. The remaining cars in Group 2 got tangled with some barriers dragging them onto the course and causing some confusion for the drivers at one of the hairpins. Mirra appeared to put on an impressive show as he suddenly slotted into 2nd place going through the short Joker. Hmm…didn’t he take that on lap 1 to begin with? Foust and Mirra fight out the pseudo 2nd spot, but once they got on the long straight the power of the light weight Fiasta pulled away from the Subaru. Mirra got punted in the hairpin by Heikkenen, probably angry because Mirra didn’t belong there anyway. Heikkenen then got around Scott’s Saab for 3rd spot has he bounced and pushed his way around the track.
In the end there was the expected carnage and the top two were of course the Fords of Gronholm taking the win with Foust in second. It is no wonder why Ford likes GRC. Third actually went to Stephan Verdier in the Veloster after penalties were issued to other drivers. GRC is as much about survival as it is racing.
The next round is Saturday June 9th at Texas Motor Speedway, in hopes of enticing the IndyCar crowd just as much as those from NASCAR.