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Gronholm Thinks Rallys Could Be American Hit

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 25 2012

Travis Pastrana demonstrates a Rallycar at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

CONCORD, N.C. – Marcus Gronholm has figured out how to keep 2,600-pound, 325-horsepower cars from sailing off of claustrophobic forested roads and from drifting off of gravel mountain switchbacks, but he’s having a tough time understanding American racing fans.

Gronholm, a former FIA World Rally Championship superstar, just drops his head and shakes it side-to-side when asked why a form of racing which has captivated the rest of the world is virtually unknown in the United States.

“I don’t understand it,” Gronholm, a native of Finland who won 30 WRC events and two series championships (2000 and 2002) during his career. “I’m not sure why.”

The WRC would appear to offer things that American fans love. Foremost, action. The cars – currently; Citroen’s, Ford Fiestas and Mini Coopers – freakin’ go. And, they wreck often and they wreck spectacularly as they attempt to navigate dirt back lanes, snow-packed mountain passes and dune strewn desert hardpan.

The skills of competitors like Gronholm, Sebastien Loeb, Colin McRae and Tommi Makinen, many think, qualify them to be considered the best drivers in the world.

For the past 50 years, rally races have attracted large crowds to the backwoods stage-races in places like

Marcus Gronholm thinks RallyCross could catch on with American race fans. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Motor Speedway)

Greece, Scandinavia, Mexico, Monte Carlo, Britain and Spain. (Some members of those crowds failed to return to their homes afterward as part of the “fun” was to stand out on the tracks as the nearly out-of-control cars approached and only move out of the way at the last moment.)

“Just a different culture here,” Gronholm said, still pondering the WRC’s lack of interest in the States.

America’s best-known rally-like event has been the Pikes Peak hill climb in Colorado. Many of the cars and stars from the WRC have climbed the peak in the past – including Gronholm in 2009. He finished second.

“I would like to go back” to Pikes Peak, Gronholm said. “I couldn’t do it properly (in ‘09) because we had no test before, and we had a lot of problems with the heat and the turbo. There was so much trouble with the engine.”

Gronholm does understand that Americans have different ideas about watching races.

“In rally, you have to travel, go to the next stage, the next stage, the next stage. Here, you sit there, you take your beer, you have your hot dog. It’s much easier,” he said.

Which brings up the reason why Gronholm was sitting in the infield at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday afternoon. Gronholm now drives in the Global RallyCross Championship. The series uses cars that are similar to those used in the WRC and races them over enclosed, closed-course circuits which are jerry rigged at stadiums and, well, Charlotte Motor Speedway.

At CMS, the circuit will include the front stretch of the NASCAR oval, the pit road and portions of the Legends oval. Jumps and water boxes will be built.

Gronholm thinks that rallycross will be appealing to Americans. First, because it is easier to view and also because of the increasing popularity of  hot hatches and European tuner cars on which the rally cars are based.

Racing against Gronholm at CMS will be American action sports star and, now, NASCAR driver Travis Pastrana. Also competing will be Tanner Foust, an X-Games drifter and rally driver, and former American WRC driver Ken Block.

While much of what the RallyCross sport is like is foreign to NASCAR fans, it is not foreign to NASCAR drivers.

Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have all driven in the Race of Champions – a series of stadium races held in Europe which features drivers from such series as Formula 1, WRC, touring cars and Sprint Cup.

One year, Gordon was driving a course with Gronholm. Gronholm was behind the wheel and Gordon was “co-driving” when Gordon found out why action sports are called action sports.

“We were driving the Peugeot,” Gronholm said. “I had just came from some race directly into the car. We did a TV deal. I took the car, I did not even check the track, I went out, third corner, I rolled with Jeff in the car.”

And?

“He was like, ‘wooo, yeah,’ and he liked it,” Gronholm said, pumping his fist. “I was like, ’sorry, sorry, sorry.’ It was so stupid a mistake by me. I won that year. But they (Gordon was paired on the American team with Johnson) were doing OK.”

The GRC event at CMS is scheduled for Friday evening. Gronholm says if you go, you’ll like it.

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 25 2012
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