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Flat Spot On: Rally Cross – A Jump Into Big Time?

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 14 2013

Will Global Rally Cross take off with American racing fans? Powerful people are hoping it will. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

HAMPTON, Ga. – One is tempted to suggest that Global Rally Cross is all cap and not enough cattle.

Rally cross may be the next big thing in American motor racing – or not – but it will certainly not expire from a lack of publicity. It gets plenty each time the X Games roll around, or if Ken Block stubs his toe and shares the incident on his social media, one of the more dynamic platforms in the known digital universe. But will rally cross catch on in America?

With an umbilical tie to ESPN, Global Rally Cross is a made for TV format. Young guns have at it in a manner that produces predictable four-wheeled and occasionally two-wheeled excitement bordering on the edge of motorized mayhem. If a manufacturer is looking to sell small-sized cars to young folks – such as Ford, Dodge and Subaru – GRC looks like the right vehicle, especially given the media savvy talents who populate it like Americans Block, Travis Pastrana and Tanner Foust.

At the Atlanta Motor Speedway, in front of a decent crowd of a few thousand, it was 22-year-old Toomas Heikkinen of Finland who prevailed for his fifth straight GRC victory. The entire podium was a holdover from the X Games, including Foust and Sverre Isachsen. It was pretty much a race to the first corner and the Finnish winner just nipped Faust in a four-wheeled slide that lasted long enough to send a couple text messages.

GRC is under new ownership this year and has been under pressure from a schedule that has jumped from Brazil to Munich to the Bruton Smith-owned tracks in New Hampshire and Bristol, then to Los Angeles and back to Atlanta in short order. There’s nothing traditional about the format and certainly nothing that’s fixed in serpentine layouts of dirt and gravel, the series’ most popular mediums. “The fans may come back next year and see a completely different track,” said Foust, a backhand nod to the heat races and final. Each of the races was pretty much over after the Oklahoma Land Rush to the first turn from a standing start.

Global Rally Cross has a certain X factor going for it. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

This series is a Formula Libre of the capitalist variety. It’s “Run what you brung.” The drivers bring their own sponsorship and media savvy such as YouTube Channels, TV shows, motorized circuses and viral videos in addition to oversized caps and tattoos.

It remains to be seen if rally cross is a dead-end for driving talent, the kind of series where excelling leads to no marketable skills elsewhere. Pastrana, for example, is a mega-star when it comes to the X Games, but has paddled along in the Nationwide Series with two capable teams thus far without making a lot of progress.

Part of the problem is the use of a short TV format on unusual racing surfaces. The guys in American sprint cars and midgets, by contrast, can learn a ton about car control, overtaking and changing lines on an oval – in just one night of progressing through the heats to the A-Main. And, as Tony Stewart has drawn attention to recently, it’s possible to race sprints and midgets any night of the week.

GRC has its “joker lap”, which allows a driver to short cut one turn for one lap in each race. It’s a matter of strategy when to employ this wild card – although in Atlanta it was clear the strategy was to get through the first corner first and then take the joker lap right away to get long gone. As things currently stand, Pastrana may have taken a joker lap into NASCAR.

Heikkinen was long gone from the driver’s seat last year and knows what the recently sidelined Stewart is going through after the three-time Sprint Cup champion’s leg-breaking crash in a sprint car in Iowa. The Finnish driver was out four months after his crash in the X Games in Los Angeles last year when he planted his car into the side of a jump instead of planting the landing.

“After four months off, I definitely came back more motivated,” he said. “I had a lot of time for getting in shape and I was very motivated at the start of the season.”

Heikkinen, known as Topi, is a lock to win this year’s title after five straight wins in a season that is seven races old with events in Charlotte and Las Vegas remaining. “I think I have it figured out,” said Faust, who is second in the points to his Ford teammate and very much had his tongue in cheek. “If Topi’s car catches fire on the grid in Charlotte and it catches fire on the grid in Las Vegas we may have a chance to win the championship. Lucky for me, we park right next to him in the garage, so we’ll see what happens.”

There are quarters in American motor racing that act as if rally cross has as much chance of becoming a big thing on the American scene as drifting, which is to say not very big. (Stunt driver Faust is a Formula Drift champion…who knew?) Rally cross has had 45 years in Europe yet remains a subculture among fans of traditional rallying, which enjoys world championship status with the FIA. The clock is ticking, because one suspects the deal with Smith that provides the venues and the deal with ESPN have some performance parameters.

It would help if a driver from GRC advanced to one of America’s major series and became an acknowledged star in the manner that Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart or Kasey Kahne came out of the sprint and midget ranks – an area of U.S. motorsports that now seems to be thriving. Block had a go with the World Rally Championship last year, but literally found it to be a rocky road. There’s hope for Pastrana, yet. But it’s a big jump from tiny wheels and four banger engines to the kind of big wheels and horsepower used at the upper reaches.

Shortly after this version of the GRC ended at AMS, the trucks were getting ready to clear the dirt and gravel that made up much of the course near the pit road and the obligatory jump in front of the grandstand. If nothing else, rally cross is highly portable.

If it weren’t tied to the mid-summer X Games – appearing next year at the Circuit Of The Americas – rally cross might make a really good indoor and outdoor stadium series during the winter months and possibly fill more seats in the stands. It pays to remember that “Five Time” Jimmie Johnson first made a name for himself in the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group’s short course off road races conducted in stadiums, a series not unlike Global Rally Cross.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, August 14 2013
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