It’s a sad fact that all automobile racing eventually becomes boring, or at least boring to watch. Any given auto racing series starts out raw, wild, and uncomplicated, and then we fence it in and domesticate it. So unless you’re actually driving, most racing can be a snooze fest.
The craziest part is, we in the racing community do this to ourselves. Racers create new rules to take away someone else’s competitive advantage or to control costs. But the result is always the same: races become foregone conclusions; parades of cars circulating for hours with a caution flag raised every time things might get interesting. There may be some real racing action at the start or in the last lap of the race, but that’s usually about it.
Even drifting, which was supposed to be the bad boy motorsport of our time, couldn’t escape. They have panels of judges who deduct points for errors and decide if they like a driver’s style. Drifting has essentially become the figure skating competition of the automotive world. Wake me when it’s over, OK?
All this has led to the brilliant development of Global Rallycross. The idea here is simple: you take a bunch of insanely overpowered cars and put them on a short, tight course that folds back on itself so every fan can see the whole race. The track has dirt sections and paved sections and even a jump or two, and they don’t worry about incidental contact between cars. They give the drivers five or ten laps for an all-out sprint, and it’s over in 5 to 10 minutes. It’s like a chase scene from a Mad Max movie, only it’s real.
“Short races, lots of action, and dynamic cars,” three-time Red Bull Global Rallycross champion Scott Speed said. “When you see a picture of a Rallycross car going through a corner sideways and gravel coming off the back it, it looks fast. You see a car going through the air, four wheels off the ground, sideways with another car next to it, it just captures great action. The cars speak for themselves.”
“I like the chaos of it all,” Speed’s Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross teammate Tanner Foust said. “The jumps are huge. In Atlantic City, the jump was 200 feet and the car handles that like a Baja truck.”
Chaos is a ladder
Chaos and incredibly close racing is what brings in the fans. In a GRC race, the cars are never more than a few feet apart, and typically much closer than that in the corners. But it’s more than creating an action-packed race you can watch on your phone during the commercial break for a NASCAR caution period.
Red Bull GRC has mastered the media challenge, making use of social media as well as TV to get its product in front of a wider audience.
“Rallycross has got the best future,” Speed declared. “Driving these cars is what people are going to want to see. For me, this is the coolest form of racing because my stepson is in junior high school, and all his friends like Rallycross and relate to it. I feel like this is fun for once.”
“We got excited because we thought it was a neat series to get involved with, and it’s been great,” Michael Andretti, owner and CEO of Andretti Autosport and team principal of Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, said. As a veteran of Indy cars, Formula One, and Le Mans, Andretti has a keen sense of the business of racing. “It’s been a great partnership with Volkswagen and it’s been great for our brand,” Andretti continued. “We’re getting in front of millenials, which is quite important. We’re out there to race, so this is the perfect series for us to get involved with.”
No-nonsense race cars
A Global Rallycross car is a simple thing. There are two classes: Supercars and Lites. Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross works with VW in Germany to build Supercars for the series. Although the car is nominally a VW Beetle, you won’t find much in common with a street car. It starts as a Beetle, but a roll structure is added to stiffen the chassis. The engine is a turbocharged 2.0-liter VW engine pumped up to 560 horsepower, with a 6-speed sequential shift transmission, locked all-wheel-drive, and hand-operated turning brakes. The suspension is rally-style and capable of absorbing tremendous punishment, including jumps. The radiator is located in the back, and the body panels can be removed in seconds to repair damage.
A Global Rallycross Supercar can hit 60 MPH in under two seconds. That’s quicker than a Formula One car or any exotic you want to name.
GRC Supercars from other brands are essentially similar, but with their own engines and chassis designs, so you get a true manufacturer’s challenge to create winning cars.
But what you don’t find in these cars is even more important. You don’t find any driver assistance like traction controls or anti-lock brakes. Everyone uses the same BFGoodrich racing tires. About the only concession to tech is the launch control system, which holds the engine speed at optimum for a good launch. You can only use it for a fraction of a second once the race is started, however, and the driver is still responsible for the clutch and throttle.
With all that, a Global Rallycross Supercar is capable of hitting 60 MPH in under two seconds. That’s quicker than a Formula One car or any exotic you want to name. It’s quicker than the 840-horsepower Dodge Challenger Demon. There’s a top speed somewhere north of 100 MPH, but the cars won’t see that speed because the courses are so short.
“The car is a freak,” Foust insisted. “It’s just a hyperactive little … beast of a machine.” I suspect he had a different word in mind, but Rallycross is a family sport. “A lot of people don’t equate a Beetle with a beast, but it is. They’re incredibly twitchy on the steering and the brakes are hyper-sensitive. They’re just awesome machines to drive.”
In addition to the Supercars, the GRC Lites provide a second run group. These are identical purpose-built tube-frame racing cars with a naturally-aspirated 2.4-liter engine producing 310 horsepower. Like the Supercars, the Lites use a six-speed sequential gearbox and full-time locked AWD. A GRC Lites car will do the 0-60 run in about 2.5 seconds.
I took a demonstration ride in a Lites car at the Red Bull GRC season finale. Olsbergs MSE X Forces team driver Scott Anderson was kind enough to host me for a couple of laps in the No. 77 Racing 4 Detroit/Hull & Knarr machine, and the experience was exhilarating rather than frightening. The acceleration is enough to push you back in your seat, and every corner was an adventure in G forces.
Rallycross is like a chase scene Mad Max movie, only it’s real.
The challenge for a GRC driver is getting the power to the ground, and drifting sideways around every corner is not optional nor optimal. These cars rotate easily, which helps get them pointed where you want them to go.
Handling the transition from pavement to dirt and back again is mostly a matter of modulating throttle so you don’t dig yourself a hole. Taking the big table jump was so easy that you had to listen for it rather than feel it.
It was a perfect couple of laps. But we were by ourselves on track, and any race driver knows that running a perfect lap by yourself is one thing, but it’s quite another when you’ve got competitors an inch from your paint on all sides.
Jump on Sunday, sell on Monday?
Automakers have gone all-in for Global Rallycross. Volkswagen is winning the series, Subaru is there in force, and both Honda and Ford were well represented. Subaru has dominated American Performance Rally for a decade with drivers like Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, and David Higgins. Subaru Rally Team USA is also in Global Rallycross with Chris Atkinson and Patrik Sandell, both accomplished rally drivers in their own right.
Volkswagen has been dominant in Red Bull GRC since 2015. Scott Speed claimed his third consecutive championship in Los Angeles on October 14, with teammate Foust finishing second for the year, and Volkswagen took home its second consecutive manufacturer’s title in the series.
“It’s a very successful race tournament for us,” Volkswagen Group of America President and CEO Hinrich Woebcken, who had flown directly to the GRC finals from Germany, said. “We like the way this racing is transported into social media and TV, so it’s a very effective marketing initiative. It’s bringing young people into the brand.”
Even before Speed delivered the season championship, Volkswagen was already having a great year. With annual sales increases and a bunch of interesting new cars coming down the line in the next few months, the company has largely put its diesel-related woes in the rearview mirror. Rallycross is helping the German automaker craft an exciting new image for itself.
An electric future
Red Bull Global Rallycross has a winning formula for our era, with bite-size heat races heavy on action featuring popular makes and models. But virtually everyone I spoke to at the event mentioned a coming conversion to electric power before I even asked.
“Everything’s going electric and that’s no surprise,” Speed said. “The manufacturers have made that very clear; all of them. We’re just speculating on the when and where. But everything is going to go that way and Rallycross is the best avenue where manufacturers will go. So I think this is the future of American racing.”
Andretti is a bit more guarded, but not in doubt about the direction. His Andretti Autosport teams already includes an electric Formula E team, so the transition is underway.
“I think electric’s going to become part of it, eventually,” he said, “and I think Rallycross is a perfect series for electric racing. But I think Rallycross is going to be around for a long time because it’s great racing.”