This weekend, amidst thousands of sun-shriveled fans all hopped up on Red Bull, Monster, or Rockstar, depending on where their loyalties lay, eighteen slightly mad rally drivers took to the streets of Los Angeles for the annual X Games Rallycross. Apparently the Rallycross is only part of a larger X Games event featuring other sports of various kinds. We’ll have to read up on this later. For now, on to the rallycross.
Strategically located outside the Staples Center, the Gilbert Lindsay Plaza course was .7 miles of tarmac, dirt, a dirt bump (or yump, as the Scandinavian rally pioneers call it), and a pair of ramps with 50 feet of solid air between them. Tight, 90-degree corners made for plenty of crowd-pleasing drift action, and narrow lanes facilitated broken fiberglass nicely.
But the track itself was an object of controversy before ever the racing began. During practice, 21-year-old Finn Toomas Heikkennen failed to clear the landing ramp on the jump, smashing headlong into its edge. He suffered a broken ankle and abdominal injuries, but watching the footage, you might be surprised he survived. His Fiesta rally car was not so lucky, even catching fire after the crash. The jump was quickly converted to a “table top,” with no fall between the ramps.
Yet the track needed a little more work, as Marcus Gronholm ran into an exposed concrete light pole base, again during practice, leaving him unconscious but breathing. Thankfully, he’s expected to make a full recovery, and the concrete base of death was surrounded by a tire array before the race began.
When it did begin, it happened thusly: Sixteen cars started in four heats of four cars each. Two from each heat would advance to the finals, the other two following to one of two Last Chance Qualifier rounds, the winners of which would also advance. (Last Chance Qualifier, by the way, sounds significantly more optimistic than Losers’ Bracket). All ten finalists would be packed against the starting line for the final race.
Cars came from a refreshingly wide range of manufacturers. Ford Fiestas, Subaru STis, a pair of Citroens, a Hyundai Veloster, a Dodge Dart, and even a Saab 9-3 took to the track, all of them all-wheel-drive and packing about 600 hp. (No, these weren’t the production versions).
Spoiler alert: Frenchman Sebastien Loeb dominated the podium, beating silver-medalist Ken Block by more than 12 seconds. It surprised exactly no one. Though Loeb is new to rallycross, and this was his first X Games race, he’s won every WRC championship for the last eight years. He just might be the best rally driver of all time, and his experienced, disciplined driving was no match for the showy styles of drift stars Tanner Foust, who took sixth, and Block.
Block’s silver, however, was something of a surprise. Fresh as he was from a 9th place finish in Rally New Zealand (the first American finish in the top ten in any WRC event in years), he had to be smiling to take second, especially since he drove half of the final on a flat tire. Say what you will about his shoe-selling showmanship, that’s impressive. He managed to beat Brian Deegan, also in a Ford, by about a second.
He might have benefited from the beadlocks adopted by opponent Rhys Millen, who finished fourth. Though beadlocks are generally reserved for off-road racing, they are permitted in the Global Rallycross Championship, of which the X Games race is a part.
The GRC started last year as a spinoff of the already successful X Games race, and runs a total of five races around America. Rallycross has long been a fan favorite elsewhere in the world, as it pits extremely powerful rally cars, which usually race for time alone, against one another head to head. It became especially popular in Europe during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the mad, banished cars of Group B could still congregate on the hybridized tracks.
As X Games Rallycross and the GRC gain fans, do you think rallycross has a chance of truly catching hold in America?
Note: if you’re DVR disadvantaged, or just don’t feel like scrubbing through hours of skateboarding coverage, some kind soul has posted every heat of this weekend’s tournament on Youtube.