U.S. Rallycross Rounds 3 and 4:

by Thomas Barker

Interviewed by the track announcers in Millville, New Jersey, U.S.A. during the U.S. Rallycross round 3-4 weekend, British rallycross champion Pat Doran said aloud what some of us had been thinking: “This could be the beginning of a world rallycross championship.” Well, not the beginning perhaps, but another step on the way there.

The Brits invented rallycross in the 1960s as wheel-to-wheel circuit racing for rally cars; something that looked like rallying but was easier to televise. It quickly spread to Europe, and an FIA-backed European Championship began in 1976. Since that time however, rallycross has been mainly a European activity – although maybe the new U.S. series is a sign that this is changing.

During the track interview, and a later conversation with this writer, Pat Doran commented that rallycross is ideal for American consumption. There is lots of action (or “spectacle” to use his word), a fan can see most or all of the circuit from one location, and the television networks can cover the race with a smaller number of cameras and crews. Rallying, which has only a small following in the U.S., can offer only the action. And as this conversation was taking place, the truth of it was demonstrated on the pavement and dirt of New Jersey Motorsports Park (NJMP). There was some close racing, with both European and American teams performing well, and steadily improving organization.

Rounds 3 and 4, held on the first weekend of November, were the last two events in the new series organized by RallyCar (a branch of Rally America). The circuit was new; shorter, tighter, with a higher percentage of dirt. A complete five-lap main event could be run in less than four minutes. The organizers planned this season-ending weekend with each day as a separate round of the series, with separate classes for All Wheel Drive and Two Wheel Drive.

The format was once again European: three sets of “heat races,” with the best two being counted toward qualifying for the main events at the end of the day. The top five from the heat races would go directly onto the grid of the “A main,” the feature event. The next went five to into the “B main” from which only the winner would earn a starting position at the back of the A main grid. And the next five heat race performances would earn a spot in the “C main,” with only the winner advancing to the B main.

Round 3, 2WD

Many of the rallyists and race drivers who had competed in the first two rounds were back, almost all of them from the U.S., and they brought some friends. The total entry of front- and rear-drive cars was up to 19.

Dillon Van Way (Ford Focus) set the fastest time in qualifying and won two heat races. Matthew Johnson (Ford Fairmont wagon) was also quick, faster than any station wagon had a right to be. Equally impressive was the speed of some of the road racers, in particular local driver John Tancredi (Mazda Miata), who was also a heat winner.

Johnson took the lead on the start A main with the wagon, but Tancredi took over on lap 1 in the sports car and led to the checkered flag. Johnson dropped down the order, but worked back to runner-up, three seconds behind Tancredi, and about half a second ahead of Josh Wimpey (Volkswagen Golf GTI). Mazda drivers Mark Abel and Kyle Gagliardi followed. Van Way broke an axle on the first lap, and didn’t get a fair chance to show his talent or the car’s speed.

1. John Tancredi (Mazda Miata)
2. Matthew Johnson (Ford Fairmont station wagon)
3. Josh Wimpey (Volkswagen Golf GTI)
4. Mark Abel (Mazda Miata)
5. Kyle Gagliardi (Mazda Miata)
6. Dillon Van Way (Ford Focus)

Round 3, AWD

15 of the All Wheel Driver “super cars” started round 3. The favorite among the fans was probably Subaru Rally Team USA, for their various successes in the U.S. rally series and the X Games. Their Subaru Impreza WRX STIs were piloted by former U.S. rally champion Travis Pastrana and ex-bicyclist Dave Mirra.

The Swedish-based Olsbergs MSE team and American driver Tanner Foust, winner of rounds 1 and 2, also had a strong following. The team once again had a new-shape Ford Fiesta for Foust and an old-style car for Jussi Pinomaki.

California-based Kiwi Rhys Millen was back in the Hyundai Accent WRC. The car was unchanged from round 2, but Millen is making plans to field a new car next year, based on his experience with the ex-world rally car.

Even before Kenneth Hansen Motorsport entered round 2, and their driver Liam Doran put the team’s Citroen C4 into third, many of their colleagues in the first division of the European championship were making plans to test the new U.S. series. So in addition to Doran, the field included double-champion Sverre “the Viking Warrior” Isachsen (Isachsen Motorsport Ford Focus), Toomas Heikkinen (Per Eklund Motorsport Saab 93 Aero) and Frode Holte (Frode Holt Motorsport Volvo C30).

All of this expensive machinery tended to push many of the North American rally regulars down the order, among them Canada’s Andrew Comrie-Picard (Mitsubishi Lancer Evo) and the U.S.’s Patrick Moro (Subaru Impreza).

Isachsen showed that his European championships were no fluke, winning his heat races, although not with dominant speed. Foust placed last in his first heat race, but coolly came back to win another. Heikkinen, Holte, and Pastrana were also quick.

Doran was not fast enough early in the day. He was gridded in the C main, which he won, beating a field which included Subaru’s Mirra. But in the B main, Doran and Millen were beaten by Pinomaki, who led all the way to advance to the A main.

Isachsen led every lap of the A main until the race was stopped, when someone nudged some tire markers onto the course. When action resumed, he had the Ford ahead on every lap until the checker. This was the performance which made him and his team Europe’s best. Heikkinen was in mid-field initially, then second on every lap after the re-start. Foust was second or third initially, then in the pack when they restarted, working his way back up to third by a few feet (0.18 sec.) over a determined Pastrana. Pinomaki placed fifth, with the outer skin of the Fiesta’s passenger side door missing at the finish after being removed by a tire barrier. Holte raced Foust and Pinomaki initially, but went out with unspecified mechanical problems.

1. Sverre Isachsen (Ford Focus)
2. Toomas Heikkinen (Saab 93)
3. Tanner Foust (Ford Fiesta)
4. Travis Pastrana (Subaru Impreza WRX STI)
5. Jussi Pinomaki (Ford Fiesta)
6. Frode Holte (Volvo C30)

Sunday 2WD

A heat win each and some other good drives put Josh Wimpey (VW) and John Hall (Nissan 240SX) into the A main, where they would be joined by Johnson (Ford), Tancredi (Mazda), and Wyatt Knox (Mazda Speed 3).

Jordan Guitar (production Honda Civic Si) earned lots of respect when he won the C main, then drove from the back of the grid to win the B main as well. And Dillon Van Way earned lots of sympathy when the Ford broke again, this time the right front suspension, when he had the B main in the bag.

In the A main, Johnson took the lead on the first lap from Wimpey with Knox third. The V8-powered Ford wagon was faster on the pavement, but the Wimpey’s Volks was quicker in the dirt. Wimpey took the lead on the penultimate lap, but Johnson re-passed on the last lap to claim the top prize by a car length (0.6 seconds). Knox was two seconds further back in third, ahead of Guitar. Tanc redi brought the Mazda home in fifth. John Hall exited the race early due to a broken front suspension.

After the race, representatives of RallyCar announced that a win in the first round and consistent finishes thereafter earned Wimpey the first U.S. Rallycross Championship in the 2WD category.

1. Matthew Johnson (Ford Fairmont station wagon)
2. Josh Wimpey (Volkswagen Golf GTI)
3. Wyatt Knox (Mazda Speed 3)
4. Jordan Guitar (Honda Civic Si)
5. John Tancredi (Mazda Miata)
6. John Hall (Nissan 240SX)

Sunday AWD

Wins in the heat races put Doran (Citroen), Heikkenen (Saab) and Foust (Ford) into the A main, along with Pinomaki (Ford) and Mirra (Subaru). On the other hand, Pastrana (Subaru) and Millen (Hyundai) could manage only grid positions good enough for the B main. A mechanical DNF plus two non-starts in heats put Isachsen (Ford) into the C main, which he won going away.

Millen told us that the Hyundai Accent WRC suffers from a flywheel too small and light for rallycross starts. On the starting line, when he engaged the clutch, it had too little rotating inertia, so that the revs dropped too much, hampering the launch. Still, in the B Main, he started well enough to get away ahead of Isachsen. What followed was the race of the weekend: Millen and Isachsen ran nose-to-tail and door-to-door, the California Kiwi not at all intimidated by racing he champion. On the last lap, Isachsen’s Ford touched the wheel of the Hyundai, rose up into the air, struck the tire barrier, and became an instant non-finisher with front end damage. Millen was able to keep going, but Pastrana nipped by to win the race. Afterward, the organizers exercised their option to promote both Pastrana and Millen to the A final.

At the start of the A main, Heikkinen got a better start than pole-sitter Doran, and led the race narrowly from flag to flag. Ford teammates Foust and Pinomaki raced for second, perhaps two seconds behind the leader. Foust seemed to have the upper hand, when a ball joint and brake disk on Pinomaki’s car failed on the last lap, putting him out. Doran placed third, beating Pastrana. Millen came home fifth, and Mirra sixth.

RallyCar has no plans to award an AWD championship this season, but if they did, two wins and a pair of podium finishes would certainly have earned the trophy for Foust.

1. Toomas Heikkinen (Saab 93)
2. Tanner Foust (Ford Fiesta)
3. Liam Doran (Citroen C4)
4. Travis Pastrana (Subaru Impreza WRX STI)
5. Rhys Millen (Hyundai Accent WRC)
6. Dave Mirra (Subaru Impreza WRX STI)
7. Jussi Pinomaki (Ford Fiesta)

In 2011, RallyCar has promised a larger series at tracks across the country. They have several decades of lessons to learn, but they are learning quickly. Foust, Pastrana, and Mirra are willing to return, if sponsorship can be arranged.

The Europeans who entered this first American season are also willing to come back, once again if there is funding. (Isachsen was quoted by the Rallycross Online web site as saying that he would consider setting up a separate operation in the U.S.). Perhaps an international rallycross event in the U.S. is possible.

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