I don’t usually write when I’m in a bad mood. It always ends up with wounded emotions and endless apologies. So when I read about twenty-one year old Ford Racing driver, Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen’s crash at the X Games 18 yesterday; I had to arrest my ire and have a snack before writing this post. I was utterly disturbed by the video of his car smashing front-end first into the metal ramp but mostly because I saw this coming. That gap jump was supposed to be part of the first Global Rallycross (GRC) round at Charlotte Motor Speedway. However, NASCAR officials refused to allow the structure, after the track was damaged during a practice run. At the second round at Texas Motor Speedway, it was finally erected. The buzz among rallycross fans and hoonigans in general from photos posted via social networks by drivers was immediate. Naturally, the reactions were polarised. Some voiced their thoughts that the jump would make the race gnarly, wicked, sick, etc. while rallycross purists were just sickened. I opted to actually watch the race before forming an opinion.
My experience as a television viewer was quite different for that second round. The first was exciting and an interesting departure from the kind of racing that goes on in the European Rallycross Championship (ERC). It’s artificial in comparison to tracks like Lydden Hill, England for example. However, their goal is to expose the sport to a new audience. As a result, the lack of mud and dirt could be forgiven…but not those ramps. To see drivers take the leap didn’t generate any excitement for me but a solid dread in the pit of my stomach. It felt as though any skill displayed on the rest of the course would be undone by one false move at the ramp. More likely, a skilled driver could do everything right but someone with a little less seasoning could lose control and get them both knocked out. In pure rallycross, a ramp is not needed to generate spills and thrills. As you can see for yourself in this video from ERC’s first round:
In post-practice and race interviews, drivers seemed to gloss over the seriousness of their injuries and vehicle damage. Most of which were caused by that ramp. There were crashes in the first round but nothing as spectacular or violent as the second round. Bucky Lasek veered off the ramp completely, while Travis Pastrana’s shoulder was dislocated from a rough landing. Tanner Foust stretched a back ligament, and others quietly admitted that the course had left them shaken. Drivers in ERC get banged up too but not because of a gap jump. Rallycross is a very dangerous form of racing. The rally community is still in shock after the death of twenty-four year old Welsh dynamo Gareth Roberts in Sicily this month. However, I daresay that the course wasn’t designed to “get the drivers” like these GRC circuits. Yes, I went there because there seems to be no other valid explanation. The jump guarantees crashes and vehicle damage. This means viral videos, press coverage and increased ticket sales to a bigger but bloodthirsty audience.
I understand that drivers who simultaneously participate in GRC, WRC and ERC are trying to give the sport a boost; in addition to their own brands. This would also mean welcome sponsorship finance for struggling racing teams and huzzah for that. However, is it worth the risk of life and limb? Topi crawled from the wreckage of his burning vehicle with a broken ankle. This was during a practice run. What if this was during a race with two to three cars taking the jump in succession? Not to mention, cars driving in the space between the ramps while they fly overhead. Unless they’ve found a way to catch a vehicle in mid-air, then one crash could easily become a catastrophic event. My opinion is that the event’s organisers will do nothing to alter the circuit unless drivers unify and voice their dissension. Drivers, there is no shame in speaking your mind. Your families, fans and colleagues are the ones who will mourn the abrupt suspension or end of your careers. God forbid, your very lives. Unlike the people who collect the ticket money, who see you as nothing more as a replaceable commodity. Man up and stand up, men. Take a swig of the energy drinks whose sponsorship pays your bills. Muster up all the testosterone you have and say no to the gap jump.
* All photos used with permission from www.ERC24.com
The competition’s organisers have announced that the gap jump will be replaced by a table jump. This is after current points leader, Marcus “Bosse” Grönholm was hospitalised after crashing his Ford Fiesta during his timed practice on Saturday June 30, 2012. This has been a costly lesson for the GRC and one that I hope they’ve learned well.