Blogger Kristin Berkery kindly agreed to provide another first-hand account of her experiences at X Games 18 in Los Angeles, California with her family. Kristin loves rallycross and supports the sport by regularly keeping other fans and followers in the know on Google+. She’s a writer and marketing designer in Sacramento, California, who blogs at www.ilovehorses.net. You can follow her on Twitter @ilovehorsesnet. Thanks a million, Kristin!
A Day at the (Rallycross) Races
by Kristin Berkery
Before I attended X Games 18 an online friend emailed me some suggestions, ending with his description of the event: “It’s like a county fair on steroids.” Now that I’ve been there, I understand.
The free part of the spectacle, X Fest, is a 1/4-mile stretch of road in downtown L.A. closed to vehicles. There are skateboarding demos, vendor booths offering games and tons of tchotchkes (or what my Comic-Con friends call swag), DJ’s blasting music, athlete autograph sessions, and a couple of free amusement activities for the younger kids. My six-year-old and three-year-old especially loved the booth that gave out free Otter Pops. The only thing missing was deep-fried Snickers bars on a stick.
As we explored X Fest on Saturday evening we heard some loud engines revving on the other side of the Staples Center. The rallycross course had been set up on the city streets around the Staples Center, L.A. Convention Center, and a nearby strip mall. We made our way back to that area and discovered some of the drivers taking practice runs. Frenchman Sébastien Loeb’s Citroën was impressive for its speed and unbelievable noise. As it made its way around the course, it constantly made piercing backfire noises as a result of its turbo anti-lag system. We also watched Travis Pastrana and Ken Block do their practice laps.
That evening we noticed that the metal jump was different from the day before. We now saw a tabletop jump instead of the gap jump that caused Toomas Heikkinen to crash spectacularly on Friday afternoon. I was relieved. Just a few weeks prior, these same drivers had faced a metal gap jump that had caused nothing less than mayhem.
At Hoon Kaboom in Fort Worth, Texas, in June, the rallycross cars were required to take the metal gap jump on every lap, leaving most of them broken by the end of the race. The cars were engineered for dirt jumps, not metal, so the new jump in the Global Rallycross Championship series was a challenge for the drivers and cars. I thought the drivers would be spared the metal jump at X Games 18 since last year’s jump was dirt, but I learned otherwise during a Ford Racing text chat with Tanner Foust on Friday.
I wasn’t thrilled because I wanted the races to be a fair representation of the drivers’ skills, not a chaotic mess where the drivers with the most luck ended up on the podium. There are other drawbacks to the metal ramp: It can cause a lot of damage to the cars that requires expensive repairs. Sponsors can be turned off by the escalating costs and racing teams with less funding could find it impossible to continue racing. In either case, GRC’s efforts to grow rallycross racing in the U.S. could be affected.
After returning to our hotel on Saturday evening we learned that Marcus Grönholm crashed that afternoon right after taking the tabletop jump. It was shocking news because we knew Grönholm was a top contender for gold and I wanted to see him go head to head with another European known for surgical precision behind the wheel — Sébastien Loeb. Grönholm suffered a head injury and was out of the races.
On Sunday we went straight to the rally pits as soon as they opened at 11 am. I thought there would be barriers between the cars, drivers, and spectators, but I was excited to see that we were in the middle of the action. We walked from one team’s area to another, scrambling to the side when we heard “HEADS UP!” and the rumbling of an engine as it drove past us. Several drivers and their vehicles lined up for practice runs and waited patiently as fans snapped photos and walked inches from the cars. We moved to an area that gave us close up views of the dirt portion of the track during practice, until we were informed that only photographers belonged there.
For the first heat I moved to an area facing the straightaway after the second turn and felt the adrenaline as Sam Hübinette’s orange SAAB came flying straight at the crowd and made a sudden turn at the last moment. My family and I moved to the infield area for the rest of the races and found a view that worked best for us.
We positioned ourselves right in the middle of the first and second turns so we could watch the drivers make an upside down U around us. It proved to be an excellent spot because it was shaded by trees and it gave the kids room to run in circles (and make us a little crazy) for the 40 minutes between races. It was also the same area where Travis Pastrana was pushed into the wall by Andy Scott in the fourth heat.
That afternoon we were fortunate to meet a seasoned race car mechanic who watched the races from our area. Our new mechanic-friend shared insights about rallycross racing and some of the behind-the-scenes activities.
I’d heard some of the drivers weren’t happy about the metal gap jump, so I asked the mechanic what he thought of the issue. He said the drivers could have it changed if enough of them demanded it. Not every driver agreed with the altered jump however. The mechanic also suggested that Grönholm’s crash could have been the result of a stuck throttle, or the metal jump could have been slippery from rocks and dirt. News reports have blamed it on a protruding concrete light pole base.
One of the objections over the tabletop jump was that it removed the joker lap from the race, taking away an important opportunity for drivers to get around traffic during races. It also required the cars to go over the metal jump on every lap, which causes more damage to the vehicles.
The second heat gave us a taste of what to expect in the final. Loeb pushed his way to the front and Foust made an effort to keep up with him, but Loeb systematically created space between the two cars on every straightaway.
The first two drivers from each of six heats advanced to the final race: Samuel Hübinette, Ken Block, Sébastien Loeb, Tanner Foust, Sverre Isachsen, Brian Deegan, David Higgins, David Binks, Liam Doran, and Rhys Millen. After the drivers started the launch control sequence and the engines began roaring, there was a wait of 30 seconds that felt like an eternity. Fans were anxious and the drivers were too — Hübinette jumped the start by a couple of feet and the race was immediately red-flagged. Everyone would have to line up for a restart. The crowd gave a collective groan.
The mechanic near us said the 30-second wait was far too long and put an extra burden on the engines. In Europe, the race begins only five seconds after launch control is begun.
With the next start all 10 cars pushed and shoved their way into the first turn where Pastrana’s pileup had occurred earlier. Loeb came out of the turn first with Foust close behind and Hübinette in third. As in the second heat, Loeb used every straightaway as an opportunity to pull away from the competition. Foust and Hübinette remained in hot pursuit until the race was red-flagged when Isachsen lost his steering after taking the jump and crashed.
Ugh, back to the starting line. The cars were lined up a third time and fortunately it was a clean start. This time Block muscled his way to second behind Loeb, who jumped to the front once again. Foust moved into third but began to trail behind Block. When he hit the third turn of the first lap, Foust began to lose his steering and had to fight his car around every turn, gradually losing ground to the other drivers. In lap three Binks crashed and Deegan snaked his way around Millen’s and Binks’ stopped cars to move from sixth into fourth place. Somewhere in the fourth lap Block ended up with a flat rear tire but remarkably continued to hold his second place position. If the gap jump hadn’t been replaced by a tabletop, he might not have been able to continue the race at all.
Loeb walked away from the rest of the field and the ESPN replay of the race made it look like his was the only car left on earth in the last lap. Block held on to second and Deegan took third as Foust continued to drop back with steering problems.
There was a lot of excitement in the pits about Loeb, the new gold medal winner, who was an unknown to most Americans but has won eight consecutive World Rallycross Championship titles in Europe. He’s expected to return next year to defend his win and hopefully to compete against Grönholm, who’s raced against Loeb in Japan and Europe many times before.
After close to six hours of watching and waiting for races, our tired crew made its way to the Ford Racing booth in the pits to say hi to Tanner Foust and David Binks and get their autographs on posters. While Foust and our other favorites on the Subaru team didn’t medal that day, it was still exciting to see, hear, feel, and smell the races close-up. I have a feeling Sébastien Loeb will be a tough competitor in U.S. rallycross in the future, so it was noteworthy to see his American debut in person.