After competing at the SCCA RallyCross National Championship in 2013 and now the 2014 SCCA Dixie National Challenge RallyCross, I thought you all might want to know what it's like to compete in RallyCross at a nationally competitive level.
Preparing for the event
Event preparation is different depending on the class you run. Chatting with stock competitors the week before the recent Dixie event, I heard mention of "kicking the tires to make sure there is still air in them" being the extent of preparation.
However, my RallyCross car, a '73 Beetle (aptly named "Dirty Dori"), competes in the modified rear-wheel drive class (MR), and things were a little different.
Starting about three weeks before the event the car was under the knife for new suspension in the front and rear, chassis refreshing, stitch-welding, brake upgrades and so on. Event prep was so last minute I was readjusting the rear suspension for more ride height on Thursday night so I could make my 8:00 a.m. alignment appointment on Friday. I immediately hit the road from the alignment shop to make the Friday afternoon practice.
Other Modified class competitors seemed to be on a similar timeline, with one specific BMW E30 getting a new engine installed the Sunday before the event. After electrical, starter and coolant system issues, he buttoned up the car just in time to drive more than nine hours north to drive the practice course ... only to uncover overheating issues while racing.
The weather is going to suck
I've only done this at a national level on two occasions, but there was definitely a common theme. The weather is not going to cooperate just because you drove 10 hours to the event.
When I went to Tulsa, OK last year, the trip over wasn't too bad. While the forecast looked promising, we were met with gray skies and rain the morning of the event and the temp dropped nearly 20 degrees. I was obviously prepared for this with my Alabama-centric suitcase full of t-shirts.
The course was so slick during the Saturday morning heats, several cars had to be pushed out of the mud during the parade lap. While the chill lingered for longer than expected for early October, the course dried out later in the afternoon and stayed that way for the remainder of the event, leading to a very fast final course on Sunday.
At the Dixie National Challenge this year, it was more of the same. It seemed that we were at the mercy of a cruel water god who didn't want to completely ruin the event, but surely wanted to laugh as the silly humans attempted to function in his soggy domain.
While I left Birmingham under a blue sky that Bob Ross would have been proud of, less than two hours later I was driving through a downpour that brought interstate traffic to sub-40 MPH speeds. At the same time, this storm system was also drowning the event site.
This trend continued through the weekend, with more rain and even hail in the evenings, leaving a slick, mucky course for us every morning. Start times were delayed on both competition days in hopes that the course would improve with a few more minutes of sunlight. It did, but only slightly.
And here's the kicker ... this wasn't even the worst part. The sun decided to peek out each morning and began to dry the course as the day went on. This is great for racing as the course got faster and faster as the day wore on, but the evaporation led to insane levels of humidity. Course workers were wringing sweat from their clothing while getting no relief from the oppressive Alabama heat.
No matter how well you prepare for an event like this, something will happen. All you can do is hope that it will be minor ... and repairable.
Last year at the national championship I opened Dori's decklid after the second run of the competition to check everything out. My palm met my face quickly after finding that my alternator pulley nut had backed off. The two-piece pulley had removed itself, causing a loss of charging and engine cooling. The pulley had fallen on to the engine tin surrounding the crank pulley and bounced around during the previous run, causing significant damage to the aluminum pulley halves. The alternator shaft threads and the pulley nut were damaged as the nut worked loose.
My only saving grace was that the engine tins managed to keep all of the parts from distributing themselves across the course. Even the tiny woodruff key that serves to hold the pulley in place on the alternator shaft was there.
I was lucky that, being an aircooled Volkswagen, the car could run without charging and cooling for a short time, and I finished my morning runs without the alternator pulley and belt. I was able to repair the issues over lunch and finished the event with no other issues.
In light of this, part of my preparation for the Dixie event was to replace the damaged pulley and nut, and triple check the torque over several days. The pulley was fine, and my standard routine of "nut-and-bolting" the car before events turned up no issues. Even the brand new suspension components were great.
Then it happened.
The things you never expect are always the biggest issues. The afternoon of the first competition day was in full swing, and nearing the final corners of my penultimate run of the day, the engine lost power. Fearing the worst I limped the car back to the grid.
The throttle linkage that I'd pieced together (like any true Jalop would) from 1/4" drive sockets, extensions and swivels, had broken. A welded joint had failed, leaving only one functional throttle body, and the #1 and #2 cylinders choked for air and drowning in fuel. A significant fuel leak had also appeared where a clearance issue on a fitting had worn it to the point of failure. Adding these significant issues to an ECU related problem preventing me from revving past 5500 RPM or so, the outlook was grim.
There was no way that I could fix these significant issues within the allowed 15-minute window.
Luckily, a fellow competitor allowed me to drive his truck for my final run of the day to avoid disqualification.
Other competitors suffered similar fates. Two of the all-wheel-drive competitors suffered de-beaded tires on course, which is a mandatory DNF in SCCA RallyCross. This cost both the chance of a class win. Other competitors suffered a turbo failures, clutch issues and more and were forced to retire or find other vehicles to drive. Several front and rear facias adorned the roadside, displaced by a rogue chunk of mud or an unfortunate encounter with a rut on the course.
While RallyCross is a grassroots level sport, don't let that lead you to believe that the competition is lackluster. The grid at the Dixie event held at least four national champions, and that title does not come easily. The drivers were top-notch, as were their performances in the varied surface conditions.
It's important to note here that RallyCross events, while similar to Autocross in design, are much different when it comes to scoring. While a single fast time at an Autocross can bring home a trophy, RallyCross uses a cumulative timing method where every run counts. Clip a cone or (God forbid) miss a gate and your chances for a podium could easily be over.
This means that every competitor is out for a fast time the instant they touch the course. No one holds back. Skill, consistency and tempered aggression decide the victor.
The aforementioned slippery conditions were nearly my downfall, as I ham-fistedly tossed my Beetle in to a full 360 on my very first run. The move cost me around eight seconds overall. However, I was more than 20 seconds slower than the faster drivers. It was clear that I was in over my head, and I had to learn quickly.
Throughout the weekend I slowly diminished the time deficit between myself and the class leaders, but I was only able to best their times on a single pass. Through sheer luck I was able to claw my way to the podium with a third place finish. It was a hard fought position, and in this group of drivers, I am damn proud of it.
And none of that matters
When I decided to get in to RallyCross, I jumped in head first. I didn't buy a beater and just have fun with it (although I highly recommend just doing exactly that). I pulled a car out of the weeds and spent over two years and way too much money to build it from the ground up specifically for these events. Since then I've spent countless hours in the garage and even more money, stood in the rain for hours, ruined clothing with mud and exposed myself to cold, heat and humidity levels that I wouldn't put up with for a six-digit salary.
What do I have to show for it? I'm surely not winning any prize money or national sponsorships. I've got a couple of trophies that I could have bought myself for less than the cost of the fuel used to drive to the event site.
But really, I've gotten so much more than that. At my first RallyCross event in 2011 I knew immediately that I was in this for the long haul. Everything about the experience just fit so well in to what I knew competitive motorsport could be. The environment is laid back and the courses are a blast to drive, but it was the people that really sold me on it.
In my experience, RallyCross competitors are some of the nicest, most genuine people you will ever meet. These people truly care about the sport at its deepest level. Everyone understands that it needs to be accessible, inclusive and fun.
Remember that pulley issue I mentioned earlier? A fellow competitor drove me back to the paddock to get tools for the repair, then he and two others stayed and helped get me back on course. When my throttle linkage broke I was met with the same outpouring of help. The truck I drove to avoid disqualification? It belongs to a fellow competitor that I'd met, but had likely never actually sat down and had a conversation with until that event. I've even had a friend watch my dog between heats (oh, yeah ... you can totally bring your dog to a RallyCross). These are the kinds of people that you want to be around and that you will be proud to call your friends.
The awesome part is that this holds true for all of the events I've attended, both local and national. I've been welcomed into local RallyCross groups in five states and met like minded racers from all across the country. The experience isn't specific to an event or region ... it's just RallyCross.
If given the chance, I'd do it all over again — the money, the time, the frustration, the money, the weather, the money — if that's what it took. The experience, these people, are worth it.
But, lucky for you, it doesn't take all that. It only takes a car and about $40 to attend your local SCCA RallyCross event. Take the plunge go stand in a field for a day. It just may change your life.
Special thanks to all the awesome people I've met through the RallyCross program ... Damon, Colin, Bee, Theresa (and Daedalus), Charles, Edwin, Miles, Leon, Ron and everyone else that makes the sport great.
Photos courtesy of Brandon Smith, Colin Rogers, SCCA RallyCross Facebook page and John Schellenberg