Cheap and Dirty Thrills: Getting Acquainted With The SCCA’s Budget-Friendly RallyCross Series

025SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Generally speaking, motorsport is not a pastime for the faint of wallet. But there are outliers that serve as the exception to the rule, and the SCCA’s RallyCross series is one of them. While the concept is simple – essentially autocross on dirt – it’s one of the few racing disciplines where more money doesn’t necessarily equate to more podiums, and whether you’re a seasoned rally veteran or total newcomer, there’s an entry point into the series that’s appropriate for your driving skills and car setup.

Held in various regions throughout the country since 2005 (go here to find events local to you), RallyCross divides competitors up into eight different classes based on driven wheel configuration (two wheel drive or all-wheel drive) as well as the level of modifications applied to the car, which ranges from bone-stock to fully gutted and caged rally-prepped race cars.

“Any road worthy production vehicle is eligible as long as it isn’t a high rollover risk,” says Brian Harmer, the program manager for SCCA RallyCross. “The only other requirement is that convertibles must have a factory hardtop option.”

He’s not kidding. While the fastest run of the day was posted in a Subaru WRX that looked like it was plucked straight out of WRC, top honors in the Stock Two-Wheel Drive class went to a driver with a ’92 Dodge Stealth that was ostensibly showroom stock. That Dodge was up against contenders like an unmodified Prius, a ’93 Honda Civic, and a Ford Focus which may or may not have been a rental car, among others.

030SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

RallyCross is a great way to get a taste of rally racing without breaking the bank and it’s a growing series. “National Challenges see anywhere from 50 to 100 entrants, depending on the location and date,” Harmer explained. “The National Championship sees 100-120 entries, and regional events across the country are generally experiencing a great deal of growth right now.”

When I reached out to Jim Llewellyn, the SCCA’s communications manager, earlier this year expressing interest in seeing what all the fuss was about, he connected me with the regional organizer for southern California RallyCross events, Jayson Woodruff. Llewellyn also promised to pair me up with a driver and car – provided one caveat was met. “We’ve also had a chat about your wife Nicole perhaps joining the fiesta,” he proposed. “However, my rule is she doesn’t drive with you – she’ll drive against you with another team … because I’m a jerk!”

Llewellyn had made Nicole’s acquaintance a few years back when we headed to Streets of Willow to check out the SCCA’s then-new Track Night in America program, where Nicole and her Magnum SRT-8 promptly earned the attention of Channel 7 Eyewitness News.

Being the generally good sport she is about putting herself in peril for the sake of a story, it didn’t take much convincing to get Nicole on board with this RallyCross idea. And with that, we prepared ourselves for a dirt-caked showdown at Glen Helen Raceway in San Bernardino, California.

069SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Preparation

Nicole: When Brad asked if I wanted to race in a RallyCross event, I agreed with very little knowledge of what I was actually getting into. I’d been to an autocross event before, and I know what rally racing is, so I figured it was probably like autocross on a dirt track, which turned out to be pretty accurate. Since Brad has so much more racing and track experience than I do, I didn’t have any expectations of actually winning this competition, but it’s hard to turn down a track day under any circumstances.

A couple days before the event I got in touch with my racing partner, James Veatch III, to see if there was anything special I should bring to the track or know to prepare myself. “The only thing I can recommend bringing is a helmet,” he told me. “Look up on YouTube what a “Scandinavian Flick” is, and how to use weight transfer to start a slide for rally cars – and maybe left foot braking too.”

I had a feeling those weren’t really skills I was going to be able to learn from a video tutorial, but I did spend some time Googling techniques and using my left foot to brake through rush hour traffic in my Ford Explorer, which, though somewhat perilous, is about as far from rally driving as you can get.

In retrospect, I’m not sure there is much you can do to prepare for this kind of driving short of actually doing it. Unless you have a huge dirt field at your disposal, it isn’t safe to practice drifting in the grocery store parking lot. However, race day is more than just the six laps you spend running the course. Though these events happen throughout most of the year, when we went in the middle of the summer, it was nearly ninety degrees with very little natural shade. Water, sunscreen and a hat are absolutely essential, especially if it’s a “run/work” event where you’ll be required to work the track, picking up knocked over cones or performing other event-related tasks, during another class’s run time.

072SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Brad: Though I do have some track experience under my belt, all of it is on pavement. I wanted to change that while also shedding some light on one of the more affordable ways to go racing. After recently spending some time in Anza Borrego with the Ford Raptor I realized I had a lot to learn about how to go fast in the dirt, so I looked at the low-risk format of RallyCross as being a great way to get more familiarized with how the technique differs from on-road performance driving.

Woodruff put me in touch with Matthew Mendoza, a fixture in the Prep AWD class who runs a modified ’04 Subaru WRX wagon and was gracious enough to let me beat up his Scooby out on the race course. Given the circumstances, it was clear going into it that I had the advantage both in terms of experience and vehicle prep. But we’d also heard that Veatch’s Impreza had run faster times than Mendoza’s WRX on a few occasions in the past, so anything seemed possible.

067SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

The Cars

Nicole: Possibly the biggest source of anxiety for me leading up to this race was my lack of proficiency in driving a stick shift car. While I know the basics, I have not had the opportunity to drive a car with a manual transmission for any substantial amount of time. Luckily, James volunteered to let me drive his car, which was the only automatic in the field for our class. Even though Brad and I raced in the Prepared All-Wheel Drive class, Veatch’s 1997 Subaru Impreza 2.2L is set up for the Stock All-Wheel Drive class, “with only Firestone Winterforce tires and, of course, a bunch of stickers.” He added, “They say each one is an extra five horsepower, you know!”

Veatch, who raced karts at Willow Springs until he was 15, bought the Impreza for $125 from an elderly couple in Mammoth, California, to use as his daily driver when he was still in high school. After graduating, he wanted to get back into racing but didn’t have any money, so he searched online for “local racing Subaru Impreza” and found a RallyCross event at Glen Helen. He finished 8th of 14 in his class that weekend, and four years later is using the same car to regularly grab first place in the Stock AWD class, despite often running against competitors with much newer and more powerful vehicles. It is a perfect example of how accessible RallyCross is – if you’ve got the driving skills, you can even win with Grandma’s car.

034SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Brad: Mendoza explained to me that he didn’t have any prior racing experience before getting involved with the series – he was just an enthusiast who received an impromptu crash course in the virtues of performance driving in a controlled environment. “In my late teens, I would do ‘spirited’ mountain road runs,” he said. “But after falling 150 feet off of a cliff, I stopped going to the mountains for these type of runs. A few years ago I was out at Lake Arrowhead and found a business card left on my car that read, ‘You’ve been spotted! Go to DirtyImpreza.com.’ I went to the site (now DIrally.com) and learned about the California Rally Series Annual Rally School, which I signed myself up for in February of 2012.”

Since then the WRX has seen some wrenching, resulting in a rebuilt motor, Grimmspeed’s up-pipe, catted downpipe, and boost control solenoid, a swaybar-less suspension system with Feal 451 Rally Race coilovers, Hankook rally tires, and a handful of other small tweaks.

Though he has thrown some money at the WRX, Mendoza says the actual cost to run in the series pretty minimal. “To race the entire CalClub Rallycross series and the two Ridgecrest RallyCross events is somewhere around $430 for the season,” he explained.

Having driven a few Subarus in anger on pavement, I was anxious to see what Matt’s WRX would be like when put into use in its natural habitat, where the all-wheel drive system would really come into play as well as the motor’s turbocharged power delivery.

047SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Race Day

After signing in, we were offered a track walk with Chris “Red” Fine, an experienced RallyCross competitor who both helped set up the course and ended up winning the Modified All-Wheel Drive class with the fastest time of the day. While showing us the track, he explained the scoring, gave us tips on certain corners and explained that, after this year’s rainy winter, the track area was filled with large rocks that would make the course more challenging to maneuver. The track walk was followed by a short driver’s meeting, and then we split up to meet with our respective teams.

073SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Nicole: I met up with James and his team, Rodnoc Racing, to see the car and get prepped for the race. This gave me a chance to chat with Lon Peterson, a former professional racer, who drove on stage rally teams for Mitsubishi and Kia after racing motorcycles in his formative years. “I liked jumping and sliding so it was a good transition from bikes,” he told me. He stumbled upon RallyCross a few years ago and has been competing and offering support to younger drivers ever since. “Regardless of how rich or poor you are, or how much experience you have, it’s just fun to go out and compete with your buddies.”

Because James was running in a different class than Brad and I, he offered to let me ride shotgun for his laps and get a feel for what driving in RallyCross is like. As he drove, he explained his driving lines and braking/acceleration patterns. Even though the car has an automatic transmission, he showed me that he still shifts manually between first and second to get the most out of the little engine. During his second lap, he overshot the last hairpin corner, spun around and had to make a three point turn to cross the finish line. When we returned to grid, the Rodnoc team chastised his error – not because of the slow lap time, but because he missed the opportunity to cross the finish line in reverse. That lap, his slowest, ended up being even faster than my quickest pass around the course.

Brad: My biggest concern going into it was getting lost out on track, which happens to people on a fairly regular basis in autocross, but turned out to be a non-issue in RallyCross. While the track walk certainly helped, the course is more or less carved into the ground so it’s pretty hard to lose your way. We were warned that missing a gate was a ten second penalty while missing a cone was a second two penalty, and knocking over ten cones in one run was an instant DNF. So I decided I would try to avoid doing any of that.

062SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

On Track/Results

Nicole: Due to my trepidation about changing gears, I decided to use the car in full automatic mode for my first run on course. James coached me from the passenger seat, telling me when to brake, turn and throttle through the many corners and short straights, while graciously tolerating my frequent expletives. My first lap time of 104.774 (plus 4 seconds for 2 hit cones) was the slowest for any all-wheel drive car by ten seconds with the penalties included. The great thing about being so slow was I left myself a ton of room for improvement – by my second lap, I shaved four seconds and managed to avoid all the cones. During that lap, I could feel where the car’s automatic shifting was holding me back, so I decided to give the Impreza’s “sequential dog box” shifter a try for the next run. After the third lap, I dropped another four seconds off my time and wished I had shifted manually from the beginning. By the end of my six runs, my best time was 92.539, a full sixteen seconds faster than my starting lap.

After the driver’s meeting, I made it my goal to make sure I didn’t hit ten cones in a run, which seemed to me to be a real possibility. Even though my car control was a bit dodgy in a few of the corners, hitting cones ended up not being an issue at all; I only knocked over three during my six passes, and two of those were on my first lap. However, the biggest surprise of the day was realizing how counter-intuitive racing in loose dirt is compared to driving on asphalt in normal conditions. Any time I would start to lose traction through the corners, my instinct was to let off the gas, while James kept reminding me “full throttle, full throttle!” which is actually how the car keeps traction and forward motion in those situations. Additionally, as the course became more ragged with use, I found myself trying to avoid newly exposed rocks in the corners, mostly because I didn’t want to cause damage to someone else’s car. Doing so would throw off my line and push the car into the loose overrun dirt, so James had to remind me to forget about the rocks and stay in the turn.

019SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Brad: Matt’s pre-run advice was pretty minimal, but I quickly started to understand the rationale behind that after my first run – almost everything about driving fast in dirt with AWD is counter-intuitive to going fast on a road course or an autocross track. Both oversteer and understeer are essential elements of the strategy, whereas on pavement both of those usually just cost you time. “I don’t use much brake,” he told me early on, and I soon discovered that you can often plow the front end a bit into banked corners to scrub off speed while keeping the motor on boost and wagging the rear end out on exit. My times got consistently quicker as I honed this strategy and got more confident with the throttle.

Since we were sharing a car and running in the same class, at the end of each run we’d both hop out, switch the magnetic numbers on the sides of the car, and swap seats. During my ride-along runs I would note the differences between his lines and mine – considering there was a ten second gap between us there was clearly room for improvement – and discovered that rethinking the approach to a slow corner could mean as much as three seconds a lap.

Between my first run and my last I went from a 93.911 to an 86.588, the latter being my fastest time of the day. It’s worth noting that, aside from the pass with the spin at the hairpin, all of Veatch’s passes in the Impreza were faster than my quickest lap by least a second (and more than four and a half on this last lap), and Nicole’s fastest lap was quicker than my first two, so it’s clear that the driver mod counts for a hell of a lot in this kind of racing.

075SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Real Rallying, Real Cheap

“Basically, RallyCross is where people come out and learn about rallying in a controlled environment,” says Peterson. “It’s a good way to get your feet wet without too much potential of hurting yourself or the car. It teaches car control, cornering skills and, if it’s something people are interested in pursuing, they can later move up to stage rally from here.”

While we didn’t turn in the fastest times of the day, the improvement shown in each of our laps from one pass to the next proves that, while challenging, RallyCross is accessible and driving fast on dirt is a skill that can be taught to just about anyone.

More importantly, it provides a budget-friendly entry point into rally racing that doesn’t sacrifice the fun factor in the process. After getting home and blowing the dirt out of our noses, it wasn’t long before we were searching Craigslist for a suitable car of our own so we could get prepped for the next event at Glen Helen Raceway on September 2nd.

The most common advice we heard from racers to people interested in getting involved in RallyCross was simply to get out and watch an event, talk to competitors and even ask to ride along. “Don’t ever say ‘I wished I would’ve,’” Peterson urged. “Just give it a try.”

042SCCA RallyCross Brad Nicole

Something to Say?

Roadkill Fall 2016 Cover