RallyCross for the masses
AUSTIN, Texas -- Moments after Scott Speed completed his day of domination on the Ford RallyCross course Saturday -- winning all five heats, including the final -- John Tzouanakis started typing furiously into his phone.
"TZ," as Tzouanakis is known, was responding to a congratulatory message from Michael Andretti, son of Mario Andretti, with whom TZ worked decades ago. After a 30-year career in open-wheel racing, Tzouanakis runs Speed's rallyCross team for Andretti Autosport and Volkswagen. He sat on a concrete barrier and hammered out his note to Andretti, who was in Dallas, some three hours north, preparing for Saturday evening's Firestone 600 IndyCar race.
Andretti, who watched the RallyCross final on television, is something of a hot potato these days. His cars claimed four of the top six spots in last month's Indianapolis 500, including the win. His top rallycross driver, Speed, has won each of the first two races on the Red Bull Global Rallycross (GRC) series (the Top Gear Festival in Barbados last month was the first, X Games Austin was the second) and looked unbeatable Saturday.
Yet despite Speed's supremacy on the Circuit of the Americas track, to racing insiders, the simple fact that Andretti has turned his attention to rallycross is the bigger story in play -- and the latest indication that the discipline is becoming a prime-time player in American motorsports.
This year marks Andretti's first foray into the rallycross market, and he didn't just dip his toes in. He cannonballed. He partnered with one of the world's premier motorsports manufacturers to run the teams of Speed, a former Formula One driver who left NASCAR this year to focus full time on rallycross, and Tanner Foust (who was a medal favorite Saturday until he flipped his car in a corner). Why? Two words: youth and money.
"Kids today just have the attention span of a gnat, it seems like," Andretti said in a phone interview. "These races are quite short, but there's a lot happening in a short period of time."
In addition, "you get way more bang for your buck" compared with traditional motorsports, Andretti said. "You spend a lot less money as a sponsor but get a huge return, because it is on network TV [NBC is broadcasting all GRC races except Austin, which ran live on ABC], and the ratings are pretty good for what they're spending. I know the ratings are good in NASCAR, but you're spending 10 times as much."
To run a contending rallycross team for the 2014 season costs between $700,000 and $2 million, according to one team manager who wished to remain anonymous. By comparison, it costs about $7 million to run a NASCAR Nationwide team, Speed said, and substantially more to run a Sprint Cup team.
Because drivers race in small, all-wheel-drive cars that are available to consumers (and go from zero to 60 mph in 1.9 seconds) and because the roughly half-mile-long courses show the cars' precision and durability on dirt and asphalt, rallycross has caught on with major manufacturers like Ford, Subaru and Volkswagen.
"Until we got involved with rallycross four years ago, we didn't really have something to showcase small-car performance," Ford marketing strategy manager Scott Denby said. Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet Jr., who raced two seasons in F1, claimed the bronze medal Saturday in a Ford Fiesta.
Big-name sponsors appreciate how rallycross appeals to the coveted millennial fan demographic that NASCAR and IndyCar have struggled to capture -- a factor of shorter races as well as the presence of action-sports heroes like Travis Pastrana, Ken Block and Brian Deegan. Lowe's, which sponsors six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, jumped into rallycross for the first time this year as a title sponsor of Patrik Sandell. 7UP is sponsoring Speed.
"I've been a rally guy for 25 years, and we have people approaching us now," said Lance Smith, team owner of Bucky Lasek's Subaru, which took silver on Saturday. "Tire manufacturers, wheel manufacturers, oil people, energy drinks ... they call us now. That didn't happen two years ago."
Speed said he believes rallycross has the potential to become "the biggest motorsport in this country."
"You bring a football fan or a basketball fan -- someone who's not a motorsports fan -- to something like this," Piquet said, "what's the chance of them becoming a fan of this rather than spending five hours watching a NASCAR race? You tell me."
Expect to see more crossover from traditional disciplines, Andretti said. "I think my involvement has made a lot of people look at it. I know Roger [Penske, one of the most powerful men in motorsports] is looking at it and a few other IndyCar teams are looking at it quite seriously."
All of which is good for business -- mostly. In the pits after his win, Speed was asked what Saturday's race and the heightened interest in rallycross say about the sport's future.
"It tells me I really need to take advantage right now," he said, "because it's going to get a lot harder next year."