AUSTIN, Texas -- It was 6:45 a.m. when Liam Doran climbed into the cockpit of the Chrysler Voyager minivan and pointed out of the parking garage in Austin, Texas. Saturday. Race day at X Games.
And while everyone crammed into the soccer-mom machine knew the driver was amped up and ready to go cross swords with the world's most accomplished RallyCross drivers, Doran certainly wasn't showing it. In fact, he was acting more like a bear who didn't really want to be awakened from his cave of a hotel room an hour earlier, but that's what had happened.
"I didn't even get a 'F--- off' when I tried to wake him up this morning," said his wife, Andrea, who is four weeks short of delivering the couple's first child.
For the next five minutes, nobody inside the van said a word. It seemed nobody wanted to rattle the driver, who, by the way, was already testing and working on the braking points of the Chrysler, charging right on up to the cars before him.
"I'm only here to win," he said while waiting at a red light that dared to stop him on his way to the Circuit of The Americas, site of the 2014 X Games RallyCross race. "It's so important for me to be here. The X Games is such high profile with all the name drivers."
The X Games mean a lot to Doran. They've been good to the man. During the summer of 2011, Doran showed up in Los Angeles unannounced, and, when he did, he took the measure of such established rally drivers as Tanner Foust, Travis Pastrana, Ken Block and Marcus Gronholm (a former World Rally champion) to win the X Games gold medal.
"I'll never forget the feeling I had when I turned up at the first event," explained Doran while driving through Texas Hill Country. "Just being part was like a dream come true. My dream was to win, but my dream was also just to be a part of it. My dream had come true -- I was part of the X Games. It's pretty much been like that every time for me. I like the X Games theory. I like the reputation it has always had. I watched it as a kid. I knew all of the names as I followed it adamantly. It was always like a dream of mine. My dream was to be a race car driver and to compete in the X Games. And to win the gold medal my first time was just unreal."
A purpose-built Rallycross driver ("I was never interested in Formula One. It's like a crazy movie. It's unapproachable."), Doran in recent years not only has won X Games medals but also finished as vice champion in the European Rallycross Championship (now recognized as the World Rallycross Championship by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the same body that governs F1). Having struggled at the first two rounds of the 12-round 2014 World Rallycross Championship at Portugal and Great Britain, respectively, Doran is excited to be here in Austin and at the one-day, winner-take-all X Games RallyCross event.
"To come here to race on one day and in one event and to focus on this one job is easier for me. The pressures of championships and results are all out of the way. It's all or nothing here, basically. I'm here to win. I don't have to go out there and try and get points for a championship. I seem to do well in these one race, one day situations. I don't seem to do well in situations where I'm supposed to go out and just get points," Doran said.
And, as he made clear when this ride to COTA started, he's here to win.
"That's the plan. I'm here to win. The car seems to be working and going well. At the first rounds of the WRC, I was struck by car technical issues. And the second round, at Lydden Hill, I don't think I've ever had such bad luck at one race in my life. Everything seemed to go wrong at the same time. You can't avoid that. Today, hopefully we won't get those problems. Hopefully, we can shake some of that bad luck away and get some results.
"I've never seemed to win a championship, Then again, I've always gotten a strong amount of wins every season. There are guys who have been winning championships who haven't won any events during the season. They're the ones that go out and just get points, and I really have no interest in that. I know it's about winning championships, but that's not the reason why I race. I race to win."
By 8 a.m., Doran and crew had alighted from the van and walked into the COTA rally paddock. It was there, beneath a large awning affixed to an 18-wheel semitruck festooned in the sinister black and electric green corporate colors of Monster Energy, that his No. 33 Citroen DS3 challenger awaited.
Weaving through 54-gallon drums of VP racing fuel and upward of 30 road cases -- enough to make a touring rock and roll act worth its weight in iTunes sales jealous -- Doran greeted his team and prepared to set out for his first practice session. An hour later, his four-lap session was complete, punctuated by melted rubber and spent fuel fumes.
His first observation: Car is great. Track is not.
"Coming here from the World Rallycross Championship, this really isn't up to standard," Said Doran, of the half-mile circuit that lacks the gravel and big-air obstacles he knows and loves back in Europe. "It's like taking an F1 car and driving it around a car park. That's not going to work, but it is what it is. The track is too narrow. It's not fast enough. It's not open enough. The surface isn't right. It's a little bit frustrating because we've come all the way to this venue -- which is probably one of the best racetracks in the world -- and all we've got to do is go around in a little loop."
With Doran slated for the third heat race, Austin got weird for him when, four laps and a cloud of dust later, Sverre Isachsen and his Subaru WRX STI punted Doran's $450,000 carbon fiber wonder right off the circuit. Still, Doran was able to forge his way back to second when all is said and done.
"I should have pushed a bit harder to try and get the lead, but he's a f---ing animal," an upset Doran said of his Norwegian adversary. "He took the other two guys in front of me out. If I would have pushed and come out next to him during the race . Everyone can see when he drives that he's crazy."
Doran coasted through the quarterfinals, then went right back out and, in an all-wheel-drive jet wash of 600 horsepower, smoked to a convincing semifinal heat race win. It was then, back in the pit area and among high-fiving mechanics, that Doran began to feel that just might be his day in the humid subtropical sun.
"Keep calm and make sure everything gets done properly," he said to his spanner men, who, in a din of clanking wrenches and hissing compressed air, were giving the Citroen the once-over, twice.
At precisely 3:01 p.m., the cars began revving their engines, the red lights dissolved, the green lights flashed, the clutches were dumped and the gas pedals mashed into the floorboards. The RallyCross final was on, and, in a snap-crackle-pop wedge of centrifugal force, the potent race cars dove into the first turn and
"That was some finish, wasn't it?" deadpanned Doran to his crew, all of whom hung their heads in equal parts frustration and dejection. Doran rolled the dice and bet it all on holeshooting the race, trying to come out of the ominous first turn with the lead. He came up empty-handed, however, when Scott Speed enjoyed a slightly better jump out of the hole and left Doran high and dry and out in the gravel.
"I could say a lot about what just happened," the Briton said on an exhale while pulling off his firesuit. "I tried a stupid move in the first corner in going for the win. I'm only here to win, you know?"
Doran took a hard turn into the final right and spun out at the end, ultimately finishing fourth and exiting his vehicle in disgust.
"I got a good start, and I knew I could outdrag him to the first corner, which I did. I couldn't turn in to the first corner or I would have hit [Speed]. If I would have braked, I would have let everyone past me. I would have made it if I didn't hit the front sump guard on the ground, but it kicked the car up so high that it lifted all the wheels off the ground and I couldn't turn," Doran said. "I don't regret that. I only came here to win gold, and I had a very good chance of winning gold, so I tried. I had to try.
"I don't want to sound arrogant or anything, but I only came here for gold, so I was going to try anything I could. That's what RallyCross is about. It's about fighting as hard as you can to the end, and that's what I did."