RallyCross at X Games has taken place on the streets of downtown Los Angeles and through the historic peristyles of the L.A. Coliseum. But the 90 percent dirt course that is being prepared this week in Brazil is the first at X Games to have been plowed from a farmer's field. Where just a few weeks ago there was little more than a muddy cornfield, there are now grandstands, concrete barriers and what is shaping up to be one of the best rallycross courses in X Games history.
"It's incredible that they built this in the middle of a cornfield to play on," six-time X Games rally car racing medalist Tanner Foust said after joining the rest of the 15-man rallycross field in their first official track walk Thursday.
There's always a question mark when you take heavy machinery to a field and start digging. Big rocks, roots and tree stumps can thwart a course build from the start but course designers found the equivalent of rallycross gold under the cornstalks in Foz do Iguaçu -- clean dirt that's high in clay content and suitable for sculpting into a rallycross masterwork. So far, the drivers are happy.
Measuring at half a mile in length, one lap of the course features six turns, plenty of passing opportunities, an elevation change of nearly 40 feet, and a big tabletop jump that will see cars fly some 70 feet through the air as they jostle for position. It's a course that will reward the kind of aggressive moves that make the sport of rallycross so exciting. With just a few laps in every heat, it's a sprint to the finish and drivers must capitalize on any passing opportunity.
Cars will line up three or four wide to start (and, for the final, three deep) on the only non-dirt portion of the course -- a 270-foot long poured concrete pad that makes up most of the track's front straight. This is where the best grip is found, and where cars will hook up and go 0 to 60 in an astonishing 1.9 seconds. But, while the rest of the track is natural dirt, it isn't yet known how much traction it will offer.
"Will it be grip or marbles?" asked 2012 X Games Los Angeles silver medalist Ken Block. "As the racing line develops we don't know what the surface is going to do."
Drivers will hit the track at speed for the first time Friday in practice (the first of two sessions that day), and they will find out then whether the compacted clay will break up into the chunks that Block referred to as "marbles" and create a loose and unpredictably slippery surface to race on, or whether competition tires will wear away on the hard surface to produce a high-traction blue-ish sheen on the most-traveled lines that are known as a "blue groove." It will likely be a combination of both, giving an edge to drivers with dirt-racing experience who are best able to read and react to the ever-changing conditions.
"The guys used to loose surface driving are definitely going to have the advantage," said Block, who has been racing rally cars on dirt since 2004.
In rallycross, being first into Turn 1 is a huge advantage and drivers will jostle for the lead into the off-camber, long left-hander at the end of the front straight. The turn is wide and there will be side-by-side racing through it, but holding an outside line in traffic without sliding downhill into the jungle could be tough.
One of the course elements that sets rallycross apart from other types of motorsport is the alternate lap known as the "Joker" that every driver must take once per heat. The Joker offers some of the most exciting moments in every rallycross heat because, until every driver in the pack has done alternate lap in addition to the regular lap, it isn't really clear who's leading. The Joker typically presents one of the best passing opportunities and a driver who is struggling to get ahead could dive into this alternate lap and come out ahead. On this course, the Joker is 127 feet shorter than the regular lap and it should be good for a car-length advantage.
This course features a return of the big jump that has been part of X Games rally car competition since 2007. In Foz do Iguaçu, the jump is an all-dirt tabletop, rather than the gap jump seen in previous competitions. Even though drivers won't have to worry about crashing into a gap if they don't carry enough speed off the lip, all the usual hazards of jumping a car still apply. The approach to the take-off is blind (all that's visible from the driver's seat on the way up the ramp is blue sky) and it will be critical to take off at the right speed because, unlike a dirt bike, a rallycross car is tough to adjust in the air. Landing short of the sweet-spot, at about 70 feet, could mean a nasty bounce. Over-jumping the landing can spell race-ending front-end damage. Dirt movers are still refining the course and any changes to the shape of the jump will dramatically influence its character, but the ideal take-off speed for a feature like this in X Games rallycross is typically 40 to 45 miles per hour.
New for Foz do Iguaçu is the penalty box feature to eliminate time-draining and momentum-destroying black flag restarts. Drivers who jump the start or who are otherwise caught misbehaving – aggressively crashing into competitors, for instance -- will be diverted into a side lane where a marshal will direct them to come to a complete stop before waving them through. It will be a frustrating experience for any driver who is sent there. The stop won't be very long but it could be long enough for a leader to drop to the back of the pack.