The field that has assembled in Foz do Iguaçu for the first international X Games RallyCross competition includes pro drivers from Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, off-road trucks, rally and motocross. And while the medal favorites for Sunday's race are X Games veterans such as Travis Pastrana, Tanner Foust, Ken Block and Brian Deegan, drivers from other disciplines also stand a chance at the podium.Even so, motorsport is a specialized pursuit and newcomers face a steep learning curve. Being good at turning left at nearly 200 mph on a banked oval hundreds of times each race in NASCAR is a lot different than comfortably sliding through a tight right-hander into a 70-foot jump at X Games.
"If you're flying through the air in NASCAR, you've done something wrong," said Pastrana, who is running a full Nationwide Series schedule this season, in addition to racing in the Global RallyCross Championship (of which X Games counts in the standings). "If you're flying through the air here, it's all good."
Every driver has a different skill set that is shaped by his respective competition background. "Moving from open wheel to NASCAR, I've had the experience of getting in a car and being like, 'WT-?' " said Scott Speed, a former Formula One driver who will compete in rallycross for the first time Sunday. "The art is to curb our instincts."
Steve Arpin, who has raced in the Nationwide Series and ARCA, grew up racing modifieds on dirt ovals. He has experience sliding around on dirt in close traffic, but Friday was his first opportunity to get behind the wheel of a rallycross car. He spent his practice session cautiously exploring the handling dynamics of the high-strung, all-wheel drive rallycross car that is vastly different from his regular, rear-wheel drive ride. He experimented with sliding while keeping the front and rear bumpers clear of the concrete barriers that line the course. "We've got to find the limits of the car, but we've got to be careful. There are no backup cars," he said.
Speed's experience means his instincts are well-honed in close competition at high speeds, and he knows how to find his way through traffic to the front of a pack of cars. But Formula One success is about clinical perfection, and his training has prepared him to precisely place the car on the ideal line lap after lap. That's tough in rallycross, when the ideal line is likely to be spattered with mud, obscured by dust, or blocked by a crashed competitor.
"This is a changing track," Foust said. "Some drivers may not be used to a track where the racing line is not always the fastest."Speed encountered another surprise Friday after his first stint behind the wheel of a rallycross car. A water truck brought in to quell the dust immediately before he took the start left the course slippery, with puddles of standing water, and he abandoned his practice session early.
Nelson Piquet Jr., who has credentials in Formula One and NASCAR, started tentatively during his first practice laps. Likewise, Buddy Rice, an Indy 500 winner, tested the slick surface as he made his way around the track during his first practice session.
Swedish driver Patrik Sandell -- whose rally background gives him years of experience slinging an all-wheel drive car around on every road and in every weather condition imaginable -- looked strong as he felt out the grip in the wet and dry sections of the course. But because rally cars are typically solo on the course, his rallycross lessons will start on race day. He has said he will have to learn to manage the hard-hitting and aggressive traffic of rallycross once the competition begins. Brazilian rally drivers Eduardo Marquez and Mauricio Naves will face a similar learning curve.
"To be fast, to do it right, we have to be natural, and that comes with seat time," Speed said.
But seat time is in short supply. Drivers will have the opportunity to return to the course Saturday for a couple of hours. The next time they get behind the wheel, it will be race day. It's a big challenge, but don't count the newcomers out. Kenny Brack, a former IndyCar driver, won the gold medal in rally car racing in his first appearance in 2009. With plenty of motorsport talent in the field, there could be an X Games rookie or two battling it out at the front of the pack.