Why are Scandinavians so good at rallycross?
There's an old joke in car racing circles that goes: "How do you make a small fortune in motorsport?" The witty retort: "You start with a large one." Bah-dum, dum.
Motorsport is expensive. The cars that compete in RallyCross at X Games cost between $300,000 and $500,000 apiece. You could buy a couple of Ferraris for that. And when you take into account the fuel, tires, spare parts and mechanics it takes to race a RallyCross Supercar for an afternoon, the cash really starts to add up. It isn't unusual for a top team to burn tens of thousands of dollars for just a few minutes of competition on race day. Which brings us to a dilemma. What's a would-be race car driver to do? Without sponsorship, it's basically impossible to have enough cash to run a top car. But without the money to buy costly equipment, it's just as impossible to prove you deserve sponsorship. It's a classic chicken-and-egg scenario, and one that thwarts many a promising racing career before it even begins.
But what if there was a place where you could race any old car as much as you wanted for the price of the money earned on a week's worth of pizza delivery tips? And what if, in that magical place, when the race was over, you could buy the winner's car for just $1,000, ensuring that you always had access to the best equipment for a nominal sum?
There is such a place. It's called Scandinavia, and it's one of the reasons that part of the world produces so many great RallyCross pros.
Six of the top Ford Fiestas in the field at X Games are run by a Swedish outfit called Olsbergs MSE. Team owner Andreas Eriksson has been instrumental in the RallyCross careers of U.S. drivers Tanner Foust, Brian Deegan and X Games Brazil winner Scott Speed. When you ask him how to become a RallyCross driver, he says: "Folkrace."
The other Scandinavians in the field agree, saying the Folkrace tradition offers an inexpensive entrée into car racing and a level playing field that fosters driving talent. Volkswagen driver Anton Marklund, Ford's Patrik Sandell, and Subaru's Sverre Isachsen (from Norway) have all competed in the grassroots Scandinavian motorsport, as have many of their team members.
Folkrace -- which translates to "people race" (it's called "Bilcross" in Isachsen's native Norwegian) -- doesn't require big-dollar sponsorship. Kids are allowed to start competing as young as 14 in a progressive heats format similar to RallyCross. Tracks are mostly dirt (and sometimes snow), and the cars are as widely varied as the drivers who pilot them. As long as a vehicle is deemed safe, just about anything goes; one of the hot set-ups in Sweden right now is a Saab 99, last produced for sale in 1984. Eriksson says Folkracing is one of the best ways for would-be drivers to get started in motorsport because it's all-inclusive.
"You have little guys that are four feet tall and they can't even get a racing suit to fit," said Eriksson. "Their dads put blocks on the pedals for them."
And it's cheap. What really sets this type of racing apart is the unusual race car auction at the end. When the racing is over for the day, anybody -- the fans, the other racers, the guy in the paper hat selling corn dogs -- can make a bid on any car in the race for a fixed price of $1,000. "The seller sometimes doesn't want to sell the car, but he has to," Eriksson said. "That's part of the game."
The circuit has no championship, just race winners and losers. Every event starts with a clean slate and, with competitors often swapping cars, the win is decided not by the one with the biggest budget but by the one who does the best driving. Yes, if you had the money to burn, you could take a $500,000 car out for the weekend and murder the competition with your superior equipment but, at the end of the race, anybody could walk away with that car for $1,000, which is probably not the best way to spend half a million dollars in pizza money. So people show up with relatively evenly-matched equipment and the competition is a pure thing: it comes down to skill behind the wheel. Talent shines.
"In other countries, to have an opportunity to drive any motorsport you need a rich dad or mom," Eriksson said. "When I started, I was 14 and I had nothing. My father took me there, I built my own car and I was out racing."
On any given weekend, would-be racecar drivers in Eriksson's home country of Sweden -- and the adjacent nations of Finland, Denmark and Norway -- have their choice from dozens of Folkrace competitions. In Sweden alone, there are an estimated 800 of them a year, held all over the country. On most weekends, if you wanted to, you could compete at different tracks Saturday and Sunday, and take home a different car at the end of each day. It was on this grassroots circuit that Eriksson said he learned much of what makes him one of the most influential figures in RallyCross today. As a young driver, he figured out how to start fast at the drop of the green flag, make a clean pass, deal with traffic, handle car-to-car contact and fix everything that he broke.
"You learn contact with other cars, to get hit. If you crash the car and get spun out and roll or whatever, you learn how to handle it. You just sledgehammer it out and go again," he said.
In the United States, it's a struggle to find a direct analog. Karting, heralded as the proving ground for future Formula One stars, rapidly becomes expensive for serious young racers as they make the climb through the ranks, with wealthy teams turning up with high-end karts, haulers, and professional mechanics. There's no doubt that weekend short-track events draw hobbyist racers to local American tracks, but it's a huge jump from there to the NASCAR big leagues.
"The drivers I see coming from Folkrace are good," Eriksson said. "Folkrace selects the coins out of the cake and identifies the best guys out there who are extremely talented."
Right now, the next generation of RallyCross stars in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark are packing up the family wagons with some tools and a gas can, and readying their beater-of-the-week for another competition, while in Barcelona, the X Games teams had better be watching their backs. The Folkracers are coming.