The lights flash over the grid, signaling a rallycross race is about to begin. An artillery barrage of pops and bangs erupts as 10 drivers fire their anti-lag systems and lean on their handbrakes. The cars squat down, like sprinters in the blocks, mechanical muscles coiled and ready for the race to start. The lights go green and they launch with a roar, an explosion of power that propels them from zero to 60 faster than a Formula One car.
Rallycross cars begin their lives on the production line -- just like the commuter cousins that share their nameplates. But after a rallycross team has worked their magic, these cars are transformed into some of the most versatile racers on the planet.
"A rallycross car stops better than any street car. It accelerates as fast as a racing motorcycle or a Formula One car and it corners better than a Ferrari 458," says driver Tanner Foust, who will compete this week in RallyCross at X Games Munich. "They're faster than any supercar on the planet, including a $2.5 million Bugatti Veyron."
And a relative bargain at only about $350,000 apiece.
A winning rallycross racer must have power and agility on mixed surfaces, plus it must be robust enough to withstand huge jumps and being bashed around by other cars. It's a tall order and getting it right costs money -- in years of development and in high-tech parts.
A top-spec rallycross car is a 600 horsepower, turbocharged, all-wheel drive monster that even Foust says blows his mind. "The Rockstar Energy Drink Ford Fiesta ST I drive is literally faster accelerating than anything you'll ever see in a car magazine or on the street, and that's mind blowing considering it's a two-liter, four-cylinder Ford Fiesta."
Vehicle preparation starts with stripping the shell down to the bare metal to remove heavy nice-to-haves like heat shielding, insulation and sound dampening; an acid bath at this stage often helps to achieve the race-mandated minimum of 2,866 pounds. Upholstery and air conditioning are traded in for a precisely triangulated protective roll cage made of hard steel tubing.
For weight distribution and safety, a specialized racing seat is hard mounted in a position that's farther back and lower down than most regular vehicles and, because race car drivers don't have longer legs or arms than the rest of us, pedals and specialized steering wheels are installed with extensions so they're within optimal reach.
The dashboard is minimalist, custom-made and coated in a light-absorbing material to eliminate glare on the windshield. The sequential-transmission lever is positioned so the driver doesn't have to move his hands far from the wheel to shift (without the clutch), and an outsized handbrake handle is positioned so it's easy for the driver to grab when the car is sliding through a tight corner.
"The first thing I thought was that these things are lightened out and tricked out," said Scott Speed, a former Formula One driver currently competing in NASCAR who won his first X Games RallyCross in Brazil earlier this year. "Technology wise, they're more similar to an F1 car than what I've been driving lately."
A rallycross car is required to use an engine block built by its namesake manufacturer -- so a Ford is a Ford, and a Volkswagen is a Volkswagen -- and the X Games field mostly uses two-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged motors. But these racing setups are engineered to produce high power (around 600 horsepower) and high torque (almost that much), and more than 45 pounds of boost.
They hit top speeds of about 135 mph. Because getting the holeshot is so important in rallycross, the cars feature explosive acceleration. If you're driving a production Ford Fiesta ST and mash the gas from a standstill, it's going to take you between six and seven seconds to get to 60 mph. Its all-wheel drive competition equivalent gets there in less than two seconds.
Noted for their agility as well as their speed, the best rallycross cars have a short wheelbase that makes them capable of rapid direction changes on virtually any surface. "It is the most hyperactive car you can imagine driving," says Foust. "If you sneeze, you drive off the road. It's twitchy and sensitive."
Part of that is due to the way the car is set up. Rallycross cars feature multi-way adjustable suspensions capable of absorbing big shocks, like landing the 70-foot jump, while still handling well where it matters the most on the racecourse.
But no car can do everything and even the high-spec class of rallycross racer aptly named a "Supercar" has its limitations. A downpour forced the cancellation of X Games RallyCross in Barcelona because the dirt in the stadium dissolved into a thick, soupy clay several inches deep. Their tires were getting so badly caked with mud that they couldn't get any traction. The upshot is X Games Munich, taking place this week, gets an extra RallyCross race as a make-up, so there will be two race days.
These cars are built tough, so most will make it through both race days -- although some will start looking a little worse-for-wear after going a few rounds. Someone who's never been to a rallycross before might wonder about these cars the first time they see them edge quietly onto the grid. To the uninitiated, they look like they could be daily drivers with colorful paint jobs. But once they roar off the start, it's clear that under the hood, they're anything but.