Global Rallycross Championship fans and drivers have been asking for more dirt all season, and this week's Las Vegas course delivers: the track layout for the sixth and final round of 2012 is tight, technical and downright dirty.
While this season's competition has taken place on modified track layouts at NASCAR ovals -- and the X Games street course in downtown Los Angeles -- this venue is a wide open paved lot, which presented the opportunity for some creative course design.
After Sunday's opening practice session, drivers had positive reviews for the course at the Gold Lot across the street from the Las Vegas Convention Center, and say it promises great racing.
"It's the best course this year," raved Sverre Isachsen, 2011 European Rallycross Champion and Subaru Puma driver. "I love it."
The course is tight and technical, with none of the long straightaways of the traditional track-based courses, the compact nature of the course means driver technique will matter more than horsepower.
"It has the best flow of the tracks we've done so far," said Tanner Foust, who is currently leading the championship. "I'm really happy to have so much dirt."
Organizers brought in an estimated 65,000 cubic feet of dirt and put together a course with the 30 percent to 70 percent dirt-to-tarmac ratio that rallycross fans are more accustomed to seeing in European competition. This track is a little bit shorter than those we've seen previously this season, but only by a 10th of a mile or so. It covers about .6 miles per lap as it winds around the lot.
The biggest change for this round is the return of the 70-foot dirt-to-dirt gap jump, which replaces the metal ramps competitors have been flying over all year. This feature has similar dimensions to the metal ramps, but calls for a different technique.
Jumping a car over a gap isn't easy. Going slightly too fast means the car may overshoot the sweet spot, nose in and take heavy damage in the front. Going slightly too slowly often has bigger consequences -- as David Binks discovered Sunday evening when he jumped slightly short, clipped the face of the landing with the rear wheels of his eBay/Best Buy Ford Fiesta and flipped over twice down the landing ramp. He crawled out of the crashed car on his own, and was walking and talking before he was taken to hospital as a precautionary measure. He was back at the track Monday and said be feels fine. His car didn't fare as well, but Binks was holding onto a faint glimmer of hope that his team can repair the vehicle before racing begins.
Binks wasn't the only driver to fly slightly short -- he just suffered the worst consequences. There were many close calls in the first practice session.
Finding traction, which hasn't been an issue on the metal ramp structures, is proving a challenge on the loose dirt. Clearing this gap and landing in the sweet spot requires a precise speed between about 51 to 56 mph, and drivers want to be on the gas when they leave the ground at the lip of the takeoff because that keep the nose of the vehicle up and makes for a smoother landing. But drivers have to be gentle on the throttle to avoid spinning their wheels, and finding the right balance is tricky on an ever-changing dirt surface.
Adding to the challenge of this particular jump feature is that the landing ramp is short, and there's a hard right turn at the bottom. While the distance is long enough to slow down for the turn, drivers said it's hard to overcome the instinct to hold back when you know you're about to jump toward the edge of the track.
"It's in your mind that you don't want to go too crazy with that turn right after the landing," said Samuel Hübinette, a driver who has shown little fear of long jumps this season.
In rallycross, the starts are critical. Getting out front early in the race is a huge advantage because the driver who's in the lead doesn't have to contend with traffic and worry about trying to get around his rivals. The best opportunity to pass is usually the shortcut -- which competitors are allowed to take only once per race.
The same holds true for this track, but this configuration will encourage bumping, and passing virtually everywhere. Without the long straights that tend to string cars out in a line, according to horsepower, virtually every corner could present a passing opportunity.
From the start, on tarmac, drivers race down the first straightaway before the critical first right-hand turn. Although it was not clear in practice how much room drivers will have to battle through the corner -- some course refinements will continue until the Tuesday evening race -- there are a few different lines through the corner and there will definitely be contact as every driver tries to get to the front of the pack.
A short straight comes next, into a small left-hand kink where drivers will set up for a very long right-hander. The right-hander gets tighter at the end and the track splits with the dirt shortcut on the left and the long course on the right.
Drivers have yet to run the shortcut track configuration in practice but it is narrow, technical and all dirt, featuring a hard left and right turn. While it may be shorter in mileage than the course over the jump, it is going to take clean driving to make it count.
A left-hand turn sets up for the jump, and drivers will be working hard to get the right speed and traction as they aim for the sweet spot at 70 feet. After the jump, they will have to get on the brakes to prepare for the long right-hand dirt turn. On Sunday, a big bump on the inside of the long turn had several drivers up on two wheels -- although it is expected that may be smoothed out by race day.
The two courses merge in this dirt turn and it promises to be exciting. It's going to be dusty and chaotic as the car on the shortcut attempts to overtake the car on the long course. The exit of the dirt right-hander returns cars to the tarmac straightaway where they started and this could be one of the best places to make a pass.
The course is lined with grandstands and fans in the area will be close enough to taste the dust. The course promises some exciting racing for the grand finale and I can't wait to see it.