In a first for X Games, two women will race against men in the chaotic, contact-friendly RallyCross competition in Austin, Texas.
Although many sports have separate divisions for men and women -- a convention intended to level the playing field when it comes to size and strength -- these two women, Emma Gilmour and Sarah Burgess, say there's no reason for a women's only class in RallyCross.
"With rally driving, there are no physical limitations for a women to not be as fast as a guy," says Gilmour, who will race a Hyundai Veloster Turbo this season in Red Bull Global Rallycross and X Games. "Sometimes I think women have a different skill set that can be an advantage -- like multitasking."
There have been women racing cars at X Games before, but never in the driver's seat. Gold medalists Chrissie Beavis (former co-driver for Tanner Foust, who now competes with Travis Pastrana) and Carolyn Bosley (who scored her gold with Pastrana) are two of several women to have competed at X Games as co-drivers. But since co-drivers were phased out of X Games in 2009, there hasn't been a woman competing in the discipline.
Gilmour has a wealth of experience in her native New Zealand. Back home in the New Zealand Rally Championship, she drives a turbocharged, all-wheel drive Suzuki Swift, which produces about 400 horsepower. Her racing career spans a dozen years of rally competitions, and she has finished runner-up in the national championship for the past three years in a row. She is humble about her accomplishments, but if pressed, she'll admit she's got skills: "I know that I'm fast. Not just: 'fast, for a female.' I'm outright fast."
She has already won the race to be the first woman driver in the top ranks of the U.S.-based Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship. When she takes the start in her factory Hyundai Veloster Turbo at the opening round this weekend in Barbados, she will break ground as the first female driver in the series' young history.
At X Games, a month later, she'll be joined by Burgess, who will be the second female driver in series' history.
Burgess got her start working on cars in the shop with her husband, Adam, in their native Australia some 12 years ago. The duo decided to immigrate to the United States and brought with them their passion for motorsport, and they have campaigned a high-horsepower drift car -- which Burgess drove -- in the Xtreme Drift series for the past two years. But Burgess said she got tired of playing to the judges, and by the end of last season she was ready for a new challenge.
"I love checkered-flag racing because I'm extremely competitive person," Burgess said. "Racing against the clock against 10 other guys and girls is more where I feel at home than being stylish."
Burgess will be the second driver to bring a Chevrolet Sonic to the championship. Like rival Chevy driver Pat Moro, Burgess enjoys support from sponsors and a relationship with Chevrolet but is largely running her program as a privateer. And although the team is undertaking a new vehicle build and on a platform that is largely untested in rallycross, Burgess said she's confident her Sonic will be competitive. And she isn't fazed by the budgets of some of the higher-dollar teams she'll face on the circuit.
"I know Olsbergs MSE's and Andretti's cars are half-million-dollar cars," she says. "But I know the skill set we have, and our car will be competitive."
Like Gilmour, Burgess is a newcomer to rallycross. The team opted to delay their the season start to X Games Austin -- skipping the opening round of the Red Bull Global Rallycross championship in Barbados next month -- to ensure there would be enough time to get the vehicle development dialed. The car is currently scheduled for completion a slim two weeks before X Games, giving her a little bit of test time before they ship out from their Southern California shop for Austin.
Although the introduction of two women to X Games will provoke inevitable comparisons, it isn't sparking a rivalry between them, at least not yet. Neither of these drivers says she has a particular thirst to beat the other. As Gilmour pointed out: "She's just another competitor."
For her part, Burgess is particularly looking forward to battling Tanner Foust and Rhys Millen -- early role models in her drifting endeavors -- Travis Pastrana, because of his competitive spirit and Scott Speed, whose career has taken him to Formula One, the pinnacle of motorsport.
"I have individual battles with every person," said Burgess. "Just because there's another girl it doesn't feel like I have to beat her."
But Burgess' competitive wish list alone includes stiff competition, a heavy fist-full of X Games medals and at least a dozen professional championship titles between them. And while both of these newcomers say they will strive for wins this season, they each admit to having more modest goals.
"It's going to be sensory overload on first start line: I'm learning the car, learning the track, learning to race with others," said Gilmour, who is comfortable racing flat-out on long rally stages for days at a time but is new to the rallycross discipline. Like other rally drivers who have entered the sport before her -- drivers who are accustomed to having the course to themselves and a co-driver to guide them through it -- she will have to learn to battle door-to-door and with a remote spotter feeding her considerably less course information than she's accustomed to receiving.
"I want to be competitive, but I have to understand where I'm at with my learning curve on it all," Gilmour said.
Burgess is similarly realistic about her ambitions for her rookie season. "If we get a podium this season, that's an absolute bonus for everything we've achieved and would make it a successful year for our team."
But ask any rookie about expectations coming into a new motorsport and the responses are similar: Even the most competitive drivers will say they're embarking on "a development season," and they're "learning the sport." And that has nothing at all to do with gender.
"This is a horsepower and courage thing -- not a strength thing," said Burgess. "I'm cool with racing the guys."