Rallycross competition in Barcelona sees the return of some X Games favorites, plus some international stars set to compete in the sport for the first time on Sunday.
Carlos Sainz is a two-time World Rally Championship winner and a Spanish national motorsport hero. With championship wins in 1990 and 1992, he is the only Spanish driver with a World Rally Championship title. Even though he is a first-time rallycross driver at X Games Barcelona, he is, without a doubt, a medal threat. WRC champions typically succeed at X Games: Colin McRae (a former teammate of Sainz's in the 1990s) famously rolled to silver in 2006, Marcus Grönholm earned a silver in 2011 and Sebastien Loeb grabbed gold last summer in Los Angeles. For many of the drivers in the Barcelona field, the chance to race Sainz is a career highlight.
"I am super excited about meeting Carlos Sainz," said Scott Speed, the American Formula One-turned-NASCAR driver, who won gold in his RallyCross debut last month at X Games Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil and recently announced his plans to run a full rallycross schedule. "I've known his name since I could remember."
Sainz's last World Rally Championship race was in 2005, and he has since turned his attention to rally raid competition, epic endurance contests that span thousands of miles and can last weeks at a time. He competed for the first time in the famed Dakar race in 2006 and won it for Volkswagen in 2010. He appears in X Games driving a Volkswagen Polo alongside young Swedish rallycross driver Anton Marklund.
Sainz isn't the only Spaniard on the grid with Dakar experience. Rallycross newcomer Nani Roma started competing on the Dakar in 2000 on a motorcycle and won it for KTM in 2004. He switched to cars in 2005 and now drives rally raids for Mini. Roma said Sainz was an inspiration to him when he was a teenager and recalls staking out the restaurant where Sainz and his teammates would eat together after racing in the Spanish round of the World Rally Championship -- just to get a glimpse of his hero.
"I respect him a lot," Roma said. "He's 51 years old, and he has a lot of passion for motorsport. It is nice to compete with him."
Brazilian Guiga Spinelli, who will compete in a Mitsubishi this weekend, is also new to rallycross at X Games. He knows Sainz and Roma from the Dakar, having first raced the famed contest in 2009 and competes for Mitsubishi in rally raid. He said he is looking forward to making his rallycross debut.
"It is an amazing kind of racing, mixing the technical rally style of driving with a track and racing side by side," Spinelli said.
Rallycross newcomers Spinelli and Roma point out they aren't as worried about whether they've got the car-control skills to pilot their machines around the stadium course -- their extensive motorsport experience should serve them well in that respect -- but both are wondering what it's going to be like to race in traffic. In rallycross, every pass is an aggressive, door-to-door move. In rally raid competition, cars start in two-minute intervals, and passing is relatively rare.
"The most difficult thing is going to be to learn to start together and to fight," Roma said.
Roma's Mini is one of two making an appearance in Barcelona -- a first for the marque at X Games. Liam Doran, the British rallycross driver known to X Games and European Rallycross Championship fans as the pilot of a powerful Citroen, will also debut a Mini this weekend. His Mini, originally prepared for World Rally Championship competition by the Prodrive motorsport organization, is being developed for rallycross and is expected undergo an evolution throughout the season.
Also in the 17-car field this weekend in Barcelona are the familiar drivers of the Subaru Puma Rallycross Team, who sat out the first international X Games contest of the year. Action sports legends Dave Mirra (BMX) and Bucky Lasek (skate) are returning to the team for 2013, along with three-time European Rallycross Champion Sverre Isachsen, who first competed in X Games for Subaru in 2010. The team has been working in the offseason to continue vehicle development, and they said they're back with a competition package that is better than ever.
Back in the mix for Ford are regular medal favorites Ken Block, Tanner Foust and Brian Deegan. They are again joined by Toomas Heikkinen, who scored the silver medal in Foz do Iguaçu, and Patrik Sandell, who is looking to improve on the bronze he earned in Brazil. Back in the 2012 spec Ford Fiesta is Steve Arpin, who was fourth in Brazil, as well as Speed.
Travis Pastrana and Bryce Menzies will return to the mix for Dodge.
X Games staff will work overnight Saturday to transform the floor of the Estadi Olímpic from its Moto X Freestyle and Enduro X configuration into a rallycross track. The first time we'll have a chance to see these drivers in action together in Barcelona is on Sunday during a practice session just a few hours before the racing begins.