The first double header on the Red Bull Global Rallycross 2015 schedule was nothing short of outstanding. Once again teams from across the country set up shop on Daytona International Speedway’s infield which included a 69% pavement/31% dirt course with a new layout that would prove to challenge drivers and thrill fans all weekend long.
Our coverage started on Thursday afternoon with a ride-along with Nelson Piquet Jr. in the SH Rallycross Ford Fiesta. Ride-alongs are kind of like birthday party pony rides for the motorsports community. Once on the list, it’s important to show up at the paddock on time so the Red Bull GRC staff can make sure everyone is properly attired in fire suits and helmets.
An SH Rallycross crew member helped me get into the car. Despite my small stature it isn’t easy to do so while wearing a helmet. He explained which parts of my body the belts would cover before strapping me in. If it didn’t happen already, that’s when you know – this is really happening! In all likelihood, there was a stupid grin on my face. I still managed to exchange a few words with Piquet Jr. before he donned his helmet and gloves. As much as I wanted to go into full fan mode, you My Life at Speeders were foremost in mind so here’s the launch.
Those g-forces are no joke! Not long after capturing this video, the phone flew from my hands and past my feet to hit the car’s interior wall with a loud bang. It stayed there until Nelson slowed down and then slid down to the floor. There was a fleeting moment when I thought, “RIP iPhone” but then we were back to hurtling around the course at top speed and I couldn’t care less. It’s good to know the driver can’t hear you over the engine because decorum can be freely tossed aside in favour of whooping, laughing and the occasional fist pump.
The My Life at Speed team knows how yellow-bellied I am when it comes onto things like this but it turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my entire life and I highly recommend it to anyone. My thanks to Red Bull GRC, Daytona International Speedway, SH Rallycross and of course Nelson Piquet Jr. who, to his credit despite the heat which was somewhere between oppressive and unbearable, didn’t hold back one bit and those three laps gave me a whole new appreciation for this sport.
Friday’s heats were moved to Saturday because of (get this!) stormy weather and when it comes onto Florida lightning – always err on the side of caution. This meant Saturday’s docket was wall-to-wall action including heats, semi-finals, LCQs and finals for both divisions. Thanks to tidy scheduling and a heavy dose of luck, everything went off without a hitch before rain poured again in the late afternoon.
Ken Block and Patrik Sandell won their semi-final races and looked like favourites for the finals. Imagine our surprise when they collided on the first lap. Block limped his Fiesta to the finish line, while Sandell had to settle for a DNF. It was good to see them talk it out and hug it out on the NBC Sports broadcast. I met Patrik later in the day and although disappointed, he chalked it up as a racing incident as the Bryan Herta Rallysport mechanics fixed the broken gearbox. Alas they got a DNF the next day as well. It’s been a less-than-stellar season for the Swedish driver so far.
Block and Sandell’s losses were Tanner Foust’s gain as he claimed sweet victory as the only non-Ford driver in the final. It was also his first win at Daytona which makes it all the more special. Second and third places went to Sandell’s team mate, Austin Dyne and Olsbergs MSE’s Sebastian Eriksson respectively. Their drag race to the finish line was easily one of the weekend’s best moments.
Dyne’s excellent 2014 rookie year performance was overshadowed by Olsbergs MSE’s wunderkind and series defending champion, Joni Wiman. Regardless he continues to hold his own against series veterans and scored his very first podium finish on Saturday. Incidentally, Dyne was bumping around the track with Foust during Sunday’s LCQ, a repeat of their volatile battles at Ft. Lauderdale.
You may have done a double-take earlier at the mention Saturday’s final was comprised of eight Ford Fiestas and one Volkswagen Beetle but it’s true. Subaru’s Sverre Isachsen reached Saturday’s semi-final stage but didn’t make it to the LCQ while Bucky Lasek’s car suffered one mechanical problem after another. The team opted to work towards getting the cars ready for Sunday instead of risking more damage. As it turned out, they both ended up on the tail-end of Sunday’s LCQ which left the Andretti Volkswagens to battle against the Fords.
Although Foust won on Saturday, the Beetles had a rough time in Daytona Beach. A lot of work went into the #34 car and there were many worried faces in the Andretti camp. Understandably similar feelings ran high on the #41 side of the camp as Scott Speed’s car suffered endless problems. It seems as though he is destined to walk to the finish line at Daytona rather than drive there. (There’s always next year, buddy.)
The most notable names from the supercars division that weekend were Sebastian Eriksson and Jeff Ward. As aforementioned, the young Swede took third on Saturday. However he also went on to win Sunday’s round which was not only his first in this division but puts him atop the Championship standings as well. Eriksson is another GRC Lites graduate and additional proof that the development series produces GRC stars of tomorrow.
It was one heck of a debut for motocross veteran, Jeff Ward. He may not have taken home any trophies for Chip Ganassi Racing but earned the respect of fans and drivers alike for going out there with minimal training. He was scheduled for only three races this season so we’ll have to savour every grid appearance. When the chequered flag dropped on Sunday, Ward was third but penalized for rough driving on the final lap; although he tussled with Scott Speed as well before the Beetle ended up in the grass.
The penalty handed a podium finish to his teammate, Steve Arpin, who also won a medal at X Games Austin. If you don’t think the amiable Canadian is a championship contender this year. Think again. Arpin bought his mega a-game on Sunday, going toe-to-toe with Ken Block and then getting into a three-car-brawl with Foust and Wiman, before the Finnish driver took a hard hit with the wall. Ken Block shook off Saturday’s loss to take second place, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He did everything possible to chase down Eriksson but never caught up with the kid. However that may happen on the championship standings where Block is only eight points behind with seven races to go.
Although supercars get the lion’s share of glory, we would be remiss to ignore GRC Lites. These spec-built cars have half the horsepower but the racing is tight and ferocious! Olsbergs MSE’s Oliver Eriksson won on Saturday despite engine troubles in the final. There was an emotional moment during the post-race press conference when Tanner Foust spoke about remembering Oliver as a young child “running around the pits” back when Foust drove for his father, Andreas Eriksson; and now here they were winning podiums together.
Beaming with pride, Foust went on to say, “It’s awesome and it’s really what rallycross is about is we’ve got these guys coming up don’t even have their driver’s licences and they’re shredding it up on the race tracks, so the future’s bright.” Sunday didn’t go quite so well for Eriksson as a collision with another Saturday top-finisher, Alejandro Fernandez, took him out of contention. While the young Colombian practically willed his car to a fifth place finish.
It wasn’t a total loss for Olsbergs MSE as Eriksson’s team mate, Austin Cindric, won in grand style. This is Austin’s second season in GRC Lites but if he keeps up performances like these, we’ll be seeing him in a supercar before long.
DirtFish Motorsports’ Tanner Whitten almost pulled off a podium double. Almost. He finished third on Saturday but was penalized for course-cutting which made him switch spots with Miles Maroney. Whitten didn’t waste the second chance on Sunday and finished second. Third place went to another newcomer, Harry Cheung of Rhys Millen Racing. It was admittedly odd to see the RMR banner without Rhys Millen himself present but the GRC Lites can only benefit from their team’s participation. We’re going to keep a close eye on these tough-as-nails racers all season long.
Is it possible to discern who can take the championship this year? No way. Red Bull GRC is as unpredictable as ever and it will probably come down to Las Vegas. There were a few things of note that I’d like to share with you before talking about the next event. For one thing, the paddock took up more space than last year. That’s because some of the teams have much larger set-ups than last year but it was also less congested and with all that heat, the last thing anybody needed was a nosy neighbourhood vibe.
Red Bull GRC’s open paddock is easily one of the series’ best features. Drivers talked with fans, took photos, autographed stuff while gearheads got a close look at the metal beasts and more importantly, what’s under the hoods. This is what inspires the next generation of racers, engineers and mechanics. You see the guys from Subaru, Hoonigan and Oslbergs MSE, and then say to yourself, “I want to do that with my life.” Well worth the price of admission if you ask me.
Two people who worked hard all weekend long to keep fans informed and entertained were Jarod DeAnda and Laurette Nicoll. They did a fabulous job whether it was passing time between races, interviewing drivers, making announcements and of course, colour commentary. There was only a little cheddar here and there but they managed to keep the chatter fresh and fun. No easy task we’re sure but these seasoned Formula Drift pros made it sound easy.
Last but not least we salute the Daytona International Speedway staff. Go there often enough and you start to recognise people. I was particularly impressed by how they handled the stormy weather. Around time for the Saturday autograph session, a lightning warning was issued. This means walking outside is a safety risk. However, they quickly moved the autograph session indoors which included setting up tables and corralling the fans, who came out in droves to meet their favourite drivers. The DIS staff moved quickly and nobody was turned away. You get nothing less than world-class staff at the World Center of Racing.
A Final Word
Independence Day weekend will be celebrated with round 4 at MCAS New River in Jacksonville, North Carolina on Sunday July 5, 2015. The supercars race will be broadcast live on NBC at 5:00pm ET. GRC Lites can be seen on NBC Sports Network on Wednesday 8 July, 2015 at 6:00pm ET. If you want to buy tickets – forget it because the event is free and open to public. No tickets required! Gates open at 10am so if you’re in the area and don’t have Sunday plans, you do now.
Official Website: http://www.redbullglobalrallycross.com/
Live Timing: http://livetiming.net/grc/