Insanity. Pure unadulterated insanity. Not the “that’s a little bit nutty” type of insanity – I’m talking the “dude, somebody needs to do something about this” type of insanity. That’s about as good as I can describe the mad bashing, mudslinging, all lanes closed, do not pass go, do not collect $200 intensity that I witnessed at DirtFish Rally School and this, the ninth and penultimate round of this year’s Red Bull GRC Series.
Thursday. I arrived at the track, and if you read my previous post (check it out here), then you’ll recall that what I saw was a ‘not quite complete’ rallycross course. It was a muddy, crazy, busy mess of dirt, gravel, construction vehicles and construction workers. Among the mad dash of construction work were teams and drivers doing their best to get a feel for what they were going to be facing over the next couple days. Carefully studying each turn, each bump, and each seam, to find out where the fast lines might develop. Same thing they do at every course they visit but this place, DirtFish Rally School, throws in a few twists. First, the surface is mostly dirt and loose gravel. Then, they filter the racers down into a single lane, concrete lined hallway of a building, over 200 feet long only to be spit out onto a small patio-sized pad of tarmac that dead ends into a Triple Armco Guard Rail. So, how do they escape certain carnage? Easy. As soon as they exit the building (maybe even just before they exit), doing in the neighborhood of 80 mph, they make a hard right turn and accelerate through the back part of the course. Damned exciting stuff.
And that’s not all! Then there’s the joker section which is literally seconds faster than the main track. How would each of the drivers figure the joker into their strategy? Get through it early and hang out in front, all the while being chased down by a full field including rally veterans? OR, hold off until later in the race, doing your best to close the gap on those that DID take the joker early, just so you can take advantage on the last lap and pop out just in front of an already worn-out gaggle of competitors? (deep breath)
Friday. Practice and qualifying day. As promised, the track was ready. A little bit later than the schedule dictated, but considering everything that needed to happen just so they could be racing on Friday, it was nothing short of a miracle. The action on track was everything we had hoped for. Swift and frenetic, the pace began to increase as the drivers gained additional confidence on the newly minted racing facility. As the track got more and more rough, the cars started to dance around on the ever changing surface. Pitching and rolling – bashing their way through a sea of ruts and peaks. As the day wore on, the conditions were taking their toll on the cars, and the drivers as well, I’m sure.
The track maintenance was exhausting. A constant struggle for the staff and crew to keep the surface tenable. I honestly figured they would let it go at some point, but they didn’t. (Much to the dismay of some.) I was curious about it, so I reached out to Tanner Foust for his feedback on the track conditions, and the grooming in particular. Here’s what he had to say:
“One of the inherent problems with building temporary tracks is maintaining the gravel. At the European tracks, that have been used for decades, the dirt sections are very cooperative and only need to be treated for dust once each morning. With GRC it would seem that the more dirt there is, the more time will be needed throughout the day to maintain it. In Seattle the track did get to the point where it was so rough that the challenge was no longer to make the best time run around the circuit; the team’s task turned to just servicing the track. I think this is too rough and takes away from the sport, so some maintenance seemed prudent. Wetting the track, however, is a tricky art that must be well thought out. It decreases dust, which is a safety concern, but it can make the track nearly unmanageable with the mandatory slick tires. That’s what ended my race in Seattle when Ken (Block) missed the first turn and pulled in front of me upon re-entry. In mud, there’s very little chance of changing your course if something like this happens. In the end, we are trying to simulate tracks that have been worn in for many years and that simply isn’t easy. Importing jumps and gravel to create the excitement you get from a 40 year old rolling course in Norway, or the fast and treacherous track of Hungary I’m sure is a difficult task, but a necessary evil for GRC, to make this cool sport accessible and attractive to a new American audience.” – Tanner Foust
Saturday. Race day. Ken Block was on the pole and the expectation was that he would once again find himself on the podium. Another step closer to a GRC championship. But it was not to be. An early mistake on the slick surface had Ken missing the turn for the joker and well off line. His entry back into the fray was, as described by Tanner above, less than a complete success. He limped his way through the course for the entirety of the race, being lapped by the eventual winner, Sverre Isachsen, twice in the process. The young and talented Joni Wiman would find himself on the second tier of the podium, and Brian Deegan, in what can only be described as a brilliant drive, was in third. A hard fought third, considering the challenges he faced throughout the weekend, including a crash in practice in Friday that limited his exposure to the tricky race track before qualifying and the race.
All attention is now turned to the final in Las Vegas which will happen on a never-typical race day: Wednesday, November 4th. Right smack in the middle of SEMA. You should be there. But if you can’t make it, just stay tuned here, because we’ll be there and we’ll be sure to capture all the excitement for you.
Here are my favorite photos from the Seattle round of the Red Bull Global Rallycross Series.
See you in Vegas!