Regular readers of DirtFish will have seen our predictions, previews, and other build-up content over the last year and a bit as the rallycross side of this operation patiently waited for Nitro Rallycross and its “cars that fly” to take off.
Now they have. Day one is in the books, the hyperbole is out the window and we’ve had a bit of reality to whet our appetite for the season ahead.
We might only be one day into the season, but we’ve already taken stock of plenty. Here’s what day one of Nitro Rallycross at the Utah Motorsports Campus has shown us so far.
Scott hasn’t lost his Speed
He may have lost one-and-a-half inches in height as a result of his back-breaking early exit from Nitro Rallycross in 2019, but upon his return, Scott Speed showed that he is the same driver that dominated the discipline Stateside for the second half of the last decade.
Competing at the very same venue at which he was seriously hurt two years ago, the four-time US rallycross champion put all his fears about returning to the scene to one side, and bounced back with a stellar qualifying victory.
“When I’m in the car I try to just compartmentalize it and drive well,” Speed told NRX’s Katie Osborne after wrapping up the Top Qualifier spot. “But this was so cool because this is such an awesome format.
“I can’t say enough, this is my racing competition back from the broken back, it means a lot to come back with the win,” he added. “[We’re] starting in the right direction for the weekend.”
After taking second to Timmy Hansen in the timed solo runs (and only just, we should add, missing out by a mere 0.086 seconds), Speed went on to claim the scalp of defending NRX champion Kevin Hansen, rising star Fraser McConnell, and event trailblazer and Subaru team-mate Travis Pastrana to take the first pole position of the season and an early lead in the championship points. Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Expanded qualifying brings the drama
World Rallycross’ tried and tested format of heat races from the off on a race weekend works very well, so naturally one has to look at NRX’s decision to start its events with solo and two-car sessions carefully. They have the potential to be boring, less is less if you will. Or they could enhance the action – less is, well, you know the rest…
Thankfully it was the latter. The solo runs threw up plenty of intrigue, from drivers experimenting with the multiple lines on offer at the Utah Motorsports Campus, to others like Robin Larsson searching for the absolute limits and suffering as a result.
And then that led into the head-to-heads that gave us some of the best wheel-to-wheel racing that US rallycross has provided in its decade-long history of top-level competition.
From Pastrana and his tank-sized Subaru banging doors with Timmy Hansen in the flea-like Peugeot, Steve Arpin and Tanner Foust chopping and changing, and the intriguing strategy calls of how drivers managed the joker and the dust, Friday gave us so many storylines. Now we get to up the car count, and run races from start to finish on Saturday.
Even field makes predictions tough
In recent years rallycross in North America – and in the World Championship too – has more often than not had one top team run away into the sunset, trophies in hand before the lights even go out.
If Friday was anything to go by, that will not be the case in NRX this season.
Every car in the field is a fully-developed weapon, with most benefiting from factory input at some point in their competitive lives, and we’re not seeing one a clear league ahead.
Even Subaru, which has had an extensive testing regime on the NRX tracks and continued development during the near-two-year off-season, had to work for its table-topping results on day one.
In the first practice session of the weekend, the top five (which consisted of four different cars from four different teams) were separated by just 1.7s, while in second practice (five different cars), that gap shrunk to just 0.528s.
By the time solo qualifying came around, the top five were split by 1.6s, but the top-10 were covered by just 1.9s.
The field is as close as ever, and the cars are incredibly even, for now. As we ramp up the grid sizes for Saturday, that should in-turn deliver some incredibly tense battles.
And although this might be the first NRX season, it’s not the first NRX event. The format has run twice before as part of the Nitro World Games action sports event.
In those 2018 and ‘19 contests, one team (or family) has been unstoppable, with Timmy and Kevin Hansen sharing the spoils so far.
While there’s still plenty of racing to go, they’ve certainly got a challenge on their hands if they’re to keep that run going.
New cars not holding back old hands
Continuing on the topic of cars, if we’re to use a sweeping generalization, the modern racing driver likes things to be perfect.
Seat time and plenty of testing are a must. Arpin and Foust kind of missed the memo on that one, getting the first tastes of their respective new cars earlier this week.
That hasn’t stopped the pair of race winners picking up where they left off though, and both have been right in the thick of the competitive order right away, both banking top-five times in qualifying.
For Foust, driving the exact Audi S1 that Mattias Ekström took to the 2016 World Rallycross title (albeit with a plethora of updates applied in the five years since), his latest steed quickly dispatched Oliver Eriksson and his new-build Fiesta ST, setting up a battle with Arpin and his newly-acquired Hyundai in the quarter-final stage.
New father Arpin, who welcomed son Ryder into the world last week, meanwhile carried his other recent arrival to the semi-final stage, dispatching Foust in a door-banging thriller, but not before overhauling a fast starting Larsson in the round before with a string of super-fast lap times. Ultimately he was narrowly knocked out by Pastrana one step before the qualifying final.
Both Foust and Arpin, although top names in rallycross, could be forgiven for needing time to adapt to new machines after years behind the wheel of the same cars, but that thought went right out the window the moment the anti-lag was switched on.
McConnell’s stock continues to rise
Fraser McConnell has been serving his rallycross apprenticeship well over the last few years. An ARX2 crown and two championship-challenging runs in RallyX Nordic have been leading right to this point, and boy did it pay off.
Immediately in first practice, when the track was at its fastest, McConnell set the fastest time of the day, comfortably beating established stars like Timmy Hansen, Liam Doran, and Speed in the process.
He backed that up with third place in solo qualifying and a run all the way to the semi=finals of the Battle Bracket where top qualifier Speed halted his progress.
It might be early in the campaign but it’s clear that groundwork has paid off massively for the young Jamaican, who can comfortably count himself among the rallycross elite based on his showing so far.
Light support entries shows there’s work to be done
This weekend’s 14-car Supercar field is the biggest in any US rallycross event since X Games Austin welcomed that same number way back in 2014.
But while the premier class is enjoying something of a much-needed resurgence (albeit with the massive help of European imports), the support classes appear to be faltering.
NRX NEXT (a continuation of ARX2 and GRC Lites that came before it) is fielding seven cars this weekend, down from ARX2’s 2018 peak of 10 and half that of GRC Lite’s 2015 high-point of 14.
Now, we might’ve said earlier that the two car races with the Supercars were thrilling, but this isn’t one big contradiction.
You see, those packed support grids in previous years raced on smaller tracks than the one in Utah, and with the Lites cars being not only down on power, but it also being a single make formula, that means that the races on the 1.6-mile UMC course soon become spread out and uneventful at the lower levels.
It’s a similar story for Sierra Car, although its entry list of eight cars is at least an improvement on the six we regularly saw under its previous guise as ARX3.
But regardless of the on-track product, if rallycross is to survive long-term in the US, it’s going to need a continuing production line of fresh talent coming through from the support classes.