There were plenty of familiar faces at Nitro Rallycross’ recent launch event in Barcelona, faces that have been mainstays in the top echelons of rallycross for some time.
But there was another fella there, one who ought to have joined that club a long time ago, but one that, frustratingly, has been left scratching at the door waiting to come in. It’s been a long time coming, but in 2022 Conner Martell will finally contest a full season in the top tier of a US-based rallycross series.
The 24-year-old was part of a clutch of domestic drivers to light up the variously titled RX Lites series in recent seasons, but while his contemporaries have either moved on or graduated to racing more powerful Supercars within rallycross, Martell has so far not had the opportunity to progress up the ladder.
Not that he’s ever lacked the talent – a 2018 title in ARX2 (with the DirtFish team, no less) and a record of eight event wins in that can attest to his skill – but as is often the case for big talent in motorsport, funding proved to be a stumbling block.
That’s because this year Martell will race for Vermont SportsCar in Nitro RX’s all-new Group E category.
“I was very surprised to get this opportunity, and I’ve put in a lot of work over the years to be the best that I can be and I’m happy that someone’s finally putting their full trust in me,” he tells DirtFish. “I’m getting to start ‘the new rallycross’ with championship drivers that are the best in the world.”
It’s a massive step for the youngster, but with Group E comprising a field of purpose-built FC1-Xs, all being raced for the first time, he feels that the level playing field will give him the perfect platform to showcase his talents.
“We’re all in the same car, so it’s not about what manufacturer is best, it’s about who’s the best driver and that’s what I love about spec racing,” says Martell, who’s been a fixture in the single-make Lites categories since 2015. “But with these cars it’s just going to be a big learning curve for everybody.
“You can’t use the same driving style you always used because it’s so powerful, there’s so many things you can change so you are going to have to find your little tweaks to become even a better driver in this car because no one’s ever had to drive a car this quick around.
“So, you’re not going to be able to mash the throttle here or do things you would in a Supercar.”
Adapting to the new vehicle will be key, for both team and driver, and luckily for Martell he’s already had a chance to sample it. That being said, he also knows just how big a part the teams will eventually play once they get their hands on the machine, with drivers’ running so far being restricted to the series’ own test and development chassis.
“I think it’s the team that can work together the best to get the car dialed in the best with the driver because it’s new for everybody, we’re all learning,” he says. “We haven’t even gotten a chance to take the car apart yet, the mechanics don’t even know what the car looks like without anything on it.
I actually texted him when we found out we were doing this and I was like ‘I can’t wait to learn a lot from you’ and he was like ‘well bud, I think we’re both gonna learn from each other’Conner Martell about teaming up with Travis Pastrana
“There’s going to be a lot of testing, and testing’s a lot of money so some teams are going to do less than others and I think that first race, I think you’re going to learn a lot about what teams are already that much further ahead.”
One ace up Martell and Vermont SportsCar’s sleeve is the inclusion of reigning series champion Travis Pastrana. He will defend his Supercar crown in what is now a second class, driving for Subaru again, but will also line up alongside Martell in the electric class where Vermont SportsCar is competing as an independent entry.
“He’s coming into this year with full confidence, and I’ve known Travis for a very long time and I’ve looked up to him, whether it was motocross or [car] racing. I mean, he’s an absolute legend.
“I actually texted him when we found out we were doing this and I was like ‘I can’t wait to learn a lot from you’ and he was like ‘well bud, I think we’re both gonna learn from each other’.
“Because we both have totally different driving styles, he’s going to say this about the car and I’m going to say this, and I’m going to try what he has, and he’s going to try what I have, and it might work, it might not.
“But I know for a fact I’m going to learn a lot from him, how he researches the car, how he looks at the car, how he’s driving. Vbox [data logging] is key in rallycross and getting better at racing so sharing a garage with him is probably the best moment of my life, honestly.”
Of the mutual learning environment both will enjoy, there will be one aspect where Martell has the upper hand: racing in Europe.
Martell ran a full slate of RX2 events alongside his ARX2 commitments in 2018, finishing on the podium once and in the top 10 in points overall, and while two of the three European tracks have yet to be confirmed for this season, there’s little doubt that tracks on that side of the pond have their own unique flavor compared to the more modern US builds.
“I think it’s going to be big because these cars are so much wider than a normal Supercar and the European tracks are a little bit smaller,” he says of how important his own European experience will be. “I’ve already had to work [out] my way with passing and figuring it out there.
“I know they are altering the tracks a little bit but not anything like we do in the US, so I think I definitely have a little bit of an advantage.”
An advantage, maybe, but Martell is under no illusions that with an all-new car underneath him, he’s still got work to do.
“It’s going to be a big learning curve and even with this car, I’ve driven those tracks with a Lites car – that’s a big go-kart that you’ve really got to work,” he says. “This thing, it’s going to be completely different.
“So, I think it’s definitely going to be nice to know the tracks, but I’m going to have to start from ground zero.”
Tickets for Nitro’s Lydden Hill season opener go on sale
Nitro Rallycross’ 2022-23 season kicks off on June 18-19 at Lydden Hill in the UK, the spiritual home of rallycross.
Tickets for the event go on sale today (Wednesday), and are available at ticketmaster.co.uk. Weekend tickets cost just £35, and VIP ‘Club Nitro RX’ passes are available for £200. Children under 13 go free, but will require a ticket.
“We are so excited to kick off Nitro Rallycross’ next chapter at historic Lydden Hill,” said Nitro RX pioneer and reigning series champion Travis Pastrana. “This iconic track is the birthplace of rallycross and home to some of its biggest moments. Now we look forward to going back to where it all began but adding some Nitro Circus flair. We can’t wait for fans to be a part of the action.”