The rallycross fanbase is a passionate bunch. They know what they want, and like what they’re used to. Convincing them of big changes is not something that comes easy, so when it was hinted that the fabled Lydden Hill was to be modified for Nitro Rallycross’ first race outside the US, naturally a few eyebrows were raised.
After all, you don’t draw a moustache on the Mona Lisa, right?
The changes to the Kent venue, the site of the very first rallycross race in 1967, have certainly ‘Nitrofied’ the place, but what was the reasoning behind doing the unthinkable in the first place?
“Lydden Hill is hallowed ground for us,” Nitro Rallycross general manager Chip Pankow tells DirtFish. “I think it’s some place we’ve always wanted to come, and we wanted to honor the place and honor the history by it being the first race of season one. A lot of amazing things have happened here.”
A key part of the whole process was getting the blessing of track owner Pat Doran, who Pankow says was perhaps helped by seeing his son Liam race in last year’s Nitro Rallycross championship, exposing him to what the series can bring in terms of entertainment value.
“It’s a beautiful facility but with Nitro Rallycross, we’re trying to take the concept of rallycross racing and push it further,” Pankow explains. “With that, we began a conversation with Pat Doran about what we could do here. Travis went down and sketched a number of ideas and I’d say it was a pretty collaborative effort.
“I’ve known Pat for a long time and I think it was really helpful that Liam raced Nitro last year in the States, that had Pat glued to the television and kind of saw what was possible, and that really kind of opened the door to having a conversation and … kind of going through what’s possible, what can we do, and how can we do it.”
Rallycross’ oldest venue is still recognisable for the most part, but Chessons is gone, replaced by a sweeping banked turn dubbed ‘Talladega’, while the straight that immediately followed, Dover Slope, now comprises a kink and a large tabletop jump.
“We saw an opportunity to bring in the Talladega turn, which we debuted at the very first Nitro Rallycross race in Utah. So [we] essentially replaced Chessons with the Talladega turn,” Pankow says of the extent of the changes. “Doing that also gave us an opportunity to move the joker, going away from a first corner joker – first corner jokers for us, it’s not our favorite thing, it kind of splits the competition right off the bat – and Pat was very open to trying something new.
“And then of course we had to bring a jump in. So we brought a, it’s a fairly hefty tabletop jump with what’s becoming one of our signature ‘S turns’ before it.
“So those are the major changes that we’ve done, and what we’ve done is we’ve taken the joker I was talking about, moved that from the first corner to the last corner and we think that’ll create some exciting finishes, and I think we’ll have some pretty exciting merges.”
That’s the whats and the whys taken care of, but is this all for this weekend’s showpiece event? Not exactly.
“Ultimately that’s up to Pat, but we see it as a reimagining of Lydden Hill to a certain degree and he does too,” says Pankow. “So as long as it works across the broad customer base he has here, yes. Some things will remain unique to Nitro, and we’re working on what that all looks like, but yes, I think you’ll see some of these things stay.”
Following Thursday’s final pre-season test, the general consensus among drivers was positive, and while designs for the remaining new tracks on the schedule have been firmed up for the best part of six months, driver feedback this weekend will help influence future refinements to both Lydden Hill and other venues on the schedule
“We’ll sit with the drivers and get their feedback of what they like, what they don’t like, and that happened all last year as well – changes to the track between Saturday and Sunday,” said Brett Clarke, chief commercial officer of Nitro Rallycross’ parent company Thrill One Sports & Entertainment.
“We want to get away from making changes, but they’re the best people to give us feedback. We can look at it on a map from up here but those guys driving it, already multiple drivers are saying ‘can we change this, move that barrier there, move that, that’ll open up different racing lines’, that’s what we’re trying to do.
I don’t think we’re making any wholesale changesBrett Clarke
“That also applies to the returning American tracks that’ll feature later in the year, with major changes not on the cards, but rather “fine-tuning, taking the learnings from last year and [looking at] what can we improve, what can we make better.
“I don’t think we’re making any wholesale changes, but I think you’ll see improvements to things we saw last year that would improve if we made some tweaks,” Clarke continued. “Again, same thing, we took feedback last year, and that seems to work.”
Andreas Bakkerud is one driver who has already given his view on the changes made at Lydden Hill.
“To be honest I was very skeptical of the changes, but when I drove the first lap, I knew it was correct.
“Motorsport is consistently changing so the tracks also need to develop and I think it was a good investment from Pat and Lydden Hill to do something new because we have all done Chessons Drift.
“It’s cool, but the old layout is old and we need it renewing and I think at the end of the day, it will be cooler for everyone.”
There’s been a lot of explaining up to this point, but naturally there will be sections of the rallycross faithful still unconvinced by the fact that what perhaps wasn’t broke has been fixed.
Asked what they’d say to someone still unmoved by the developments, Pankow insists “We’re not going to hide from it”.
“I think something that has been a main part of our communication is ‘come out and see what we’ve done at Lydden’,” he says. “There’s going to be some purists that’ll resist it, but all we ask is that they give it a try and come out and see what it does to the racing. We think it’s going to up level the competition and up level the racing. Sometimes it takes a little while to get there. Change is hard.”
Clarke added: “Electric racing is the same boat, right? Everyone’s got reservations around that. Come and check it out. You’ve seen today on the track, those things are proverbial rocket ships. Come and check it out and you’ll appreciate just how good these cars are. And [it’s the] same with the track.
“We saw that, a little bit of a different situation between what we did in the US but in the sport of rallycross we made huge jumps in the US last year and we’re sort of doing the same in Europe, so it’s like ‘come along for the ride’ and I think they’ll see great entertainment and that’s what we’re all about, creating great racing, great entertainment.”
Clarke’s point on electric cars is an interesting one, because while Nitro Rallycross still has its baby teeth, it’s introduced a groundbreaking new car along with a raft of new and/or modified tracks. It’s a lot for a young series to take on at once, and while that perhaps wasn’t the initial plan a few years ago, it’s not something that the series is spooked by either.
“At Nitro we don’t do things by halves,” he quips. “That’s a Travis mentality, when we do them, we do them properly and we go all the way. We’re investing a lot of money in this series and its growth and we can’t do things by half measures, we’re going for future growth here so we need to start with a bang.
“The timing sort of worked out … I wouldn’t say it was planned that we’d be here in Lydden with electric and changing the track originally, it’s just, post-pandemic and how things played out, it’s actually presented the perfect opportunity of how the beginning of our future starts at the location where rallycross started. It’s the perfect storm in some respects.”
‘The future starts now’ is a bit of a tired cliche, but it’s one that’s rather appropriate this time around. The new cars could very well open the door for a whole new race day experience, with Pankow teasing: “we think it gives us the opportunity to play around with sound design and some music and have some fun with it in a different way.”
“It’ll take a lot to get that right, but I think there’s an element in there that’ll be fun,” he says.
As for Lydden Hill? The work there isn’t done either…
“We have some other awesome ideas for the future,” he says. “This is just kind of a glimpse of what we’re looking at.”