This year’s SCCA RallyCross National Championship was in every respect a huge success, different from the 2014 event in every conceivable way. This year brought a new venue, a new hosting region, and new leadership in event organization and event safety. The RXNC was held this year at the National Balloon Festival field just outside of Indianola, IA. The site offered a large, wide-open area of hard-packed ground and lots of elevation changes. What made the surface even better for the rallycrossers was that two weeks prior, there were nearly 10,000 cars rolling over and parking on the area to be used for the rallycross. That helped compact the ground and provide a durable surface for competition.
The weather in the midwest this year has been very wet. We’ve battled flash flooding issues most of the summer. Given this, and remembering how devastating rain was for the 2014 RXNC site, I had some trepidation about going to this year’s championship. Arriving on the site on Friday, I was relieved to see the surface dry and firm with no subsurface sponginess. Saturday’s forecast was for rain most of the day, so I knew we weren’t out of the woods. The undulating terrain of the competition and grid areas, though, promised good drainage.
Day One – Morning Runs
As forecast, the rains came on Saturday morning making the surface a sloppy, muddy mess. Saturday’s morning course was a tight, technical affair which would have been a challenge in dry conditions, but in the mud it was a difficult even at parade lap speeds. Fortunately, the rain that came was a slow drizzle rather than a sudden torrent. This turned the top layer of the surface to extremely slippery slime, but the base remained firm and solid. It meant that there was precious little grip and driving on it felt like driving on glare ice, but it also meant that there were minimal rutting issues that would lead to conditions right for rolling a car.
[singlepic id=490 w=300 h=200 float=left]One of the major changes this year was the attitude and behavior toward course and event safety. If you read my recap from last year, you know that this was a major issue. This year Event Chair, Scott Beliveau, and Event Safety Steward, Chris Regan, were both very proactive in responding to issues, and responsive to concerns. This responsiveness allowed us to run a safe course, even in the mud and ick of Saturday morning.
The run order was very different during the Nationals than what is usually run. The common way of thinking is that the cars in the Stock class, having less preparation and limited to winter tires, are less damaging to a surface than the Modified class which allows for nearly unlimited preparation and the deployment of proper rally tires. Therefore, the Stock classes are typically run first and followed by the Prepared and Modified classes. The Event Officials this year decided to swap that order and run the Modified classes first. Although there was much skepticism among the competitors, the order turned out to be idea for the conditions that the Balloon Festival grounds offered.
The Modified cars fought for every inch in the slimy muck. The key to a fast time was patience. Too many competitors overdrove the conditions and found themselves unable to slow or turn their cars in time to make the next course element. For those that were slow and careful, their patience was rewarded. The other skill that came to the fore of importance was adaptability. As the cars ran through the course and the winds blew over the newly exposed ground, the surface began to dry out and grip levels began to increase. In order to post the best possible time, one needs to rapidly assess the grip levels while on course. It’s a very challenging thing to do, but those who have the seat time and experience in rallycrossing showed that grip assessment and adaptability are invaluable tools.
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By the end of the Modified classes final runs, the surface was starting to become tacky and develop greater levels of grip. Running in the Prepared FWD class, I was looking forward to being able to attack the course rather than tip-toe my way through as the Modified classes were required to do. Unfortunately, a steady rain began to fall as course workers were checking in and taking their positions. The rain wasn’t enough to penetrate deep into the ground and cause the surface to rut easily, but it was enough to turn the surface layer into a slime that was treacherous to even walk upon, let alone drive on. Just negotiating the parade lap was a challenge. Remember that comment about patience being key? Yeah, I don’t have it. I think my parade lap might have been faster than my first competition run. Most of us in the Prepared FWD class ended up with times in the 130+ second range. All of us except for one, Greg Cheney. Greg found the right balance between power and patience and threw down a 117-sec time in his 2014 Ford Fiesta ST and leaped to an immediate 14.3-sec lead. A similar display of domination was found in the Prepared RWD class as Patryk Matecki drove his 1994 Mazda Miata to a 24.7-sec lead after the first run. Both drivers would continue throwing down dominant times in the challenging conditions, establishing them right from the start as the favourites for the championship trophy.
[singlepic id=442 w=300 h=200 float=left]A steady breeze and a break in the clouds bringing abundant sunshine dried out the surface quickly. By time the Stock classes took the course, the surface was hard, tacky, and even beginning to kick up a bit of dust! The conditions had improved to such a point that the Stock-class drivers were registering times easily half those of their Prepared-class counterparts. As opposed to the tortuously slow pace that the Modified and Prepared classes had to endure on the morning course, the Stock classes had an amazingly fun, yet still challenging, course on which to compete.
Day One – Afternoon Runs
[singlepic id=483 w=300 h=200 float=right]The afternoon provided much better weather than the morning. Temperatures in the upper 70s to low 80s were a welcome surprise compared to what most of us feared for a early August event in the heart of the MidWest. Temperatures could easily have been in the 100s. The afternoon course was far more open and flowing than the morning course. It still had technical and challenging aspects to it to separate the drivers from the mere hoonigans, but the higher powered competitors were able to stretch the legs of their racing machines. It also allowed those who didn’t have optimal tires for running in the mud to gain some ground on the leaders.
In Modified RWD, John Lambert had fallen back to P2 after setting the early pace in Run 1 of the morning heats, but after his third run on the afternoon course, he’d reclaimed the top spot. By the end of morning runs, Bob Seeling found himself 15.161 seconds behind Prepared FWD leader, Greg Cheney. During the afternoon runs, Seelig began to claw away at that lead reducing it to 13.113 seconds by the end of Run 4 in the afternoon heat. A similar effort was made by Shawn Roberts in Prepared RWD as he tried desperately to gain ground on Patryk Matecki’s colossal 44.011-second advantage.
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After the seven timed runs on Saturday, the championship in each class appeared to be determined. The only thing left was the fight for were the other trophy positions. In many cases, even 2nd place was well established and the battles were for the final trophy positions. All most of the leaders had to do on Sunday was to put in three clean runs with reasonable pace and not have any mechanical issues.
Day Two – Fight for the Trophies
There was some concern during Saturday’s banquet that the overnight storms that were forecast could cause the surface to deteriorate into the slimy mud that was seen during the morning runs, but with water penetrating deeper into the ground and potentially creating a safety concern. Indeed there were overnight storms that brought significantly more rainfall than was seen on Saturday. The excellent drainage of the site prevented the puddling that would have caused more issues. The top layer was still very slimy and was a challenge for the Modified drivers, but with a larger gap between the rains and the beginning of competition, the surface permitted pace that was at least great than parade lap speeds.
[singlepic id=532 w=300 h=200 float=right]A continuous breeze and decreasing clouds helped dry the site quickly. The evidence could be seen in the run times as the top competitors in the three Modified classes initially posted times in the high 60s and were in the mid-50s by their third runs. For each of the classes, the surface continued to improve through their heat and times dropped. The faster course for Sunday and the greater aggression of many of the competitors did lead to more surface issues than had been seen on Saturday. Chief Safety Steward, Chris Regan, and his staff of heat safety stewards worked proactively and quickly to identify developing issues and correct them before they became a serious concern for the competitors. Again, a happy departure from last year’s event. By the end of the event, the Stock-class competitors had an ideal competition surface. It had that perfect level of predictable grip that allowed you get be happily slideways through the sweepers but still have the traction to accelerate strongly out of the corners.
The biggest shake-up in the standings happened in the Modified RWD class. Doug Leibman in his 1971 VW Super Beetle demonstrated the advantage of having your engine sit on top of your drive wheels in the slippery conditions on Saturday morning, but struggled to keep pace with the Miatas as the surface dried out. On Sunday morning, Leibman found himself in P2 with Will MacDonald a little more than two seconds behind him in P3. MacDonald took over second place after Run 1. Leibman fell one more spot to fourth as Nick Reynolds surpassed him to secure third.
In Prepared FWD, Bob Seeling put down some amazingly quick times and gave a genuine clinic on how to rallycross an underpowered car. With each run on Sunday morning, he was gaining about two and a half seconds on the leader, Greg Cheney. Although he would dramatically cut into Greg’s lead, there just wasn’t enough runs left in the competition to close within striking distance.
I tried to make a run for the final trophy position in Prepared FWD. On Sunday morning, I found myself in fifth, 0.6 seconds from fourth and 7.7 seconds from third, the final trophy position. After the first run, I had taken over fourth, and had gained 0.6 sec on third. I gained 2.2 sec on Run 2 and 1.5 sec more in Run 3, but as with the battle between Greg and Bob, I ran out of time and ended up 3.7 seconds shy of a trophy.
After last year’s National Championship event, I seriously considered my involvement in the sport, especially at the national level. I love rallycross. It is an amazing sport, but as with all forms of motor racing, it can be dangerous as well. One can say that yes, as competitors, we go into the sport eyes wide open and accepting of those dangers, but there are measures that should be taken, and are mandated to be taken, by the governing body, the SCCA in this case, and the event stewards to minimize those dangers and risks to be best extent possible. The choice was to either become more deeply involved and work to affect change or walk away. I chose to take a larger role in the sport, and it seems that many others have done the same.
The attitude of the competitors and officials this year could not have been more different than last year. Event Chair, Scott Beliveau, did a magnificent job at identifying the talent of his team and entrusting and empowering them to exercise those talents to the greatest effect. Safety was never an issue or a story line all weekend long. There were no major course issues, nor were there major issues in grid or paddock. The Chief of Safety, Chris Regan, and his Assistant Chief, Karl Sealander worked very hard all weekend addressing emergent issues before they became serious problems. It was a pleasure to work as a heat safety steward this year along side Chris and the Midwest Division steward, Jim Rowland. The Des Moines Valley Region hosted the event, and deserve enormous credit for providing the competitors with a great site.
[singlepic id=538 w=300 h=200 float=left]In spite of the challenges Saturday’s weather provided, the event went brilliantly. It was truly what I expected from a National-level championship event. SCCA RallyCross is an amazing sport, and one that is accessible to anyone. While there certainly were many highly-prepared cars on hand, there were also many like mine, a daily-driver whose only modification was the installation of winter tires.
Full results are available at the SCCA RallyCross National Championship website.
Photos from the 2015 SCCA RallyCross National Championships