The stories explaining how rallycross racing originated vary as widely as the road surfaces rally cars race on, and which version you hear depends on who you ask.
One source suggests it was conceived to fill the gap left when the 1967 British Royal Automotive Club (RAC) rally was cancelled over fears of spreading livestock-borne foot-and-mouth disease. Another account says a British TV network wanted a “weather-independent” motorsport it could broadcast in place of rained-out horse races.
The truth, according to the FIA, the governing body that oversees international motorsport events, seems to be a little bit of both. Indeed, the 1967 RAC rally was called off due to foot-and-mouth disease, but that was in November, months after the FIA credits ITV producer Robert Reed with putting on the first rallycross event at Lydden Hill, in the southeast corner of England.
Rallycross’s popularity did spread something like a disease, however, first infecting mainland Europe in 1969 with an event held in the Netherlands, followed by Sweden’s first race two years later. It’s not hard to see why it took off: As exciting as point-to-point rallying is, as a live spectator, you only get to see each stage from a single vantage point. In rallycross, live racing fans get to see all the action, all the time.
Win on Sunday, brag on Monday
As we discovered at a recent rallycross event held in Ottawa as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations, another fan attraction is a level of accessibility rarely seen in professional racing.
The first thing we saw entering the track site on the grounds of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum was pit row, full of tents packed with mechanics, jacks, tools and really loud race cars. This is an aspect of professional racing usually reserved for the rich and famous (or at least the rich) but here we watched one team of talented mechanics straighten out a car’s badly damaged suspension so its driver could continue on to the next round of racing.
Thanks to tire manufacturer BF Goodrich, we had the added privilege of a guided tour of the race venue with Andrew Comrie-Picard, a Canadian-born race driver who helped introduce the sport to North America in 2010 in the Global Rallycross series, where he competed for Team Mitsubishi.
At that time, he was in good company, racing against Ken Block and Travis Pastrana among others. Block went on to find fame undertaking precision-driving stunts in his Gymkhana web video series, while Pastrana is a well-known X Games competitor and has competed in NASCAR.
One of the more interesting aspects of rallycross is that there’s no prize money awarded to the winning team. The manufacturers who participate – Honda, Subaru, Ford and Volkswagen, primarily – do so to attract attention for their brands and, as Comrie-Picard explained, “show that a car (loosely) based on a street car can win on the weekend, and then you can go out and buy that car on Monday.”
And despite the prizes being limited to bragging rights, those carmakers spend a lot of money to build their race cars. Comrie-Picard said Volkswagen was rumoured to have spent $2.5 million developing its Beetle rallycross car. That wouldn’t surprise us: While the VW pit area was in plain view just like the others, the mechanics were careful to keep the engine shrouded when the hood was up.
Purpose-built cars with engines that eat themselves
Those four big-name manufacturers compete in the supercar class, where these AWD cars boast roughly 600 hp from a front-mounted turbocharged engine.
Surprisingly, while there are similarities to the World Rally Championship (WRC) cars you can watch on TV racing across Europe, rallycross supercars are much more powerful, with suspension systems tailored to the tight turns of a rallycross course. Those potent engines power the cars from zero to 100 km/h in two seconds and, as Comrie-Picard puts it, “basically consume themselves” in the course of a six-minute race.
Teams with fewer resources can compete in a less-expensive “lights” class, where the cars are all mechanically identical, producing about half as much power from a naturally-aspirated engine mounted mid-chassis.
One of the more interesting aspects of rallycross racing is what’s known as the joker lap, an alternate course section that’s either a shortcut or incorporates obstacles to slow the racers down. At the Ottawa event, the joker was a “chicane” that forced the drivers to slow down. Every driver must take the joker once per race, making the decision of when to do so a mostly strategic one.
Comrie-Picard, who has since left racing to become a movie stunt driver and coordinator, says the most difficult part of attending a race event where he’s not a competitor is judging the decisions he sees other (often younger) drivers make on the track.
“It’s hard not to look at them and say, ‘Come on, you apexed that way too early,’ and to second-guess everyone, but it’s different when you’re in the car,” he said. “Those guys are making trade-offs every second for (racing) line versus position, and it’s a very challenging thing.”
He said he’s served as coach and mentor to a few young race drivers, a job he says is “maybe as rewarding as doing it yourself.”
But while driving a rallycross lights car is a viable gateway to a pro racing career, Comrie-Picard cautions that only comes after years of hard work.
“I probably went 10-12 years sleeping five hours a night because I was building the cars, driving the trucks across the country and working with the sponsors,” he said.
“You eventually get to a place where the sponsor provides the cars, and I’d show up and they’d hand me a helmet and a latte. That makes it look easy to become a pro rally driver, but it was all about the previous 10 years of learning how to do it.”
As for where he’s ended up, working as a Hollywood stunt driver, Comrie-Picard calls it a natural progression.
“It’s been pretty organic,” he said. “What else can you apply those skills to? You could be the world’s fastest Uber driver, I guess.
“If I had any advice to give to young people, it’s that if you have something you’re truly good at and confident, take your best swing at it.”