SportsCar Feature: Driving Dirty

This article first appeared in the July, 2017 edition of SportsCar Magazine. You can read the current and past editions of SportCar digitally here. To become an SCCA member and get SportsCar mailed to your home address monthly in addition to the digital editions, click here.

The wild kid of the SCCA family, RallyCross is more fun than you dare imagine – so why aren’t you doing it?

RallyCross is everything your parents told you not to do. It’s kicking through fields, flinging mud, and holding on to the wheel hoping there’s traction. It’s fast action, and precise driving from start to finish. It’s also everything that traditionalists think SCCA isn’t: young, fun, and comparatively loose with the rules. On top of that, SCCA’s RallyCross program is amid some very exciting times, which includes a pending rules change that could completely alter the face of the sport. All it needs now is you.

Let’s start with answering a basic question: What is RallyCross? More or less, RallyCross is autocross on dirt. You get a certain number of runs to tackle a cone-defined course as fast as you can. That said, some of the differences from autocross are massive, like the fact that RallyCross counts all runs, adding all times together. Also, rather than the 70-some classes in National-level autocross, RallyCross currently has nine classes split between three categories; Stock, Prepared, and Modified categories are each split into all-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and front-wheel drive. Also of note is that the rulebook is tiny, and there is a conscious effort to make sure the rules are easy to understand.

“The philosophy is to make it simple,” explains Steve Hyatt, Chairman of the RallyCross Board. “Two years ago, we trimmed and reorganized the rulebook so that what you need as a driver and what you can do to your car are the first things in the rulebook – it’s not buried 60 pages back.”

Beyond that, the RallyCross Board also broke new ground in the SCCA, launching its own mobile app. “We’re the first program of the Club to have our own app on iPhones and Android,” Hyatt explains, noting how RallyCross has to move quickly to keep up with RallyCross’ young demographic. The app is in its infancy right now, but Hyatt sees it as an invaluable tool that will only get better – and more powerful. “The app is very quickly going to be used for official notifications, like when we do errors and omissions or, for instance, when the RallyCross Central Challenge got flooded out, we put that out as a push notification,” says Hyatt. “At events we can do geo-fencing, so we can do a push straight to your phone that the next worker group is coming up. Or when you’re driving through the country, a notification could pop up to tell you there’s a RallyCross 90 miles from where you are.”

The RallyCross Board also uses an official forum, www.sccarallycross.com, for rules discussions rather than the letter writing process utilized by Solo and Club Racing. They’ve also hired a PR manager and have acquired funding to place Facebook and Google ads in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Part of increasing the sport’s visibility, says Hyatt, included obtaining a title sponsor for National events.

“A title sponsor really helps bring us up in respectability and credibility with the Club and to the outside world,” Hyatt explains. “DirtFish, which now sponsors our National RallyCross programs, including the Challenge events and the National Championship, is a huge presence in Global Rally Cross and the rally community. We can seed to them and they can seed to us. The long and short of it is, we get dollars and cents from them, so we can do more stuff with the program and at events because we’re not just relying on entry fees for the events.”

In addition to improving the RallyCross National Championship, the DirtFish sponsorship also helps develop the RallyCross National Challenge events. “There are three RallyCross Challenges this year, one at DirtFish, one in Topeka, Kan., at Heartland Park, and one in the mid-Atlantic out by Washington DC,” says Hyatt. “Those events offer all the flavor and rules of the National Championship so competitors can experience what the National Championship might be like.”

The RallyCross National Championship, which took place in Indianola, Iowa, for the last two years, heads to Heartland Park Topeka in Kansas for 2017. “RallyCross is very hard on any site,” Hyatt admits. “We had two really great years of competition at the National Balloon Classic site, but we had some issues where we started running across courses from the previous year. We thought this would be a good time to let the lot sit, let the 10,000 people who go to the balloon festival drive on it for a couple of years, and let the grass grow and re-root.”

There are also new RallyCross rules on the horizon, says Hyatt. “For the first time in years, we’re getting ready to expand our class structure,” he says. “For years, there were eight classes, then we split Modified so we had nine classes. Now we’re in the process of making a 10th class.”

Basically, the new class is going to be a production drivetrain with a custom chassis. “We’re going to have minimum height, width, and length standards, and a safety design,” says Hyatt. “It’ll be a production-based drivetrain with a maximum displacement in a frame that somebody built. We’re in the process of fine-tuning the details, so the proposal will hopefully be out soon. Then we plan to pilot the program in 2018 and, hopefully in 2019, it’ll be a full-fledge class.”

The RallyCross Board is also discussing opening the rules for electric and hybrid vehicles. “Right now we pretty much don’t allow someone to touch the batteries or motors,” Hyatt explains. “We’re creating a subset of our Mod rules for what we will allow hybrids and electric vehicles to do in the Mod classes.”

Regardless of these potential rules changes, Hyatt insists one thing will remain the same: bang for the buck value. “You can take your dialer driver and, for about a $40 entry fee, you can run-what-you-brung with no additional involvement.

“The hardest part of our sport is taking the car to the car wash after the event to wash the dirt and mud from the car,” Hyatt laughs. “I think we have more pressure washers per capita than any other part of the Club.”

Enter DirtFish

After holding a RallyCross at DirtFish’s massive Washington-based facility, DirtFish and the SCCA realized a partnership could be mutually beneficial. So, what is DirtFish and what makes it such a good fit as the title sponsor of SCCA’s RallyCross program?

“DirtFish is a professional driving school that teaches car control, confidence, and safety behind the wheel of Subaru rally cars, all taught from the roots of rally,” explains Malli Sheafer, DirtFish’s General Manager. “Open since 2010, we offer seven days per week, year-round training in multiple drivetrains on 300 acres of gravel, mud, and tarmac. We have programs for every kind of driver, from a 15-year-old who just received their permit, to professional road racers and off-road desert truck racers. We also offer team-building events for corporations, military discounts, and a special discount to all SCCA members.”

DirtFish has been involved with the Club for a while, hosting RallySprint and RallyCross events in the past at its facility, with plans to continue. “We are also happy to be hosting the SCCA RallyCross National Challenge in July,” says Sheaffer.

Tips from the top

Never RallyCrossed? Want to try but you’re a little nervous? Don’t be. Need more words of encouragement than that? Maybe Nate Tennis, DirtFish’s lead instructor, can help.

“The main thing is to be prepared,” Tennis advises. “Read the rules and any supplemental information that the organizer has put together, and make sure your car is ready to go. You definitely don’t want any unexpected surprises when you show up, and knowing that you are prepared can put to rest any concerns about not being ready.

“The second part is to relax and have fun,” he says. “Remember, the purpose of RallyCross is to have a blast and enjoy your car, meet new people with the same interests, and to learn. If you’re wound up and worried, it’s not going to be fun.”

Once the jitters are gone, a basic setup will help. “The common idea on gravel and dirt is that lower tire pressure increases grip,” says Tennis. “The problem is, as the tires get lower in pressure, the sidewalls get softer and become more susceptible to de-beading.

“What tends to work best for a street tire is to max out the recommended pressure listed on the sidewall, which generally provides the best compromise between grip and a stiff sidewall. For rally tires, which have a much stiffer sidewall, the pressures can be dropped a lot more without the fear of de-beading or sidewall punctures.”

That could mean running a rally tire as low as in the mid-20 psi range, says Tennis.

“Adjusting tire pressures is a great tool for fine tuning the handling of your car, and certainly something to play with,” says Tennis. “Want more grip on the front? Reduce the pressure in the front tires. Too tail happy? Reduce the pressure in the rear tires. Just be aware that the lower you go, the risk of a tire failure increases.”

Advanced drivers could consider defeating the car’s traction and stability controls, as well as working around ABS. “Tires on dirt actually want a little bit of lock up – not fully stopped, but slow enough to help build a small amount of material in front of the tires, so ABS will fight this,” Tennis explains.

That said, Tennis warns that defeating ABS on a modern car might not be as easy as pulling a fuse or wheel sensors. “Be sure to research what happens when you disable certain systems on your car,” he says. “Some all-wheel-drive vehicles will actually not be all-wheel drive if the ABS system is disabled. Some will not work again unless a professional scanner is used, and may require a trip to the dealer and possibly void your warranty since you tampered with it, so always be aware of the consequences if you defeat a system.”

Finally, Tennis says, concentrate on keeping your eyes up if you want to go fast, and be smooth. “The body always follows the eyes, so if your eyes look where you want to go, the body – and vehicle – will naturally follow. It is very easy to drop the eyes to right in front of the car, but this limits your ability to judge what’s coming next. Along with that, you drive where you look; if you look right in front of your bumper then you’ll drive right there – but the course is longer than that. Keep your eyes up looking ahead, especially if the car is sliding – use the side windows.

“In terms of being smooth,” he continues, “think about what you’re asking from your tires; they are trying to keep up with all that you’re asking them, but they can only do so much when there isn’t a lot of traction – especially street tires. Brake earlier than you think, do one input at a time, and be patient. Those are <I>really<I> challenging when the clock is ticking, but when you watch the fast drivers, they are generally really smooth. That doesn’t mean that a quick catch isn’t needed now and then, but the inputs especially should always be smooth.”

 

Words by Philip Royle
Photo by Rupert Berrington

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