ARX is some of the best racing you're not watching [Op-Ed]
I got an up-close look at the Americas Rallycross series in Austin, Texas.
It started with an email from Subaru. Come check out some rallycross; it's the fastest-growing form of motorsport, they said.
They had me at "fast."
"Count me in," I replied, and just like that, Subaru put me on a plane to Austin, Texas, to check out the final round of the Americas Rallycross (ARX) series at Circuit of the Americas.
What is it?
If you've ever run in a SCCA Solo event (or really any other form of autocross), you've probably heard people chatting about rallycross. It's basically the same event, only in somebody's back-country tax shelter dirt lot. They put up some cones; you try to drive around them as fast as possible.
ARX is like that, only much, much faster.
Seriously, it's fast
We're talking about 600-horsepower engines mated to six-speed sequential gearboxes which are shoved into factory-sourced unibodies (stripped and caged, of course). The series regulations mandate a restrictor plate. In other words, these things are beastly, and there's still plenty of untapped potential.
And it's not just a bunch of Subarus. In fact, it's not just cars you can buy here in the States. How many series do you follow where you'll see a Renault Megane running on an American road course?
Yes, roads. At this level, rallycross mixes asphalt with dirt for a little-bit-of-both type course that combines both the wild, always-sideways unpredictability of stage rally racing with solid surfaces conducive to building up serious speed.
Sounds like a gimmick.
That's because it is, kind of. ARX is not dirt racing, nor is it road course racing, but the combination of the two has some serious advantages. For starters, what is arguably the most frustrating part of being a spectator at a road course? The length of the track, of course. It's virtually impossible to take in the entire race from any one vantage point. That's not an ideal fan experience.
Rallycross addresses that in a big way. By carving shortcuts through the grass in between sections of an existing track, an entire course can be built within the confines of just a few turns. In Austin, ARX utilized the complex between turns 13 and 16, turning a handful of technical asphalt corners into the framework of a complete circuit.
The spectator advantage is enormous. From the grandstands along the T15-T16 straight, fans could see the entire course, from the start-finish line to the mid-course jump (Yes, there's a jump.) and had a front-row seat to the antics along the back straight--the layout's fastest section.
OK, but what good is a view if I don't like what I'm watching?
Well, fortunately, that's the best part. ARX is not just accessible, but it's also action-packed. This is where its autocross roots really shine through. Heats are short (no more than four or six laps, depending on the session) and violent, and follow each other in rapid succession.
Over the course of a race weekend, there are rarely any periods where something isn't happening on track, whether it's a qualifying session or a full-blown race. In Austin, four different classes were represented. ARX has two classes (our big-turbo Supercar-spec monsters and some naturally aspirated juniors dubbed ARX2); World Rallycross joined in to provide a third run group; and these full-sized road cars were joined by a group of Sierra buggies, which are basically beach buggies with turbocharged motorcycle engines and big-ass wings.
There has to be some downtime, right?
There is, of course. One downside to building a dirt track into a venue like this is that it needs fairly regular maintenance. The transition areas between dirt and asphalt would degrade with repeated abuse, requiring touch-ups periodically.
But that's OK, because during said downtime, fans are invited to wander the paddock, meet the drivers, pick up manufacturer swag and get up close and personal with the cars themselves (to a point, of course). The garages aren't complete free-for-alls, but the accessibility level is high. At the end of Sunday's racing, the giveaways even escalated to the point where fans were seen leaving with busted wheels, torn bumper covers and used tires in addition to posters, t-shirts and umbrellas.
It all still sounds a little... amateur?
Yes and no, and both for the best. Allow me to explain.
For starters, the ARX and World RX teams bring out some big names. Scott Speed (perhaps you've heard of him) won this year's championship; his teammate, Tanner Foust, placed second. Other A-listers include the likes of Ken Block and Travis Pastrana and a gentleman by the name of Jaques Villeneuve.
And those are just the ARX guys. In the World RX field, Johan Kristoffersson, Petter Solberg and Sebastien Loeb were in attendance, among others.
And make no mistake; the other drives are every bit as professional as the names listed above. In fact, some of them are dedicated rallycross drivers, whereas many of the big names double- or triple-dip in stage rally, touring car, open wheel and other forms of motorsport. Travis Pastrana, as you likely know, will basically strap himself to anything just to see what happens.
But rallycross is still a bit of an underdog (and up-and-comer, series organizers would argue) in the world of motorsport (especially here in the States), and that has its own appeal. For starters, it feels attainable.
Sure, you're not going to step into one of the 600-horsepower Supercar entries and have a go unless you're throwing around some serious cash. That said, it still feels like it's only a couple of rungs up the ladder from the amateur events you can sign up for with your local club. Sure, it's not a feature event at Circuit of the Americas, but who knows?
It's also accessible from a spectator standpoint. Tickets are stupid cheap, and races are frequently paired with other events (such as concerts and car shows) so you get a lot of value for your money. It's cheaper than any NFL or NBA game you'd actually want to watch, and provides hours more of entertainment.
Byron's bottom line
Do yourself a favor and give this series a shot when it comes around in 2019. You'll be glad you did. In the meantime, grab some knobby tires for your Miata or WRX and find your local SCCA chapter's rallycross schedule. Maybe you have what it takes to run with these guys down the road.