This past weekend was a double day in the dirt. I know our fearless leader and some of the other folks here are big offroad and overland enthusiasts, but I prefer my dirt driving to be a little faster, and a little more reckless. So that’s why I signed up for two days of rallycross in my Mini. Now, before you start cheering too loudly, I need to crush your dreams for a second. This isn’t Global Rallycross like you’ve seen with Kenneth Blockenstein on the YouTubes with big jumps and banging doors. I’m not quite that cool, or rich. This is SCCA rallycross.
Just like rallycross’s name is a portmanteau of autocross and rally, the driving is likewise a mashup of the two. Similar to the autocrosses that you have have seen or participated in, the cars run one at a time, through a course of cones, against the clock. However, instead of being in the parking lot of a community college, in rallycross that course is laid out in a field. Also, whereas in autocross, you’re trying to get just one good run over the whole day, rallycross adds up all your times. That means one bad run can ruin your chances for the entire day. Consistency is key.
I compete in a basically stock Mini Cooper S. Modifications are severely restricted due to the class I compete in, but one thing they do allow is the addition of snow tires. Snow tires tend to have nice chunky tread that grips dirt better than standard all season or summer tires. But I still run on all season Michelins. Part of this is because I don’t want to buy another set of wheels and tires, but mainly it’s because I’m obnoxiously stubborn at times, and want to see how far I can push the limit on my normal street tires. Plus, having a laughably inadequate amount of traction keeps things spicy.
Normally, this is a one-day affair, but through the grace of Lady Luck and excellent calendar scheduling, we got two events back to back on this weekend. First up, on Saturday, was a Test and Tune. That means that they do run the clock for your runs, but don’t keep track of the times, and no points are awarded. The event is there basically to just help you shakedown your car and dial in your setup. This was especially nice because our first event of the year had been cancelled, so this was everyone’s first time out on course in months.
The Test and Tune was paired up with a charity car show: the Unnaturally Aspirated Show and Shred. Unnaturally Aspirated is a series of shows raising money to help cover the medical expenses of one of our fellow racers, Reuben Samuels, who was battling cystic fibrosis and trying to get a double lung transplant. The name is tongue in cheek. He’s getting new lungs, so he’s no longer “naturally aspirated”. As luck would have it, a week before the car show, Reuben got the call that he had only a few hours to make his way to the other end of the state at maximum speed, because there was a new set of blowers ready for him. Life is crazy like that.
Since it was a charity event, we were also selling rides to spectators to raise money. Plus, this would hopefully convince more people to come out and be silly with us in the future. I was super stoked about this. Scaring the crap out of some kid as I chuck the Mini around a field? Sounds like a hoot. But while some of the cars had a constant line of waiting passengers, or “screaming ballast” as another driver referred to them as, I did not have a single one all day. I’m honestly offended. I guess just because my car isn’t “fast”, or “loud”, or “interesting”, and just because I’m “a bad driver” who “sometimes crashes off the course” nobody wants to pay money to ride with me? The nerve of some people. Fine, go ride with the national champion in the prepped Subaru STi that “knows what he’s doing”.
I’ll say up front that the day didn’t quite shake out how I’d planned. From the get go, I knew it was going to be hectic. I’d agreed to shoot photos of the car show, and the rallycross, and of course I was going to be driving as well. Now if you’re saying, “Fails, how are you going to photograph an event in which you’re driving?”, congratulations, you’re smarter than I am. How it wound up working out was I would do two runs, park, go shoot some photos, get back in the car, drive another run or two, go shoot more photos, and repeat. Is that an effective way to cover an event? No. Is that a good way to ensure you get the most out of your seat time? Also no. Am I bad at planning? Yes. In all honesty, I didn’t get many photos of the car show. I mean, come on, given the opportunity between photographing a parked mustang, and photographing a Geo Tracker racing its adorable little heart out in the dirt, which would you choose?
As for the driving, my plan that first day was to practice my left foot braking because I know that’s the key to driving quickly on dirt, especially in a turbocharged car. If you’re not familiar with the practice, I’m sure you can figure out what it entails. Basically you ignore every driving lesson you’ve ever had, and use one foot for the gas, and the other on the brake. This means you can use the brake to transfer weight onto the front tires, helping you bite in and turn, but at the same time keep yourself in your powerband.
That idea quickly got thrown out the window. For a little reference, the last rallycross I did was in the infield of a dirt oval. That means the surface was amazingly well groomed, even after a day of thrashing. This gave me a degree of confidence in the capabilities of both myself and the Mini that was in no way repeatable. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Mini Coopers are not known for having an abundance of ground clearance or suspension travel. Our racetrack this day was a little less pristine. It was a field that a tractor had carved a course into.
So instead of teaching myself a new braking technique, I spent the majority of my energy trying to dodge the worst of the ruts and ridges. In a normal event, as the surface deteriorates, the event officials will adjust the course to avoid the worst of the terrain. But seeing how this wasn’t an event for points, things just continued to worsen throughout the day. I suddenly became very happy I’d recently bolted up a beefy aluminum skidplate under my engine bay. I’d rather not leave a snail trail of oil to the Mini’s final resting place. At the time, I wasn’t too pleased with the surface, as I really don’t need to take a cheese grater to the underside of my car, especially at a practice event.
But in retrospect, this was probably great practice for me. On a real rally stage, you may need to make course corrections mid slide for some obstacle neither you or your co-driver was aware of. This was just training for that. There’s nothing quite like being flat out, with near zero grip, and suddenly realizing that you need to try and adjust your line through a corner to dodge the giant dip that’s opened up. If you don’t get it right? Well, I bottomed out hard enough in one low spot that when I got spit out the other side that I bounced off course and took out a line of cones all out once. This is why I’m doing rallycross in a field, not stage rally through the woods. Cones hurt your pride, not your spine.
I know I said earlier that there were no alterations made for the surface, but there was one made for ease of use. Initially, there was a very tight hairpin corner right before the finish line. But seeing how that was at the end of a very fast and flowing section, a lot of cars tended to have difficulties with it, and it just bogged everyone down. Plus, since we were giving rides to spectators to raise money for Reuben’s charity, it was really better that we end on a flying finish, not trying to dig out of a tight bend. So they eliminated the hairpin, and just put a slight kink after the finish, which was now at the end of the back straightaway. I was informed about this, clearly and plainly. I also did not comprehend what it meant. So when I came sailing through the finish line, I was quite surprised to see that the track did not continue where I thought it was going to. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to panic stop from the top of second gear, on dirt, on street tires, but it’s generally not successful. So I punched right into the nice dirt berm at the edge of the track. Whoops. Everything seemed relatively fine afterwards, or at least as fine as it ever was.
So at the end of a day of practice, I had a bunch of photos of other people’s cars out there in the dirt, and a shaken sense of confidence. But at least I’d gotten some seat time in before an actual event. Surely that would prepare me for the actual race the next day. Tune in next time to see how that went.
[Images copyright 2019 Redusernab/Andrew Fails – except where otherwise noted]