Sunday, November 14, 2010

Legends of the Rally World Descend on New Jersey Motorsports Park for the Final Rounds of the USA RallyCross Championship

Unstoppable, Sweden’s Toomas Heikkinen pictured here on day-two charging towards his first USA RallyCross victory. Picture Neil McDaid
By Neil McDaid
Millville, New Jersey.  Under a bright but chilly autumn sky with the sounds of 600 horsepower engines banging and roaring in the background, New Jersey Motor Sports Park was set to host the final two rounds of the 2010 USA RallyCross Series. Although RallyCross is a staple of the European Motorsport diet, it’s all new here in the USA. Amazingly, after only 2 events the USA RallyCross Championship has already drawn the attention of Euro’s best RallyCross drivers. The best of the best were present in New Jersey to mark their name on the roster for this the exciting climax to an unforgettable first season.  

Subaru USA team driver Dave Mirra with his mentor
four times World Rally Champion, the
great Tommi Makinen. Picture Neil McDaid

In attendance were several legends of World Rally and RallyCross. Flying Finn Tommi Makinen, a four time WRC Champion, was on hand to support Dave Mirra with Team Subaru USA. Running one of his RallyCross Saabs was one of Sweden’s rally greats Per Eklund. Rounding out the legends we encountered was twelve time European Rally Champion Kenneth Hansen [Sweden] who now runs Liam Doran’s Citroen C4.

The action got going bright and early on Saturday morning with the drivers getting in a few practice laps prior to qualifying so that they could familiarize themselves with the new track layout. Shortened from the format used on the first two rounds, the revised course would feature less tarmac, but just about the same amount of gravel as the previous rounds. The organizers also opted to include the high banked tarmac U-turn, a very fast road racing turn on lightning race course.  This turn would provide some exciting drifting action for the many fans in attendance.
After the qualifying was complete, drivers in the 2WD class took to the line for the first of the heat races of the weekend. Joining the men in round 3 we would see the first lady drivers to enter U.S. RallyCross.   One of two ladies coming out to challenge the men was New York native Erika Detota who holds the honor of being the first ever lady to capture the 2WD United States Rally Champion title.  An advocate for woman’s issues, Erika donated space on her Subaru Impreza to “Keep a Breast” a campaign to educate youth on breast cancer awareness.  Erika was joined on the grid by Kristin Chute from Maine who was the 2006 Cumberland Motor Club’s Rookie of the Year. Kristin would also pilot a Subaru Impreza.
But it was the regulars from rounds 1 and 2 that would take control throughout the 2WD class heats and into the finals. In the 2WD A-Final it was John Tancredi in the Playboy Cup Mazda MX-5 who pulled off to an early lead and never looked back. Matthew Johnson in the Nitro Circus –Shagging Wagon battled hard to hold on to second place barely beating out Josh Wimpy in the NGP Racing Golf.  Wimpy, the winner from round 1, had to settle for third. 

“Brosnan’s leap” Boston based Irish driver Dan Brosnan in his Stadium Bar sponsored Nissan Sentra was by far the fan favorite, Dan launched his car over the jump much higher than any other competitor. Picture Neil McDaid

Moving to the highly competitive AWD Class, with a whole lot of pre-event smack talk been thrown around, it was time to put up or shut up. Despite the dominance of RockStar’s Tanner Foust in the first two rounds all eyes were locked on the arrival of the European contingent lead by the larger-than-life 2010 European Champion, Norwegian Sverre Isachsen. Also, making the trip across the pond was fellow Norwegian Forde Holte in a Volvo. Representing Sweden was Toomas Heikkinen in a Per Eklund Motorsport Saab 93.
As the AWD heats progressed throughout day one of the double header weekend, it was quickly apparent just how fast these vastly experienced European drivers were. As expected and predicated by the man himself, Isachsen cruised to victory in heat 1. Little did we know at the time, but a strong showing by young Toomas Heikkinen taking the victory in heat 2 was only a segue of things to come. Tanner Foust managed to split the Europeans in heat 3 taking second behind Isachsen.

Words can’t describe the excitement and anticipation as the AWD cars took to the line for the A-Final.  It always seems that everything has been cranked up just a notch.  Isachsen would get the hole shot in his Ford Focus and charged into the lead with Holte and Foust hot on his tail. After only one lap the race would be red flagged after Jussi Pinomaki made hard contact with one of the tire barriers, blocking the track. On the restart it was again Isachsen who grabbed the lead into the first turn; Hekkinen rubbed his way past Foust into second. Hekkinen would stick with Isachsen, while Foust jostled for position with Travis Pastrana and Holte. In the end, Isachsen was victorious with nineteen year old Toomas Hekkinen grabbing second, while Foust just about held off a last minute attack from Pastrana for third.
Day Two. With the loss of an hour of daylight due to the winter time change, organizers went straight into the qualifying and quickly onto the heats. It was thought by many that Matthew Johnson’s Nitro Circus sponsored 1978 Ford Fairmont might not be as well suited to the new track format as it was in round 2 where he cruised to the 2WD victory. Although Johnson could not master the track on day one it seemed to all come together for MJ on day two. Johnson stepped out to an early lead in the 2WD A-final and managed to just about hold off Josh Wimpy in the Golf.  Wyatt Knox in his Mazda 3 rounded out the podium in third.
Matthew Johnson guiding his Nitro Circus 1978 Ford Fairmont, aka “The Shagging Wagon” to victory in the 2WD Main “A” on Day-two. Picture Neil McDaid
The intense battle from day one in the AWD class carried straight over into day two, but the strain of the intense racing was starting to show on the cars. Sverre Isachsen would blow a motor in his Ford Focus in the early heats. Up and coming U.S. driver Joseph Burke struggled on day one with mechanical issues.  On day two Joseph took victory in his heat race only to retire afterwards with a blown clutch.

Joseph Burke showed great pace until he was sidelined with mechanical issues. Burke is seen here chasing Forte Holte through one of the three gravel sections of the track. Picture Neil McDaid

As racing moved into the late afternoon it all came down to the C, B and the all out A-Final for the drivers in the AWD class. After Isachsen’s blown engine was replaced it was critical for him to finish strong in the C-Final to advance to the best grid position in the B & A finals. Isachsen seemed to have the C-Final in the bag until drama ensued and his Focus slowed to a crawl.  He would eventually pull off the track, taking a DNF. Despite looking very quick at times, luck was definitely not on Forde Holte’s side.  A brash of entanglements crippled his Volvo several times throughout the weekend and he would also limp out of the C-Final with his hood over his windscreen.
In a stark contrast from his victorious celebration on the top step of the podium on day one, day two continued to head south for the one called “The Viking Warrior”. After his crew was able to rectify the Focus, now starting from the back of the grid in the “B” final, Isachsen was on a mission to get to the front by hook or by crook. As Pastrana pulled out into the lead, Isachsen would tangle for position with Hyundai’s Rhys Millen on the banked turn. Neither Isachsen nor Millen would give an inch. Unfortunately for Isachsen his line took him head-on into a tire wall ending his bid to repeat as winner on day two.  Pastrana charged on to take the win and onto the A-Final.
Again we had reached another exciting AWD A-Final.  On the grid were 7 angry cars with 7 equally insane drivers. In pole position Toomas Heikkinen in the Saab flanked by Liam Doran in a Citroen C4 and Jussi Pinomaki in a Ford Fiesta. Rounding out the grid was Travis Pastrana [Subaru], Tanner Foust [Ford], Dave Mirra [Subaru] and Rhys Millen [Hyundai].
Door-to-door Heikkinen and Doran charged towards the first turn. Hekkinen edges ahead and gets the lead. Doran was then passed by Tanner Foust with Pastrana grabbing fourth. Tanner would press the young Swede through the dirt sections but Hekkinen was unfazed. The battle continued relentless to the checkered flag with no change in position. Hekkinen had snatched victory from the best in the RallyCross world.  Tanner Foust kept alive his streak of podium finishes by holding onto second place. After yet another challenging weekend the rising star in European RallyCross, England’s Liam Doran, kept Subaru’s Travis Pastrana at bay to claim third.
With a TV deal in place, and the possible continued participation of the European stars, one would hope that this terrific form of motorsport that RallyCar has introduced to the USA has a bright future here.
Toomas Heikkinen [center] celebrates his AWD A-main final victory on day-two. Toomas is joined on the podium by Tanner Foust [left] who took second place and Liam Doran in third. Picture Neil McDaid
Nonetheless, there are still some matters that need to be addressed to better level the playing field, especially in AWD. There seemed to be unlimited engine changes allowed at each event.  As much as I agreed with keeping as many cars running in the field as possible, this puts the better funded teams at a major advantage. It was best summed up by a long-time rally driver on hand, “It’s like bringing a knife to a gun fight; you just can’t win.”
For TV listings and future event schedules check online –