Red Bull Global Rallycross a showcase for compact cars
If anything is going to capture the fleeting attention of millennials, it might look like the spectacle at the Port of Los Angeles this weekend: 600-horsepower hatchbacks racing on a half-paved, half-dirt track, flying over a 70-foot jump, and knocking one another sideways with bumper-car glee.
That’s the gist of the Red Bull Global Rallycross, a race series that has grown from a sideshow event in 2010 to television’s second-most popular motor sport today, behind only NASCAR.
The rallycross is high-thrills racing condensed into bite-size morsels that travel easily on social media. It’s aimed at the hard-to-please generation of potential car buyers 18 to 40 years old.
“If Global Rallycross didn’t exist, you would invent it,” said Steve Shannon, vice president of marketing at Hyundai.
Calling it the modern equivalent of the “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” adage, Hyundai and brands including Ford, Volkswagen, Chevrolet and Subaru relish the chance to expose compact cars directly to their target audience.
The cars that roar around the track in the main Supercar event are all modified with advanced roll cages, turbocharged engines and all-wheel-drive systems that can propel the car from zero to 60 mph in a neck-snapping 1.9 seconds.
But the cars are all based on affordable production models sitting in dealerships today. These include Volkswagen’s Beetle, Ford’s Fiesta ST, Chevy’s Sonic and Subaru’s WRX STI.
Hyundai entered the series in 2012 as it was looking to drum up interest in its Veloster Turbo, a compact, three-door hatchback. Rallycross gave the automaker a chance to burnish the car’s street cred.
“We wanted to put an exclamation point on that car,” Shannon said. “From a manufacturer’s standpoint, GRC was perfect. It just adds to the millennial vibe.”
Shannon wouldn’t say how much money Hyundai had invested in the race series, saying only that it was millions, but not tens of millions, of dollars.
Hyundai has paired up with famed drifting racer, stunt driver and hill-climb champion Rhys Millen to compete in the rally series. The Huntington Beach-based gearhead also owns his own race team.
“It’s one of the most exciting laps you can ever have behind the wheel of a race car,” said Millen, as he headed into the L.A. weekend hoping for a repeat of a recent rallycross race, held in Daytona, Fla., which he won.
Standing in his way will be Tanner Foust and the VW team, which has invested a similar amount of money as Hyundai in the race series, according to Jost Capito, head of Volkswagen Motorsports.
Since entering the GRC series for the first time this season, VW has been running a race-prepped version of a Polo — a hatchback smaller than the Golf that is unavailable in the U.S.
But L.A. will be the debut of an all-new race-ready Beetle. That might not seem like the obvious choice for a race car — the new Herbie? — but that’s the point.
“It changes and upgrades the image of the car,” Capito said.
During the preceding months of testing — which the automaker has stridently documented through social media — the public response to the car was “fantastic.”
“It wasn’t, ‘Why the hell would you use a Beetle?’” It was, ‘Wow, that’s the coolest Beetle ever!’” Capito said. “Those comments really confirm it was the right thing to do.”
This weekend, viewers will see the Beetle — and the rest of the field — shred through a race course that has something for everyone.
Cars often slide through turns sideways like a drift race. But the whole field is on the track simultaneously, like a NASCAR race. And the cars fly 130 feet over a jump, like a rally competition.
About 60% of the venue is a paved street course, the rest gravel or dirt. The courses are designed for car-on-car carnage. These cars don’t just trade paint, they often cross the finish line with entire bumpers or body panels missing.
Like the other venues this season, the L.A. course is short, at just under 0.6 miles. Setting it up in an urban area — other sites this season include New York, Seattle, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. — is a strategic move. Organizers wanted to make the race as spectator-friendly as possible.
“Americans don’t want to hike out in the middle of the woods in Maine to watch rally cars,” Shannon said.
The heats are six quick laps; the finals are 10 laps, with 10 cars total. The races are often over in 10 minutes. There’s also a Lites class with drivers as young as 15 years old. In this spec-series type of race, in which all the competing cars are nearly identical, horsepower clocks in at 300 from a naturally aspirated, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine.
Organizers use a few other tricks to keep the races interesting. There’s the “Joker Lap,” a shortcut on the course that each driver must take once per race, adding an extra bit of strategy to the competition.
And rather than restart a race after a false start or dock a driver points for (overly) aggressive driving after a race, officials simply direct violators to park in a designated “penalty box” for varying amounts of time.
“It’s very two dimensional,” Millen said. “The cars are jumping, sliding, throwing dirt, up on two wheels, [there are] explosive turnovers, impactful starts and really quick challenges.”
Thrills like that have attracted drivers with a wide variety of racing backgrounds. The field includes competitors from eight countries and with backgrounds in stock car racing, drifting, F1 and traditional rally-car racing.
“I think there’s a big hole in the motor sports area,” said Global Rallycross Chief Executive Colin Dyne. “Fans who were watching NASCAR in their 20s are now in their 50s, and we’re filling that space.”
In 2012, he and a group of investors bought the series from founder Chip Pankow, who stayed on as chief operating officer.
The GRC series started as a demonstration event at the 2010 X Games in L.A., with several subsequent events held in New Jersey that same year. Based on their popularity, organizers formed the first full season in 2011.
This year’s L.A. events are a double-header, with separate races Saturday and again Sunday. Like all races on the circuit, a ticket to this weekend’s events offers open seating and access to the cars’ racing paddocks. This means fans can wander over to the tent of their favorite racer (two of whom are women) for a chat and watch mechanics wrenching on the high-horsepower cars.
Since taking over the racing series, Dyne has aggressively courted TV coverage and sponsors. Red Bull signed on as the title sponsor ahead of the 2014 season, and Dyne signed a two-year deal with NBC to broadcast the races, usually live, on Saturdays. The races are then rebroadcast on NBC SN, the network’s dedicated sports channel.
The deal was just one component in NBC’s push to be home to all varieties of motor sports, according to Gary Quinn, vice president of programming for NBC Sports Group. His network will begin broadcasting all NASCAR racing in 2015, and already airs F1, IndyCar and AMA Motocross races.
“It was like a light bulb went off — this could be a really cool motor sports series for us,” Quinn said. “It’s just action-action-action.”
So far, the series has averaged 488,000 viewers each race for the live broadcast, according to Brad Adgate, research director at the ad firm Horizon Media. That’s good enough to put it in second place for motor sports broadcasts in the U.S., but it’s less than a tenth of the audience size of the average NASCAR race.
“We’re off to a decent start, the ratings could be better,” Quinn said. “We think that over time ... we can use assets within our sports group to really help drive this.”
NBC and Red Bull are already looking forward to the 2015 season, which will expand the number of race venues to 14 from this year’s 10. At least one additional automaker is expected to join the series in 2015, and two more are considering it for the 2016 season, Dyne said.
But L.A. will remain a core venue.
“It’s really important for the sport to have some marquee locations,” Dyne said, “and I think L.A. could be one of those.”
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