X Games takes it to the streets

Imagine eight 550-horsepower noisy breadboxes that in one instant can be still but two seconds later can reach 60 miles an hour.

Imagine them side-by-side, blitzing down Figueroa Street outside L.A. Live, topping 100 mph while the Los Angeles Police Department sits idly by, radar guns holstered.

That’s the image that danced in X Games officials’ heads when they introduced rally car racing to the action sports event in 2006. And it’s finally coming true this year.

The Rally Car Racing event Saturday marked the first such race on downtown Los Angeles streets — three streets, to be exact.

But Saturday was an undercard for Sunday, when the RallyCross event, similar to the Eurocentric style of rally car racing, lights up the 3,100-foot, six-turn course.


“It will be much more difficult,” said two-time world rally champion Marcus Gronholm. “More cars lined up…. If you’re are into traffic …oy, oy, oy,”

Hey, this is L.A.

Traffic is what we do.

The main difference between the two races is that Saturday’s event featured two drivers racing simultaneously; Sunday’s will feature as many as eight at a time. And because they’re on city streets, it could get nasty.

“There’s certainly more of an element of danger for drivers,” said Tanner Foust, the gold medalist in both rally car events at X Games 16.

Foust competes in the European Rallycross Championship, where rally car races are often held on outdoor tracks. But few tracks anywhere offer the challenges of a major metropolitan street: light poles, traffic lights, curbs, concrete barriers and buildings.

Plus, because the cars are on pavement, traction dictates that they’re faster than on dirt.

“We’ll hit probably 90, 100 miles per hour on the street outside L.A. Live,” Foust said.

Fans will be protected behind concrete barriers and fencing.

The race will feature 16 drivers in a four-round format. In each heat, they’ll complete about five laps, including one each in which they’ll launch over a 52-foot dirt-to-dirt gap.

There will be heats as small as four cars to start, but the finals, scheduled to start at 2 p.m., will feature eight.

Travis Pastrana is probably out after breaking his right foot and ankle in a motorcycle event Thursday.

Dave Mirra, who holds the record for most medals in X Games history (24), is scheduled to participate. He has raced city streets in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and said he prefers them to forest courses because drivers can see the edges.

“I saw the layout,” Mirra said of the downtown track. “It’s going to be awesome.”

It’s not so easy to arrange a street race in Los Angeles. City officials know the city’s streets are its veins, traffic its blood, the two circulating anew each day, and anything to clot them up slows its stop-go flow of life.

Those officials also know the X Games made L.A. about $50 million in 2010, according to an analysis by Micronomics Inc., an economic research and consulting firm.

Anthony Dittmann, ESPN director of operations for the X Games, said he believes that’s why they were granted a permit an inspector called “one of the most complicated permits he had ever requested.”

They periodically closed the downtown streets Saturday nights this month to drop nearly 4.5 million pounds of concrete, 700 pounds of dirt and add fencing. The start and finish of the event will be on Figueroa near Staples Center.

Traffic Management Inc., a private contractor specializing in street closures, was hired to help.

The street closures didn’t cost the city or taxpayers anything, but Dittmann declined to share the total it cost ESPN. He said 51% of nearby businesses were required to sign a petition to allow a street race, which they did.

Racing in the streets of L.A. marks the evolution of rally car racing at the X Games.

The action sports event was a two-wheeled rodeo from 1995 until 2006.

The first rally car race took place in Gorman, along Interstate 5.

It was moved to the Home Depot Center in Carson in 2007.

It was held at the Coliseum last year.

Along with location, the format has always changed too. It was a one-car timed race, then it featured two-car races on separate tracks, then multiple cars racing on the same track.

Small potatoes, all that.

“The thing we were always wanting is to do a street race,” said Tim Reed, ESPN senior director of content strategy, who worked to create the race.

From there, the focus was downtown L.A.

Foust is looking forward to driving downtown again. The last time he drove here — really drove — was when he was a stunt driver in the 2006 movie “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.”

For about a month, he blazed these streets and drifted through buildings.

This will be different, though. Other drivers will be here. They will be racing, side-by-side in fairly tight quarters.

But they will still be free from the fear of a ticket for speeding or reckless driving.

“There’s some sort of hooliganism to it that makes it kind of fun,” Foust said, “and to do it legally in a competitive format, it’s always cool.”