There was a mix of surprise and new elements awaiting me upon attending my first Red Bull Global Rallycross race last week in Las Vegas.
There was a fluid, ever-evolving schedule, there were solid, quality teams up-and-down the paddock, there was an engaged, young fan base… and then there was rain, in the desert, in Las freaking Vegas of all places (yes, I blame myself).
All the fluidity and newness compared to say, an open-wheel or sports car weekend, helps keep you on your toes.
Perhaps that’s the point. If you knew what was coming, when, that would be predictable, status quo.
And if there’s one thing Red Bull Global Rallycross doesn’t want to be, it’s that.
Few series seem to actively promote itself as being a series for the next generation of motorsports fans. Yet in all the conversations I’ve had with drivers, teams and series insiders, that seems to be not just the goal, but the purpose for GRC.
The races are short by design. It initially takes some getting used to, the fact you’re only witnessing anywhere from say a six to 10-lap race at any point.
It’s also weird that at any point you’re only seeing half the field, or slightly more, on the track at a time. You have to figure out who’s in what race, at what point you are in the day’s activities (qualifying, heats or semifinals) and who’s advanced to what based on the preliminary rounds.
The fans? They dig it. And generally, they’re not septuagenarians… they’re millennials.
Rather than sit in my usual media center perch – which at Las Vegas was an open-air tent, not exactly great for technology and electronics given the rain and wind – I opted to watch with a couple friends from a GA section of the grandstands for most of the action.
Standing on the grandstands, that close to the action, the noise of the 600-hp beasts coming past with the spray coming up and the drivers on the ragged edge of adhesion was a reminder of why I got into racing in the first place (the ride-along with Sebastian Eriksson helped prove the cars were amazing, too).
It’s small, it’s intimate… and it’s also packed. The grandstands were sold out and it showed an impressive dedication and heartiness for the fans to come out, brave low-50s to high-40s, miserable temperatures and take in the finale.
The teams? They’re operating at the same professional level you’d expect to see at an IndyCar race. Probably because most of them have or had IndyCar programs.
In seeing Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, Chip Ganassi Racing, SH Rallycross, Bryan Herta Rallysport and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, you’re seeing a lot of IndyCar experience and expertise as these teams take on a new endeavor. All bar DRR have had a hand in winning an Indianapolis 500; DRR, a former full-time team that is currently an Indianapolis-only entrant, has been close on several occasions.
That’s not to discount rally squads like Olsbergs MSE or Hoonigan Racing Division; far from it. It’s obvious though that the influx of IndyCar squads has only raised the game in the paddock.
The drivers seem keen to perform. Scott Speed and Nelson Piquet Jr. have found homes after circuitous careers through F1 and NASCAR, with both still able to run in Formula E. Tanner Foust, Ken Block, Brian Deegan and Bucky Lasek are among the action sports stars converting to rally. Young rally aces like Joni Wiman and Sebastian Eriksson are emerging talents – Wiman already has a GRC title under his belt – and others like Steve Arpin, Patrik Sandell, Sverre Isachsen, Austin Dyne and Jeff Ward have often had pace but not luck for most of the year. The next round of Supercar stars are already present within GRC Lites.
The key word for this championship is potential… which is a dangerous word.
While it has a core group of owners and manufacturers involved at the moment, keeping them active and engaged would figure to serve the series’ long-term growth.
An announcement of the Racing Entitlement Program, this morning, however, is an intriguing development. If there’s one thing history has shown us when team owners take on too big of a role within a series and/or possibly its management structure, the series can get compromised as team owners may want to serve their own interests first (cough, CART).
The drivers are certainly well-known – Foust and Block, for instance, are national stars – but drivers like Speed and Piquet have that “ex-F1 driver” label often applied at first glance. It’s in Red Bull GRC’s best interest to have them known as Red Bull GRC drivers first, and Speed winning this year’s championship only serves him well in that regard.
The other thing that’s fascinating to me is that the series seems to work better for TV than it does in person. Given the at-times fragmented nature of the weekend, the cut-and-chop format can be processed into a 90 or 120-minute TV window more than what it feels on the ground. On the ground, you could be waiting for a while, then a race happens and say if you’re in the middle of something, you might miss it. Again, this goes back to the whole preparation bit. When you’re watching on TV, you don’t see the hours, blood, sweat and tears of preparation as you do on site because that’s not something that you can fully appreciate in a 15-to-30-second block.
There’s a decent optimism I have about this series. I think it has a lot of positive elements, but I also worry it could, if it’s not careful, make some ill-advised strategic decisions that could prove damaging down the line.
But for the moment, I’ll enjoy the gnarliness and hope to get to more than one race next year. It was an incomplete first race week, but one that did enough to pique my interest for the future.