DiZinno: Red Bull GRC boasts long-term potential, faces intriguing road ahead

Photo: Olsbergs MSE

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.

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”