Photo: Olsbergs MSE

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

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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.

Christopher Bell wins third straight Chili Bowl

@cbnationals, Twitter
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Christopher Bell passed Kyle Larson on the final lap of the 55-lap A-Feature to win the 33rd Annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals. Bell is only the second driver in event history to win three consecutive Golden Drillers, joining Kevin Swindell who holds the record with four.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be able to win the Chili Bowl,” Bell said at ChiliBowl.com. “To do it three straight times is just unbelievable, but man, I don’t even care about three straight. What about that race? I don’t think I’ve ever really been a part of a last lap race like that, so I’m just glad that thing came out in the end.”

As the white flag waved on his eighth appearance in Saturday’s main event, it seemed Larson was finally going to walk away with his first Golden Driller. This was closest he’s been to the win.

Larson took the lead from Logan Seavey on Lap 21 after a five-lap hot pursuit. Bell moved into second for the first time on Lap 27 but a caution forced him back to third as the field realigned to the last completed lap.

On Lap 33, Bell passed Seavey again for second before another caution reset the field. On the next restart Bell road the rim diving to the hub in Turns 3 and 4. With Larson in sight, Bell started to think about where he was going to put his third trophy.

The final caution flag of the night waved with 20 to go to set up the Bell vs. Larson shootout fans had been waiting for since Larson retired early from the race last year. Larson pulled away on the highline in Turns 1 and 2. He switched to the low in 3 and 4.

With five laps to go Larson hit traffic. That gave Bell the opportunity to close the gap. With two to go Bell was on top of Larson and challenging for the lead. On the final lap Bell passed Larson in Turn 2 as they bumped tires. Glued together through the final pair of turns, they touched twice more before Bell pulled away on the final stretch.

The action wasn’t over, however. Bell wound up on his lid following the win. His donuts got a little out of control and he rolled his midget.

Justin Grant took third by passing Brady Bacon on Lap 36. Bacon followed for fourth with Zach Daum in tow to complete the top five.

Tyler Courtney was the hard charger of the night finishing sixth after starting in 22nd. Brad Sweet and CJ Leary finished seventh and eighth.

Seavey was able to hold onto third until late in the race but ultimately the pole sitter who led the first 20 laps faded to ninth.

Tanner Thorson rounded out the top ten.

Friday’s Main Event

1. Christopher Bell
2. Kyle Larson
3. Justin Grant
4. Brady Bacon
5. Zach Daum
6. Tyler Courtney
7. Brad Sweet
8. CJ Leary
9. Logan Seavey
10. Tanner Thorson
11. Danny Stratton
12. Jonathan Beason
13. Tucker Klaasmeyer
14. Colby Copeland
15. Rico Abreu
16. Michael Faccinto
17. Chad Boat
18. David Gravel
19. Cole Bodine
20. Robert Dalby
21. Jake Neuman
22. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
23. Shane Golobic
24. Sean McClelland