It’s a blustery day in Montana east of the Continental Divide. But that’s normal. All winter the wind runs hard down the Rocky Mountains and across the wide unbroken plains, scouring the landscape. Where the wind stops I don’t know – there’s not much between here and the Atlantic – but where I’m stopped is pretty amazing.
I’m standing in a gritty field of hay stubble staring up at 25 feet of dirt, the landing ramp for one half of a huge jump. Like something out of a movie set, this pile of clay is where Travis Pastrana practiced over and over for his death-defying leap in the opening sequence of Gymkhana 2020 in Baltimore.
Seriously. Way out here in the middle of nowhere, 2100 miles from Maryland.
What’s even better is that for the next two days I get to be the hero.
I’m no Travis Pastrana, and all I have to drive is a $600 Honda CR-V I rescued from Craigslist. No bonkers WRX with active aero for me. And no, I won’t be attempting to fly the gap on Pastrana’s jump, I’m here for a SCCA RallyCross event.
Just a long touchdown pass from the ramp is a dedicated dirt and gravel race course designed by local Hoonigans specifically for the most democratic motorsport on the planet. It’s racing for the masses, and you’re here to follow along as I learn how to turn myself and my winter beater into hard-edged rally champions.
Well, in our dreams – me and my Honda – at least for a couple of afternoons. Come with me as I learn the ways of RallyCross, how to prepare my Honda for competition, and how RallyCross, well, crosses over into other grassroots motorsports like Autocross and track days.
What Is RallyCross?
Let’s put things into reverse for a moment.
What is, RallyCross, exactly? It’s a fully sanctioned form of amateur motorsport developed by the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), the largest grassroots motorsports organization in the US. Most of us are familiar with SCCA’s Autocross, and RallyCross is its dustier cousin. The SCCA calls it,
“…the most widespread and readily accessible form of extreme dirt motorsport … and the perfect place to see if you have what it takes to power slide your way to victory. Imagine a scaled down version of a rally stage laid out on a non-paved plot of land where the course is delineated by traffic cones instead of trees or rocks.”
I’m going to temper that description just a little bit. RallyCross is not “extreme” in the way professional RallyCross is – Travis Pastrana’s RallyCross. There are no big jumps or wild course crossovers, and you don’t compete directly against your fellow drivers on track. Speeds rarely exceed much more than 50 mph. Like Autocross, you race against the clock and against yourself. Only instead of a big asphalt parking lot, you take to the dirt, grass, snow, or mud, like a compressed rally stage.
What makes RallyCross so accessible is its wide open door to all kinds of drivers and all kinds of vehicles. Unlike Autocross, the regulation book for RallyCross is slim. It’s a true “run what you brung” form of motorsport. The general rule of thumb is if your car or truck is less than twice as tall as it is wide, you can race. Even though technically “off-road”, the race sponsors will design the course so that your daily driver will survive intact at the end of the event. All you need is an approved motorsports helmet, which many clubs even offer as loaners for newcomers.
You don’t need to navigate a warren of multi-layered classification rules for your individual car. There are three vehicle categories: Rear Wheel Drive, Front Wheel Drive, and All Wheel Drive. For each of those three categories, there are three classes: Stock, Prepared, and Modified, each of which is straightforward and easy to understand regarding what kinds of modifications are allowed. That’s it! That’s also what makes it exceptionally fun.
I am a complete RallyCross rookie.
However, having run cones in Autocross for many years, first with my Mk IV VW GTI VR6, and later in my R53 MINI Cooper S (the supercharged MINI is the best MINI – fight me), I found the general layout and expectations for race day are much the same between the two. First, local SCCA RallyCross events must be organized by a regional SCCA club. In my case, this was Montana Region #105, based out of Great Falls, Montana.
Our event officially started around 9:00am on a Saturday with a “drivers’ meeting”. This is a mandatory meeting for everyone who is competing in the event – the organizers will cover the details of the schedule for the day, the order in which drivers will run, the work assignments for drivers not on track, and all the safety precautions.
Everyone on site – whether they are drivers or just spectators – will sign a waiver and get a wristband, and the club will collect race fees from those who didn’t pay ahead of time. RallyCross tends to be very affordable – I paid $40 for two days of racing, and tons of seat time. Online registration makes signing up a breeze.
A word about that 9:00am start time: you will endear yourself to the organizers, and learn a lot about this kind of racing if you show up early. There is always a lot of work to do at an amateur motorsports event. From setting up cones, to walking the course to clear large stones or other obstacles, to putting together the timing equipment and filling out the leader board, many hands make for light work, as the saying goes. The faster the tasks are done, the more laps on track you get – it’s a pretty great incentive.
Plus, you get a chance to meet the club regulars and chat with the veteran racers. In my experience, club-level drivers are extremely generous with their knowledge and patient with rookies. They want you to have as much fun as they do, and to come back for the following events. Walking the paddock to check out the various vehicles warming up to run in anger is also a treat for gearheads, especially given the diversity of rides you’ll find at a RallyCross. Staying late to clean up the venue at the end of the day will make you a true champion, even if you come in last on course. More on that later.
Following the drivers’ meeting, the real action gets underway. Divided into “run groups” approximately half the drivers will take to the course one by one for their timed runs, while the others will go to their work stations. Work at a RallyCross comes in a few flavors, you’ll either be expected to man a safety station on course, keeping track of dislodged cones and ensuring that conditions on track are safe for everyone, or perhaps recording times on the leaderboard, or announcing race instructions over the PA.
Once the drivers in the first run group finish their laps, usually four or five given how much time you might have that morning, the groups swap places and the second run gets their chance at the course. A break for lunch follows, rinse and repeat for the afternoon session on track. Drivers in each class are ranked by the cumulative time of all their runs for the day, minus their slowest run for each session, morning and afternoon.
A quick note about COVID-19 precautions. The SCCA requires all regional clubs to follow strict social distancing guidelines and mask mandates, and distribute questionnaires about common COVID-19 symptoms to everyone who attends or competes in a RallyCross event. Only member of the same family can share a vehicle.
The Red Mist
The RallyCross course at the Bull Run Guest Ranch near Cascade, Montana is a thing of beauty.
Carved into the rolling hills at the foot of low, craggy mountains, the track is rocky in some corners, deep and silky soft like a SoCal beach in others, and hard as concrete on the straightaways. There is a wicked fun banked turn, a couple of big double-apex sweepers, and chicanes that will test your willpower to stay in the throttle. The crystal blue Big Sky stretches out forever on the northern horizon, and the wind is your constant companion. It is a good place to race.
I showed up in my Craigslist-special 1998 Honda CR-V, competing in the Stock All Wheel Drive class. Two liters of inline four fury paired to a four speed slushbox, a purebred race car this is not. In fact, I simply bought it for cheap and disposable winter transportation around my hometown. But, this is the greatness of RallyCross – my throw-away beater is suddenly transformed into a rally machine the moment I roll up to the line for my first run.
Arrayed against me in my Stock class were Subaru WRX’s, Imprezas, and Outbacks (Subarus are drawn to RallyCross like the proverbial moths), an Audi Allroad (it lost all its coolant after three runs), and a brand-new, off the lot Ford F-150 FX4. In the other classes were a turbo Volvo wagon, a Chevy Cruze, a Ford Taurus SHO, a very rusty but extremely fast 1991 Honda RT four-wheel-drive wagon, a whole lot more Subarus, and a pair of Can-Am UTVs. Yes you read that right – side-by-sides and enclosed UTV models are eligible to run in RallyCross.
If you think that’s a motley crew, you’re not wrong. That shiny 400 horsepower F-150 and my wheezing CR-V were sharing the same class. Despite the vast differences between us by every possible measure, we found ourselves relatively close as we ran through the lights at the end of the course.
So, how did I fare at my very first RallyCross event?
Despite my foot-to-the-floor in first gear approach, pinging off the rev limiter at 45mph, which felt quite fast to me, I came in dead last.
For an admittedly competitive type like myself, and a former club-level Autocross class champion (I have the jacket to prove it!), this was at first something of a bitter pill to swallow. However, that was chased with the cool and refreshing draught of unmatched motorsports entertainment.
The track is remade from run to run as cars slide and grasp for traction through the corners, the weather is ever-changing, and I was constantly exploring the limits of handling in a car that is completely new to me. It’s a new puzzle for every driver each time they reach the start, and it is addictive. More than once I caught myself grinning as I drifted through one of the long double-apex turns, dancing on the edge of grip. In my $600 Honda.
Given that it was my first event, and my 200,000 mile automatic CR-V probably had the least horsepower, and likely the worst power to weight ratio, among all the competitors (including the Can-Ams), I’m actually not all that disappointed in my showing. And, I’m willing to wager I had the most fun.
Gearing Up For Next Time
As you may have gathered, this will not be my last time on course at the Bull Run Guest Ranch. There are four more events in Montana this year, and I’m going to get to as many of them as I can.
Stay tuned as this noob learns from my time on track and from my fellow competitors, like 2020 National RallyCross Champion Austin Dowda and local Montana hot shoes.
We’ll explore how to prepare your vehicle for a weekend of sideways fun, including basic maintenance and safety tips, as well as useful performance enhancements. We’ll look at how RallyCross can launch your career in other forms of grassroots motorsports. Autoanything, of course, is your one-stop source for parts and tools for a tune-up and for performance upgrades.
I might even put some stickers on my car. What’s a race car without stickers, after all – they’re good for at least five horsepower, right? I’m pretty sure Travis Pastrana has plenty of stickers.