Rallycross in the U.S. has changed drastically over the last few years. It was once a mainstay of national motorsport but that landscape has changed. With the departure of series like the Americas Rallycross Championship, which folded after just two years, there are only a few options if you want a heady mix of off-road and circuit racing in one event.
We might be in a time of change for rallycross in the U.S. but that doesn't mean you don't have options. If you're just looking to get started, your best bet is to look at the SCCA's RallyCross Championship, as it's a great way to get a feel for the sport. At the upper end of the scale, with a more traditional rallycross format, there's Nitro Rallycross, which is new to North America for 2021 and will grow into a 10-round international series in 2022.
What is rallycross?
Rallycross is a sprint-style form of motorsport that takes place on a variety of surfaces. At higher levels, that's usually a mix of pavement, dirt, or sand, but you'll often find ice and snow in the mix, too. At grassroots, you'll find an off-road track — usually a field — marked out by cones. The format varies wildly by championship, with some offering wheel-to-wheel action while others are run as a time trial — with individual runs for each car.
Brian Harmer, manager of rally and solo events at the SCCA explains their format: “RallyCross events are scored cumulatively. It depends on the region, site, course, conditions, etc. on how many runs each competitor gets. However, regardless of the number of runs, all runs count. The times for each run are added together to determine the class rankings. There are penalties for each run as well: each cone that is hit receives a penalty of two seconds added to their time while going on the wrong side of a cone receives an additional 10 seconds."
In Europe, and at the top end of the ladder, you'll mostly find cars running together across a larger course that includes both circuit racing and off-road sections. You'll also find jumps and other obstacles that you won't find at grassroots level.
Rallycross vs stage rally
Rallycross is a great entry into the world of rallying as it teaches you many of the same skills needed to take on a full rally stage. Understanding how your car handles on different surfaces and moves with the natural undulations of the terrain is key to being a good driver.
In the U.S., we have some great options for stage rallying, from NASA's RallySport series to the events run by the American Rally Association. The big difference between these series and rallycross is the layout of the course. Stage rally takes place on closed roads often lined with banks and trees, meaning you are at risk of some serious damage if you — or your co-driver — put a foot wrong.
In entry-level rallycross series, the courses are typically more open and only marked by cones. You still get the fun of sliding around corners but the only risk you run, if you go off course, is a time penalty. Coupled with the fact that you don't need a co-driver means that rallycross is infinitely more accessible than other forms of rallying.
How to get started
First off, you need to find a local car club that runs rallycross events. Start with a local SCCA rallycross event where you'll be able to talk to drivers and organizers to get a feel for what it's all about. You'll also be able to see some cars tearing about a field, which is always fun. You might also consider volunteering at these events while you get a car together.
Even if you don't continue with rallycross, competing in a few events will give you the skills needed to handle any kind of driving. Harmer says: “As with most types of racing, you'll learn car control while competing in RallyCross. More specifically, you'll learn what to do when the car is in a slide, as you'll be in one for a good portion of a run."
What car can you use?
This varies by championship, but if you're heading out with the SCCA, the rules are actually quite simple. “All cars that are not a roll-over risk are eligible," says Harmer. So you might not be able to take that VW camper off-road, but you'll be good with pretty much anything else you own. This “run what you brung" idea is one of the things that makes grassroots motorsport so great.
You might want to take a peek in your garage to work out which of your collection might be suitable, or you might start combing the classifieds for your new rally car. Stock Miatas, MR2s, and other sports cars are popular but you'll see Subarus of all flavors (of course), as well as Civics, Sentras, and other unassuming sedans.
The best thing to do when you start out is to get a car mechanically sound and compete in a few events. From there you can think about modifications based on how the car handles.
The first area you'll want to upgrade is your suspension. New shocks and struts on an old car will often be enough for you to feel the upgrade. If you want to take things a bit further, though, coil-overs designed for dirt or snow will give you enough travel for the bumpy surfaces you'll be driving on. Bear in mind that certain modifications can push you into a different class, so speak to other drivers or a championship organizer to get a good rundown of the rules before you start piling new parts into your car.
Climbing the ladder
If you get serious about rallycross, you might need to set your sights further afield to climb the ladder. Rallycross in its most pure form takes place in Europe with plenty of grassroots options available in the UK.
With very few North American championships covering the middle of the ladder, many rallycross drivers compete in drift, autocross, and stage rally events to build their skill and profile. The Nitro Rallycross series could represent a good option if you want the thrills and spills of professional rallycross.
“Since day one, I have truly believed that Nitro Rallycross has the potential to be the most exciting motorsports series on the planet," Travis Pastrana — five-time U.S. rally champion and Nitro Rallycross pioneer — told Dirtfish.com.
“When we built the first NRX course in Utah we knew we had something special – from the drivers' genuine smiles to the astonished fans as cars flew side-by-side over 100-foot jumps."
If you like the idea of sliding a car around a field, a rallycross event is a great way to scratch that itch. It's also a great way to hone your skills as you move into stage rallying or another form of motorsport.
Have you ever competed in a rallycross event? Let us know in the comments.