It’s free to be an enthusiast, and cheap to be a rally enthusiast. I gave a brief overview before, but RallyCross is the least expensive way to get behind the wheel and channel your inner (insert your favorite rally driver here), and is well worth exploring on its own. I’ll be sharing advice from active RallyCrossers in the New England Region SCCA as well as my own experience to help you get the best bang for your dirty dollar.
What Is This RallyCross Thing, Anyway?
RallyCross means different things in different parts of the world. What I’m NOT talking about here is Gymkhana, Global RallyCross, World RallyCross, or any European style RallyCross involving wheel-to-wheel racing on a mixed surface. Such racing is awesome, but out of reach for most of us.
No, the type of RallyCross I’m talking about looks, at first, to be nothing more than autocross on a non-paved surface. You can bring almost any car (high rollover risk vehicles won’t be allowed, and convertibles like my old Miata must have a factory hardtop, as shown here). Modifications are not required, and there are different classes for different types of cars and modification levels. Cars run one at a time against the clock through a course made of cones. Hitting a cone incurs a time penalty, and going off course incurs an even greater penalty. Sound familiar?
There are some major differences besides the racing surface, however. The class structure is much simpler. Cars are divided into front wheel drive, rear wheel drive, and all wheel drive divisions. Within each division, cars are classed into Stock, Prepared, or Modified based on what modifications they have. You can read the rulebook for specifics on what is and isn’t allowed in each class. Isn’t that unfair, allowing high horsepower cars into the same classes as low horsepower cars? Not really. The limiting factor here is traction, not power. My 116hp Miata had enough power to spin its wheels pretty much anywhere on course. The only advantage my 239hp Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor had was the ability to spin its wheels more, which doesn’t get you places any faster. (Though I admit, its V8 motor did sound better.)
[brid video=”29092″ player=”4063″ title=”Dirt MASSacre Morning Course”]
In autocross, typically your single best run of the day determines how you place in your class. You can drive on the ragged edge, spin out, knock over a bunch of cones for most of your runs, and still win your class thanks to a single hero run where you held it together. But in RallyCross, finish position is determined by the cumulative time of ALL your runs. So that cone penalty that got called in on me in that video stuck with me all day. A wild, ragged edge approach will cause you to place behind the slower driver who stayed on course and away from cones all day. Consistency is the key, rather than all out speed. Of course, if you can manage to drive fast AND avoid cones and stay on course, you’ll do rather well.
Speaking of the course, unlike autocross, it will change throughout the day. A grassy field can turn into loose dirt, then hard packed gravel as the day goes on, and who knows what will happen if it rains. Snow and ice can also happen at winter events in the north, because RallyCross runs year round. But conditions won’t be the only thing that changes – the course design itself also changes as the day goes on. This is to avoid excessive damage to the facility, especially in tight turns that get torn up quickly. It also provides a challenge similar to stage rally, which doesn’t just run on a single stage all day. Sometimes course changes are announced, but sometimes they’re not. You have to keep your eyes open and drive within your limits so that you can always keep the car on course and avoid time penalties.
Unlike stage rally and RallySprint, you can bring just about any car to a RallyCross. Here I am at my very first RallyCross in my RT4WD Civic Wagon. Unlike the one I reviewed, mine was bone stock from a performance perspective – don’t let the Hella fog lights and fake Mini Cooper S style hood stripes fool you. I even ran my no-name all-season tires, not fancy rally tires or even snow tires (more on that later). Despite a well intentioned “correction” that put my Civic in the front wheel drive division at first, I ran in class SA – stock/all-wheel-drive. That put me up against a fleet of Subaru WRXs and STis with two to three times as much horsepower as my stock D16A6. Despite a few cones (this is how I learned that my autocross driving style doesn’t work well for RallyCross), I ended up finishing a bit slower than the top three in the class, and a fair bit ahead of everybody else in the class – including many of those “faster” Subarus. The moral of the story is don’t worry about what you drive, or what modifications you “need.” Focus on your driving, and work on the car only when its limitations actually start holding you back.
Because you’ll be on dirt, or snow, or ice, or rock, or who knows what other than it won’t be pavement, RallyCross is going to be a bit harder on your car than the smooth parking lot or airport runway of an autocross. As a result, there is a higher possibility of damage to your car. As fun as my BRZ would be, I won’t RallyCross it because it’s in too good condition and rides too low to the ground, even in stock form. I’d rather do it in an older car I don’t necessarily mind beating on a bit. That was our original plan for our 2002 Ford Focus, and our intention for Project MJ if we can get it running and into shape for it.
You don’t need to turn your daily driver into a dirt carving monster, but there are some car preparation considerations you should think about. A tech inspection similar to autocross is required. All loose items must be removed from the car, and you’ll need a Snell approved helmet. (Loaner helmets may be available.) Pump your tires up to the maximum pressure they allow. This is the number printed on the sidewall rather than the manufacturer’s recommended pressure – in other words, the number you should NOT inflate to on the street! (Remember to air back down to factory recommendations after the event.) A tire sliding sideways in the dirt is prone to losing its seal and letting all of the air out, and high pressure will help prevent that. If you do get a flat, you’ll typically be given a limited amount of time to repair or replace the tire and take your run again. If you do not take your rerun within the allotted time, it counts as a DNF.
Just as you may swap to sticky tires for the track, you may want to remove your summer tires and run something a bit more knobby and aggressive for RallyCross. Snow tires are allowed year round, and can be the best bang for the buck. SCCA national rules prohibit studded tires, but local regions may permit them under certain circumstances, such as a snowy, icy event in the winter. (You don’t want to run studded tires on dirt because the studs will rip out of them.) I’ve had good luck with Firestone Winterforce tires for RallyCross. Their knobby tread digs into loose dirt quite well, and they’re also rather affordable. We plan to run Project MJ on the tires it came with to start, and will probably switch to some all-terrain tires at some point, because 4X4.
Another tire option is cast-off gravel tires from stage rally folks. A half used tire is no good to them in their next rally, but could last you a full season or more of RallyCross, so you can typically buy them pretty cheap. This is the ultimate case of the right tool for the right job. They grip the dirt much better than snow tires, are easier to control in a drift, and have much stronger sidewalls to protect them from punctures. If you’re looking to move up to RallySprint or stage rally later on, RallyCross is a great place to practice and learn how gravel tires behave. The main disadvantage of gravel tires is they are illegal in Stock class, so even running them on an otherwise bone stock car will still bump you straight to Prepared. This is actually fair – gravel tires really are that much faster than snow tires to justify the bump. You also won’t want to put a lot of road miles on them since, like R-compound tires, they’re quite soft and wear out quickly. That’s the price you pay for extra grip in either case.
If you’re going to RallyCross a lot, you might also consider installing a skid plate or two. Your tires toss up dirt and rocks as you slide through the course, and a bit of bad luck could potentially damage the underside of your car. A skid plate under your motor, and for your rear differential if your car is all or rear wheel drive, is legal in all classes, including Stock, so it’s cheap insurance against damage that could ruin your car as well as your day. Some cars, like Subarus, have off-the-shelf parts available since they’re very popular RallyCross cars. Some sheet metal and creativity should let you fabricate a skid plate for any car.
But You Don’t Have To Take My Word For It
I asked the New England Region SCCA RallyCross community what advice they have for RallyCrossing on the cheap. “Volunteer to work an event,” says Brad DeSantis (previous owner of Project MJ). “See what goes on, plan from there.” That’s good advice for any amateur motorsport you want to get involved in, actually. Participants will love you for helping out, and will be happy to show you the ropes so you know what it takes to try it yourself.
Philip LaMoreaux had plenty of advice. “Run stock classes with a dedicated set of snow tires. Or buy new snows every winter and run them through the summer.” Like I said, you don’t have to modify your car for RallyCross, and the cheapest thing to do is leave it alone. If you live in the snow belt you can use your RallyCross tires on the street that time of year, as well as for events year round.
“Find a friend to share costs with,” Philip also recommends. “Two people can share costs and wrenching while still competing in the same vehicle.” I actually did this with my first Miata, though we focused on autocross and track use. But it worked well for us and cut our individual expenses in half. Obviously you only want to do this with someone you know and trust to hold up their half of the bargain.
Josh Hickey suggests, “Start with a platform that is cheaply available on Craigslist, has a performance/racing heritage, and already has strong aftermarket support. In 2WD classes, a $1,000 E30, E36, Miata, RX-7, Focus, Escort, or other low-buck cars can win or be competitive in most classes and are cheaper to buy/run/build than (for instance) a top-tier Subaru or Evo. Look at who wins the regions, divisions, and nationals in the 2WD classes, especially RWD classes – usually low-buck cars since most ‘modern’ RWD cars aren’t well suited for rally/rallycross.” Older cars are also cheaper to maintain and repair when they break, and 2WD systems are less complicated. RWD is the slowest of the three drivetrains but personally I think it’s the most fun, because power sliding is cool. FWD can be fun, too, and techniques like left foot braking can make a car prone to understeer handle more neutral or even oversteer. VW Golfs are popular. Ozgur Simsek recommends the 1991-1994 Nissan Sentra SE-R, with the SR20 motor and a limited slip differential. FWD cars are typically faster than RWD, so there’s something to be said for that.
“In the AWD classes,” Josh continues, “It’s just the opposite in most cases. The STis and Evos, well driven, are not going to generally be beaten by some $1,000 Forester you got off Craigslist.” This isn’t always the case, as a fast driver in a slow car can beat a slow driver in a fast car, but if you want to be in trophy positions, you need to be a fast driver in a fast car. I beat a bunch of “faster” cars in my Civic wagon, but I was still the best of the rest after the fast drivers in fast cars.
“If you compete in your daily driver,” says Philip LaMoreaux, “either buy AAA, or find someone who can pick you up when your car eventually breaks.” The most I’ve ever broken a car at a rallycross was busting my Saturn SW2’s muffler loose. If you know where to look for it in this picture, you can clearly see that it’s missing. I just ran without it for the day and reinstalled it at home afterward. Though small, there is the possibility of worse damage – broken axles, busted shocks, and such – that could render your car undrivable. As James Bond’s Q said, “Always have an escape plan.”
To avoid this, Alex Bakhturin says “Protect your daily driver. Many recommend skid plates – not going to comment on that. Instead, I’m going to mention something that did do some damage to my car – the small rocks. Some RallyCross sites, like farms, have virtually no rocks on the ground, which is amazing. Others have plenty. Mud flaps look cool but they don’t protect the lower pars of the doors if they don’t touch the ground.” This is why you see oversized mud flaps on rally cars, sticking out past the body and often dragging on the ground. Though I don’t RallyCross my BRZ I still put some RallyArmor flaps on soon after I got it to help protect the paint from road hazards. Alex also recommends, “Protective film! Not expensive ones like 3M that they would only sell to dealers, but cheaper brands that you can purchase and apply yourself. When applied properly, it’s virtually invisible, and protects the parts that the mudflaps can’t.”
Alternately, “Buy a cheap car and a cheap trailer if you already have a vehicle capable of towing,” says Philip LaMoreaux. This way you don’t have to worry about messing up your daily driver. If you break it, just toss it on the trailer and fix it at home. “Same goes for competing in a car that you would never dare daily drive but don’t tow to events,” adds Tom Kinsey. “Cars with no title are cheap,” says Scott Carlson. Unlike stage rally, cars do NOT need to be registered and street legal for RallyCross. If you intend to transform your RallyCross car into a full on rally car this would be a dead end, but you could get a dedicated RallyCross car with title problems for cheap because no one else wants it.
These are just a few ways you can start living out your rally fantasies for chump change. Becoming more active in RallyCross is definitely in my future, whether through Project MJ or some other car if the Comanche doesn’t work out. I may not be the only one on the Right Foot Down crew to be taking an interest, either…
(Many thanks to the New England Region SCCA RallyCross/RallySprint Facebook group for sharing their collective wisdom with me for this article!)