-- by guest journalist John Rettie
Realistically, SPRT has been at a distinct disadvantage all season. It does not have the experience of Scandinavian teams who have been building specialized rallycross cars for many years. Indeed, if you take a walk through the pits at a GRC event, you’ll hear Scandinavian accents emanating from many teams. Just take a look at the results in European rallycross events, and the Scandinavians traditionally have tended to dominate.
Of course, that’s a major reason why Sverre Isachsen drives for SPRT. As a former European champion, he brings valuable experience to the team.
However, he’s a driver and not an engineer, so there’s only so much he can do as Vermont SportsCar develops the 2012 Subaru WRX STI rallycross car from its super-successful rally car.
From Rally to Rallycross
At first glance, there might seem to be a lot of similarities between rallycross and rally cars, but take a look under the hood, and you’ll immediately see major differences.
First off, the rallycross engine has to develop more than 600 hp compared to just 300 hp in a rally car. What’s more, each rallycross event only entails perhaps 15 minutes of full-bore driving, whereas a rally can last for hours over a two- or three-day event.
A rallycross event compared to a rally is like a sprint compared to a long-distance run.
Following X Games and the fourth round of the GRC in New Hampshire, series contestants had a long break. SPRT took this opportunity to spend more time developing the cars. It even went back to the New Hampshire track and rented it for a few days for some serious development time.
The effort was immediately apparent as practice unfolded in the early morning heat at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Long-time fans of rallycross have not exactly been enamored of the layout of tracks in prior GRC events because they have been too restrictive for drivers. Ideally, there should be plenty of room for cars to go three or four abreast through corners, especially soon after the start. Otherwise, the first driver through the first corner would easily go on to take the checkered flag, barring any mistakes.
Once the Vegas course was constructed on the first evening, drivers and team managers walked the track and were pleased with what they found. There was more room to race than had been the case in previous rounds.
The GRC organizers also promised that the first turn would be covered in plenty of dirt for the races. It was midway down the pit straight where the rallycross track would double back onto the main banked start/finish line of the banked oval track. However, the first turn remained paved during the practice runs.
As before, the main feature of the temporary course was the giant jump made of steel ramps. Since the ramp accident at X Games, the structure was fitted with giant foam pads to help soften the blow should anyone fail to make the jump.
Practice and seeding took place on Friday and Saturday morning. The track proved quite different for the racing, which took place under the lights Saturday night.
By coincidence, all three SPRT drivers ended up in Heat 1 along with Tanner Foust, who had been fastest in seeding. One of two privateers – Canadian Richard Burton in an older Subaru WRX – was the fifth driver in this heat.
Alas, Burton was the unlucky one; he fell victim to the jump when he decided he did not have enough speed to make it. He braked, but the coefficient of friction between rubber tires and steel is not that great, and he gently slid off the top and crashed down to the track below. Fortunately there was no car passing underneath at that moment. Despite heavy damage to the nose of his car, Burton was OK, although he was taken to a hospital as a precaution. Aside from that misadventure, the rest of the evening races went off without a hitch.
Isachsen finished less than a second behind Foust in the first heat, which assured him a spot in the Final. That meant Dave Mirra and Bucky Lasek would have to try their luck in the Last Chance Qualifier.
Since there were only 15 competitors and the track was wider, the organizers elected to have five competitors in each of the first three heats. Then all nine drivers who did not finish 1st or 2nd in the first three heats would compete in the Last Chance Qualifier.
Needless to say, everyone scrambled for a good finish. In the end, Mirra lost out when he suffered damage in a tangle with another competitor and Lasek managed to finish 4th, giving him the last spot in the 10-car final.
Isachsen stormed from the middle of the pack and tucked himself in behind Foust and Brain Deegan. Despite being passed by another competitor after he took the joker lap, Isachsen managed to grab back the 3rd spot to take a podium finish – the first for SPRT this year. Lasek kept out of harm’s way and finished 8th – his best finish so far as well.
“Our goal all season has been to develop the car and reach the podium. This feels so good,” exclaimed Isachsen at the finish celebration. “My Subaru was good all weekend, and my driving, too. This is a big confidence boost for the team, and now I’m looking forward to the next race outside the Las Vegas Convention Center during the SEMA Show.”
Link to photo gallery.