Photos courtesy of Motegi Racing
Crowds packed into Irwindale Event Center for two days of exciting X Games motorsport competition this weekend as the new Gymkhana GRID competition joined Rallycross in the action-sports festival for the first time.
Tanner Foust earned the inaugural gold medal for Gymkhana GRID, a timed competition that pits drivers head-to-head on mirrored courses featuring a series of obstacles designed to encourage the tire-smoking action that has turned Ken Block into a viral video sensation.
Although it was the first time X Games has included the discipline in its four-day action sports event, alongside contests in BMX, skateboarding, and motocross, it was the second time the track has played host to a Gymkhana GRID event. Foust won that one, too, back in 2010.
“Every time I've passed Ken in the pits today, he's jokingly told me ‘F-you,'” said Foust after beating the master at a competition of his own design.
Enthusiastic fans roared as drivers in the eight-car field competed in a knockout elimination format, navigating a series of technical features including a 540 drift through a tight shipping container, a figure eight and a tire-smoking 720 spin around a barrel.
Block was knocked out of the contest in the first round after Brit Liam Doran took the best two out of three in the second head-to-head battle of the night. Block's showy style was spectacular and fans loved the blinding clouds of smoke he produced as he navigated the obstacles. But the game is against the clock – there are no points awarded for style – and Doran was faster.
Swede Patrik Sandell advanced his Ford Fiesta ST automatically to the semi-final round when privateer Stephan Verdier suffered a technical problem with his Subaru and was forced to pull off the course. From there, he advanced to the gold medal match past Anton Marklund, whose Volkswagen Polo blew a head gasket as he pulled up to the line and was unable to run.
Sandell scored the silver medal, while Doran earned the bronze despite a hand sprain injury sustained when he slammed into the container feature earlier in the day during qualifying.
In the Sunday rallycross competition, young Finn Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen extended his Global Rallycross Championship winning streak to four in a row with a gold-medal performance. Foust returned to the podium to claim a silver medal – his ninth for car racing at X Games, more than any other driver in history. Three-time European Rallycross Champion Sverre Isachsen earned bronze, the first Rallycross medal for the Subaru factory team since the sport debuted at X Games in 2010.
“It's my second gold at X Games so I'm really happy right now,” said Heikkinen who also won in Munich in June. “Last year was such a mess but getting a gold here makes up for it. There will be a big party tonight.”
In 2012 X Games competition, Heikkinen was unable to take the start after shattering an ankle after coming up short on the 70-foot jump feature during practice. The injury still troubles him slightly, but it clearly no longer interferes with his driving. Only a few points separate him from securing the 2013 title before the end of the season. With only three rounds remaining and a maximum of 63 points up for grabs, Heikkinen has a 39-point lead over two-time defending GRC championship Foust, in second.
In an effort to eliminate the first-corner crunch that has become commonplace in Global Rallycross Competition, when cars crash trying to gain the significant holeshot advantage, officials began race day with a warning that there would be no tolerance for overly aggressive driving. In addition, Heikkinen and Isachsen both received warnings last week that they were on probation and under scrutiny.
The competition was relatively clean until the final, with some of the best racing of the day between the Ford Fiesta ST of Foust and European Rallycross rival Timur Timerzyanov, who piloted a Volkswagen Polo for the first time this weekend. The two battled door-to-door for the better part of a lap until Foust finally pulled ahead of the Russian driver to earn a spot in the Final.
But during the Final, the first tight turn – a hairpin following a long sweeper and a quick jog – a crash took out several race favorites including Block, Doran and top qualifier Brian Deegan. Officials gave the incident a close review but ultimately ruled it an incidence of no-fault racing contact.
Doran, a veteran of European competition, whose DNF in the final meant he scored 10th-place points in the race, said there is something specific to the nature of American races that encourages crashing and hopes there will be a fix soon. He said his Mini took a hard hit and his British-based team is out of spares in the United States, so he is uncertain he will be able to make next week's round in Atlanta.
“Everyone barrels into win the first corner and you see what happens,” he said after the race on Sunday. “I don't know what the solution can be.”
The field was stacked with international talent for this final X Games round of 2013, the fourth stop on an ambitious international expansion schedule that featured an April race in Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, and two in Munich, Germany in June. (A May Barcelona date was rescheduled to Munich due to rain). The invitation-only Los Angeles contest saw the biggest entry since car racing began at X Games in 2006, with 18 cars.
Among them was a combined effort between DRR and SH Racing, which fielded Scott Speed in a Ford Fiesta. He finished ninth. This race also saw the return of Rhys Millen's Hyundai Velosters that have been out of the championship since the end of last season. He finished fourth, while teammate David Sterckx recorded 16th-place points in his rallycross debut. Travis Pastrana brought his Dodge Dart across the line in fifth overall.
In the Rallycross Lites, a development class that runs at all domestic Global Rallycross Championship rounds in 2013, Finn Joni Wiman made it three in a row with a decisive victory Sunday afternoon. American Mitchell deJong, the youngest driver in X Games history, finished second, while Sebastian Eriksson overcame a stop-and-go penalty to finish third.
Sunday afternoon's X Games Rallycross event was recorded as an official sell-out, while the Saturday evening Gymkhana GRID contest came very close. The next round of the Global Rallycross Championship is set to take place at Atlanta Motor Speedway this coming Saturday, Aug. 10.