Longtime privateer Pat Moro returns to rallycross this weekend for the first time this season behind the wheel of a brand-new Chevrolet Sonic – the much-anticipated series debut for the marque, and for a car that Moro has quietly been working to build since his last championship appearance in 2012.
It's a delayed unveiling for the Sonic, which was originally slated to debut last month at X Games in Los Angeles. But driver Moro, who runs his own PMR Motorsports team out of a shop in Dublin, Ohio, says he and Chevrolet wanted to be confident in the package before introducing it to the series.
His first appearance as a factory supported driver is a dream come true for the driver. “It's the one manufacturer I want to be with the most,” says Moro, who works by day in construction and says Chevy trucks are a mainstay of the business. “I've always been a Chevrolet guy.”
It's an exciting turn in the series, especially as the championship is expected to be decided early this weekend when Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen crosses the start line in his Ford Feista ST. The young driver has stood on the podium at every round so far this season and comes into the Charlotte race on a five-round winning streak. He needs just one point to pull away from his closest challenger – two-time defending champion Tanner Foust – and he'll achieve that just by starting. Even so, he says he's gunning to make it six wins in a row.
It's been a turnaround season for the young driver, whose 2012 efforts were defined by black flags for aggressive driving and a big crash at X Games in Los Angeles that sent him to hospital with a shattered ankle.
“I think last year I was quite young,” he says. “I'm a little older now, I have a little more experience; this season I want to be on the podium at every race.”
Meanwhile, the long-awaited Chevrolet debut brings the last of America's Big Three auto manufacturers into the Global Rallycross Championship. For the first time, Ford, Dodge and now Chevrolet are all campaigning cars in the sport. They join Subaru, Hyundai, Mini and Mitsubishi – making for a record seven different manufacturers at the Charlotte race.
Racing is Chevrolet driver Moro's passion but, unlike many of his rivals in the series, it is not yet his career. The 2010 Rally America Production champion, Moro previously campaigned the series in a 2007 Subaru originally designed for rally and adapted for rallycross. Not surprisingly for a privateer on a budget who has always wrenched on his own cars, reliability has been an issue for Moro and his rally championship-winning Subaru never had the juice to get him to victory in the power-hungry sport of rallycross. He finished the 2012 season 16th in the standings and never broke the top-10. The previous year, he contested one rallycross competition and finished ninth.
By day, the driver is a structural engineer who owns a construction company and while Chevrolet has committed to some program support, Moro's effort isn't yet on the level of some of the other teams.
“This is a three-step process with Chevrolet,” says Moro. “They want to crawl, walk, then run – and right now we're in the crawling stage.”
By comparison, Heikkinen's Ford team has had many years to develop their platform and the scale of their operation makes them a certain Goliath to Moro's David. Olsbergs MSE runs six Ford Supercars, all 10 of the Lites cars, brings dozens of mechanics to every race and has headquarters on two continents – in Sweden and Huntington Beach, Calif. Meanwhile, PMR employs two fabricators, one machinist, and one mechanic – plus Moro – in the shop back in Ohio. “They're all full-time right now, unfortunately. It's expensive.”
The Sonic, like any new racecar, remains a work in progress. Moro says that even though he's been able to put enough test laps on the car that he's optimistic it will be reliable, he knows it isn't yet at the level of the dominant Olsbergs MSE Ford Fiestas. One critical piece that's not yet part of the new package is an anti-lag system, so the car won't have the always-on boost that the rest of the cars in the pack do. Even so, Moro says Chevrolet has been responsible for the engine build and he says the car is so far beyond anything he's ever raced before it's hard to even know where it will stack up in the field.
“I'm so ready to race this thing it's not even funny,” says Moro. “We've put hundreds of test miles on the car but you never know how it's going to do until you get it up against other cars.”
Chevrolet isn't the only manufacturer with big news this weekend. Longtime Subaru driver Dave Mira is making a surprising switch to Mini, stepping into Liam Doran's seat while the British driver remains overseas to contest the German round of the European Rallycross Championship. It will be Mirra's first time driving anything other than a Subaru in competition.
“It's kind of like I was dating one girl for 10 years and we broke up,” says Mirra. “Now I've met a new one and it's great.”
After X Games, the factory Subaru team announced that, due to budgetary limitations, they would field only their top-two points scorers for the remainder of the season – a decision quietly made earlier this year as the team anticipated it would need to focus on developing next year's car. Slotted behind Sverre Isachsen and Bucky Lasek in the points after the August race, that left Mirra the odd man out. The Subaru announcement gave a hint that Mirra had something in the works, making it clear that the driver was free to seek other opportunities.
“It feels like a new adventure,” says Mirra. “I have no hard feelings. What Subaru's done for me and what I've done for them over the past six years has been great.”
An action sport legend and one of the pioneers of BMX, Mirra took up car racing at the end of 2007 when Vermont Sportscar, the team runs the factory Subaru effort, quietly entered him in a Canadian event. He joined the Subaru team in 2008, earning Rally America's “Rookie of the Year” honors, and began rallycrossing in 2011. In rally competition, he struggled to find a consistent pace as he learned on the job while rallycross has been Mirra's education in race traffic after a lifetime of solo competitive pursuits.
The Subaru team has struggled on their own transition from rally to rallycross. Its first appearance in the sport, at X Games Los Angeles in 2010, was a disaster – the team blew more engines than they had cars during practice and weren't even able to bring Mirra's high-profile teammate Travis Pastrana to the start.
Though the Subaru development is progressing, the Mini he will drive this weekend is a proven top performer. With Doran behind the wheel, the car finished atop the podium on its debut weekend in Munich earlier this year and it has only become faster: a potent combination of Pro Drive's WRC engineering and Doran's rallycross expertise.
“Different can be good,” says Mirra. “I can't wait to get in and look over the hood of a different car and see something new.”
Returning to competition is Stephan Verdier, who last turned up in the series at X Games Los Angeles in his privateer Subaru. He will drive the familiar Rhys Millen Racing Hyundai Veloster that he raced last year. And, after a three-round absence, Nelson Piquet Jr. is back in the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X.
This weekend, the series is back in Charlotte – the site of last year's season opener. But this time, the GRC moves its purpose-built course from the paved oval location to the facility's dirt track. A specially constructed course turns the typical pavement-to-dirt ratio on its head in Charlotte with dirt making up two-thirds of the racing surface. The course is technical and the increase in dirt means there could be more opportunity for drivers to jostle through the turns. For only the second time this year, the “Joker” lap is longer than the regular lap which should reduce the pressure to get the holeshot and improve the competition through every race – watch for drivers to dive in late and use the alternate route to try and make a pass.
The eight-turn, half-mile lap starts on a paved portion of the dirt track's infield, transitions onto the dirt bank, travels through an existing track exit, then winds back into the track by way of a tricky, elevated dirt turn.
In addition to serving as the eighth of nine rounds in the championship, the Charlotte event will see the conclusion of the Sylvania zXe Cup, a sub-series that will award a $20,000 purse to the driver who scores the most points in four of the U.S. speedway contests this year. The battle for the cup has included the rounds at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and, this weekend, Charlotte Motor Speedway. Heikkinen leads the points.
Full coverage of Sunday's rallycross airs live on ABC starting at 4:30 p.m. ET.