Racing RallyCross an expensive endeavor
The hot Sunday afternoon sun had given way to a chilly night in downtown Los Angeles in July as the X Games faded into the proverbial rearview mirror. Team manager Blair Stopnik and the rest of Travis Pastrana's RallyCross crew were nearly finished with their packing duties, still gutted from the events that transpired that afternoon.
Usually the end of such a long week, no matter the result, calls for celebration. More than 200 man hours go into preparing a car for an X Games RallyCross race, part of the roughly $100,000 per event, including travel and all related costs, such as salaries and car parts, it costs a team to enter what is far and away the most expensive sport in the X Games lineup.
But on this night, the crude taste of motorsports reality dampened the mood.
Suddenly, out of the dark strode Andy Scott, a 58-year-old X Games rookie and commercial scallop fisherman from Scotland. Hours earlier, Scott's gaffe had crushed Pastrana's chances when he inexplicably failed to brake and rammed Pastrana's gleaming new Dodge Dart into a concrete barrier, severely damaging the car and leaving Pastrana unable to continue racing. It happened on the first turn of the first heat, roughly three seconds into an event that had been a year in the making.
Pastrana left the paddock hours before Scott appeared. His teammates had already packed up his car and were preparing to leave too.
"I'm sorry," Scott told Pastrana's crew, according to Stopnik. "I didn't think [the car damage] was that bad."
The Scotsman handed over a bottle of scotch as a gift for the crew to enjoy later.
Pastrana's teammates, like Pastrana himself, had been boiling since the crash. They knew they had a fast car, which they proved by winning the next race in the Global RallyCross Championship series. But when Scott walked up and apologized, instead of lambasting him for destroying their race and their car, they simply accepted it and moved on.
"Of course we're pissed and aren't necessarily going to be as friendly on the track, but we leave it there," Stopnik says. "We don't take it personally."
The episode underscored the most crucial skill in RallyCross racing -- one that has nothing to do with driving. In a sport where cars cost $450,000, top teams operate on seven-figure annual budgets and a rookie's momentary miscue ruins everything, you don't stand a chance if you can't forget what just happened.
For a skateboarder to compete at X Games Barcelona last month, the expenses were straightforward: one plane ticket, a hotel room, food and drinks, a few skateboards. Total cost: roughly $3,000. (That number can rise for a range of variables, like if a physical therapist is needed to help a banged-up athlete prepare for an event and must be brought in from overseas.)
For a RallyCross driver to compete in Barcelona -- which never actually happened due to heavy rain that postponed the race until this month in Munich -- every expense was multiplied by the size of the team's crew. The six-figure cost per car was 30 times higher than the skateboarder's expenses. And the RallyCross fees didn't include the 747 jet ESPN hired to transport the cars overseas.
Andreas Eriksson, who owns six Ford Fiestas on the GRC circuit and whose drivers swept the top five spots at X Games Foz do Iguaçu in April, brought 45 people to Spain. He has earmarked $3.6 million to operate his six cars this year, which include four 2013 models and two 2012 models. Foz champion Scott Speed, whose background includes Formula One and NASCAR Sprint Cup races, drove one of the 2012 Fiestas to victory in his X Games debut.
The way Eriksson's partnerships are structured, each driver brings in his own sponsors, who pay Eriksson to run their teams. Like most elements in RallyCross, nothing about running a team comes cheaply. Last year, Eriksson says he spent $750,000 on repairs and salvaging cars from three X Games crashes.
"We're trying to build up the sport into something spectacular in the future," says Eriksson, a hulking Swedish businessman who has owned a motorsports company since he was 20. "We don't want to be a big part of a little thing. We want to be a little part of a big thing."
Rally car racing has been included in the X Games only since 2006, but it has been popular for decades in various forms around the world. It's not news that a driver's race can end in the first corner of the first heat. As the saying goes, "That's racing."
Nevertheless, the reason X Games RallyCross races are attracting more big-name drivers -- like world rally champions Sebastien Loeb, Carlos Sainz and Marcus Grönholm; Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice; and NASCAR and Formula One veterans like Speed and Nelson Piquet Jr. -- is not just because it's fun to drift and jump cars.
Says Lance Smith, owner of Subaru Puma RallyCross Team USA, which supports three X Games drivers: "The TV exposure, that's what we're all here for."
"And there is an argument," adds Pastrana Racing engineer Ian Davies, "that when the TV cameras are looking at Travis and Scott embedded into the wall, that's TV time. It's worth something."
Experienced drivers know surviving a heat with their car intact is often more valuable than risking a crash in pursuit of a better start position later in the day. But those decisions are made in a split second and often go against one's instincts.
"If you're an overly aggressive driver, yeah, you're going to get taken out of a lot of races, and yeah, you're going to bum out your sponsors," says Bucky Lasek, a skateboarding icon who took 13th in his first X Games RallyCross race last summer. "But you can't let that bother you or change the type of driver that you are."
It's hard to reach this level, for starters. Lasek spent seven years driving in club races before Subaru Puma signed him. Although he fully grasps the stakes, it's not like Smith sits him down and lectures him on how to drive.
"They're not under any financial pressure. That's not the way to get the best out of them," Smith says. "We discuss the results, TV and marketing and all the stuff we want, but you don't have to explain to them that it's expensive. They get the picture."
The pure appeal of motorsports, particularly rally racing, is that teams go to great lengths and spend tens of thousands of dollars to gain a few inches on a dusty, unpredictable, dirt-and-gravel course. The expectation is that by signing the best driver, hiring the best crew and testing the car time and again, you'll have the best chance to win.
"That's the idea. That's why you spend all the money," says Tanner Foust, a three-time X Games gold medalist and the reigning GRC champion. "If we all do our job and we perform on the day, you should win.
"But there is something about the newness of this sport and X Games where there is a little bit of the luck of the draw in the first corner. With any sport, it's like that. It's just a tougher pill to swallow when it costs more."