RallyCross drivers find their own way

Brett Wilhelm/ESPN

Tanner Foust's range as a driver is reflected in his practice, as he takes turns and jumps differently with each lap to learn to react in a variety of conditions.

In most motorsports, all the drivers know the fastest way around the track. The best line through each corner is clearly understood, and competition vehicles are engineered and tuned for optimal performance where it counts. The drivers who can turn in consistent fast laps get to the podium, and victory for a top team often comes down to tiny setup refinements worth hundredths of seconds in vehicle performance gains.

Not so in RallyCross.

Heading into the first turn at X Games Foz do Iguaçu in March, Scott Speed eased off the throttle in his Ford Fiesta to maximize traction while achieving the perfect road racing line on dirt. Travis Pastrana, meanwhile, powered in deep to try and sling his Dodge Dart sideways past him. Speed's restraint earned him a gold medal, while Pastrana crashed out. But in another race, on another day, it might have gone the other way.

"That's what makes RallyCross cool. To get the car from start-finish line and back to the start-finish line, you can do it in so many different ways," says Speed, who spent two seasons driving in Formula One and now races in NASCAR as well as RallyCross. "Because of that, the car matters less, and how you drive it matters a little bit more."

Courses feature a mix of dirt and tarmac, so grip levels change lap after lap. What is considered the ideal racing line the first time through a corner might change dramatically by the end of a race as the course conditions change. The added complication of the Joker -- an alternate lap that drivers must take once per heat -- opens up the possibilities even more.

"Just when you think you know the best style to work on a certain track, somebody will come in and do something totally crazy and set the fastest time," says driver Tanner Foust, who has competed in every Rally competition at X Games since four-wheel racing was introduced in 2006.

Car racing usually rewards discipline specialists who have worked their whole lives to master one particular motorsport, but the X Games field boasts a diverse range of competition backgrounds, including IndyCar, Formula One, Formula Drift, motocross, skateboarding, BMX and off-road truck racing. About the only thing they all have in common is the desire to win.

Brett Wilhelm/ESPN

Conventional wisdom would suggest Brian Deegan's drifting style would slow him down, but it allows him to avoid contact with other cars.

Foust's competition history includes a little bit of everything, making him a one-man reflection of the diversity in the field. With two Formula Drift championship titles and some serious seat time behind the wheel of a rally car, he's no stranger to sliding a car sideways. Open wheel and sports car experience means he also knows how to show restraint when it counts. His range shows during practice sessions before race day.

With one team member recording split times from the grandstands and another shooting video, he'll run his laps: sliding wildly through a corner and spraying gravel the first time through, only to execute the same turn without breaking a wheel loose a lap later. It's no accident. He's testing grip and feeling out which option will be fastest on race day. Sometimes it's both.

"You can take guys that have motocross backgrounds and put them in these cars and because of their totally unorthodox driving style and different approach; it'll still work," said Speed. "You can't do that in any other form of racing."

RallyCross cars are built to a set of rules that every team must follow, and they all share some similarities in engineering. But because they run on courses that include dirt, tarmac, and jumps, each build and set-up decision is a compromise that forces the teams to make tough choices about where they want to focus their energy. Cars that are the best at putting the power down in a straight line on tarmac might not handle as efficiently through a dirt-packed corner. A car that easily soaks up huge jumps might not be the best performer in a tight-tarmac turn. That means even the cars encourage an individualized approach to driving.

"It's important to the driver to match the car up to their style and then make sure that's the best style for that track," said Foust.

"Unorthodox" is a word an open wheel pro like Speed might use to describe what Brian Deegan does behind the wheel. While motorsport coaches will always advise a slow-in, fast-out approach, Deegan often brakes late and shows no hesitation about throwing a big slide. Conventional wisdom says he's losing time when the wheels are scrambling sideways instead of gripping to propel the car forward, but it's hard to argue with Deegan's results. He burst into X Games RallyCross in 2010 with a silver medal, then earned a gold in 2011 and a bronze in 2012. He started this year with a fifth-place result in Brazil -- beating other X Games rally car veterans like Foust, Pastrana and Ken Block.

And while he admits he sometimes overdrives as he transitions into his rally car after a stint behind the wheel of his big, soft, rear-wheel drive off-road truck, there's no question he's a master of racecraft. Contact is a likely byproduct when aggressive -- some might say reckless -- drivers like Toomas "Topi" Heikkinen go for big moves through traffic, but Deegan avoids the hits. He anticipates the other drivers' moves and squeezes through holes in traffic invisible to other competitors.

"It's for sure my motocross experience that helps. It teaches you how to pass," Deegan said. "On a dirt bike you're going 40 guys together through the fist turn and there's no roll cage. There's a different mentality."

Whatever the secret -- or Foust's, or Speed's -- it's clear that RallyCross is a motorsport that encourages its drivers to show their style.

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