Officials warn overly aggressive drivers
IRWINDALE, Calif. -- Young Finnish driver Toomas "Topi" Heikkinen will have a target on his back when he lines up to race Sunday in X Games RallyCross at Irwindale Event Center. Heikkinen has landed on the podium at every X Games this year, earning a medal of every color, and is looking to become the only driver in X Games history to win repeat RallyCross gold.
But his racing style crosses the thin line from aggressive to too aggressive, and some drivers think his luck could run out.
"There's racing karma and that's not a metaphorical thing. It's more of an, 'I'll race you how you race me' type of thing," observes Travis Pastrana. "Somebody is going to prematurely end Topi's race. Most likely over and over again."Rallycross is without a doubt on the rough-and-tumble side of the motorsport scale. Car-to-car contact that would be cause for certain disqualification in a sport such as IndyCar -- or even NASCAR where "rubbin' is racing" -- would barely raise an eyebrow on the rallycross course. That's part of its appeal.
"We're rallycross and we're different," said Global Rallycross Championship competition director Joey Mancari, who serves the same role for X Games RallyCross. "But we need to be just the right amount of wrong."
Heikkinen, 22, found himself disqualified twice in 2012 for incidents of car-to-car contact, and although he has escaped official sanction so far this year, other drivers have made their displeasure known. Liam Doran cuffed him across the back of the helmet during a confrontation after the second Munich race. Although he said afterward it was because Heikkinen showed him disrespect by refusing to shake his hand, there's little doubt the on-track hits Doran believes cost him a second gold of the weekend were the real cause of the Brit's animosity.
Officials have taken note as well. Heikkinen, along with Subaru driver Sverre Isachsen, received notice last week that he is officially on probation for overly aggressive driving. Officials will be keeping a close watch on both drivers' on-track conduct at X Games.
In tight rallycross courses where passing opportunities are few, it is very difficult to gain position after that first corner and the drivers go for it: It's all or nothing. So, many of the hits typically come in a first-corner crunch, when the 10 drivers in the final accelerate into the same patch of track at the same time to try to get the all-important holeshot.
The resulting chaos is what we saw in Foz do Iguacu, where Travis Pastrana, Tanner Foust, Ken Block and Buddy Rice all crashed out after just a couple hundred feet of racing and couldn't make it back for the restart.
"Once everyone realizes it's lawless out there, that's what happens," said Foust, after getting caught up in another wreck at the most recent domestic round in Bristol, Tenn.
And that's where officials have to step in and set the rule of law. So far this year, there has not been a single black flag thrown for car-to-car contact, despite some mighty hits that have caused considerable damage. Mancari said that's going to change. Starting now.
"To use a baseball analogy: We've called a few things 'balls' this season that we should have called 'strikes,'" he admits. "There is going to be aggressive driving in rallycross, but we've defined now what we feel is overly aggressive."There is going to be aggressive driving in rallycross, but we've defined now what we feel is overly aggressive.Joey Mancari, GRC competition director
He says there will be a critical eye on moves when there is front-to-rear bumper contact, and in situations where one driver spins out another with a pit-maneuver style hit. Officials will also be on the lookout for what Foust calls the "damage train," multicar, chain-reaction crashes initiated by a driver at the back of a pack.
And Mancari warns there will now be "a couple of extra sets of eyes" in race control monitoring the action. Drivers who cross the line can expect to be black-flagged and forced to serve a stop-and-go penalty, have time added to their scores or even face disqualification.
That's what happened to Ken Block in the sole penalty issued to a driver for aggressive driving this year. He received notice after the second Munich race that his results wouldn't count because he punted another driver out of the contest. Without the disqualification on his record, the Ford driver could be as high as second in the GRC standings right now. Instead, he's in fifth.
Block came out immediately in support of the official decision and offered an apology to the driver he took out of the race. Ironically, that driver was Isachsen.
But officials are going to have to work hard to keep the peace in a stacked field of 18 medal-hungry drivers at this event. That's more cars than we've seen at any previous X Games and all but one driver is an X Games veteran. If Heikkinen can stay on the right side of racing karma, he'll be tough to beat. Since his first victory in Munich, he has won back-to-back domestic GRC competitions and he's hoping to keep the streak going. Nobody's going to make it easy.
"We all believe we're the best driver on the course," Pastrana says. "We all want to win."
Foust, Brian Deegan, Scott Speed and Doran also have gold medals in the discipline and want a second. And, with new winners at every RallyCross in X Games history, you can't count out the challengers in the field who are appearing for the first time this season: Rhys Millen in his Hyundai -- alongside the sole X Games rookie, David Sterckx -- and Stephan Verdier in the Subaru he first brought to X Games in 2010.