by John Rettie
After stadium rally car events in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for X Games 16 and, before that, in The Home Depot Center, there was tremendous anticipation for X Games 17. ESPN moved the two rally competitions to the streets of Los Angeles on July 30 and 31, 2011.
This may have been the first time a rallycross has been held on city streets anywhere in the world. Traditionally, ever since rallycross started in 1967 in the United Kingdom, the events have been conducted at racetracks using a combination of paved track and infield dirt sections.
You won’t find any dirt roads in downtown Los Angeles, so ESPN trucked in hundreds of tons of gravel. They laid it over the tarmac in places, along with a jump created in a parking lot across from the Staples Center.
With no chance for much practice on the X Games course, SRT USA took its three cars to the Auto Club Speedway of Southern California (formerly California Speedway) in Fontana and Toyota Speedway at Irwindale for testing ahead of the X Games weekend. The team had three cars – two for its regular drivers, David Higgins and Dave Mirra, plus one for none other than Travis Pastrana.
Pastrana was up to his usual tricks – trying to do the impossible. He planned to compete at X Games on Thursday, then drive in a NASCAR race on Saturday in Indianapolis, and then go for the Gold at the X Games Rallycross event on Sunday. He was calling his adventure the Pastranathon.
With outside sponsorship, he turned to SRT USA to provide him with a car. It was like old times having Pastrana back in the SRT USA team pits.
The big news on Thursday happened away from the rally scene. During a pass in the Moto X Best Trick event, Pastrana landed badly, breaking his foot and ankle. He ended up in hospital, and Pastranathon was over. It also looked highly unlikely he’d be able to compete in the Rallycross on Sunday.
Figueroa Street, one of the major streets in Los Angeles, could not be closed for track set up until Friday evening. It’s a tree-lined, divided highway with three lanes in each direction.
The start line was right outside the Staples Center. The course then made a right turn onto the entrance to the Los Angeles Convention Center and down past the front of that building before making a left turn on Pico Boulevard and another left back onto the northbound side of Figueroa. It then made a right turn onto 12th street and a sharp left into a parking lot, where the course split to either wind back onto Figueroa or sharply left behind a temporary grandstand, up and over the joker jump, and back onto the main straight.
It was immediately apparent to everyone that this course, while fun to drive alone, was going to be too narrow for much passing. Unlike most rallycross courses where cars can run two or three cars abreast and have run-off areas for those who get loose, this X Games track had concrete barriers lining either side of the track. There was no room for error.
Reaction to the course among drivers seemed mixed. Some liked it, while others felt it was too tight. This was really not much different from drivers’ views on other famous street tracks such as Monte Carlo or Long Beach!
If you watched X Games on TV you got see plenty of action and dramatic close-up views of cars and drivers. Sadly, if you were there in person, the view was not so good. There was only one grandstand, and it was set up to view the jump and not much else. Otherwise spectators were hidden behind concrete walls and covered fencing. Ironically some of the best views were afforded non-ticketed pedestrians who could walk alongside the track in several areas and even climb stairways leading up the side of the Convention Center.
On Saturday morning, serious practicing and seeding started. There were 16 entrants, including no less than six Subaru rally cars. Apart from some contact with walls, nothing much unexpected happened during practice and seeding.
The big news was that Pastrana had been given the all-clear to compete despite his injuries. SRT USA fabricated steering-wheel controls that allowed him to use the throttle with his hands via steering-wheel paddles. His right foot was useless, so he just had it duct-taped to the firewall to stop it from flopping about while he drove. Thanks to his expertise on a motorcycle, Pastrana didn't take long to master using his hands to control the throttle, gear shifting, and steering while using his left foot for the brake and clutch.
Pastrana’s times were not spectacular, and since he was not entered in the rally event on Saturday, he spent much of the day resting his leg. In order to get a couple more hours of practice, the team took Pastrana’s car to the Los Angeles Police Department’s training grounds nearby. In typical Pastrana fashion, although in pain, he was in a cheerful mood.
In the first round of eliminations for the head-to-head Rally Car event on Saturday, Mirra and Higgins were seeded against each other. That meant one of them automatically would not make it through to the finals.
Higgins beat Mirra, so he went up against Marcus Grönholm, a former WRC champion, in a quarter-final heat. That heat ended up being the closest one, with Higgins just a couple of seconds behind Grönholm after two laps of the three-quarter-mile track.
Higgins was pitted against Tanner Foust for the match for the Bronze medal, which Higgins won due to Foust having mechanical problems.
Much to everyone’s surprise, the Gold went to Liam Doran, a young British rallycross competitor driving a Citroën. Grönholm took the Silver. Winning the Bronze, it had been a good day for SRT USA.
For the Rallycross event on Sunday, four cars were on the track at the same time during the eight elimination rounds. Everyone expected carnage. The driver who made it through the first corner was most likely to win. The key was to out-drag opponents to the first corner.
One of the most spectacular starts was for the third heat: Higgins, Doran, and Michael Jernberg in a Škoda all went through the first two corners side by side. Unfortunately, Higgins was tapped from behind, and his car just touched the tire barrier on the outside of the second corner. That bounced his front end into the wall, and his race was over.
The SRT USA mechanics worked feverishly and got his car repaired so he could have a second chance to qualify for the final in the second round of eliminations, which he did. Pastrana and Mirra also won their next two rounds, so all three SRT USA cars made it to the final. That race would see eight cars on the track at the same time.
The chances of a Subaru win were slim since all three were in the second row of cars. It would be difficult to get into the first corner ahead of the others unless those in front took out each other. That’s just what happened. Foust and Doran touched just before the corner, and the Gold medal Rally Car winner suddenly found himself in last place in the Rallycross event.
Amazingly, the other six cars made it cleanly through the first two corners, and it was a surprised Brain Deegan who found himself in front with Pastrana a couple of cars behind, ahead of Mirra and Higgins. Until four corners from the finish, it looked as if plucky Pastrana was going to get the Bronze. Alas, he accidentally touched the throttle paddle entering the corner, and – BANG – he was into the tire barrier.
Deegan might have gotten the well-deserved Gold, but the crowd was ecstatic with Pastrana’s brave showing. He was in obvious pain, as witnessed live on TV. He had given it all he could. A few days later he was going into surgery, knowing he could not race again on two or four wheels for at least a couple of months.
View the Rally Car results.
View the Rallycross results.
A look at ESPN’s view of the Pastranathon.