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Heikkinen’s X Games Jump Crash Represents Growing Concern For GRC

The steel-plated “Mega Ramp” that marks the defining feature of the Global Rallycross Championship hasn’t exactly been the easiest challenge to overcome for the sport’s drivers, as experienced and talented as they are. Adding extra length – that is, moving the sweet spot of the jump from 70 feet at Texas Motor Speedway to 79 feet at X Games – has certainly multiplied the challenge, and Toomas Heikkinen’s medal hopes became the first casualty of it on Friday. Heikkinen undershot the jump, hitting steel head-on and flipping his car, suffering a broken left ankle and abdominal injuries in the process.

But for the other 17 drivers taking part in Sunday’s marquee event, it was just another day in the office. (A short day, as Heikkinen’s flaming Ford Fiesta forced the cancellation of subsequent jump practice, but a day nonetheless.) And while Heikkinen’s incident is sure to be a concern that the series will have to address, these drivers aren’t likely to be unnerved by the monstrosity put in front of them. As long as they have the faith that the GRC will alter the jump to make it safer from here on out, and that their concerns will influence the decisions of the series moving forward, the race weekend – and sport – will have a chance to move forward.

Image via Samuel Hubinette Racing Facebook

To start, the extension of nine feet may simply be too much for these cars to take. The GRC is looking to bring rallycross into America with as much buzz surrounding it as they can muster, but doing so by pushing the cars’ limits this far comes at great risk. Heikkinen’s impact was effectively head-on with a wall at about 40 miles per hour, and not with the SAFER barrier that dominates most American race tracks these days. The blunt edge of the jump is, clearly, something that needs to be reinforced in the case of future impacts.

The dirt jump (and its softer landing edge) that defined X Games in the past is gone, and would be impossible to build on such short notice. In fact, the steel ramp appears to be here to stay for this GRC season, with layouts in New Hampshire and Las Vegas both reliant on its presence. Any fan looking for major change may have to look to next season, when the series’ contract with Speedway Motorsports Inc. tracks is up; the steel jump is mostly in use because of the inability to quickly clean up dirt on the tracks during a NASCAR or IndyCar weekend.

For now, the job is to make do with what’s present, something that the sport’s drivers and teams alike understand. From day one, this was destined to be a learning year for the organizers of the Global Rallycross Championship, as they sought to bring rallycross to major American markets while still adding something fresh and new to the sport. The steel jump requires significant alterations for Sunday’s event, and it may need to disappear after only one year in use. But Heikkinen’s shunt doesn’t need to mean an end for jumps in rallycross entirely – just, perhaps, for that one.

– Chris Leone

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X Games Preview: Team Red Bull

Image via Chrysler Group

The name “Team Red Bull” may be sort of an anomaly here, as one of these three cars will be prepared independently from the others. Travis Pastrana’s Pastrana199 Racing will maintain cars for Pastrana and newcomer Bryce Menzies, but X Games debutant and stage rally legend Sebastien Loeb will be attempting to conquer yet another form of racing when he and his Citroen World Rally Team debut a purpose-built DS3 in Sunday’s event.

Here’s what to expect from the three Red Bull-backed vehicles this weekend:

#199 Travis Pastrana (11th in points, 12; best finish 8th, 1 heat win): Two accidents at Charlotte plus two accidents at Texas led to Pastrana earning a guaranteed berth at X Games by the skin of his teeth. It seems like a lot of things this year simply haven’t been destined to go the way of the four-time Rally America champion and two-time X Games head-to-head gold medalist. Pastrana is happy with his Dodge Dart and confident in his own abilities, but luck is an equally important part of the game, and he hasn’t had it yet this year. But a shot of extra mojo, in the competition where Pastrana made himself a household name, could change all that.

Photo credit: Flavien Duhamel, Red Bull Content Pool

#1 Sebastien Loeb (making series debut): When Travis Pastrana initially called out fellow Red Bull driver Loeb to compete at X Games, it was merely a publicity stunt. But Loeb, winner of the past eight World Rally Championships, isn’t one to back down from a challenge, and his factory Citroen team will be equipping him with a new car for the event. As with two-time WRC winner Marcus Gronholm, Loeb’s professionalism in a rally car is bound to make him one of the event’s top drivers, if not Citroen’s second consecutive gold medal in America (remember, Liam Doran took top honors last year).

#99 Bryce Menzies (making series debut): Pastrana entered a second Dodge Dart for Felipe Albuquerque at Texas with disappointing results, but off-road truck driver Menzies will make his rallycross debut in the car in Los Angeles. Coming off of his second Baja 500 victory earlier this month, Menzies was the 2011 Dirt Sports Driver of the Year and just came off of a visit to DirtFish Rally School in Snoqualmie, Washington.

– Chris Leone

X Games Preview: Olsbergs MSE

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

Olsbergs MSE has been the hottest team on the Global Rallycross circuit all season, primarily behind the strength of drivers Marcus Gronholm and Tanner Foust. Gronholm has paced the field in every single session he’s run, from qualifying to heat races to both main events, while Foust has been right behind him in every instance. Add Brian Deegan’s third place run at Hoon Kaboom at Texas Motor Speedway, and bursts of speed from both David Binks and Toomas Heikkinen, and the five Olsbergs Ford Fiestas should be up front for the majority of X Games.

Here’s what to expect from the Swedish-backed team in Los Angeles:

#3 Marcus Gronholm (1st in points, 43; 2 wins, 3 heat wins): “If you want to win, employ a Finn,” or so the old adage goes. That’s been the case thus far this year with Gronholm, who has won in each of his five starts this season (three heats and two finals). He couldn’t pull off any victories in last year’s X Games, scoring silver in the head-to-head event and bronze in rallycross, but after dominating this year thus far, there’s no reason to expect the unexpected.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

#34 Tanner Foust (2nd in points, 37; best finish 2nd, 3 heat wins): It’s a good thing that Foust had a chance to win last year’s GRC title by virtue of Gronholm skipping an event, because it looks like the fellow Ford driver won’t have much of a chance at this year’s championship. The three-time X Games gold medalist will need to find something else in Los Angeles if he wants to do any better than silver this time around.

#17 David Binks (6th in points, 22; best finish 5th): The British import has proven consistently solid in his first year racing in the United States, earning his way into both finals and scoring seventh and fifth place finishes, respectively. His background is in multi-surface rallycross, meaning that the adjustment to X Games shouldn’t take very long. Like countryman Liam Doran did last year, Binks could pull out a surprise finish at X Games.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

#38 Brian Deegan (8th in points, 18; best finish 3rd, 2 heat wins): The General of the Metal Mulisha may have had his season championship hopes compromised at Charlotte, but a podium finish at Texas has him in the competition for the Discount Tire/America’s Tire Cup and built up some good momentum for Los Angeles. It’s a good thing, too, because Deegan loves the X Games: he scored silver medals in both head-to-head and rallycross in 2010, and won gold in rallycross last year.

#57 Toomas Heikkinen (14th in points, 7; best finish 10th, 1 heat win): Already the man they call Topi has become the most divisive young figure in a series that is pretty young itself. He’s gotten on the nerves of both Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra with his aggressive driving, and earned black flags at both Charlotte and Texas. For that reason, he didn’t earn his way into an automatic berth at X Games. Heikkinen won’t be in the title hunt, but the aggressive young driver could live up to his reputation in Los Angeles with a win.

– Chris Leone

X Games Preview: Subaru Puma Rallycross Team

Image via Subaru Rally Team

For years, Subaru represented the dominant manufacturer in rally racing, and such was the case as the sport began to catch on in America. Behind four-time Rally America champion Travis Pastrana, gymkhana expert Ken Block, BMX legend Dave Mirra, and 2011 Rally America champion David Higgins, Imprezas dominated the sport, leading to increased interest from rival manufacturers. Only Mirra made the transition to rallycross with the brand, but he joins two formidable drivers – three-time defending European rallycross champion Sverre Isachsen and skateboarding expert Bucky Lasek – as the brand attempts to take its first win of the season at X Games.

Here’s what to expect from the Puma-backed factory effort in Los Angeles:

#40 Dave Mirra (9th in points, 13; best finish 9th): From 1995 to 2009, Mirra scored a total of 24 medals at X Games, primarily in BMX; he scored a bronze in head-to-head rally in 2008, marking his only racing medal. This season has been a tough one for the Miracle Boy, who saw his Charlotte final end at the hands of Toomas Heikkinen and failed to make the Texas final after a poor jump landing in practice threw off his entire race day. The face of Subaru’s rallycross team doesn’t take too kindly to struggling, however, and won’t be looking to stay low in the running order in Los Angeles.

Image via Subaru Rally Team

#11 Sverre Isachsen (10th in points, 12; best finish 10th): If anybody expected the transition from European to American rallycross to be an easy one for that continent’s three-time defending champion, especially against a lot of former ERC competition, they’ve been proven very wrong. Isachsen missed the final at Charlotte when he inexplicably slowed in the last chance qualifier, and crashed out in the first of three attempts at the Texas final. Adjusting to the Subaru hasn’t been easy for the longtime Ford driver, but perhaps X Games will provide an opportunity to get back on track.

#81 Bucky Lasek (13th in points, 9; best finish 11th): One of the sport’s true rookies (remember, skateboarding was his first trade), Lasek has been adapting respectably to four much larger wheels than he’s used to. He hasn’t made it to a final yet, but his failed attempt at skipping the jump at Texas was one of the series’ most exciting moments this year, and adapting to this sport took time for the other action sports athletes who made the transition, too. Expect more from Lasek in the future, but for now, it would be a surprise if his love for X Games led to game-changing gains in his skill behind the wheel.

– Chris Leone

X Games Preview: Single-Car Teams

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

Though the majority of the entries in this year’s X Games are part of multi-car operations, a good portion of entries will come from independent camps. Of course, the four names involved are some of the biggest in the sport. Ken Block helped create the rally craze in America over the past few years with his series of Gymkhana videos, while Liam Doran took an impressive win in last year’s Super Rally event over Marcus Gronholm, and Pat Moro is one of the most active pure independents in the sport.

Here’s what to expect from these drivers come Sunday’s event:

#43 Ken Block (12th in points, 11; best finish 8th): As one of the drivers whose exploits in a rally car built up the young fanbase that made the GRC possible, Block is the kind of figure that is beloved at X Games. But only twice, in 2006 and 2008, has he ever medaled at the series’ signature event, and even then he only scored bronze both times. Block has been beating the daylights out of his poor Ford Fiestas all season, leaving some to wonder if the gymkhana pioneer has the discipline to keep his car together long enough to make it to the finish in Los Angeles.

#59 Pat Moro (15th in points, 7; best finish 13th): Moro runs an older model Subaru Impreza and was added to ESPN’s entry list as a late invitee. He’s appeared in both events thus far, but failed to advance past the last chance qualifier in either event. Moro is a strong competitor in Rally America, having won the Production class championship in 2010, but in four X Games attempts thus far, has never placed better than 10th. He’s got one advantage, though: the jump is supposed to be bigger for Sunday’s event, and Moro was the only driver to clear the original jump at Texas (according to a Block tweet).

#33 Liam Doran (16th in points, 5; best finish 12th): Electing to compete in a European event rather than the season-opening Charlotte race likely ended Doran’s hopes at an automatic X Games bid before they even started, but last year’s head-to-head winner would love nothing more than to add a second gold medal in this year’s event. He showed plenty of speed at Texas, qualifying third, but had car troubles that kept him from the final.

– Chris Leone

X Games Preview: Rhys Millen Racing

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

Rhys Millen Racing took the Hyundai Veloster into Global Rallycross competition last year, running two cars at X Games for Millen himself and motocross star Robbie Maddison. This year, armed with a new engine and a new teammate in former privateer Stephan Verdier, Millen will give the event another shot. Both drivers have made it to the main event of the first two races of the season, and Verdier scored the lone podium finish this season for a non-Ford driver by running a smart race at Charlotte, but it’ll take more than that to give the Veloster an X Games medal.

Here’s what to expect from the California-based Hyundai outfit on Sunday:

#12 Stephan Verdier (3rd in points, 26; best finish 3rd): Verdier cautioned at the beginning of the season that he wouldn’t have a new model Hyundai engine until X Games – a prospect which has been delayed – but in the meantime he’s been an expert at sticking to his strategy of taking care of the car. A podium at Charlotte marked his fourth since last season, but he had to rely on a stroke of luck to take the field’s slowest car into the Texas final, winning his last chance qualifier by default when everybody else pulled off course. If he continues to race to his own strategy, as he did in Charlotte and Texas, Verdier’s chances at X Games could be very strong.

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

#67 Rhys Millen (4th in points, 24; best finish 4th): Millen is one of the most versatile professional drivers in the world, but he seems unable to break onto the podium in the GRC. Last year, he couldn’t muster a better finish than fourth place, which is where he finished at Texas and currently ranks in points. A new engine package simply hasn’t led to anything but lateral movement for Millen, whose team simply appears to be good but not good enough.

– Chris Leone

X Games Preview: Scott-Eklund Racing

Image via Scott-Eklund Racing

Per Eklund has been a rally and rallycross legend for four decades now, but outside of two triumphs in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the majority of his greatest accomplishments have come across the pond. But an Eklund-prepared Saab 9-3 took a victory in a 2010 rallycross exhibition, and brought a team to America full-time this year with co-owner Andy Scott, who drove to second place in last year’s British championship. Scott and teammate Samuel Hubinette have been one of the most impressive driver duos this season, scoring top five finishes at Charlotte and each ranking in the top seven in points.

Here’s what to expect out of the Florida-based privateer outfit in Global Rallycross’ premier event:

#77 Samuel Hubinette (5th in points, 24; best finish 5th): This won’t be Hubinette’s first go-round in rallycross at X Games, as he scored bronze in the 2010 event. It will, however, be the longtime Dodge driver’s first attempt at racing a Saab there. Two days before Charlotte, the ink was barely dry on his one-race deal with Scott-Eklund Racing; now, he’s proving to be one of the series’ top non-Ford drivers, running second in the Texas final until he suffered a mechanical failure.

Image via Scott-Eklund Racing

#26 Andy Scott (7th in points, 21; best finish 4th, 1 LCQ win): Plenty of folks probably wrote off Scott-Eklund Racing as an uncompetitive privateer at the start of the season, but the three-time winner in last year’s British rallycross series has shown traces of stardom already this year. He won the last chance qualifier at Charlotte, finished fourth in the final there, and outraced Travis Pastrana in their heat to make it into the Texas final. Scott has said that his operation is a top-five team, and X Games could give him a prime opportunity to take them to the next level.

– Chris Leone

X Games Checkpoint: Stephan Verdier

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

Through the first two races of this year’s Global Rallycross Championship, Stephan Verdier has established himself as one of the series’ most consistent drivers. Scoring a third place finish at Charlotte and a sixth place run at Texas, he currently ranks third in points going into X Games, the series’ most prestigious event.

The fact that Verdier even made it to the Texas final, however, was a minor miracle, given his struggles throughout the weekend.

For the qualifying, we had issues with turbo,” Verdier admits. “The practice was pretty much scrapped because the jump wasn’t working, so we had zero practice going straight into qualifying. And you have two sessions of four laps to do your qualifying. On my first session, I went out and my intercooler hose blew on the first lap. It got worse and worse, and by the third lap it was over. We fixed the hose, I went back out. and straight at the start, I started going up the gears, and then the turbo broke on me, so I couldn’t do a lap either and went back in. Even with only one lap of my second session, the GRC said no, you can’t go back out, so I was out of sessions whether or not I’d put a good time on. So that was the big problem which put me last for all the heats, which was a big disadvantage.

“In the first heat, went out, was pretty good, but on the jump, coming off the first hairpin right, my left rear tire blew up, so not even a lap into the race I had a flat rear. I did two more laps with a flat rear, and it was getting too dangerous, it wouldn’t jump – one of the jumps the car went really sideways over the jump so I had to pull (it) in. So that led me straight to the LCQ, the last race, but luckily, during the LCQ, everybody pulled out! (laughs) We were the last man standing, which was good.

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

“Then during the main, first and second start it was good, but on the third start my turbo blew up again. And so I lost the turbo for the third start of the main and was pretty much down on power all the way through. And we ended up in sixth place, which wasn’t great, but considering how the weekend started, was pretty good.

Charlotte, on the other hand, presented a much less convoluted version of the same strategy. “Charlotte and Texas were pretty much the same strategy, because I’m a little bit down on power compared to the other cars,” Verdier said. “My strategy was to try to stay out of trouble, especially in the final. (At Charlotte) everybody went for the shortcut on the first lap, the top guys, and I decided not to take it right away and just let them fight each other, and just be by myself at the end at the back doing clean laps, fast laps. And it paid off, because I was able to come back on the leaders.

“So when I did the shortcut I was right next to everybody else, and I was able to pass two cars and go onto the podium. So my main strategy was to stay out of trouble! I knew we didn’t really have the speed to catch them, so I let them stay by each other and take each other out, and then I would be, with luck, in the right place. And it worked! (laughs)”

Verdier loves his Rhys Millen Racing-prepared Hyundai Veloster, but his engine isn’t quite as strong as teammate Millen’s. “The car is fantastic, it has great handling. (But) unfortunately because of some delay in England, I don’t think I will have the engine for X Games. We’re still really working hard to put it in. But by New Hampshire it should definitely be in the car.

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

“(Rhys) loves it. The engine is fantastic. Like I said, it’s 300 more horsepower, I think it has 260 ft/lb of torque more than what I have. So it’s a proper rallycross engine, when the one in my car that I have is a WRC engine, which is not made to be pushed as hard as the rallycross. The (new) engine is reliable, so we’re really happy with it, it’s just unfortunate that on a couple parts we’re behind on mine.

“For X Games, obviously I’d love to have a little bit more horsepower, but it’s one track where I could get away with it because it’s a much shorter track than we’ve been on at Charlotte and Texas, and because of the dirt, a lot of power isn’t always a good thing, because you can’t put the power down. So I would be handicapped for X Games, but I don’t think it would be as bad as it was in Texas or Charlotte.”

Representatives of Verdier’s sponsors, Motorcity and Disney XD, will be present at X Games – “Motorcity’s got a big activation at X Games, like they did last year, and  it’s the hometown for Disney, so there are obviously going to be a lot of people there for them” – and he thinks he can put together a strong performance to make it worth their while, while still keeping the bigger picture of the GRC standings in mind.

“(X Games is) our Super Bowl. But also I have to think about the championship, so it’s a double edged sword. On one hand you have X Games, and your Super Bowl in the middle of the season, it kind of messes everything up! So obviously I’d love to do a podium, and I’m going to try everything I can to, but I’m not going to take a crazy risk and destroy my car to advance one spot on the podium when the next race, New Hampshire, is only two weeks after X Games. It’s unfortunate the way the schedule is, and we have to be conservative with the cars, because we don’t have the resources to rebuild one in two weeks. But also, you’ve got to look at it as X Games. So we can’t fall back too much, we’ve got to go for it!

Image via Rhys Millen Racing

“I’m going to be definitely more aggressive than I was during the other races, but I’ve got to be smart about it too. Maybe instead of waiting in the back, I’ll be fighting with the guys up front from the start and try to see what I can do. But we’ll see after qualifying my times compared to the other guys. If I’m really close to them, there’s definitely a chance of me fighting with them. If I’m really far behind, then I’ll take the way back approach and just do my own thing and let the other guys fight each other and see what’s left over.

“I really believe that we can do really good at X Games, even with the timing. I think we have a really good chance to (take) a podium.”

– Chris Leone

GRC Roundtable: Meeting (And Defeating) The Competition

When X Games first added Rally Car Racing in 2006, the majority of strong competitors came from other action sports; that year, longtime Moto X star Travis Pastrana took the inaugural gold medal in his first year racing on four wheels. But the allure of the event attracted major stars from the first running; the late Colin McRae took home the silver medal that year after rolling his car with only two corners to go. In 2009, IndyCar champion Kenny Brack took a surprise victory by defeating Pastrana in the gold medal round.

Ever since then, more and more athletes – both professional racing stars and transitioning action sports legends – have gravitated towards Rally X, leading Andy Scott to aptly bless the event with the name “the Olympics of Motorsport.” This year, two-time World Rally champion Marcus Gronholm and three-time Rally X gold medalist Tanner Foust have been 1-2 from day one of the Global Rallycross Championship, making them favorites to win, but another driver has added his name to that mix: eight-time WRC champion Sebastien Loeb, who will drive a specially-prepared Citroen in the event.

Our own panel of Scott, Samuel Hubinette, Stephan Verdier, and Per Eklund represent some of the most talented and skilled members of the GRC. In today’s third and final installment of the GRC Roundtable, we discuss with them what to look out for from the favorites, and how they plan on beating the best.

Most of the field is comprised of GRC regulars, but the X factor (per se) of this year’s field is Sebastien Loeb, the eight-time World Rally champion. What do you expect out of him?

Photo credit: Flavien Duhamel, Red Bull Content Pool

ANDY SCOTT, Driver, #26 Scott Trawlers Saab 9-3: For sure, (Loeb) is going to be a tough guy to beat. I mean you don’t get all those world titles without being a very special driver. He’s ultra competitive, he has all those titles. I think that you can’t write off any fellow competitor, but he’s certainly the big challenge, if you like.

PER EKLUND, Technical Director, Scott-Eklund Racing: He’s been the best rally driver in the world for years. He’s such a good driver. But it is different. I mean, he’s a world champion rally driver. But he’s going to have a (different) car for this. The jumping, in rally, you don’t have this steel grate, so this can be a little different to see. We have the two first races, so we have a lot of notes on how to set up the car.

SAMUEL HUBINETTE, Driver, #77 ENEOS Saab 9-3: With his experience with a lot of driving, I think he’s going to adapt really quick. Looking at myself, I didn’t drive the Scott-Eklund Saab before the first event I did and Texas. I rolled in with no seat time at all and managed to qualify eighth out of 17 cars and then I was actually running in third place in the final.

STEPHAN VERDIER, Driver, #12 Motorcity Hyundai Veloster: Anything he touches, he’s super good at it. Whether it’s a road course car, a rally car, I’m sure if you put him on a motorcycle he’d be fast on it too. The guy’s an awesome driver. Personally I love the idea of having him. I think it’s fantastic. He’s gonna be great for us because I’m sure I’m gonna be able to learn a lot of stuff watching him driving, and the thing is, the pressure is on him. If we lose against him, well, it’s Sebastien Loeb, we’re supposed to lose against him. But if we win, we’re gods! (laughs)

HUBINETTE: He can adapt pretty quick, but I don’t know how much car to car experience he has. That’s the thing. We anticipate to take a line with three or four cars surrounding you, but the woods are his own with his co-driver. So that might be the challenge for him, battling it out with a lot of cars surrounding him.

Photo credit: Flavien Duhamel, Red Bull Content Pool

VERDIER: I don’t know how he’s going to react when people are bouncing off his doors or pushing him and stuff like that. He’s going to be in that situation, and the only advantage we have is we know what it is to bounce off other cars. He doesn’t. But I don’t think it’ll take him long to learn how to do it and how to be comfortable with it either.

SCOTT: I think that he’s bringing a lot to X Games because of the massive following he has around the world (as a) WRC champion. For me, it just adds even more to the event, and I’m really happy the guy’s coming along.

VERDIER: It’s great for us drivers, because we can compare. If you want to be the best in the world, you have to beat the best in the world, and he is the best in the world. So for the drivers, I think it’s awesome. For the series, I think it’s great, you have a big name coming into the series. And for the fans, I know the US fans don’t really know who he is, but the rest of the world knows who he is. So there’s going to be be huge exposure from the rest of the world on X Games and it’s going to be fantastic for the sport, for the rest of the season and for next year. I think there couldn’t be a better move when they asked us if we were okay with Loeb coming over. We all said “yes, bring him on.” We want to see what that guy has and how fast he is.

We’ve all noticed that the Fords, especially those of Marcus Gronholm and Tanner Foust, have seemed to have a stranglehold on the top steps of the podium this season. What’s it going to take to beat them?

EKLUND: To beat the best, you need to do everything correct. I mean, Marcus jumping in the last race, he was really smooth, he knows exactly what the car can take. And Tanner Foust, he drives this car so much, he drives it every week. He does the whole European championship. He’s racing this weekend, and then he’s coming straight to X Games. He has the speed in his body, he’s a very good driver.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

SCOTT: We just need to get better. (laughs) I think certainly (with) our own team. It’s pretty much Marcus has qualified or been number one from seeding, and Tanner has always been right up there from seeding. I think that, not through lack of our effort, where we’ve not really been as sharp or as quick as we could’ve been is the qualifying, and I think that it’s so important (that) you get into the top four in qualifying, so you start off on pole in one of your heats, and then you carry that momentum through to the main and you get a front row grid spot in the main. That’s been my weakness. So the area that we’re really focused on is our qualifying pace.

VERDIER: The good thing is, the track we were on before was a horsepower track, and those cars are fast. And these guys (Olsbergs) have 15 years of experience with these cars, so they definitely have a big advantage. They have the horsepower, but the big advantage of the Ford team is, because of Tanner racing in Europe too, everything they learn in Europe they can apply here. So they basically have a test session every other week, racing that car somewhere. So having Gronholm on the team too, setup wise, they can get set up pretty quickly. That’s the thing – the more cars you have on one team, the easier it is to get the perfect setup, because any of the five cars can come up with something different and in the end they can come with the best result.

HUBINETTE: The Ford Fiestas are small, faster vehicles. That’s really good on the Global Rallycross Championship tracks because they’re very small and (have) a lot of sharp, hairpin corners, and you’re just traveling 30, 40 miles per hour. That’s the tough thing – you can break the physical wall. Less mass, a smaller wheelbase, are gonna help you go through those corners quicker. So for me, it’s gonna be staying away from trouble and trying to find where I can have some type of advantage.

VERDIER: If you look at the times from last year that’s what happened, they were killing everybody on the track, but when we came to X Games, all the times got much closer. So I expect them to be the fastest, or really fast here, but instead of being two seconds behind a lap like I was at Charlotte or Texas, I’m expecting to be maybe half a second to 8/10 of a second slower than them, because of the track being shorter, more technical, and because of the gravel on it. If we’re able to be less than a second slower than them a lap, then when it comes to racing, that means we’re right on their bumper. So that means they have the pressure they didn’t have at Charlotte and Texas when we were two seconds slower than them.

Image via Ford Racing Facebook

HUBINETTE: In the past, it’s been that I’ve been able to brake a little later, because the car is very stable, and also planning to take the joker lap at the right time to try and avoid getting into traffic. So that’s my strategy – to stay away from trouble and make a smart choice about the joker lap.

EKLUND: Liam Doran was the winner last year (in Super Rally), and he was really disastrous on the last race, he blew everything on the car up. It’s going to be a tough race, the final.

SCOTT: And again, we’re fighting against a factory backed team, and I think that we’re making a good account of ourselves with the results and the team setup that we have. But of course it would be fantastic to pull off a win over all the factory teams.

VERDIER: In the mains we did in the first two races, we were a second a lap slower than them on the qualifying. When it comes down to racing, you’re going to be really close to them because you can put the pressure on the perfect line that they’re using and everything. So I think it’s going to be much closer, much more entertaining for everybody, and hopefully we can take them there, because it’s time for them to stop winning. (laughs)

– Chris Leone

X Games Checkpoint: Samuel Hubinette

Image via Scott-Eklund Racing

We’re only two races into this year’s Global Rallycross Championship, and already Samuel Hubinette’s season has elicited the gamut of emotions.

Hubinette comes into X Games fifth in points for Scott-Eklund Racing, having won two heat races and scoring two top-seven finishes in main events. But he also had a chance to score a podium finish at Texas Motor Speedway, shadowing Marcus Gronholm through much of the Hoon Kaboom final before car trouble eliminated him in the race’s closing laps.

“I’m proud that I could keep up with him,” Hubinette said. “What people don’t know is that after lap two of the first heat, I lost power steering. My power steering pump overheated and broke, so I had to run all those extra heats with no power steering and was still managing to keep up with Marcus in a very competitive Ford Fiesta car, so that was pretty cool to see.

“Unfortunately, (on) the end lap, we broke a propeller shaft, so I had to pull off to the side. We don’t know what happened. It could be because of the high jumping we did, the first race put too much stress on the material of the car and they haven’t had those types of jumps before, those vehicles. They came from the European rallycross.”

Competing for podium finishes is a far cry from how Hubinette started the season; until two days before the season-opening event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, “The Crazy Swede” didn’t even have a ride. It was only late on the Thursday night prior to the event that he inked a deal to join Scott-Eklund in their vacant second car, and at that point, it remained a one-race deal.

Image via Scott-Eklund Racing

“Basically, our deal happened on Thursday night prior to the race and the start of Friday,” Hubinette recalls. “We discussed it in the day, but it wasn’t a clear direction that we were going to join, but then at night I found out I couldn’t go with Dodge. So we came up with an agreement basically over an hour we had done the negotiations and shook hands, me and Scott-Eklund Racing.

“And after that, the actual race itself, we discussed the weekend after and agreed to continue the rest of the season in 2012 with ENEOS Motor Oil joining me.”

Though Hubinette may be best known for his tenure in Formula Drift, where he won the 2004 and 2006 championships, and stunt driving gigs in major Hollywood productions, he’s had no problem adapting to rallycross, in which he won a bronze medal at X Games in 2010.

“There’s definitely some difference here because in drifting, your goal is to go sideways the whole time, and basically you are scrubbing off speed going sideways. As well it’s a judged sport, trying to go as quick as possible sideways around your competitors. Here, we’re driving all of the cars with really grippy tires trying to basically avoid going sideways because that’s not the fastest way in there.

“Sometimes you want to get the car with a little oversteer into the corners to go quick, but it’s really important not to go too sideways because you end up overheating the tires and losing momentum.”

Image via Scott-Eklund Racing

Hubinette took last year’s X Games off as a competitor, but attended the race as a spectator. This year, he’ll be competing on a new course, but more importantly, with a new car; his bronze medal run came at the wheel of a Mitsubishi Evo 10, but this year’s challenge will be mounted with Scott-Eklund’s Saab 9-3.

“The Evo 10 was not a purpose-built rallycross car, it was an old rally car that I had borrowed. So it was quite far away from the performance you need to be in the medals of GRC. But still, I was managing to get a bronze medal, so I was very proud. It was the biggest third place I had ever gotten in my life, so that was pretty cool.

“I’m going to try to get on the podium now with the Saab. The Saab is bigger than the Evo was, so it’s a little tough to drive through corners. So you have to kind of aim the car out, try and outbrake other guys the way that they come out of the corners. Specifically, X Games is a very tight track, so it definitely benefits the smaller cars like the Ford Fiesta.”

That being said, Hubinette has helped establish the 9-3 as one of the most competitive cars in the GRC through the first two rounds. Combine that with his skills as a driver, some of which translate from drifting, and he has plenty of reason to be confident in his chances in Los Angeles. “You know, in both drifting and rallycross, you’re going close to walls here, specifically at X Games. In drifting, you go next to walls sideways, so that’s kind of how I see it.

“I know I can be up at the top battling, so if the car holds up I’m gonna be able to compete for the podium.”

– Chris Leone