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GRC Race Preview: Round 2 – Texas

The Texas Motor Speedway will play host to the second round of the 2012 Global Rallycross Championship schedule. In plenty of ways, the layout for Hoon Kaboom is similar to the circuit that Charlotte Motor Speedway set up for the May 26 round.

Of course, there is one large difference: a 70 foot gap jump that wasn’t quite ready for the Charlotte round. That makes the concept of preserving the car, something that proved difficult for many competitors two weeks ago, even more important.

“What we’ve learned in Charlotte, and what I think a lot of the other competitors learned, is that before you win, you’ve got to cross the finish line,” says Andy Scott, driver of the #26 Scott Trawlers Saab 9-3 for Scott-Eklund Racing. “For sure, depending upon how severe the landing is from the 70 foot jump – obviously you have to carry enough speed to get across it – rallycross is about preserving your car to make sure you get to the finish. We’ll assess that when it happens. We obviously don’t have the benefit of information from Charlotte.

“It’s not like X Games, where the jump was built from dirt and it wasn’t going to move. Whereas, we believe this one is going to be a timber construction and it’ll be a learning curve for all teams I’m sure. But we certainly have to bring the car home, and if we have to alter the style on the jump to accommodate that, then clearly that’s what we’ll have to do.”

Per Eklund, Scott-Eklund Racing’s technical director, adds that even the small jump can cause issues for the field. “In the first race, we were struggling with the jumps. We were hitting them in the race and there were a lot of problems for the car. Landing heavily on the tarmac is tough on the car, so you need a very good suspension.”

One of the GRC’s distinguishing features thus far this year has been its single-surface racing. Multi-surface racing will return at X Games, and according to Eklund, may show up for the season finale at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as well. But while the lack of multi-surface events may provide certain advantages in car setup, it has posed its own challenges for teams.

“One big problem for everybody was the brakes,” Eklund says. “Nobody had done this rallycross on complete tarmac and it was very tough. We hit 110, 115 miles per hour in a couple of places, and you brake to zero. So a lot of people had big, big problems with the brakes on every lap. So we have to change a little bit for the next race.”

“Certainly the racing on a single surface can alter your driving style,” Scott adds. “In the past we’ve always struggled with a compromised setup – you needed to be quick on the gravel and quick on the asphalt. But you tune the car in for the conditions.”

Image via Scott-Eklund Racing PR

“The setup of the car is – when you run tarmac, on the circuit racing, you don’t set up the car the way we do in Europe,” Eklund continues. “You have a jump, and you’re flying, and you’re landing on the tarmac. This is very hard for the car.”

Another major challenge for teams is the speed with which they must prepare for the event. On one hand, Eklund notes, the made-for-television format proves highly entertaining for the fans. But on the other, cramming everything into such a short timespan proves difficult for cars with damage in preliminary heats.

“When we do rallycross in Europe, you have scrutineering on Friday evening, timed practice on Saturday morning, and in the afternoon you do the first race. You do three races to go to the final. On Sunday morning, you do two more heats, and in the afternoon you do the finals. You finish at about 5 on Sunday afternoon.

“Here we do everything in two and a half hours. So there’s no time to do many things. In case you’ve broken the transmission or something you have no chance to rebuild the car. In case the engine blows up, you have no chance to change things. Small things you can do, (but) we have no time.

“In the last chance, immediately after the last heat, Scott had a problem with the car a little bit. Not a big problem. He does the last chance, and he wins, and they give him four minutes for the final that was eight laps. So it’s not easy. And everything was so hot when we started the finals.

“There is no time to do anything. It’s pow pow pow pow, you could say. It’s good for television. They give us five minutes, ten minutes, and then go, go. But it’s very tough. You must have the car 100% before the start.”

Many drivers learned at Charlotte that taking the shortcut on the first lap of the race proved advantageous. Most polesitters did so, as did about half of the field in the final. It may have proved the difference there, as Marcus Gronholm, who took his joker lap at the start, was able to beat Tanner Foust, who waited to do so.

“I certainly think in Charlotte the quickest route was the joker off the start if you were in a grid position that allowed you to do so,” Scott says. “Then again depending exactly what the distances are from the start line to the entry of the joker, or if there are any differences in the amount of rubber on the circuit, we can ascertain what exactly is the quickest grid slot when we make decisions on it.

Image via Scott-Eklund Racing PR

“I think it’s going to come down to the available grip on the starting line, and your grid position. Because if you’re on the left hand side, you have the option. If you have a tremendous start, you can tough it out for the first corner, or you can go for the joker lap first. If you’re on the far side of the circuit, grid position five, where I found myself in the first heat, you have no option but to go for the first turn.”

For those who weren’t able to get the jump on the start, passing was difficult at Charlotte. But Scott was one of a few drivers who seemed able to do so easily. He credits that to having experience in the race format, having run a handful of British and European events in a Ford this year.

“The races are so short and sharp that you don’t have that option of waiting a lap to pass. The races are generally five laps for the final. If you come up on somebody, you have to make the move on them. You can’t afford to cruise around behind them and wait for two laps to wait for an opportunity. You pretty much have to have the opportunity premeditated in your head as you’re catching up to them.

“I think as the races go on, the rest of the guys will come up to speed on that. So perhaps we carried a slight advantage in that we were fresh out of racing, and for a lot of people this was their first rallycross, certainly of this year, if not their first rallycross ever. So I think that’s the reason we were able to get some passing done.”

Image via Global Rallycross Championship

The winning combination at Texas, then, will come down to a few things. Car preservation, of course, is the biggest key; catastrophic failure early can force top drivers out of the final, as it did with Ken Block and Brian Deegan at Charlotte. Acquiring a higher seed for the heat race will give drivers a better chance at taking the joker lap early and gaining an advantage, while adapting well to the gap jump (which drivers take every lap) will be crucial to bringing the car home.

If not, drivers need to find passing opportunities quickly, or the rest of the field may leave them far behind and down in the standings. With only the top 12 drivers in the championship getting the invite to the round at X Games, every position is crucial. And with plenty of top drivers having struggled at Charlotte – three-time defending European champion Sverre Isachsen only holds onto the last qualifying spot by a single point, while Block and Deegan are each three points behind him – the action should be even more intense at Texas.

– Chris Leone

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