- Devon O'Neil, Writer, Action Sports
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All great ideas generally begin with a casual conversation, a "what if we did this" possibility. This includes one of the most anticipated changes to the X Games in years: an unprecedented, head-to-head RallyCross race through the streets of downtown Los Angeles.
When RallyCross (then SuperRally) debuted at X Games 16 last July, it quickly became one of the wildest and most spectacular events in the X lineup, summer or winter. But the people closest to the event knew it could provide an even more breathtaking show if it were held not in a dusty stadium, but on city streets. The only problem? Regular people drive the same streets they needed to stage the race.
So they started a discussion at X16 that continued through the fall, involving last year's double gold medalist Tanner Foust as well as other key players on the organizational side. "To be honest with you, we just thought it'd be exciting," said Rich Bigge, ESPN's senior manager for event and competition logistics. "Something different and unconventional."
Twice last fall, Bigge and Foust met with X Games director of sports and competition Tim Reed as well as Brian Gale, Foust's agent and the president of this year's new Global RallyCross Championship series, which launched in part due to the success of last year's X Games RallyCross race. They talked about where a potential course might fit into downtown L.A., given their desire to build it near the overall X Games venue at LA Live; where they'd want to have barriers and jumps; and, most importantly, how they could convince the city to close three major streets in the middle of its busiest week of the summer.
Finally, with a feasible course layout in hand, ESPN petitioned the city through AEG -- which owns Staples Center and other properties downtown -- to let the drivers race on municipal asphalt. "We went to the city with what we wanted to do, and they approved it," Bigge said.
The result is a course unlike any in U.S. history, and perhaps the world -- one that 12-year X Games veteran Brian Deegan calls "groundbreaking." Although rallycross began in Europe way back in the 1960s, and although Formula 1 and Indycar races are sometimes held on urban courses, no one interviewed for this story could recall a rally race taking place in a city. "I don't know if anybody has done one in real life," Foust said. "But the weird thing is, we're all sort of familiar with this concept. All the lines on the street and the stoplights will go away. In your mind, it just turns into a racetrack. I don't even think you'll notice that you're on the street. The cool thing is just the backdrop, seeing cars launch through the city."
According to Bigge, the 3,100-foot course (roughly six-tenths of a mile) will feature six turns, five million pounds of concrete barriers and 700 feet of dirt, including the standard 70-foot gap jump on the joker lap. Three streets will be entirely closed, notably Figueroa, with bleacher seating outside STAPLES Center. Construction on the course -- which Bigge estimated will take 1,000 man hours to build -- begins early this month, but the drivers won't be able to test the venue until July 30, the day before the race.
"Ultimately, I think this is a better track. It's better for spectators," Foust said, noting that he doesn't believe it promotes illegal street racing. "The last course was all dirt. I think this is going to be a better test for the cars and for the drivers. Even though the stadium had decent size straightaways, it was gravel. So you had wheel spin the whole time, even in fourth gear. On pavement, we'll be getting our cars from 0 to 60 [mph] in about two seconds. We'll definitely be approaching 100 mph in a couple spots."
Foust added: "The cool thing is this is a format that can be applied anywhere. You don't need a stadium to race."
Most drivers and organizers agreed that the street course -- which requires different tires due to the varied surface -- would likely produce more carnage and favor bump-and-grind drivers such as Deegan and Britain's Liam Doran, because it's tighter. "It'll take more precise, smart driving. No mistakes," said Deegan, who won two silver medals in Rally last year. But with two-time World Rally Champ Marcus Grönholm of Finland making his X Games debut this year, a clean line could trump the physical styles. "The start is very important on this course," Grönholm wrote in an email.
Regardless of how the race plays out, or how novel it will be for the drivers to pin their throttles under stoplights, perhaps the biggest draw of the new course is its appeal to viewers, both live and on TV. "I think people from all kinds of racing are going to dig this, whether they ride a dirtbike or drive an F1 car or race NASCAR," Bigge said.
According to Deegan, who lives in Southern California, the announcement this spring that the race would be held on city streets created a buzz that's been growing ever since. "People are talking about it," Deegan said, "but I think it's one of those things where they're going to have to see it."
2hMichael C. Wright