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Race Octane and Smoky Drifts In America’s Capital

Washington D.C. isn’t necessarily an automotive hub.  With half the city’s population viewing driving as a chore, and the other half electing to pack cramped subway trains rather than pilot motorised chariots to their workplaces, it’s certainly no dreamland for petrolheads.  Fortunately, the nice people in charge of the Global Rallycross Championship couldn’t care less about the “District’s” lack of motoring passion.

Walking Through The Paddock

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On Saturday June 22, the third round of the Global Rallycross Championship descended upon the parking lot of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium for a two-day rallycross festival.  With the gates promptly opened at 8:00 am, eager rallycross fans such as myself were herded through the entrance and into the paddock.  While the ‘kid in a candy shop’ metaphor is certainly cliché, there aren’t many other phrases an automotive enthusiast can use to express the excitement of being surrounded by 350bhp race machines.  Perhaps a dog at a food market is a possible alternative.

The first practice session was not scheduled to begin until 10:00 am, leaving race fans plenty of time to explore the countless delights the paddock had to offer.  After passing through the entrance gate, a Rockstar Energy Volkswagen Beetle, its bright yellow hue dulled by the overcast skies, greeted us spectators as it sat before Tanner Foust’s Rockstar Energy racing team tent.  Beneath the dark tent, mechanics worked feverishly preparing the car’s state of tune for the first practice session.

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A mixed audience pressed their bellies against the separating tape, with some hopeful of receiving Foust’s signature (and a selfie) while others merely stood and admired the great performance possessed by the little Rockstar Energy Polo R.

A few steps ahead of the Foust tent, a couple of Hyundai Velosters from the Hyundai racing team were also being worked on, with human legs jutting out from beneath one of the cars as a mechanic fiddled with the car’s undercarriage.  Satisfied with what I’d seen so far, I continued to check out what else was on offer.  The deeper into the paddock I walked, the stronger the race petrol’s sweet yet strong scent became.

After passing a few more race tents, halting at each for pictures and gawking, I came across the rather hard-to-miss garage of Ken Block.  Honestly, in between the stretching banner exclaiming ‘Ken Block 43’ that was perched high above ground level and the large congregation of fans standing before Block’s Fiesta RS rally car, you’d have to have been wandering with your eyes closed in order to miss it.

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There was a quite obvious difference between Ken Block’s racing team and the others.  The other racing teams filled the paddock with large tents and the normal things you would expect to see a team bring to a rally stage.  Block’s team, contrarily, looked much more like an arena-filling rock band on tour than a racing team.  A massive black caravan and a sitting area which looked much like my living room were just a few of the things that contributed to Block’s paddock area looking like a camping site Bill Gates would be content with.

An Early Morning Shakedown

After about thirty more minutes of walking through the paddock, filling my camera’s SD card, asking for driver’s autographs, and taking free merchandise, the familiar sound of rally engines being wound up filled the humid Washington late morning air.  Race petrol replaced the scent of the previous night’s rain and soon after stripped-out fiberglass hatchbacks, their exhausts playing melodies unmatched by that of any veteran trumpeter, hobbled over the rough tarmac to take to the small racing course for the morning’s practice session.  Only a few minutes later, having hustled through the rapidly emptying paddock and into the wet, grey stands, a familiar green fabric rippled through the air and practice began.

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The session ran with groups of four having five laps at a time to shake down their cars.  The bang of each shift fired out of the exhaust with a loud crack like that of a 12-gauge shotgun, the wastegates chirped with each breathing of the gas pedal, and the only noise loud enough to overwhelm the cry of the turbocharged four-pots were that of squealing tyres reaching their edge and passing it in a smoky, four-wheeled drift.  It was simply automotive heaven and the most beautiful part was that this was just practice.  Imagine what the race would be like.

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Following the end of practice, the cars, and some fans, returned to the paddock, while I debated which food truck would be honoured with filling my stomach.  A few more practise sessions ran through the early afternoon, but all those carrying a race ticket in their pocket were eager for the main event to begin.

The Racing Begins

Me and a few friends stood before Ken Block’s paddock eager to meet the gymkhana superstar, but as his caravan door flew open and he emerged with his helmet in hand, it was quite apparent what would be happening in the next few minutes.  We jogged behind the cars as they headed toward the track, and then ran as we got closer to the stands.  The rain water had dried from the seats, but like many of the other racing fans there, we weren’t sitting down.

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Our vantage point for the first heat didn’t permit us to see the countdown lights, but as the revs rose, it was easy to predict when the race would start.  For a few brief seconds, the engines of the six cars on the grid all harmonized as the last light flicked on, every piece of the car and the driver itching to be let loose, before the green light flashed on and the cars tore down the track.

The cars accelerated side-by-side within a fingernail’s length of each other, kicking up dust and rubber as they approached the first corner.  They rocketed out of the first few corners before catapulting themselves over the dirt jump and roaring towards my seating area.  I could only watch briefly as the dust and rubber flooded my eyes.

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Each heat was short but exciting, the racing’s intensity resonating around the track as if it were an extra car.  At the end of the day, there had been different winners in practically every race, and each race fan exited the race track satisfied and eager for Sunday’s main race.  Drivers stuck around following the day’s heats to take pictures, sign autographs, and answer questions.

Rallycross is an incredibly exciting motorsport, and be it Global Rallycross or the World Rallycross Championship, it is imperative that you make it to one of these racing spectacles.  Just a word of advice, however: you might want to bring some goggles.

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