What's it like to ride inside a Global RallyCross car? Imagine yourself strapped to a rocket that is itself confined in a tight, highly-technical course consisting of dirt, tarmac, water, and the occasional 70-foot jump and you'll have a rough idea of just how intense of an experience it is to sit in the second seat beside the driver of one of these machines.
For those of you unfamiliar with the sport, the Global RallyCross Championship is racing series that just wrapped up its second season in the United States. The Championship is contested on a wide variety of tracks and surfaces around the country, and it includes all of the best elements of rallying - drifting, intense car control, and hopped-up factory-supported cars - with a side-by-side racing format ripped straight out of the X Games.
The chariots used by the stars of the GRC circuit are for the most part based on hatchbacks like the Ford Fiesta, the Hyundai Veloster, and the Subaru WRX STi, although there are a few privateers running cars as diverse as the Saab 9-3. These beasts bear a striking resemblance to their factory counterparts, if you discount all of the aero goodies, but underneath their skin they sport 600 horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engines and all-wheel drive systems that allow them to rocket to 60-mph in less than two seconds. That's faster than a Formula One car.
I was lucky enough to snag a ride with Brian Deegan in his Ford Racing Fiesta at the 2012 SEMA Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Deegan had finished second in the GRC race the night before, and second overall in the 2012 Championship standings to his Ford teammate, Tanner Foust, so I knew I was in for an amazing display of driving skill. Having watched my colleagues ride shotgun with the likes of Foust and Ken Block just before it was my turn to get in with Deegan, I was anticipating having the time of my life on the small rectangular course that had been set up just outside the Las Vegas Convention center.
Brian certainly did not disappoint. From the moment I was strapped in to the racing seat beside him, he was nothing but courteous and enthusiastic when discussing the GRC series and the ride to come. He let me know that it was going to be like an amusement park ride, then asked me if I was ready before revving up the Fiesta's turbocharged engine in anticipation of our launch. The anti-lag system (which keeps the car at maximum boost even when standing still) threw flame and noise out of the tailpipe as we exploded onto the course like two megatons of TNT had been detonated underneath the vehicle.
In less than two seconds we were facing the concrete barrier that separated the fans surrounding the event from almost certain disaster, at which point Deegan grabbed the oversized e-brake handle sticking up from the center of the cockpit and hurled us sideways, curling the car around the pylon that had been placed as a visual reference before deftly planting all four wheels in a straight-line shot towards the next pylon. The car's ability to dig in to the asphalt and throw itself forward as though secured firmly to a set of steel rails set invisibly into the ground below was incredible, a characteristic of the platform that stood in sharp relief when contrasted to Brian's ability to dislodge the Fiesta from its track at will. Several more extreme pirouettes followed - each accompanied by copious amounts of tire shredding - until Deegan built up a huge head of steam and slid the car dramatically sideways across the entire length of the course. This final act of automotive abandon forced him to open his door on the cool-down lap in order to vacate the passenger compartment of the huge volume of smoke that had suddenly decided to accompany us around the course.
I have had the chance to ride in some very quick street cars, as well as more than a few race-prepared vehicles at tracks across the country. Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the violent acceleration and infinitely-variable handling control that were features of the Global RallyCross Championship Ford Fiesta that Mr. Deegan was kind enough to squire me around in for a blissful 60 seconds. This sport is exciting enough to experience from the grandstands - being invited to live it from inside the cockpit gave me an entirely new appreciation for the skill of its drivers and the technical fortitude of its team members. Reviewing the in-car video footage provided by Deegan's sponsor, Replay, it's hard to tell who had a bigger smile during the ride: me or Brian.