It's a rocket ship kind of feeling when you get everything right in a rear-engined car. You line yourself up out of a corner and drive the throttle to the floor. The car feels like it gains grip the harder you press the engine. Then you just hold on as things go blurry.
It was my best run at the 2014 SCCA Rallycross Nationals, wheeling a 1971 Super Beetle, stripped and modified by local Doug Leibman. The SCCA invited me out to the Rallycross Nats to see what it was like, and Doug offered to let me drive his immaculate old VW in the event. He had only recently finished the build, perfectly painted in period '70s color. I promised Doug I only wanted to treat the car right. All that mattered was getting it back on the trailer at the end of the weekend looking as good as when it first rolled off. I promised myself I would take it easy.
One photographer told me he saw the car on two wheels during my run. Twice.
I may have enjoyed myself.
Now is as good a time as any to explain what rallycross is, and why you should be signing up for the an event as soon as possible.
In short, it's autocross on dirt. The organization is the same, with everything done through the SCCA. The principles of the racing itself are the same, too. You have a bunch of cones set out that describe a course, and then you drive through that course as fast as possible, with penalties added to your time for every cone you hit.
When you're not driving, you work the event. if somebody else knocks over a cone, you're the guy who has to run and pick it back up.
The thing is, while autocross is on pavement, rallycross is on dirt. And dirt is just better.
For one, it means that your car will oversteer. Doesn't matter what you car is, you can swing the tail around on a rallycross course. Even if you show up in a Saturn (like one dude did at the Nationals), all you have to do is throw yourself into a corner with a good bit of speed, let off the gas (or brush the brake with your left foot) and you'll be shooting up rooster tails.
Doug's Super Beetle was particularly keen on oversteer. The car was very stiff, with polyurethane bushings, lowered front suspension, and sway bars on both ends. If you went into a turn too fast, the car would skate off course. If judged things right, though, you adjust your way around with the gas. Little lifts off the throttle tighten your line early on, big roaring stabs spin the back tires on exit. It takes a few runs to get yourself in tune with the car's responses to your inputs. After that the car is perfection.
You sit there, a big old four-point harness strapping you into this bucking, blaring, leaping sliding machine, heaving into the air after each little crest and roaring sideways through every rut.
And then you get out. And you're in the middle of a cornfield, deep in the middle of America. This is Nebraska, about half an hour out of Omaha. Little puff clouds dot their way to the horizon.
Out in the vastness that is Nebraska, you start to feel very small.
And you should. It's a big turnout at this year's nationals, but there are still only about a hundred odd people here. There's the guy who trialered out his graffiti-bombed Toyota Tercel, with its carbon fiber intake leading to a very not-standard turbocharger. There's the guy who marathon drove here from New England just to compete in his completely stock new car. There's the dude in his first-gen RX-7, wondering how to fix his busted muffler so he can drive home that night without getting arrested.
The guy who won the whole event outright was a tall, gruff guy from New England, a bushy mustache perched atop a six-foot pine tree. All he was driving was a fairly tame-looking Mitsubishi Evo IX on gravel tires. His car wouldn't attract a single look of interest at a Cars and Coffee event. It's not the car that's the standout. It's the driver. He was an absolute master behind the wheel, left-foot braking around the turns, never hitting the cones, perfectly judged and sliding through the loose.
The reason I bring him up is that at it's absolute top level, at the point of the fastest car at the most important rallycross event in the country, there still isn't a ton of money being spent.
And the story follows all the way down the rankings. One of the fastest cars overall was a completely gutted Geo, driven by a southern californian dirt track veteran who was racing and promoting for his charity animal shelter. A couple old Civics on wheels that looked cutting edge three decades ago were brutally fast, too, and that blue Si above won its class.
Even your Miata will be quick.
There is winning speed in rallycross that's available for pennies compared to other motorsports. If you want to get yourself a national championship in any kind of racing, rallycross is your most affordable avenue.
And do not doubt that this can be serious stuff. Three cars rolled at the Nationals. I saw one with my own eyes. A kid in the Honda his dad had built went spearing into a crest into a sharp right turn. As he was coming downhill, he cranked the wheel to set up for the corner. But then that wheel dug into the dirt and in a moment he was midair. The bottom of his car flashed in front of me and the car was on its roof.
He was unhurt. Nobody was injured, actually. There is danger here, and it's up to you to drive smart and safe to bring your car home in one piece.
But again, that doesn't quite get to the heart of rallycross.
I was talking to Doug the night after we left the track. he explained to me that he runs his own business. He gets enough stress in his work week that he doesn't have any desire to tax himself on the weekends. He's been in a couple different car and motorcycle clubs and they all turned sour with too much work and too much politics.
He did not enter rallycross to win. He did not build his car for trophies. He started competing to test himself, to enjoy himself.
And I don't think there's any car hobby that will give him as much reward for what he spends. He put his car together in his garage, runs it with no worry about who is entering his class with what suspension modifications or what tires inflated to xyz pressures or any of that. He goes out, he thrashes his car sideways all day long for less than fifty bucks, and he trailers himself home in the evening.
There are many Dougs out there. Guys in cheap little Hondas learning how to really get the most out of front-wheel drive. There are yet more in beater Subarus living out their Colin McRae dreams. It's all there, and it's all attainable.
There is an SCCA chapter near you. I assure you there's an event near you, too. You will be surprised how much fun you'll have, and how little it will cost you.
Photo Credits: The top four pictures of me driving were taken by local organizer Jerry Doctor, and the rest were taken by me. Thanks Jerry, and thanks again to the Nebraska chapter of the SCCA!