Red Bull GRC offers a unique show, promise for American race fans

Photo: Jerry Jordan/Kickin' the Tires

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Red Bull Global Rallycross (GRC) is a chaotic, fast-paced experience unlike any other.

It could be the future of American motorsports.

Started in 2009 as the Global RallyCross Championship, GRC is an American twist on the rallycross racing made popular overseas in series like the FIA World Rallycross Championship.

The tour currently features two separate series – an introductory GRC Lites series followed by the headlining Supercars. The top tour is ran with heavily modified production cars capable of producing 600 horsepower, accelerating from 0-60 mph in just 1.9 seconds and withstanding jumps of up to 70 feet per to the series website.

Making a Connection

Up until last year the above knowledge was all I truly knew about the series. As an American who grew up watching NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500, the concept of rallycross was something foreign – a form of motorsport I experienced only in video games like “Colin McRae: Dirt” and “Motorstorm”

I first heard of GRC in the mid-2010s, when advertisements started playing for the tour during other racing programs. I caught a few races on TV, but never gave them my full attention up until 2016. It was going into that year, after reading heavy praise for the tour from Ars Technica and learning of former NASCAR and Formula 1 driver Scott Speed’s championship in the prior season, that I truly began to give GRC more than just a fleeting glance.

I tuned into a few races last season and was immediately taken back by what I was seeing. It wasn’t that the racing was better or worse than what I typically watch. I just couldn’t believe how different the series was in every imaginable way.

Race weekends were aired tape-delayed by a few hours, typically on NBCSN. The broadcast went by quickly, aided by short races that slot perfectly between commercial breaks and fit a typical tv program. As quickly as I’d tuned in, it seemed the feature had already come and gone, and analysts were breaking down the championship picture.

To best describe GRC would be to call it a whirlwind of excitement. I knew from the first time I saw it on the television that I would have to make the voyage to a race to take in the atmosphere for myself when the opportunity arose.

That opportunity came in July, when the series headed to nearby Lucas Oil Raceway (LOR) and offered me a credential. Less than 12 hours after making a late-night trip home from Kentucky Speedway’s NASCAR weekend, I was en-route to my first GRC race.

First Impression

Seeing cars catch air is nothing unusual for Red Bull GRC. (Photo: Jerry Jordan/Kickin’ the Tires)

Prior to making the trip to LOR, I’d asked some friends with knowledge of the series how a typical weekend played out. I was told the tour was exciting, but occasional issues with organization and advertisement were known to pop up.

I was exposed to the first issue upon arrival.

Arriving a bit later than I’d like due to a crash on the highway and – let’s face it – my own issue of oversleeping by a few minutes, I was greeted by a field ready for their opening taste of the racetrack on my arrival Sunday morning. Given that I was a media member, I was handed a credential and a parking pass, and told to drive around the facility’s backstretch to the media lot.

There was only one issue with that – I would have to go directly past the cars waiting to go on-track.

I quickly came to this realization when I made it to the backstretch and was stopped by a track worker. A few radio messages later, I was informed that I had two options – wait for the end of the opening GRC Lites practice or turn back and look for an alternative parking option.

Ultimately I chose the latter, parking among the many fans that had made their way to LOR that day.

As I made the trek to LOR’s media center, I stopped for a few moments to get my first taste of the series and racetrack.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Between my time covering the ARCA Racing Series and occasional work done for Speed51 and Short Track Scene, I’ve seen more than a dozen races at LOR over the past three years. Given that, I’ve come to expect a certain track style and demographic when attending races at the facility.

GRC couldn’t have differed more in either category.

A spotter takes in the view ahead of the first GRC Supercars heat. (Photo: Aaron Bearden/Kickin’ the Tires)

The first surprise was the track. I’d seen the proposed layout shared over social media, but it was difficult to picture until it was laid out before me in person.

The middle roadway typically used for safety vehicles factored into the track, complete with water and dirt. The usual pit lane was instead a combination straightaway and drifting corner, highlighted by GRC’s traditional jump in the middle of the track.

This wild visual is common for the series. Due to the ease of setup and flexibility provided by the tour, GRC has competed everywhere from airfields to parking lots and even the beloved Daytona International Speedway in its short tenure.

As a member of the GRC staff expressed to Kickin’ the Tires, anywhere that you can dump dirt and make a little room for attendance could conceivably become a rallycross track. This flexibility has become one of the series’ core competencies, allowing them to run throughout the United States in markets that others can’t reach to overcome the lack of traditional venues seen from other rallycross tours worldwide.

The fans in attendance were also a far-cry from the scene I’ve come to expect at LOR. Where the race track usually sees a middle-aged crowd – the sort that have been going to ARCA, Super Late Model and USAC Silver Crown races for decades – GRC instead brought a significantly younger demographic.

A large group of young race fans came to take in an exciting form of racing. (Photo: Jerry Jordan/Kickin’ the Tires)

The stands at LOR weren’t filled to capacity, but the crowd that did come were as young as any I’ve seen at a race, even when compared to other action sports such as Supercross and Monster Jam.

Teenagers arrived bearing snapback hats emblazoned with their energy drink of choice. Couples attended the event as a date that allowed them an opportunity to talk and connect between events. A contingent of young parents brought their children, hopeful that the shorter races and exciting jumps and drifts would be enough to hold their attention span.

“This is the first race I thought was quick enough for my kid to follow along,” Justin, a young father attending his first GRC race with his wife and son, told Kickin’ the Tires. “He likes the bright cars, jumps and spins. It’s an easier sell than one of the racing series with longer races.”

The fast races and tv-friendly package are part of what’s helped GRC continue to grow as it reaches its ninth year. The sport arrived in a time where the iPhone was becoming a household name, sites like YouTube and apps like Twitter were beginning to gain their footing. It’s since taken advantage of them, depending on social medial heavily for advertisement and support.

The way people consume media has changed greatly over the series’ existence. News is now instant. Music and videos are accumulated en-masse instead of purchasing them alone thanks to apps like Netflix and Spotify. There’s more content than ever before to consume, and because of that people are spending less time on each thing before moving on to the next, and are easily distracted by their cell phones.

This has effected the sports world greatly. Longtime giants like the NBA and NFL have searched for ways to speed up their product, while motorsports like NASCAR have altered their product to add consistent drama to the early stages of their races.

Spectacle

The beginning of a race is a mad scramble for position. (Photo: Jerry Jordan/Kickin’ the Tires).

GRC hasn’t had to make the same drastic changes. The format is already designed for immediate excitement, and races end before they have time to become boring.

Events are separated into five sections – practice, qualifying, heats, semifinals and finals. Heats last just five laps, while the final stretches to 10 circuits.

Races begin with a standing start at a designated starting line, and drivers immediately begin scrambling for position as the lights go out. Contact is a common occurrence, as are early damage and flat tires.

Passing is fairly common in the opening laps, and just as the field begins to stretch out during the race’s later stages, things are made interesting again by virtue of another GRC signature – the joker lap.

For one lap in each race, every driver must complete what is known as a joker lap – a slightly altered section of the circuit that either speeds up or slows down the lap. At LOR the joker consisted of a stretch of apron heading into oval Turn 1 which slowed drivers down.

The addition of the joker leads to an extra level of strategy in the events, as drivers are tasked with either taking the lap early to take advantage of an open track or waiting until the late stages of a race and risking being overtaken. Throw in the ever-changing track conditions as dirt, sand and water are thrown around, and a 10-lap feature in GRC can see as many swings as a full fuel run in other tours.

Most at LOR chose to take the joker in their final laps after attempting to drive out to a suitable advantage. This led to multiple close calls as the field bunched back up, incentivizing bold moves and contact from the trailing driver.

Between the jumps, drifts, shunts and joker laps, following a GRC race can seem daunting at first – particularly for the uninitiated fan. However by day’s end the format was simple to grasp, and it became apparent that the various competition rules the sport has translate to arguably the most exciting product they can deliver.

“It’s shorter, a lot less predictable,” Speed said of GRC’s race format. “We go out there and race on a track with crazy, changing conditions. That’s the whole appeal and love of it, right?

“Every time we go out there for a heat race it’s a little different. Maybe there’s a little more water in the corner. Maybe there’s more gravel than there was. You have to be able to quickly adapt to those conditions, and I love that because it puts the race more in my hands, on my shoulders. Any time it’s like that, it’s more fun for us.”

The drivers are mentally taxed during the event, forced to maneuver their way around the challenging track while also playing out strategies and discussing moves with their teams over in-car radio.

Fans can listen in to team radio channels during the day on either scanners or the FanVision device commonly seen in NASCAR, though the latter’s video capabilities were hardly needed at LOR with the whole track within view. For the most part, discussions held during the races seemed minor – things like suggestions on when to take a joker lap and analysis of a driver’s racing line were common. With the intensity of the races themselves, teams seem to save most discussions for the paddock.

(Photo: Jerry Jordan/Kickin’ the Tires)

When cars do return to their garages, they arrive in a state you wouldn’t expect from such short races.

Despite the minimal distance traveled, the multiple racing surfaces and GRC’s signature jump left the vehicles beaten and battered at LOR, forcing teams to adapt quickly and make hasty repairs between races.

While drivers discussed their setups with their car chiefs and signed autographs for the dozens of fans walking throughout the unusually open paddock, their teams scrambled behind them to return the cars to a resemblance of their original shapes and colors. Vehicles were quickly washed off using a nearby water source before being sent back out for another run.

“In a very respectful way, you’ve got no idea how much these (cars) take,” GRC veteran Tanner Foust said. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve done some pretty big jumps, stunts and stuff. In fact, in Indy I did a big jump for Hot Wheels and broke a world record.

“My back hurts every single time on some of these jumps. suspensions are amazing, but the face of the jumps gets beaten out to where you’re crashing into a hole every single time you take the jump.

“The tracks, one because they’re temporary tracks used for one weekend and that’s it, and two just because of the sand and dirt, turn into potholes and crazy, gnarly ‘got’cha’s’ that would eat up most race cars in one lap,” Foust continued. “These things put up with that abuse for 10 laps.”

“You see what you’re driving through and you almost can’t believe that the car’s holding together. It’s really a testament to how Volkswagen builds the cars and how Andretti (Autosport) keeps them together, but all of these rallycross cars are little tanks with some serious power.”

Beaten and battered as they might be, most cars made their way to the finish at LOR.

While a handful of drivers won races throughout the afternoon, the obvious top team in Indiana was local favorite Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross. With owner and retired open wheel star Michael Andretti watching on, teammates Speed and Foust combined to dominate the afternoon, claiming four heats and both semifinals before finishing first and second in the final. Speed took the feature, clawing his way into second in the series championship behind Foust in the process.

(Photo: Jerry Jordan/Kickin’ the Tires)

For Andretti, the allure of an exciting new sport in Andretti Autosport’s backyard was enough to do something he hadn’t done in more than a decade – skip a Verizon IndyCar Series race.

“It’s really great, especially for the crew and the guys,” Andretti told Kickin’ the Tires of his team’s win. “They get to sleep in their own beds at night. They work their butts off at these races, and to be able to do that is great. They get to have their family here, so it’s awesome. And to get a 1-2 here? Amazing.”

Andretti was one of the first major American names to latch onto GRC. With Volkswagen and Speed, the open wheel veteran has tallied championships in the past two seasons, and is positioned well to earn a third title this fall.

“I love the racing,” Andretti said. “I like the whole concept. It’s got a great future, in my opinion.”

Andretti is one of a handful of reputable names to join the series in recent years. INDYCAR stalwarts Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport each compete in GRC. Red Bull sponsors their own Honda Redbull OMSE team, and Subaru fields their own duo of drivers with Subaru Rally Team USA.

In Andretti’s mind, it’s the younger interest that makes the sport so enticing for owners.

“There’s so much action in a small period of time,” Andretti said. “The races are like 10 minutes long, but in that 10 minutes a lot happens. For groups like millennials that can have small attention spans, I think that’s really good.”

Drivers of the People

(Photo: Jerry Jordan/Kickin’ the Tires)

With the day’s event completed, the podium finishers from both the GRC Lites and Supercars features traveled outside of the track, to a section behind the grandstands. There laid a traditional podium, situated in a location where fans in attendance could join the drivers in celebration.

Like on all other podiums, drivers were given trophies and placed on steps indicating their position. They were rewarded drinks to spray at each other and the fans, and went through the typical gauntlet of post-race photos.

However as things began to wind down, something special occurred.

Led by third-place finisher Steve Arpin, the top trio of Supercars drivers invited all of the children onto the stage. In a moment that none in attendance will forget, the young fans in all rushed to the podium, where they met the drivers and took a special photo.

Arpin took his special gesture one step further, signing his third-place trophy and giving it away to a lucky young fan. While I was surprised by all of these actions, Arpin later assured me that this is common practice.

“To fill this podium stage with kids and get to take pictures with each one of them is incredible,” Arpin says. “Every race I bring a kid that’s in need to the race with me. I got a message from a little boy after the Ottawa race that’s terminally ill, and he told me it was the best day of his life and thanked me.

“Us being able to have the ability to bring these people – the kids, families and all of our friends – and really inject them into our sport, is why Rallycross is on its way up.”

Foust believes moments with young fans are crucial for the livelihood of motorsports.

“I think we’re losing kids and fans from the young demographic,” Foust said. “I don’t think racing is boring, I just don’t think kids are investing into rooting for the drivers or becoming fans of the sport and cars like I did. Rallycross is one of these sports where it’s easy to get the hook in. The races are only three minutes long. There’s chaos every second. You almost can’t take your eyes off it once the start happens.

“It’s easy to grab that younger generation and create new race fans. Steve (Arpin), Scott (Speed), myself and every one of the drivers out here know that’s one of our missions here – to create a new generation of racing fans. We’ve made our lives racing, and it’s a great life. We really don’t want that to go away.”

Moving Forward

In the end, it’s that level of personal connection between the drivers and fans that stuck most leaving the event.

Fans young and old left LOR with memories that no other American motorsport can offer – a fact due in no small part to the openness of the competitors.

“The drivers are very respectful, and you feel like you can go up and talk to them,” Nicole, a young mother and former motocross racer, told Kickin’ the Tires during the podium ceremony. “They don’t act like they’re better than you. Some people in some other pro sports tend to act like they’re better than everybody else, but here you can go up and talk to them. They’re just regular guys.”

For Speed, who came from an open wheel background before running NASCAR, the openness of American tours is far from the secretive paddocks he grew up with.

“NASCAR’s very open to the public as well,” Speed said. “From my background, coming from open wheel racing and Formula 1, you didn’t really touch the fans ever. Coming to NASCAR was a huge change.

“This is a little more open kind of like NHRA, but I think that’s what everyone loves about it. It’s open. You can see and touch the fans, really connect with them. That’s a cool part of this sport that I don’t think will ever change.”

Between the excitement generated from the racing and the connection fostered by the drivers, GRC shows many signs of potential for growth over the coming years.

But like any motorsport currently running, not all is well.

(Photo: Jerry Jordan/Kickin’ the Tires)

Car counts are low, a fact both drivers and series officials acknowledged when asked about potential road blocks moving forward. Neither the Lites nor Supercars fields contained more than nine cars in the tour’s Indiana stop.

Advertisement also appears to be an issue, at least in the case of this event. Indiana is known for having an assortment of racing fans, with a host of dirt and asphalt tracks highlighted by Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But most of the fans in the area depend on traditional advertisement such as billboards and website ads to learn about races. Because of this, five different people reached out to me on race day surprised to learn that a rallycross race was being held in the Indianapolis area.

The tour’s newness also works against it. In a time where even traditional forms of motorsport such as NASCAR and INDYCAR have fought diminishing returns, GRC’s efforts at growth have proven difficult.

The stands at LOR, while healthy, were hardly full. TV ratings provided by the SportsBusiness Journal show little growth over the past year, with the tour averaging ratings between .3 and .5 for each event, which equate to around 600-700,000 viewers.

Despite their few setbacks, that the sport’s situation is neutral at worst in recent times is still something to be proud of, and their younger fanbase offers potential for growth moving forward. The tour has a small but loyal following, with more than 300,000 likes on Facebook, 175,000 followers on Instagram and a shade over 45,000 followers on Twitter.

Given their emphasis on social media for marketing, their long-term success likely depends on their ability to grow those channels. It’s good, then, that both the series and its drivers have seen positives on the various social medias. The tour’s two-time defending champion, Speed noted that a stream of a recent race received 2.5 million views, and also credited the tour with growing his personal brand.

“It’s not a traditional motorsport,” Speed said. “Because of that, the reach with the younger generation, the social media – Instagram, Twitter – it’s just more engaging. I’ve picked up a lot more followers and fans in that demographic and thats been really cool because I myself am a big kid. I feel like a really big 15-year-old, you know?

“It’s just cool to be able to connect with that group of people, and let’s be honest, it’s the fastest growing motorsport in this country easily. Every week we go out there it’s getting bigger and more talked about.”

The tour’s two biggest stars – Speed and Foust – also believe that GRC’s strong on-track product is all they’ll need for the sport to continue growing.

“There’s a lot of the churning of the milk going on,” Foust said. “We’re educating every single venue we go to on this sport. The television package is great with NBC, so a lot of people are able to see it. It’s just a matter of churning that milk for long enough so that something happens and it begins to become a household name, and the sport is understood in more households.

“A lot of that is helped by social media, and in fact the bulk of marketing for GRC is in social media. Maybe some more traditional advertising and things like that could help, but getting to new venues and having great shows, I think that’s what’s important.”

Speed echoed his teammate’s sentiment.

“It’s the age of the series – it just hasn’t been around,” Speed said when asked about hurdles moving forward. “That’s the only thing left. It’s more exciting. That’s no question. Joe Blow down the street that doesn’t know anything about motorsports is going to watch this before any other form of motor racing in our country.

“For me, in my experience the people that aren’t really motorsports fans, everybody that sees it for the first time loves it. Even if they’ve never watched motorsports in their life, it’s exciting. It’s short enough. There’s enough action, unpredictability and personalities that just make it fun to watch.”

GRC will also have to face two challenges that are coming to all forms of motorsports – the switch to electricity over fossil fuels and, ultimately, a change to self-driving vehicles.

No sport seems to have found a way around the latter problem – though Roborace is trying – but GRC is one of the few to propose a solution to the first. The tour announced earlier this year plans to add a third, fully-electric series to its weekend schedule beginning in 2018. This positions the sport in a role similar to FIA Formula E’s in that it will be the first rallycross series of note to field all-electric vehicles. Considering Formula E’s recent boom, with Audi, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz among the manufacturers to announce plans to compete in the series, such a move could bode well for GRC over time.

Beyond that, the ceiling for the tour is unknown.

GRC has the potential to attract some signature names. JeffGluck.com’s namesake reported in June that retired NASCAR star Carl Edwards has contemplated testing one of the cars out, a fact that Arpin admitted at LOR.

“I think Carl (Edwards) could handle about anything,” Arpin told Kickin’ the Tires. “We’ve been good buddies for a lot of years, and I thought it was supposed to be a secret. We’ve been talking for a lot of months, and when he’s ready you never know what might happen.”

Tony Stewart confirmed with NBC Sports‘ Nate Ryan in the “NASCAR on NBC Podcast that he’s also been in talks to run with the series. Kurt Busch tested a GRC car in 2013, and former Formula 1 driver Jenson Button did the same in January.

Whether a marquee name appears or not, the GRC paddock will march on.

Their schedule may not be the most consistent in North America, nor their car counts the greatest. But as long as there’s somewhere to throw down some dirt and fans to come and watch it, GRC will always be ready to race.

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