The first domestic round of the 2013 Global Rallycross Championship was Tanner Foust’s to lose. After leading for nine of the main event’s 10 laps, Foust was heading into the final corner when it all went wrong.
The New Hampshire Motor Speedway rallycross track is the most inventive in the series. To build a half-mile long rallycross course with dirt and jumps into a traditional mile-long oval, organizers devised a configuration that uses the track’s pit lane and front stretch. A devilishly tricky elevated hairpin overcomes the obstacle of the pit-lane wall by bringing the cars up and over it. Last year, that feature was the scene of some exciting moves – including a risky pass that ultimately gave Travis Pastrana his first win of the season. This year, it’s where Foust saw an impressive run for his first victory of 2013 come to a sudden end.
Under pressure from teammate Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen in the final seconds of the main event, Foust was pushing his Ford Fiesta ST hard down the straightaway into the final turn when his spotter hit the radio to urge him to defend the inside line. Foust dove inside – further than any other driver had all day. When he hit the brakes to slow for the hairpin, he found loose dirt that had collected in the braking zone. His wheels locked up and the car seesawed up the ramp and landed in the guardrail – backward.
Ford teammates Heikkinen, Patrik Sandell and Brian Deegan squeezed past Foust before he could turn the car around and the defending series champion crossed the line a disappointing fourth. “That was a tough way to end the race,” said Foust afterward. “As soon as I touched the brakes, I knew I was in for a pretty wild ride. The car just rotated, went straight into the wall.”
Teammates Heikkinen, Sandell and Deegan finished first, second and third, respectively, making it the second Ford podium sweep of the year.
Mother Nature threw in her challenge for the drivers, as well. A mid-day storm system brought torrential rain that flooded the track during qualifying. Drivers that had randomly selected the earliest sessions had dry conditions and put down fast times, while the unlucky final group faced standing water. In a closely competitive field where wins and losses are often decided by hundredths of a second, there were four seconds between the fastest and slowest drivers on the leaderboard after seeding.
By the start of the race, the weather had cleared and the course had dried – including the dirt section and its massive, 70-foot tabletop dirt jump.
The 13-car field was split into three heats, with Ken Block, Heikkinen, and Foust taking their respective heat wins and advancing to the front row of the main event. Deegan, Sandell, and Subaru driver Sverre Isachsen earned spots in the second row, while the remaining competitors went to the last chance qualifier to vie for the three remaining spots. The LCQ featured an exciting fight that saw X Games Brazil gold medalist Scott Speed lose the hole shot advantage in his Ford Fiesta when Pastrana’s Dodge Dart made a pass through the dirt section. Both drivers, plus Subaru’s Bucky Lasek, earned the transfer spots to make up the back row for the final.
Lane choice in rallycross goes to the highest qualifier, so Block – who was a full second faster than closest challenger Heikkinen in the seeding sessions earlier in the day – took his pick and lined up in the center of the front row. It was an unusual choice, but not unprecedented. With so much action in the first corner, the driver that starts in the traditional pole position can sometimes find himself the victim of a pinch right off the track’s inside line. Unfortunately, the strategy backfired for Block, whose Ford was boxed in by Heikkinen and Sandell and the trio lost valuable ground in the opening moments of the race. Foust, meanwhile, steered clear of trouble and found himself out front by the time the dust settled from the first corner.
As the other drivers battled it out for second and third early in the 10-lap final, Foust maintained a strong lead. But Heikkinen, who is on a roll and has finished on every step of the podium so far this year, began to climb into contention midway through the contest. Heading into the final corner, it looked like the young Finn would have to settle for second – until Foust’s spin handed him the win.
The lion’s share of the risk in rallycross is in the first corner, where 10 high-horsepower cars make a play for the same patch of pavement. The driver that emerges first from that corner has an enormous advantage in a sport where passing opportunities are few and rooster-tails of dirt obliterate visibility. With so much at stake, contact is typical and this season has seen several first-corner pile-ups take out championship contenders.
“The first events of the year, the first six seconds have been the most exciting, and this one, it was the last six,” said Foust. “I don’t know what hurts more, but it was a pretty exciting day.”
After four of nine rounds, Heikkinen’s win extends his lead in the 2013 GRC championship over Foust. The title fight resumes next weekend with the fifth round of the Global Rallycross Championship held at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn. Heikkinen now also leads the Sylvania zXe Cup, a sub-series that will award a $20,000 purse to the driver who scores the most points in four of the US speedway contests this year. The battle for the cup includes the rounds at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.