Young Finnish driver Toomas “Topi” Heikkinen won his first Global Rallycross title on Sunday, sealing the deal with his eighth-consecutive podium finish after a wild weekend of racing, while Scott Speed put in a strong drive to take his second race victory of the season.
“It was so chaotic out there but the championship now is done and done,” said Heikkinen after the race. “It’s good to be on the podium eight times in a row and I’ll start a new winning streak in Las Vegas.”
It was no easy race for Heikkinen, who entered this second-last championship stop with a commanding lead in the points standings and riding high on a five-race winning streak. He was uncharacteristically sloppy in his opening heat, overdriving the car onto two wheels and seesawing wildly down a piece of straight dirt track. It was a Heikkinen that fans haven’t seen this season the young and unpredictable competitor who last year earned a reputation for recklessness, but who opened 2013 a cool-headed pro.
He admitted mid-day Sunday that he races better under pressure and thoughts of his early championship victory were not helping his performance. Simply by starting the contest on Sunday, he had mathematically locked up the title.
In second-round heats, Heikkinen suffered a flat tire and had to make his first trip of 2013 to the Last Chance Qualifier. Chaos in that race saw Tanner Foust tangle with four of the nine cars on the track as he fought to bring the 600 horsepower car under control when his throttle stuck. Global Rallycross officials called the race and promoted the top-three drivers Heikkinen among them into the last positions of the three-row final.
Speed’s return to the top of the podium came in front of a hometown crowd. The Formula 1-turned NASCAR driver calls Charlotte home. His performance on the 70 percent dirt track was reminiscent of his collected drive at the 2013 season opener in Brazil. As the course developed a blue groove, he set consistently fast times by sticking to the line. He said after the race that his Ford Fiesta, developed by the leading Olsbergs MSE team, was in its element.
“Those cars run well on tarmac and on the dirt, but they’re atrocious on gravel,” he said. “Here, and in Brazil, there was a lot of dirt; the car won’t accelerate on the gravel and I don’t know why.”
Brian Deegan, who traveled to the race on Sunday after competing in the Lucas Oil Off Road Series a day earlier, showed his own prowess on dirt and finished second. Incredibly, Heikkinen battled back from the last position on the starting grid to finish in third place for an all-Ford podium.
The result also earned Heikkinen the Sylvania zXe Cup, a $20,000 prize purse awarded to the driver who scored the most points in a four-round sub-series including the rounds at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The surprise of the weekend was Dave Mirra, who showed incredible speed and consistency in a Mini loaned to him by Brit Liam Doran who sat this round out to compete in Europe. It was the BMX star-turned-racer’s first career contest in anything other than a Subaru and while the results ultimately didn’t reflect his speed, Mirra proved without a doubt he could be a contender in the car. “I can’t believe that Mini,” said Mirra. “It’s just point and shoot and it was awesome to drive it despite the outcome.”
The Pro Drive-built Mini is a proven performer, debuting on the series with a win in Munich earlier this year, with Doran behind the wheel. From his first session in the car, it was clear that Mirra had found a competition vehicle that suited him. He was one of only two drivers to score a sub-37-second lap during qualifying sessions, placing a season-high second to secure a front-row starting position for his first heat.
“I wanted to do well,” said Mirra. “I wanted to qualify, to show I can drive.”
It was a promising start, but Mirra’s fortunes turned once the racing began. An unlatched door proved a major distraction from the first turn of his first heat, and, in the second heat, a bad call by race officials forced him to serve a penalty for a jump-start he didn’t make.
Global Rallycross officials later reviewed the decision and determined that Mirra showed an incredibly fast reaction time to the start light and fairly earned his half-car advantage. But the race had already gone wrong for Mirra, who was forced into the Last Chance Qualifier, where he was knocked off course in the tangle with Foust.
Although he has some sympathy for Foust in the incident, he said he thinks Foust should have been able to bring his car under control before taking out so many other cars.
“All you have to do is put the clutch in,” said an obviously frustrated Mirra after the race. “A stuck throttle is no excuse it’s not like it’s a Prius on the I-5.”
Foust, for his part, was contrite, apologizing to each of the affected drivers at his first opportunity. “I’m usually the guy preaching to everybody about driving a cleaner race, so of course I feel terrible,” Foust said later.
It was a disappointing debut for the Chevy Sonic, which snapped a bolt on the lower control arm during driver Pat Moro’s first lap of practice, and dropped a cylinder during qualifying. The car’s development will continue.
Although Heikkinen has sealed the title, there remains one round in the championship. The final race of the GRC season takes place on a purpose-built Las Vegas course Nov. 7, coinciding with the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show.