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RallyCross racing: Strap in and feel the g’s

Aki Sugawara
September 28, 2012

The sudden brake before Turn One slammed me against my five-point harness, squeezing the breath out of my chest under what must have been 5 g's. The Incredible Hulk might not have had the neck strength to keep his helmet from surging forward at every turn, or snapping back an instant later under fierce acceleration. RallyCross is not for the faint of stomach. But if you've enjoyed Ken Block's Gymkhana videos, this is the sport for you. Drivers experience the jumps and twists of a monster roller coaster, with the added exhilaration of brain-rattling braking and acceleration. I'm talking about zero to 60 mph in 2 seconds, which is quicker than a Bugatti Veyron.

When Subaru invited me to ride along with its RallyCross team during this race prep day, I didn't realize the experience would exhaust my adrenal glands, rearrange my insides, and leave me drenched in sweat. Still, I left wanting more.

Now in its third season, RallyCross combines sharp turns, varied surfaces (wet, gravel, and tarmac), and 70-foot jumps in a track environment. Near-constant turns ensure that speeds rarely exceed 80 mph, so explosive acceleration, monster stopping power and all-wheel-drive grip are the recipe for success. Subaru races modified Impreza WRX STIs that approach 600 hp and 800 ft-lbs torque, all from a mere 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. The secret sauce is turbo boost that spools with the force of a hurricane; while the boost in a production WRX STI turbo peaks at 15 psi, the RallyCross version goes beyond 40 psi. These massive turbos scream and hiss, accompanying the boxer engine's throaty growl to produce a symphony of power that would please any motorhead. Launch control keeps the tires from smoking at the start, and a sequential gearbox with a "dog" clutch allows drivers to rip through the gears under full throttle.

RallyCross drivers themselves are as intense as their cars. Many are crossover athletes who have already proven themselves with extreme sports such as motocross, vert skateboarding, and BMX. These genetic daredevils spend their lives pushing limits and going airborne. They jump their cars across chasms not by calculated speed but rather "by feel." Dave Mirra, my driver for the day, has won more X-Games medals than anyone through his BMX antics, and he has the scars on his hands and face to prove it. Equipped with the relative safety of a roll cage, RallyCross becomes an attractive career move as these mechanical bull riders approach their child-rearing years. As motocross legend Travis Pastrana puts it: "With age comes the cage."

The next race airs Sept. 30 on ESPN2. For a taste of the action, check out this video from an earlier stop in Texas:

Editorial disclosure: Subaru provided transportation, lunch, and a T-shirt (but no vomit bag) for this article.