Opinionated Hype: Is Rally X A Threat To Drifting?

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Ever since the rise of Rally X (Rally Cross) at X Games last year, many have begun to draw comparisons between Rally X and Drifting.  Some have even gone as far as to say that Rally X may oust Drifting as the “next big thing” as far as youth motorsports.  I have my own thoughts on this and if you have sometime to kill I would like to share them with you.

I really like Drifting.  In fact, I have been a fan of Drifting before I even realized what “Drifting” really was.  I remember watching videos in high school back in ’98 of cars sliding around corners on mountain roads and thinking it was the coolest thing ever.  Anyhow, after first learning of Drifting as a sport, it did not take long for me to understand what it was really about: style, technique, car control, competition, and fun.  These days there are thousands upon thousands of people who get Drifting and have fallen in love with it.  It is those people who are part of masses that pack grandstands and clog the livestream of Formula Drift (the premiere American Drifting series) events all year long.

Unfortunately, there has been a battle that professional Drifting has been fighting ever since it came to our shores.  While there are many people out there who understand the sideways motorsport there are plenty of those out there who still don’t get it.  The really bad part is that included in the group of people who do not understand Drifting are individuals from endemic and non-endemic companies who control how their sponsorship dollars are spent.  That is tricky for professional series like Formula Drift and teams who are seeking funding to go Drifting on a professional level.  How do you convince a company to sponsor your participation in a sport that they do not completely understand?  That is a tough question to answer.  However, I think the real question is: “What is it about drifting that these individuals don’t get?”

Well the area where most get confused is the area of judging, especially when it comes to tandem battles.  What really gives one driver a win over another?  Even enthusiasts who are very familiar with Drifting seem to be confused by this occasionally.  In fact, despite being around for almost a decade, Formula Drift announcer “J-Rod” still explains the mechanics of drifting and the judging criteria to the crowd at each round of competition.  Although in Formula Drift’s defense this could be because Drifting is still young enough that at each round there are attendees who have never seen Drifting before that event.

Still, this shows that the problem of understanding Drifting is more than just a small annoyance that we thought would go away in after the early years.  Imagine the frustration of a marketing executive who commits a significant amount of his/her budget to a driver/team only to watch their driver lose in the first round of 32 and not understand why.  It is definitely a tough pill to swallow!  Being a member of the media I am usually around the marketing execs and representatives of the sponsor companies that participate in Formula Drift and I have heard more than a few off the record complaints about Drifting from them.  Those complaints have mostly revolved around the fact that Drifting is a subjective sport and how they feel the judging is bull or worse, bias. 

The latter suspicion is fed by the fact that all the judges are former competitors who have friends and acquaintances that still compete.  Formula Drift and the judges will vehemently deny any bias in the judging system and maintain that the judges are 100% professional and can separate business from friendship.  I choose to take them at their word but it would be naive to say that there have not been instances that would make people wonder if judges are playing favorites.  For example the same year (2009) Tony Angelo, a founding member of the Drift Alliance crew was appointed a Formula Drift judge was also the year that fellow Drift Alliance member Chris Forsberg won the title. 

At times even some non-Drift Alliance drivers felt that there was bias in the judgement calls.  In an infamous interview Rhys Millen vented his fustration and suspicions in an interview with GT Channel at Formula Drift Long Beach.  If you skip to the 4:13 mark in the video below you can whitness the awkward moment for yourself.

Now, before I get flamed by all the Drift Alliance fans who will accuse me of being a “hater” let me say that I disagree with any notion that Tony Angelo judged biasly to help Chris Forsberg win the title.  Firstly because I just do not believe he is that kind of person and secondly there are three judges, so even if one judge wanted to play favorites there are two more to balance things out.  However, despite my beliefs even I have to admit that the face value of that situation did not look good for those who defended the fair judging practices of Formula Drift.

Despite this there are still new sponsors coming on board and old sponsors who choose to stick with Drifting as part of their marketing efforts.  Why? Because Drifting still draws a crowd, it is still exciting to watch, and for the most part it still has cars that the kids love albeit most have V8s in them now but at least they still look like the cars we idolized in high school.  Yet, this problem of understanding still looms over the sport.  A few years ago this problem did not really have the potential to drive sponsors away because there was no other motorsport that captured the youth the way Drifting does.

About a year ago that changed…

Actually, this change was set into motion about 5 years ago, 2006 to be exact.  What happened in 2006? ESPN debuted Rally racing as a new event for Summer X Games.  For those who remember it was quite a debut as Moto X cross-over talent Travis Pastrana just barely beat Rally racing god Colin McRae after Colin rolled his car with two corners left, kept going, and just missed gold by .52 seconds.  Colin would come back to compete in X Games one more time before his untimely death at the end of 2007.  Rally remained a part of X Games from that point on but it did not have quite as much excitement as it did in that first year.  This was mostly because half of the action was taking place outside of the spectator’s field of view and they had to keep up with the action via video screens.  Another reason for the slight decline in interest is the fact that the Rally drivers were on separate courses that crossed over (the jump intersection) and never quite went door-to-door.  This is because at its heart Rally racing is about running against the clock and not crossing the line first.  Still, there was enough mayhem, especially with the jump to keep things interesting for the next few years.  Something to note is that Formula Drift champions Rhys Millen, Samuel Hubinette, and later on Tanner Foust all participated in X Games Rally at some point during this time as well.  The most successful was Tanner Foust who won gold against Travis Pastrana in 2007 which was also the year he won his first Formula Drift title.

Now, let’s fast-forward to 2010.  ESPN moved the Rally and many of skateboarding and BMX competitions from the Home Depot Center in Carson, CA to Los Angeles, CA with Rally being moved to the LA Coliseum.  This presented a unique opportunity for the Rally organizers.  By partnering up with the main brass from the Rally America series X Games decided to switch their format from the head-to-head style to the popular European Rally X (Rally Cross) format.  How was Rally X going to be any different from what they were doing before?  Well in case you have not seen or heard of Rally X until now allow me to explain.  First of all the biggest difference between head-to-head and Rally X is that with Rally X both cars are on the same course at the same time door-to-door in a race to the finish line (no subjectivity to muddle things up here). 

While both head-to-head and Rally X both include 70 foot jumps the way each discipline uses said jump brings us to our second major difference.  In head-to-head each driver takes the jump once and depending on which path they start on the spectators know exactly when each driver is going to take the jump.  In Rally X the jump is set on separate path through the main course its referred to as the “Joker” path.  Now, most Rally X heats are three up to five laps.  In a Rally X heat each driver must take the Joker path (called Joker Lap) and complete the jump.  The trick is that the driver can choose when he or she wants to take their joker lap.  This adds a huge excitement factor for spectators because they don’t know which driver will take the jump at what time.  Will one driver go for the jump right away? Save it for last? Will both go over the jump side-by-side at the same time?  All of those outcomes are possible!

 How did the American people take to this new Rally format? They ate it up.  The crowds went nuts; the Internet was a blaze with videos, comments, forum arguments, rumors and more.  Highlight clips were all over local news stations and sports shows.  Entertainment and marketing wise the event was a huge success.  It did have its problems (many drivers were DQ’d by going off the very confusing and hard to follow course) but the overwhelmingly positive response drowned out most of the criticism. 

This was one of the first moments that Drifting and Rally X were forced to look at each other.  Why? Because once again several Formula Drift drivers including Tanner Foust, Sam Hubinette, and even Drifting grassroots hero Stephan Verdier participated in the Rally X event.  More so, the Formula Drift drivers dominated each event for the most part with Tanner Foust taking gold in Rally X and Super Rally.  To their credit, the brass at Formula Drift were quite happy with this result.  They were proud to see their drivers go into someone else’s yard and put racing shoes to asses.  As a drift fan I was happy to see that too.  Although in hindsight some might say that instead of celebrating, Formula Drift should have been concerned.  Rally X had a successful debut in front of thousands of spectators and a television audience of millions.  Formula Drift’s debut event while successful did not get that amount of eye balls on their first time out.  Formula Drift drivers discovered a new challenge that was also a potentially easy sell to sponsors thanks to its association with X Games.  Could they jump ship from Drifting to Rally X?

At the time Formula Drift had nothing to worry about because there was no Rally X series for the drivers to jump ship to.  Up until 2010 the only way to Rally X in America was to earn your way into the X Games by competing in the Rally America series or to go to Europe (the birthplace of Rally X).  It was pretty unlikely that the Formula Drift drivers would try to do double-duty or ditch it all and move to Europe to try out Rally X so in that respect Formula Drift had nothing to worry about… Or so they thought.

The Global RallyCross Championship series was started by a few individuals with strong connections to both ESPN and Rally America.  The idea was to capitalize on the success of the Rally X debut at X Games 16 and create a 4 round series with the season culminating at the next Summer X Games.  Global RallyCross held their first event at Toyota Speedway in Irwindale back in March.  So, not only was Global RallyCross potentially stealing drivers away from Formula Drift, they kicked off their inaugural season at what is easily Formula Drift’s most popular venue!  The Global RallyCross officials brought tons of dirt into the Speedway’s infield and fashioned a combination course of dirt and asphalt with the 70 foot jump right in the middle.  While it may have appeared so, the first round of Global RallyCross was not the big threat to Formula Drift as some had made it out to be.  In fact it was kind of a flop for a few reasons.  The first reason is that since group behind Global RallyCross got started late, they did not have much time to promote their event which resulted in a dismal turn out in the grandstands.  The second reason is that it did not hold quite the star power that most were expecting.  There was no Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, or even Brian Deegan.  Although Ken Block and Deegan did make appearances as guests, the crowd would have much rather watched them drive.  Tanner Foust did compete as well as Stephan Verdier and Dave Mirra.  The rest of the competitors were mostly European drivers that most people have never heard of unless they were die-hard Rally fans.  Judging by that first event Formula Drift was totally in the clear and had absolutely nothing to fear from the Global RallyCross series. 

I did see something at the event that was quite alarming to me.  In the garage area next to Tanner Foust’s Ford Fiesta was a similarly prepped Ford Fiesta decked out in Best Buy livery.  The driver of the car was Marcus Gronholm, a hero to many Rally fans but virtually unknown to most motorsport fans here in the states.  Yet here he was with a sponsor that Formula Drift teams and possibly Formula Drift themselves have been courting for years!  It seemed as if Best Buy completely ignored Drifting yet they jumped into a brand new (new to us anyway) sport with a driver that 99.99% of Americans have never heard of?  Clearly Best Buy saw something in Rally X that they did not see in Drifting. However, Best Buy is just one sponsor right?  So Rally X got one sponsor that Drifting did not get.  Big deal!  There still no ship jumping from one sport to the other.  Actually, that came to past as well.

Shortly before the 2011 Formula Drift season started, the first and only back-to-back Formula Drift champion Tanner Foust announced that he would be “taking a break” from Drifting this year to focus on Rally X both home and abroad and that he was taking his title sponsor Rockstar Energy Drink with him.  That news was pretty shocking.  Then came the news that Stephan Verdier would also back out of the 2011 Formula Drift season to focus on Rally X.  It should also be noted that since the Formula Drift season started both Rhys Millen and Sam Hubinette have skipped rounds to participate in other motorsports.  OK, is it time for Formula Drift to officially be worried yet?  Perhaps not. Let’s look at the situation.  With the exception of Verdier all the drivers that have reduced their Formula Drift participation are past champions.  They are also a bit older than most of the Formula Drift field.  One could easily conclude that they are just ready to move on to new challenges.

So far, no fresh Drifting talent has expressed interest in leaving the sport to try their hand in Rally X and Formula Drift still holds a strong advantage over Global RallyCross in many areas including experience, event attendance, driver count, number of events per season, and most importantly a fiercely loyal fan base not just in America but all around the globe.  Even though Formula Drift is an American based series in the short time they have been around they have pretty much surpassed D1 as the top Drifting series in the world.  There is also the fact that it is still just as exciting to see two high-horsepower machines sliding sideways at speeds of 60+ mph while only inches apart, tire smoke billowing from both cars all the while.

Both sports have a TV package (Formula Drift on Versus and Rally X on ESPN/ESPN2) and while it may seem that Rally X has the advantage there, the reality is both TV packages are equal in quality and likely in ratings.  Where Rally X really has an advantage over Drifting is its ease of understanding due to its objective nature and the big advantage: the 800lb gorilla known as X Games.  Despite having not-so-stellar turnouts at most of their rounds and an average TV package, sponsors will still clamor to be a part of Rally X just for a share of the millions of X Games viewers. 

So, let us go back to the original question.  Is Rally X a threat to Drifting?  To me the answer is “yes, just barely”.  But if you were to ask me if Formula Drift should be afraid of Global RallyCross I would say “absolutely not.”  If nothing else I think the rise of Global RallyCross should be more of a message to Formula Drift and that message is “do not become complacent.”  For now, Formula Drift is still on top but it could definitely use some tweaks.  Those tweaks should mostly be with judging and curtailing the “invasion of the V8s”.  Currently each car in the top 10 Formula Drift standings has a V8 in it and only a handful of those cars actually came with V8s in their stock form.  I could go on about this but that is a different post entirely.

If Formula Drift makes some changes I think it can co-exist with Global RallyCross in harmony for the foreseeable future.  If Formula Drift chooses to ignore what the sport of Rally X and the Global RallyCross series is doing then I feel there could be a very possible changing of the guard the same way Drifting ousted Import Drag Racing over the last decade.  Formula Drift must not rest on its laurels.  Instead, if they are not already doing so they should be finding ways to shake up the sport and inject some needed freshness into the sport that they have developed into an exciting global phenomenon.

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