Stage Rally fans often ask me, “How do I get started in rally?” My answer is always the same: “Rallycross.” If you are unfamiliar with the sport, Rallycross is an entry-level motorsports event held on mixed surfaces with a course created from traffic cones. It’s a great way for drivers to broaden their car-control skills by taking their car off the pavement and onto surfaces that are most commonly grass, dirt, or gravel. Stage rally requires a fully prepared race car with layers of safety equipment. And rightfully so, because you’re racing down hazard-lined roadways and around blind corners at high speeds. Rallycross lessens the stakes and allows you to begin learning the basics of loose surface driving in just a stock vehicle in a safe environment. The vast majority of rally drivers that I know got their start in Rallycross in a stock vehicle—including myself!On April 2nd at the St. Louis Region SCCA event, I decided to leave my rally car at home and get back to my roots by racing a stock BMW. I wanted to see if my driving successes should be credited to competing in a fully prepared rally car or if I had truly grown as a driver. I also wanted to see how well my stock daily driver would fare since many of our competitors are also in stock vehicles.
The forecast leading up to the event called for plenty of rain on race day. The course is set up in a field that used to grow corn and soy, but is now covered in patches of grass, wild onion, and wildflowers. The car I would be competing with is the only (nearly) stock vehicle I own: An M54B30-swapped 1999 BMW 325i Touring with a proper six-speed transmission. Yes, it may sound like I’m contradicting myself by saying an engine-swapped car is nearly stock, but even with the drivetrain swap, it’s essentially a stock Sport-Package car with around 150,000 miles on the clock. Since this touring is my daily and my race cars tend to get all the new-parts love, it sits on tired struts, an open differential, and worn all-season tires, but it’s in otherwise good working condition. To further test myself (and the 325i), I was sharing it with (and coaching) a first time Rallycross driver. The forecast held true and we arrived at Deyeme Racing to a rain-soaked course. While I was up for the challenge of a muddy event, I wasn’t so sure the car was. During the parade lap I was so focused on coaching the new driver with me that I didn’t notice the Audi behind me was already stuck in the mud—before the racing had even begun.
Once the course was hot, I stuffed my head into my helmet and set off on my first run. The worn tires and open diff struggled to find consistent traction on the soft ground underneath us, so the name of the game was momentum and throttle control. Ruts began forming and growing deeper with each pass. When competing in thick mud, you have to use enough throttle to keep the mud slung out of the tires, but not so much that you lose all traction. Typically, in a rear-wheel-drive car, I would use my left foot on the brake to limit wheel slip and to also assist with weight transfer, but after the first couple of runs I noticed I needed to dig into the brake pedal harder and harder. By my third run as I flew through the finish I stepped on the brake pedal and it squished all the way to the floor. As I pumped the brakes, I added “brake fluid flush” to my mental to-do list. A couple cars got stuck and had to be pulled out, but thankfully my touring wasn’t one of them.I completed my five morning runs and switched with the novice driver. Coaching novice drivers is a lot of fun, allows me to get out of my own head, and helps them focus on their inputs. Having patience seems counterintuitive when conditions get slippery. It often feels as though the car is doing things you don’t want faster than you can react. Novices often want to over-react, in return, adding too much steering, brake pedal, or throttle. When you turn the wheel and the car doesn’t turn in as you expect many folks react by adding more steering input. Depending on your desired outcome, less steering and a touch more throttle can initiate a beautiful slide and a little squeeze of the brakes with the left foot can reel in that slide if you’ve come in a bit too hot. I reminded him “less is more” and he began shaving off a little time with each run. He only got stuck on an uphill section once. Since several competitors had gotten stuck and required a tow in the morning session, they opted not to continue. I used to hate driving in conditions like these as I would get frustrated with myself and the car and I found it overwhelming. It reminded me how far I have come as a driver. A few years ago, I likely would have gotten stuck and withdrawn in frustration. Instead, I had put down five very consistent runs with ease and a giant smile plastered on my face as I slid around each corner. My average time was about 1:44 and I only knocked down one cone, incurring a two-second penalty. During the lunch break, a few changes were made to the course and the sunshine dried some of the muddy sections, making it even faster. This encouraged me to push even harder and make some riskier choices. I racked up four seconds of penalties by hitting two cones, but still averaged a 1:36 per run after four more runs. That’s an eight-second improvement! I stepped out of the car and the novice driver continued to improve his times as well. We were a bit harder on the car in the afternoon and a few plastic underbody panels were a victim to our zealous driving.
In Rallycross, every run counts and all run times are added together. The fastest cumulative time, including penalties, wins. After everyone’s times were finalized, I was thrilled to be awarded the second fastest rear-wheel-drive car and third fastest driver overall. Though my 24-year-old 325i Touring was completely under-prepared for the event, I feel it fared quite well. I made short work of returning the touring to daily driver status. Most of the underbody plastic that was damaged during the event was torn from the wheel wells–it was already brittle with age. The caked-on mud did take a couple hours to scrape and power-wash away. It may not be a prepped rally car, but a stock BMW can be a lot of fun and very capable at Rallycross—especially in the rear-wheel-drive classes. So if you’re interested in Rallycross, get out there, go sideways, and have fun! —Kelsey Stephens