Nitro Rallycross hits the track – and takes flight – this weekend
Popular racing series to stage season finale at The FIRM
By Don Coble
KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – …
KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – Massive dump trucks rolled into the Florida International Rally and Motorsports Park Tuesday with an express purpose – dumping a load of clay, getting out and returning quickly with another load.
Meanwhile, bulldozers were lumbering up and down the ramps of giant jumps, bumps and berms in hurried, yet precise, preparation for this weekend’s season-finale for the Nitro Rallycross series.
A few days later, the belching sounds of diesel engines will be replaced with the ear-piercing roar of racecars. The transformation sand, grass and airport tarmacs will put the Keystone Heights Airport under the spotlight for thousands of race fans and a worldwide television audience.
One of the drivers is Chase Elliott, last year’s NASCAR champion. Two-time NASCAR champion Kyle Busch raced two weeks ago at Phoenix and finished fourth.
This will be Elliott’s first rallycross race. Other stock car drivers are interested, too.
“Those have been inbound calls; we didn’t go chase that,” Pankow said. “I’ve got a number of NASCAR guys and a handful of Indy Car guys who want to do something. When we can match-make – here’s a sponsor and here’s a car.”
Nitro RX will hit the track – and take flight – during two days of racing at The FIRM. The race will cap the five-race Nitro RX schedule and determine the series’ first champion.
Getting ready for the race was logistically challenging, but should result in one of the best races of the year, according to NRX general manager Chip Pankow.
“It’s like a traveling circus,” Pankow said. “When we come to town, we usually have to end up building our own infrastructure.”
That means using portions of the paved road course and building towering jumps. The group last raced on Nov. 21 at San Bernardino, California. Within hours, haulers were already making the cross-country trip to build a rallycross course from scratch.
While they had plenty of sand to work with, they were forced to scavenge for clay. They found a vein of usable dirt a couple near Keystone Heights, which required them to haul it in.
Which proved to benefit the airport and raceway property.
“We couldn’t find clay on the property,” Pankow said. “Dug two holes [on the course] looking. The good thing is, those holes now will be much-needed retention ponds to help with draining. We found clay a couple miles away.
Dirt from one of the holes was used to for the landing mound.
Pankow said the dirt from one of the holes was used to build the landing ramp of the massive mid-course jump. Since it’s got a sandy base, the ramps will be covered with a thick clay crust that can handle cars launching and landing following a 100-foot jump.
“There’s a big water management issue here, so we’re creating two retaining ponds for them,” he said. “It’s a big plus for them.”
The series is divided into two divisions – Supercars and Nitro. The first heat race will start at 11 a.m. on Saturday, followed by a day of qualifying brackets and heat races for both classes.
The first car will be on track at 11:20 a.m. on Sunday. Following more practice and heat races, the Nitro class will start its main event at 4:08 p.m. Supercars will follow 30 minutes later.
Nitro RX was started by noted racer, stuntman and daredevil Travis Pastrana. Along with Pankow, who founded Global Rallycross, Pastrana was able to fashion a five-race schedule in its first year.
“This season is a COVID season,” Pankow said. “It was supposed to start last season, so it was like let’s do some events this year. We’ve had a good response from the European teams and European drivers. There are seven or eight drivers in World Rallycross; we have 15 drivers and we have real depth in our field. Essentially, almost everyone can win in the field. I’m proud of that.”
Pastrana was at The Firm Sunday to kick off construction and make final plans for the layout. He returned on Thursday to make sure the course was race-ready.
The primary focus is the massive jump, which includes a drive-through in the middle of the jump. Cars will be flying over the massive opening while other cars will be racing in the cavity.
“He’ll hit the jump on a dirt bike until he’s comfortable with it,” Pankow said. “So, it lets him set the speed for the jump. Then he’ll hit it with the car to confirm the speed. At the driver’s meeting, he will basically give them a minimum and a maximum speed for the jump. You can go as fast as you want, but eventually, you’re going to flat-land – and that hurts. They usually set it between 62-65 mph. The landing is usually 100 feet down the track.”
Pastrana also is a driver in the series. In fact, with victories at Phoenix and San Bernardino in the last two races, he will start with a seven-point lead over former Formula One and NASCAR driver Scott Speed at the FIRM.
Nitro RX clearly has gained traction by expanding next year’s schedule to four races in North America, including The FIRM, as well as four stops in Europe and two in the Middle East.
For tickets, visit nitrorallycross.com/thefirm.
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