The El Toro Marine Base in Irvine, CA has become somewhat of a quasi West Coast testing ground for the automotive industry in the past several years. Currently, it's perhaps best known for being the site of the Top Gear USA test track, but we've attended media events, learned how to drift, and watched a variety of manufacturers test out their wares on the military compound's abandoned runways.
Most recently, Ford turned the strips of tarmac into a replica of the X Games 17 RallyCross course and brought out two-time WRC champ Marcus Grönholm and Moto-X-legend-turned-rally-driver Brian Deegan for a practice session ahead of this weekend's main event. Lucky for us, they also asked us to tag along with the enticing offer of a shotgun seat in a 575-horsepower all-wheel drive Fiesta racecar. Count us in.
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Related GalleryFord Fiesta X Games 17 RallyCross Practice
We arrived at El Toro Wednesday morning, greeted by the site of Deegan's Fiesta sitting on the tarmac undergoing a photoshoot. Grönholm's Fiesta was in one of the hangars with mechanics crawling all over it, fine-tuning the engine and suspension for the day's session. Reigning X Games RallyCross champion and Top Gear USA host Tanner Foust was in attendance as well, although his car wasn't. Foust had just wrapped up an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman the day before, and his car had yet to arrive. We could tell he'd rather be a driver than a spectator for the day, but he got to ride with Grönholm and seemed almost as excited as we were.
While waiting for the cars to be ready, we took the time to ask Foust about the status of RallyCross in the United States. "After competing in a full championship in Europe this year and seeing how many fans and how many cars there are in that series, I'd say we're still in our infancy," he told us. "X Games certainly brings it to a new level, but in the European series, there might be 100 cars that show up to a RallyCross race for any one of the ten events. We do have a long way to go, but it has the potential to be bigger in the U.S. than anywhere else because of the manufacturer support."
As for this year's X Games, we asked Tanner who he thinks the favorite will be. Despite winning double gold medals last year, he admits the odds are against him repeating the feat. "I think you can't do a race with Marcus Grönholm without him being the favorite," he says. "I'm probably close, but we have a lot of racers from Europe and a lot of racers from different disciplines that all have great teams, great cars and a lot of skill."
After our chat with Foust, it was finally time for our ride. We were asked if we would rather have seat time with Deegan or Grönholm. Nothing against Deegan, but it's not every day that you get to ride with a WRC World Champion. We headed straight for Grönholm's car, hurdled the rollcage and hopped into the passenger seat. We fumbled with the five-point harness (it's hard to fully see what you're doing while wearing a full-face helmet), but finally strapped in and pulled everything snug. We fully expected to be thrown around quite a bit, and the tighter those straps were, the better.
With the tall Finn in the driver's seat, we pulled up to the starting line, and one of the mechanics gave us the thumbs up. What happened next was nothing short of the bald-faced defiance of physics. With the brakes holding the car in place, Grönholm mashed the throttle to the floor, the Fiesta's four-cylinder motor banging maniacally off its redline. The front of the car slowly rose into the air, as if doing a slow-motion wheelie, and then all of a sudden, we were travelling at a high rate of speed. It's as if there was no in-between. We were told the Fiesta RallyCross can do 0-60 mph in two seconds, and that feels like an understatement.
After just a few seconds into the course, it was hard to tell what's more impressive – the car or the man behind the wheel. The little Fiesta seems to have unending grip and relentless acceleration, but Grönholm looked like he could be doing this while chatting on a cell phone and sipping a cup of coffee. We peered over and saw his hands were a blur, providing deft steering inputs and shifting what seemed to be every half-second while remaining as cool as a cucumber. That's impressive enough, but doesn't even take into account the footwork that was going on down near the pedals. A little over a minute later, we had completed two laps on the practice course.
Check another one off the bucket list.
Want to ride along with us? Check out the on-board video of Grönholm's practice run with us in the passenger seat below.