The weather, and action, are heating up this weekend in Calgary as Stampede Park trades in eight-horse races for 1,097.
Horsepower, that is.
Nitro Rally Cross is bringing its high-flying hard-driving brand of motorsport to GMC Stadium on Saturday and Sunday, pitting drivers against the longest and fastest ice track the sport’s history.
For more than a week, Nitro Staff have been laying down ice 50 centimetres thick inside the track that normally is home to the Calgary Stampede’s chuckwagon races.
“Very, very exciting to be in Calgary. A lot of work and a lot of planning has gone into this,” said Chip Panko, General Manager of Nitro Rally Cross.
“And really, we’re making history here to open up the Stampede and the GMC stadium in the middle of winter, and welcome out a lot of people to see something very, very exciting.”
Nitro Rally Cross was launched in 2018 by Travis Pastrana and Nitro Circus and features purpose-built rally courses that were inspired by the speed and high-flying jumps of Supercross—which uses motorcycles—with the head-to-head action of purpose-built fully electric rally cars.
This weekend, the cars will be flying, with a 100-foot jump at the base of the GMC Stadium stands, and a jump leading out of the re-purposed stadium tunnel used on the joker lap.
As for the drivers, Panko said that this weekend attendees will get to see some of the world’s best drivers battling not only each other but the track.
“Even if you’ve seen racing, and really any type of racing, this is completely different. It is super fast, it’s super exciting, it’s very, very hardcore.”
Gates open at 3 p.m. on Feb. 4, with heats starting at 4:20 p.m., with the Group E electric rally car battles final taking place at 7:45 p.m.
Gates re-open on Sunday at noon, followed by a 12:30 p.m. heat start, leading into the Group E final at 3:35 p.m.
A driver autograph session will follow for fans after the podiums at 3:45 p.m.
For more details on the complete schedule, and for tickets, see www.nitrorallycross.com.
Nitro Rally Cross is being presented by Tourism Calgary as part of the Chinook Blast winter festival, taking place until Feb. 12.
The track and atmosphere
Drivers will be launching from a start in the southeast end of GMC Stadium, and will be racing down the straight towards the long curve that leads back towards the grandstand.
In front of the grandstand seating, organizers have created a large jump which racers will have to navigate before heading into a three-turn chicane and back onto the straightaway.
Racers also have to take a joker lap sometime during their race, which extends the length of time that they spend on a lap and adds extra difficulty and strategy to the race.
The joker lap begins at the end of the top straight, entering into a pair of tight turns before going under the track and through the stadium’s tunnel. Drivers then have to take a 90-degree turn into a short straight before taking a hard left and back onto a short straight before rejoining the track right before the finish line.
Driver Oliver Eriksson said he didn’t know what the joker tunnel would be like.
“I hope it’s lit up inside so we can actually see where we go and we just aim for the light,” he joked.
“The track looks like it’s prepped to perfection, so we can’t complain about anything. It’s all up to us to make it happen.”
Each of the races is very fast, both in the speed of the cars and the length of the races. Something that Nitro Rally Cross President Brett Clarke said was part of creating a family-friendly and entertaining atmosphere.
“Every race is is less than five minutes… so you go inside, get warm, come back and see the next team,” he said.
“Outside of that we’ve got a ton of entertainment music DJs, bands, great food, and beverages. We’re really going to have a great time.”
Another element of the sport is the easy paddock access, which allows for fans to get far closer to the cars and the drivers than at just about any other motor sport race.
In between races, drivers park in the paddock to recharge, but what you won’t see is the kind of refuelling and engine work being performed like in other race series, because the cars are all electric.
“We have safety procedures in place because they are electric vehicles, but we’re actually charging right off the grid, so it’s a very clean way of recharging the cars,” said Panko.
“[Fans] can get up close, they can meet the drivers, and they can see the work that goes into prepping the cars.”
Who to watch, and what to watch for
This weekend will feature drivers Andreas Bakkerud and Robin Larsson with DRR JC / RX Cartell, Oliver Bennett and Kris Meeke with XITE Energy Racing, Kevin Eriksson and Oliver Eriksson with Olsbergs MSE, Fraser McConnell with DRR, and Conner Martell and series founder Travis Pastrana with Vermont SportsCar.
Calgary is the penultimate stop for the Group E series, which has Swedish driver Robin Larsson leading with 344 points. His teammate, Norwegian Driver Andreas Bakkerud, is currently second with 286 points, followed by Jamaican Fraser McConnell with 276 points.
Travis Pastrana, who is currently in fifth, will be vying over the weekend to get back into the points and defend his 2021 Nitro RX championship title.
“Everybody is really jockeying for championship points… it’s getting tight now,” said Panko.
“There’s a million-dollar prize first for the winners, so all these drivers are very, very competitive.”
Race winners are given 50 points, followed by 45 for second, 40 for third, and so on until 5 points for 10th place.
Heading into Calgary, odds favourites are Oliver Eriksson and Kevin Eriksson, who finished first and second on the series’ first ice track in Quebec.
“My little brother raced well in the championship rounds, it’s very tight here, and I’m here now, I can do everything in my power to help him but at the same time I want to win myself,” said Kevin Eriksson.
Kevin Eriksson missed the first two races of the season in the U.K. and Sweden after suffering a crash. He as come back to a near-commanding first-place finish in Quebec before letting his brother take the win at Circus Trois-Rivieres in Quebec in January.
Sustainability of races a big focus for Nitro Rally Cross
Sustainability for the environment, and for teams competing in the sport, have been a focus for Nitro Rally Cross. All of the teams use the same type of electric vehicle.
“When we launched this, we didn’t want tens of millions of dollars from each team to go into vehicle development, so with FirstCorner we developed these electric race cars… so it makes it very equal,” said Panko.
“Sustainability is a big part of what we’re doing, and we want is to open people’s eyes to the capabilities and the performance of electric vehicles.”
He said that they know that there is five per cent of people who will purchase an electric car because of environmental reasons, but that they want to reach the other 95 per cent by showing the capability of these electric vehicles.
FirstCorner, which is owned by Olsbergs MSE Group, created the 1,097 peak horsepower FC1-X electric vehicle which the series uses. The cars have an acceleration of 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.4 seconds, and can be recharged in less than a half-hour.
Kevin Eriksson also served as a test driver for the vehicle platform.
“It’s actually my family company that built the car. I was the main test driver for it, so I’ve been involved in all forms,” he said.
“Nitro had this vision of what they wanted to do, and the cars we had from Europe couldn’t rally last… so this car has been built specifically for this kind of racing.”
He called the vehicles a welcoming new thing that still retains some of the traditional elements of motorsport.
“This car is very different from maybe other electric cars on the market,” Eriksson said.
“We have three gears for example, which still adds that element that we still had before, it’s just now we have on our paddle switch and we also have a prop shaft to connect the front the rear, which is mainly the problem of electric vehicles today.”
Eriksson said it doesn’t really give him a competitive advantage, because developing an all-purpose platform for racing and fine-tuning a car for your own races are two very different things.
Over the weekend, the team will be using repurposed used tires that were custom fitted with spikes for the ice. Old racing tires have the top layers removed, and metal spikes put into place in a random pattern.