First-ever San Diego Rally Cross!

The local motorsports scene is getting started again, and what a start it has been. The Del Mar Fairgrounds recently played host to the “First Ever San Diego Rally Cross!” in association with Dave Turner Motorsports, the San Diego Region of the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America), Dirty E30 Racing ( and About-Time Racing. So, what is a rally cross anyway and what’s the big deal, you ask?

Picture this. You’re at a big lot. A race course is marked out by orange traffic cones. At the edges of the lot spectators have gathered to watch the race cars and trucks, as they each prepare to take the green flag and cross the timing light to begin their timed runs. Sound like fun? Wait, it gets better, much better.

So far I could just as easily have been describing one of our regular San Diego autocrosses (the first one of which, by the way, is scheduled to take place this Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium. I’ll be entered in my Miata). However, a rally cross is well beyond an autocross.

You see a rally cross takes place not on nice, smooth, predictable pavement but rather on dirt. Dirt which rapidly becomes rutted and can deflect cars into stationary objects – like trees (more on that a little later). Dirt which becomes very slippery when it is wetted down between run groups. Dirt which gets thrown up in big, blinding clouds. Yes, dirt is what makes rally cross so very special. Indeed.

Word of this event started getting out to enthusiasts several weeks ago with a call for entries. I first heard about it at a car club gathering at the K1 Speed indoor kart racing track in Carlsbad (at some point that will get at least one column in AutoMatters, too).

I must admit that I was very tempted to enter the rally cross. Over twenty years ago I entered a few rally cross events and they were not on nicely groomed horse race track dirt. No, they were plowed out of rock- and tree root-strewn farmers’ fields. So, in addition to the potential problems caused by ruts in the dirt, entrants could actually unearth and then hit hidden, solid objects directly on the course. The event I have in mind was called the Sports Car Olympics in Saskatchewan, Canada. I used my Datsun 240-Z, which I also used to autocross.

Once a year we also had an event on or about New Year’s Day. Picture northern Alberta at that time of year. We’re talking about frigid temperatures and snow on the ground! It was called the “Fox Field Trials.” A tractor plowed out a course on a hilly, uneven, frozen field and we had at it for bragging rights to see who could drive the course in the quickest time. Now that was fun. Of course back then I had a beater car which I didn’t really care much about. The tires were worth about as much as the car (a very old, rear wheel drive Toyota Celica). When needed, I did my own bodywork repairs with common hand tools. Ah, those were the days. Had the car broken from the abuse, it would not have been the end of my world. I could enjoy that car in a way that I cannot now enjoy my pristine 2004 Miata. So, instead of entering this First Ever San Diego Rally Cross, I resisted the strong urge to compete and instead planned to come and take pictures.

Oh, did I take pictures! I got there just after 9 AM with a load of heavy camera equipment, most of which I carried around with me. I proceeded to stay there on my feet all day, without so much as a break for lunch. It was dark and about 5:30 PM by the time that I left, tired and sore from the weight of the camera equipment, but eager to get home and look at the treasure trove of pictures – in advance of sharing some of them with you.

Despite the course walk and instructions given before the runs began, clearly many did not know what to expect and the results were predictably unpredictable. The entrants showed up with a wide array of vehicles. There were purpose-built race trucks, slick all-wheel-drive cars, tippy, top-heavy pickup trucks, economy cars and, yes, some beaters, too. There were even rumors that several entrants rented cars for the day.

It was especially interesting to watch drivers’ first runs of the event. Some drivers took it very easy at first and more or less just drove around the course. It was not very exciting but at least their vehicles were none the worse for wear. Other drivers took to the course like it was a regular autocross on pavement. Wahoo! Now those runs were fun to watch. I don’t think I’ve ever seen nearly as many cones smacked in any autocross. Add to that the walls of dark earth and it was definitely exciting. The event organizers could have sold admission tickets to spectators for this event. I think that if this returns to the Del Mar Fairgrounds again (which is likely, based on the initial, very positive reactions from all those present and accounted for), they should find an event promoter and do just that.

There were a few moments that especially stood out in my mind. On one run, an ordinary pickup truck was getting very out of shape. Its outside front tire was consistently rolling way over, dangerously close to coming unseated from the bead of its wheel. Possibly after catching a rut or the edge of the course, it suddenly went way up on two tires. That could easily have turned into a serious rollover but the driver reacted properly and managed to safely drop it back on all four tires again. I couldn’t believe that I was so stunned by the sight of what I was seeing that I failed to document the incident with at least one photo.

I didn’t make that mistake again though, as a subsequent shot of a yellow race truck illustrates so well. It didn’t get up as high on two tires but it still managed to get everyone’s attention.

Towards the end of the day it started to get dark, but with more vehicles still having runs to take. I was sure the event would be called early, because of darkness, but hey – this is rally cross and that’s what headlights are for, right? Finally there were just two cars left to run. I don’t know what the last car would have been because of what happened next. A white, 2004 Subaru WRX took to the course. Everything was going great – at least as far as I could see in the rapidly approaching darkness and from the far side of the course. The car’s headlights were helpfully pointing out the way when suddenly things went very wrong and the driver took a wild ride off course. It ended suddenly, with a loud, sickening thud. Then there was silence.

This time I grabbed my camera and was somehow able to capture a marginally recognizable shot of the driver, in very low light, as he emerged from his badly smashed car. Amazingly he raised his arms, as if in jubilation. Later, when I spoke to him, I learned that his reaction was one of relief that he was okay. The airbag had done its job. While I am no horticulturalist, the tree that he hit looked okay too.

If you hear about more rally cross events, do yourself a favor and go. They are great fun for the whole family to watch and fun to compete in too. There were even cash and merchandise prizes for the winners.

Drive safely and do join me again next time.

Copyright © 2006 & 2021 by Jan Wagner — AutoMatters & More #175r4

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