Travis Pastrana’s FC1-X landed the 100-foot gap jump in first place, even after Irishman Kris Meeke’s vehicle collided with his in midair. Forty seconds and three turns later, both cars flew across the finish line in a cloud of dust at around 110 miles per hour. Meeke won, but drew a penalty for the contact, allowing the American to claim a championship point instead.
It was a typical sunny Saturday of racing at the Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside of Phoenix — all except for the eerie silence.
The stands were filled with the regular fans. Vendors were slinging the raceway’s signature tacos and energy drinks. But in the glittering air, every speck of dust casting a light beam slightly askew, something was missing.
That something, said Chip Pankow, was the chest-rumbling internal combustion of fossil fuels.
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Pankow is the general manager of Nitro Rallycross, a sport born of Travis Pastrana’s lifelong flirtation with dirt bikes and death. For the 2022-23 racing season, the fast-moving industry broke new ground again by rolling an all-electric class of race cars, termed “Group E,” onto a closed dirt racecourse. The double-header event held in Phoenix Nov. 11-13 was the fifth stop of the current eight-stop international tour.
While it’s not the first time electric vehicles have burst (quietly) onto the race car scene — Formula E (on-road) and Extreme E (off-road) are fully-electric international race events — Pankow sees “the Nitro-fied approach,” meaning bigger jumps, sand berms and banked turns, as poised to play a unique role in the environmental movement.
“We’re building a new sport here and trying to do it with a festival atmosphere that speaks to a younger demographic, on their terms,” he said. “The fans come to the racetrack and they see that these (electric) cars are cool, they’re fast, they’re fun to drive.”
Existing electric vehicle racing events have been preaching to the choir, Pankow says, traveling the world to broadcast support for the climate-containing benefits of reducing fossil fuel use, but often missing an audience with the crowd for whom that message might be new.
Whereas Formula E and Extreme E events exclusively feature electric cars, and draw eco-conscious fans, Nitro Rallycross also has a race category for internal combustion engines and one for side-by-side all-terrain vehicles, which also burn gasoline.
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Each Group E vehicle costs around $450,000, so organizers were taking a gamble debuting electric racing for a diehard fan base that exists in a world where the term “high-octane” has become synonymous with something extreme and exciting and cool. The rollout also struggled with setbacks due to the pandemic and supply chain issues, as the demand for lithium batteries increases worldwide. But Pankow said they looked at the sport, considered its future and that of the planet, and decided to take that bet.
“We knew if we did this, that it had to be spectacular,” Pankow said.
For Pastrana, ‘spectacular’ started with bikes and big air.
At 13, he was throwing tricks in the middle of motocross races to entertain fans. His distinctive stand-up riding style, better for spotting jump combinations, and natural aptitude for speed meant he could add stunt embellishments without losing his edge. In 2000, he took home the American Motorcyclist Association’s Motocross Championship, racing for Suzuki in the men’s 125cc 2-stroke category.
From then on, he led the field in the progressive supersizing of jumps and motorsports performance. His brilliant career in freestyle motocross included a five-year streak as winner of the annual World Freestyle Motocross Championship and a slew of gold medals at the X Games and Gravity Games. He still trains on a bike course of limit-testing dirt jumps and tight turns known as “Pastranaland” at his home outside of Annapolis, Maryland. But his latest passion has been demonstrating the racing mettle of all-electric vehicles.
“Our goal is to show that EV cars are not only something to help the environment, but we can actually really race them as well,” Pastrana said.
“Regular” rally racing has traditionally taken place out in the woods, on dirt road routes spanning hundreds of miles, said Chris Yandell, chief marketing officer for the Vermont SportsCar team, for which Pastrana is the star driver. But at some point in the 1970s in the U.K., where rallying was big, racing was paused to limit the spread of a rural livestock pathogen.
“They couldn’t do events for a few years and the guys were like ‘what are we going to do with our rally cars?'” Yandell said. “So they put them on a closed course track, dirt and tarmac. That’s sort of how it was born. Take rally out of the woods and put it in front of the fans, make it a more visible thing.”
As American dirt racing’s wunderkind, Pastrana took the lead on promoting and pushing limits in this next stage of the sport, too, bringing his backwoods skills and bike jumps onto the track. The evolution of rallycar racing from a gassed-up, long-haul chase that could be heard from afar, but only witnessed in-person by dedicated fans willing to trek to the best spectating spot, has been met with mixed reactions.
Pankow says he hears from a “hater” every once in a while, “but it’s few and far between.” He thinks most racetrack fans will eventually get on board and that, someday, internal combustion engines may even be phased out of car racing all together. He’s also cognizant of the environmental impacts of tires, which have been linked to deforestation and make up as much as 10% of microplastics pollution in the ocean, and has partnered with Yokahoma tires, a brand he says is committed to lowering its impact.
“People view motorsports as wasteful and bad for the environment,” said Joe Lombrana, a Phoenix local, longtime rallycar fan and former member of the Vermont SportsCar support team, weighing in from the stands at Wild Horse Pass. “But that’s not totally true. I think this shows that motorsports is slowly catching up to the times.”
Nothing else about these cars is slow. With the electric equivalent of 1,070 peak horsepower (F1 race cars average about 1,050) and the ability to launch from the start line to 60 in 1.4 seconds, the FC1-X Group E spec vehicles are the fastest cars the sport has ever seen. They can rally corners and punch straightaways with the best in class and, with more power and weight, they can clear bigger jumps than ever before.
The inaugural rallycar competition course in Utah, which was designed by Pastrana and first raced in 2018, featured a gap jump so big that none of the other drivers would do it, Lombrana said, not until Pastrana showed them, first on a dirt bike and then in his race car, that it could be done. And that was before the sport leveled up with an electric vehicle fleet.
Now, with every driver at the wheel of the same car, the racing is more about skill and strategy and less the glorified advertising competition between car manufacturers seen at rumbling NASCAR and F1 events.
When the Group E fleet rolled to the starting line at Wild Horse Pass for Sunday’s final, speakers around the stands blared the soundtrack of an accelerating heartbeat to alert fans that the race was about to begin. The silence emanating from $4 million worth of cars gunning for the top prize felt surreal, as if maybe the drivers all somehow forgot to start their engines. Chatting with other spectators, you could miss the beginning if you hadn’t trained your ears to register the new sounds of track racing’s future.
As Pankow predicted, not every fan is yet a fan. For some, the intangible stillness surrounding an event all about cheating death at high speeds is unsettling.
“It’s strange. I don’t think I like it,” said Becca Nguyen, a Phoenix native who has been driving out to Wild Horse Pass to spectate racing for a decade and plans to raise her first child, still in the womb, steeped in racetrack culture with her car-savvy husband. “The noise actually indicates what the driver is doing, whether they’re on throttle or not.”
But once the flag is waved, all the action is there. There’s a saying in car racing, according to Pankow, that goes something like “rubbing is racing, meaning rubbing fenders, rubbing doors.” For the entertainment of around 16,000 spectators over the course of the weekend, electric vehicles collided along the 1.2-km course as they drifted corners and jockeyed for position on either side of three 100-foot jumps.
The Group E final had to be restarted after Norwegian driver Andreas Bakkerud landed the first jump slightly sideways and flipped end-over-end off course. He walked away from the crash, though his vehicle was towed, as announcers described the atmosphere among fans as “electric.”
Those at the helm of Nitro Rallycross’s course change think the loss of racetrack sound vibrations is a small price to pay to “drive change in purchasing passions and desires,” as Pankow said. He’s sure the “Nitro-fied” scene is the future, with “bigger jumps, more horsepower, star drivers and a dash of ‘let’s not take ourselves too seriously.'”
To the sport’s biggest star, who is always up for a new challenge, the absence of thunderous fossil fuel combustion leaves an opening for other tactical information that changes the game in exciting new ways.
“We can hear so much more. We can hear if the tires spin, we can hear the suspension on the jumps, the other cars,” said Pastrana, who won Friday’s final and remained upbeat after finishing a disappointing sixth on Sunday. The weekend came to a close with Swedes Robin Larsson and Oliver Eriksson taking the top two steps on the podium and Kris Meeke from Ireland coming in third.
Next up, the Group E cars will make their debut in Canada January 20-21, 2023, on a track made entirely of ice and snow.
Pastrana can’t wait.
Joan Meiners is the Climate News and Storytelling Reporter at The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Before becoming a journalist, she completed a doctorate in Ecology. Follow Joan on Twitter at @beecycles or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.