Rallycross in America: Is Nitrocross the Answer?

(This article was originally posted on October 19, 2023 and has since been migrated to my site and updated.)

I became a fan of rallycross back in 2015 during the Red Bull Global Rallycross days. As a lifelong racing fan, I was immediately sucked in by the mixed surface racing, jumps and car control of some of the best drivers in the world. I wasn’t as big into action sports as I was when I was younger – when I raced BMX or hung around with skateboarders – so I was oblivious to the inclusion of rallycross into the X Games. Luckily, I stumbled upon the GRC and never looked back. The GRC had the biggest names in American motorsports competing in door to door action. Names like Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, Tanner Foust, Steve Arpin and Scott Speed – to name a few – electrified spectators with their brand of flat out racing.

The GRC opened the door for me to find the multitude of European rallycross series with even more spectacular racing and some of the fastest rallycross circuits around. Youtube became my favorite “channel” to watch. A quick search could fill my screen with hours upon hours of racing action. I was joyfully watching drivers from all over the world put on a show for the crowds that I would argue you couldn’t find in America. At least with the GRC around, the possibility of attending live races in America was more feasible than flying to Europe for an event. But, that changed. 

When the GRC shuttered its doors, North America had a void in the racing industry. The ARX popped up providing false hope that all was well within the rallycross world. Then that faded into the abyss after a single season, once again leaving a void. I was now heavily watching European events, especially the World RX Championship, to get my fix. I had a calendar marked with all of the upcoming events, some of which required me to be awake way earlier than I wanted just because of the time differences. I didn’t complain, I was watching the best racing in the world. 

Enter the insane mind of Travis Pastrana and his quest to build the most challenging rallycross circuit in the world which left fans in awe with a towering 100 foot gap jump and high banked turns. The track he designed in Utah quickly became one of my favorites. The only thing that made me more excited than the track was the drivers who came over from Europe to take their shot at conquering this beast of a circuit. But this was a one off race. A single event as part of the Nitro World Games. The following year would be the same and aside from this one event per year, rallycross in America was virtually non-existent. 

A pandemic hit, shutting everything down. Racing organizations shifted to sim racing to keep fans interested during these times. While amusing, it wasn’t the same. Pastrana, however, was formulating a plan to build a new organization, based in America, with tracks just as wild as the one at the Utah Motorsports Complex and bringing in some of the best drivers from all over to compete in supreme door to door action. Introduced as Nitro Rallycross (rebranded in 2023 to Nitrocross) the series promised “cars that fly” and also set out to give rallycross an American reimagining. 

The plan was simple: mesh motocross (where Pastrana had his origins) with rallycross to challenge the limits of the drivers. This saw the construction of tracks with multiple, large tabletop jumps and the occasional intimidating gap jump, mainly built with dirt surfaces rather than the traditional gravel surfaces that rallycross had seen in the past. These tracks were also built with a lot less tarmac included in the designs than most rallycross enthusiasts are used to seeing. On paper, Nitro RX promised to be exciting from start to finish. There was even talk of permanent tracks that could host grass roots style events in an effort to bolster the sport in the US and continue to grow it, introducing new drivers and new fans to the sport. Nitro RX also promised to be at the forefront of the electric revolution and unveiled plans to make the brand new, Olsbergs MSE built FC1-X the car of their top class of racing in the Group E category. The purpose built electric car was designed to take the abuse that the tracks of Nitro RX would surely hand out. 

The first season was exciting. The 5 stop season was a “proof of concept” for Nitro RX parent company Thrill One and, simply put, the season provided more than enough proof that Pastrana’s wild idea could not only work as a legitimate racing organization but that it also had the support of drivers and teams from the US and Europe that guaranteed to excite the fans in attendance. 

Fast forward to 2023. The rebranded Nitrocross is now in the midst of its third season, having completed just two rounds in the 2023-24 season. Pastrana earned the coveted championship at the end of the first season with a little controversy surrounding the final race of the year. The sophomore season went to the Swedish driver, Robin Larsson. After recovering from a near fatal shop accident prior to the season starting, Larsson piloted the electric FC1-X through a dominant championship season like the car was built for him specifically. But, the second season also brought about some issues, from a fan’s perspective. 

For starters, introducing the FC1-X as the car for the top tier of the series saw the elimination of the supercars sporting internal combustion engines. Initially it was announced that both the electric and ICE supercars would be on the grid for the second season, but that never came to fruition and it seemed like Nitrocross was banking on the electric revolution in auto racing to bring in the crowds. Except, American racing fans are simple (no offense intended). They not only want to see exciting racing but they also want to hear the racing. Without the sound of the engines pegged and the rev limiters popping, American fans just aren’t that attracted to the racing. I’ve spoken to several fans who tuned out in the second season simply because it didn’t sound like what they had come to love. On the flip side, there are also those like myself that have rather enjoyed the racing brought about by the new car. I’m not against electric cars on the grid but it is hard to get over that feeling of excitement when the cars are sitting on the grid, waiting for the lights to go green, engines revved for launch.  

Another issue was the low car counts at the events. The second season saw only 8 or 9 cars in the Group E category and not many more in the lower NEXT category that ran the spec Lite cars (also built by Olsbergs MSE) showcasing young, up and coming talent, some of which should have moved up sometime ago. To increase the action and fill the time, organizers kept around the CanAm SXS class from season 1 and held silly exhibition races with $500 vehicles ill equipped to handle the abuse. But the CanAms are all owned and operated by one team and function as an “arrive and drive” program that costs a whopping $15,000 per event and whose field is mainly celebrity names from social media or other action sports and a few established off-road drivers. 

Now that Nitrocross is in its third season, another glaring issue has arisen that is doing more to hurt their brand than help it. The first season saw the Nitrocross races broadcast on the NBC streaming platform Peacock. The second season was broadcast on Youtube. This third season has come with a move to Rumble, the streaming service meant to be a “free speech” alternative to Youtube. The first two seasons had great broadcast quality, not so much for the current season. The move to Rumble has come with a cost to broadcast quality, seeing issues with both sound and video during the events. There is also too much time during the broadcast given to the “driver’s lounge” in the broadcast booth, which is no longer beside the track but in the paddock, near all of the teams service areas. I, for one, am all for candid interviews with the drivers in between races, but the amount of time spent casually chatting with drivers packed on a couch is a sign that there isn’t enough racing being included in the events. However, when there is racing, there is no guarantee that the broadcast quality will be good enough to watch. 

I had high hopes for Nitrocross when it was announced. I was excited to finally see top quality rallycross in America again. Those hopes have since dwindled and the realization that Nitrocross isn’t sustainable long term has set in. Right now, the biggest draw to Nitrocross is Travis Pastrana. Over half of those that attend are just there to see him and meet him in the paddock. Beyond Pastrana, they have little to no draw for the racing fan. The occasional guest drivers like Kyle Busch and Chase Elliot from the world of NASCAR did a lot to introduce new fans to the sport, but most of those fans only watched because of those drivers’ involvement in solo events. 

That’s not to say that Nitrocross can’t be saved from its imminent demise. To the contrary, a number of things could be done that would make Nitrocross not only sustainable for the future, but also increase the fanbase to levels seen in Europe. 

The first change that needs to come for Nitrocross is that they have to bring back the noise! Again, here in America, we are simple and simple means we want it loud. We want to hear the engines pinging off of the rev limiter. The supercars need to return if keeping a fanbase is in the business plan for the powers that be. 

Secondly, introduce a new category. Whether it’s a novice, grassroots style category or maybe – and I’m a huge fan of this idea – go the route of RallyX Nordic and add in an Open 2WD category. More wheels on the circuit translates to increased ticket sales and viewership. Also, kill the arrive and drive SXS racing and establish rules that open entry up to racers and SXS teams who can pass tech.

Another growth opportunity for Nitrocross is through the promotion of a grassroots feeder system. NASCAR has been able to sustain for 60+ years simply because there is no shortage of drivers. You can go to local tracks all around the nation on Friday and Saturday nights and see men and women who have worked on their rides all week go out on track and bang doors with other drivers. Aside from solo timed events with the SCCA, you won’t find that for rallycross. That needs to change to grow the sport and the brand in America. When Pastrana first announced the series, he even mentioned permanent tracks that would house grassroots racing. Now that they are on their third season and third broadcast platform, there is no sign of that plan coming to fruition. 

Lastly, fix the broadcast. Either switch to a more stable platform or get some technical support. 

Again, these are just some suggestions based on what I have seen so far in the third season. Who knows if and what changes are coming in the near future. I surely don’t know, I’m just a fan and have absolutely zero knowledge of what is going on in the offices at Thrill One, but this is my opinion based on conversations I’ve had with other rallycross fans, some of whom I have introduced to the sport. The racing world in America is unlike no other. Anything you do has to have the fans in mind first. Afterall, they are the ones paying at the gate. 

As for the question of whether or not Nitrocross is the savior of rallycross in America, only time will tell, honestly. Right now they are the only game in town when it comes to American rallycross. There is certainly the capability within Nitrocross to grow the sport and give it some longevity. However, there is no guarantee that it – like those who came before – couldn’t suffer the fate of dissolution. I, for one, am hoping that the sport thrives and lasts. 

Copyright © 2022 Allen Keith  – All Rights Reserved.