If you think the Nitro Rallycross track at Utah Motorsports Campus looks terrifying, you’d be right.
You should try taking a ride around the thing.
That was the opportunity I had Friday morning as part of the lead-up to Saturday’s Nitro World Games. I had received an email from Nitro Circus’ media relations staff inviting me to ride along with one of the professional drivers taking part in the event, and after briefly questioning my own sanity, I decided it was a chance I couldn’t pass up.
So, I arrived at the track Friday morning, signed all the necessary waivers and put on a racing fire suit for what I figured would be several minutes of sheer terror. My fears were quelled somewhat when UMC public relations manager John Gardner mentioned that we weren’t going to be using the course’s iconic 100-foot jump, thanks to insurance concerns. However, as I grabbed my helmet and saw its certification sticker noting that it had tested as merely “good enough,” some worry began to creep in.
I sat atop the pit wall, helmet and HANS device on, waiting for my turn to come up and watching others take their ride around the course with drivers such as Travis Pastrana, Steve Arpin and Tanner Foust — titans of the action-sports industry. Then, I got a tap on the shoulder from a Nitro Circus staffer, who directed me toward a bright-orange Volkswagen Beetle piloted by 22-year-old up-and-coming rallycross driver Cabot Bigham.
It was my turn to experience the track that accomplished drivers like Ken Block and Blake “Bilko” Williams had called varying degrees of insane. Bigham’s crew was performing its final checks as I wedged myself into the passenger seat (those things weren’t designed for someone who’s 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds), and a couple crew members made sure my belts were cinched down tight. Bigham fired up the engine and we rolled toward the starting line as he warned me: “This track’s pretty gnarly. It’s about to get pretty dusty in here.”
We got to the starting line and waited for the signal to begin our run. Bigham held the clutch in with his left foot and revved the engine with his right. The nose of the car began to lower as we prepared to launch for what seemed like forever before we got the go-ahead.
And off we went. If you’ve never experienced what going from 0-60 mph in 1.8 seconds feels like, I imagine it’s similar to getting shot out of a cannon. Bigham fired through the gears as we hurtled down the straightaway, only to slam on the brakes as we reached the first corner —and the transition from pavement to dirt. He pulled on the emergency brake to lock the wheels as we slid sideways around the corner, narrowly missing a roll of tires that Block later hit during Saturday’s race.
Then, it was back on the gas. For his part, Bigham effortlessly guided the car through banked turns and over several tabletop jumps, though I know it was far from easy. I’d look over at him and see him looking relatively relaxed, only to look out the windshield and realize we were about to go airborne. Tight corner after tight corner brought us close to stacks of tires and concrete Jersey barriers along the edges of the course, but Bigham navigated those with ease.
We took several laps around the track before pulling back into the pits. As his crew members opened the passenger door and began undoing my belts, I tried to process what I’d just experienced. After all, the only other time I’d been airborne in a car was when my friend used to take his grandparents’ minivan into the desert outside of Moab when we were in high school, and we’d speed down the dirt roads with little regard for our own safety.
But this was different. This gave me a true appreciation for the drivers — who, make no mistake about it, are true athletes with how they have to maneuver those cars. It made me realize what a genius Pastrana was when it came to designing a course that by all accounts exceeds all other rallycross tracks in the world.
Later in the day, it also made me realize the risk these drivers face. Scott Speed broke his back during a qualifying run when he took a jump too fast and overshot the landing area — according to Foust, it was the equivalent of driving a car straight off the second floor of a parking garage and landing flat on the street below.
It was an experience I won’t soon forget, though I don’t think you’ll be seeing me behind the wheel of a rallycross car anytime soon.
Darren Vaughan is the sports editor for the Transcript Bulletin. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.