F1-style standing starts; 550-bhp 4wd cars that rocket from 0 to 100 kph in less than 2.5 sec. More bumping and rubbing than in a NASCAR race. World Rally Championship levels of car control around an easily viewed, compact course that switches from tarmac to gravel and back again half a dozen times a lap. The technology-active differentials, 275-hp/liter engines-is second to none, but it's displayed in a Saturday night dirt-track format. Welcome to the European Rallycross Championship!

Nothing in my 25 years of standing trackside-not waiting outside turn one at the start of the Canadian Grand Prix, not watching a Group B Audi Sport Quattro apex inches from my toes deep in the Pennsylvania woods-had prepared me for the sturm und drang of the last Division One final of the 2002 ERC championship. Watching the six cars fight for the same bit of real estate as they braked-on gravel-from 150 kph for Estring Buxtehude's first turn, I heard Per Eklund's voice retelling the story of once being bumped here and ending up on the patio of the VIP tent just a few meters away. Close enough to be sprayed by gravel, the crowd just behind me roared their approval as the cars slid and jostled their way around the tarmac hairpin.

Rallycross traces its beginnings to the 1967 RAC rally. An outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease caused a last-minute cancellation of the event, but, boys being boys, it was decided to contest a single gravel stage anyway, and a week later a race was run on Lydden Hill, staged by the Thames Estuary Automobile Club and reserved for club drivers. Four cars started each heat, and during all the fighting for both finishing position and overall time, organizers realized they'd found a new motorsport recipe. ("Rallycross Yearbook '82," Eddi Laumanns cited by Frank van Rooy).

National championships soon sprang up in England and Holland, and Sweden followed in 1971. By 1973 a formal international championship, the Embassy-European Rallycross Championship, was organized. Brit John Taylor won the first title with Austrian Franz Wurz winning in 1974. In 1975 Dutchman Cees Teurlings won the ERA-European Rallycross Championship. The FIA took over sanctioning duties in 1976 and has organized the championship ever since. The ERC now makes stops in Portugal, France, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Belgium, Holland, Norway, Poland and Germany. Strong national championships continue to run across Europe, including series in France, England, Belgium, Holland and Sweden.

Like a Saturday night at your favorite half-mile bullring, an ERC weekend is full of short, furious qualifying rounds and races. No quarter is asked, none given, and rare is the quarter-panel untouched over a weekend. A timed practice sets the field for the three qualifying races. A points system based on results from those races sets the field for the C, B and A finals. The winner of the C final advances to the B final, with that winner advancing to the A final. Cars start five abreast for the qualifying rounds and in three staggered rows of two for the final

When Group B supercars were banned from the WRC, rallycross was a natural home, and the racing was spectacular. Eventually, though, the FIA decided to design a coherent set of rules for the Division 1 cars based on current WRC cars, and the Group B cars were excluded. Several of the 750-bhp beasts still run in the English championship, but reluctance to accept the rules changes has effectively kept that island nation from the ERC.

By Tim McKinney
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