“You drive sports cars on track, yes?”
Igor Palagin, a giant bear of a man who looks more of a member of the Red October crew than a racing driver, looms over me as I strap myself into the driver’s seat of his Fast & Speed USA dirt buggy.
“Yes, I do,” I reply somewhat nervously.
Igor laughs a hearty, booming laugh. “Forget everything you know about driving. This is completely different.”
As I struggle to even see the nearly 100 feet of elevation of the dirt course at Thunderhill Raceway through the tiny, wire-cage lined windscreen in front of my face, I think silently to myself: No kidding, Igor.
Igor and his business partner, Robert Myers, have worked tirelessly to bring the European Rallycross experience to the United States with their company, Formula X Autocross. Igor is a champion Rallycross driver who has won races all across The Continent, and he’s also a brilliant businessman with a successful construction company.
But on this cool, windy Northern California day, he’s serving as my motivational speaker as I attempt to drive off-road for the first time in my life. “There’s a jump on the back straightaway. I don’t recommend that you jump it your first time out.”
“Don’t worry,” I laugh. “I won’t be doing any jumping.”
And I don’t. Well, not until the second lap.
Palagin’s buggy is constructed on the same chassis as the Race of Champions cars, but it’s tuned specifically for the dirt. Powered by a donor motor from a Kawasaki ZX-14, the engine is motivating 1,100 lbs with 200 horsepower. It has a six-speed sequential transmission, which adds to the sort of jamais vu I experience as I start to make my way around the course.
Everything about driving the Fast & Speed USA buggy is exhilarating. The sounds are preposterous, thanks to the screams of the Kawasaki engine that never seems to hit the redline. The dirts flies at you from every direction, even managing to make its way up underneath my full-face helmet. The cage that lines that microscopic windscreen disappears as my eyes learn to look past it through the ridiculous elevation changes in front of me.
And Palagin is right. Nothing I know about driving on a track seems to apply here. The buggy doesn’t want to turn the way I think it should. Instead it either plows like a dump truck or oversteers like a Viper. Nothing is power assisted, making every corner a massive effort. I can’t seem to identify apexes, because the surface of the track seems to change ever so slightly with every lap.
I come back into the makeshift pit area after a couple of laps, slightly frustrated but equally intoxicated.
“You need to shift a little more,” explains driving coach Kevin Madsen. I know Kevin from his work with EXR Racing in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where he serves as chief driving instructor and race director. “Downshift, pitch the car into the turn, and then let the back end come out and pull you through.”
As I’ve been running the entire course in fourth gear, as I normally advise road course rookies to do, this makes total sense. “And don’t forget to upshift for the straightaway before the jump,” advises Palagin, who seems to have forgotten his earlier ban on catching air. “You want to hit it at full speed.”
A-ha. Now it’s working better. In fact, it’s working so well that I don’t ever want to get out. The kart makes you feel like Superman, flying through the air. I mean you actually fly. Hitting the jump at speeds in excess of 60 MPH translates into an incredible sense of weightlessness, sending you further and further down the track until you realize holy shit there’s a turn right now I’m not gonna make it ahhhhhh crank crank crank whew made it oh no now there’s another turn and so on and so on. There’s nowhere on the Formula X Autocross track to rest, nowhere to release your death grip on the wheel and take a breath.
But who wants to rest? Not me. I literally run the kart to empty, stalling out on the back section as the engine sputters to a stop. No matter — there’s another vehicle to check out.
If the buggy is a 10 on the scale of unfamiliarity, this Cross Kart is a 100. Weighing only 660 lbs, the kart is powered by a 600-cc motorcycle motor that generates 140 horsepower. If you’re playing along at home, that is an insane power-to-weight ratio. As a result, everything happens much, much faster.
Oversteer is a way of life in the Cross Kart. Turns that seemed relatively benign in the buggy are now vexing. Power comes on instantly and abruptly, kicking the tail out at the slightest aggression. And the sounds — my God, the sounds! The redline doesn’t come until well past 10,000 RPM, something my sports-car brain fails to comprehend.
But it’s a revelation when you get it right. The flickability and nimbleness of the Kart requires nearly constant hand movement, steering and correcting, steering and correcting again as you keep your foot down in each corner. It’s not dissimilar to driving a drift car, only there’s no walls to hit — just you and God’s green earth.
In short, it’s a workout, yes, but it’s like doing P90X — it kicks your ass, but the results are worth it.
“There’s a slight learning curve but not as much as one might think. Road racers need to focus even more on load transfer than normal. You picked it up right away and it’s a blast to watch you on course,” says Madsen.
As I extract my body slowly and carefully from the kart, sore nearly everywhere, I ask Myers what is his vision is for this program. Is it an arrive-and-drive? Is it private ownership? Is it a time trial? Is it a race?
His eyes gleam as he grins. “Yes,” he answers. “All of that.” Anything from one buggy or kart on track at a time to 10 to 12 vehicles on track at a time, running 25-lap races. My body aches as I think of running 25 laps in either vehicle, especially with the added complexity of trying to control the kart with nine other drivers around me. But there’s no doubt that I want to try it, as soon as possible.
“So, are you hooked?” asks Igor as we pack up for the day. The grin on my face says it all — yes, I’m hooked. I’ll be back as soon as I can.
To find out how you can experience this for yourself, either in Northern or Southern California, go to www.fxautocross.com and register to get more information or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and get in touch with Igor and Robert.
By Mark “Bark M.” Baruth on December 21, 2017
[Images © 2017 Judy Lu]