Rallycross Your Neon!

I’ve received a lot of email over the last couple of months with questions specifically about rallycross. I’m really excited to see this sport take off and become more mainstream. As I love to see Neons in the winner’s circle, I’m going to share some of my secrets. 😀 Let’s make this an open discussion. If you have something to add, or something you’ve found that’s different please comment. I hope you enjoy – now go get your Neon dirty!

General Rallycross Overview: Rallycross (at least in the United States) is very similar to Autocross. A dirt field or open dirt lot is marked with cone gates in a small course. One car at a time goes through the course and is timed. Unlike autocross where the fastest run is the winner – the times are added up (just like stage rally) and the lowest total time is the winner. Rallycross is a little tougher on cars then autocross – but with some preparation you can daily drive your rallycross car. See what rallycross looks like here!

If you’ve never been to an autocross or rallycross you may be a little overwhelmed by it all at first. I suggest taking a friend and figuring it out together. If you just go and watch one – you’ll be kicking yourself for not trying it that day. You will only need the following:

A car – A Neon? 😀 – In good working order. Check the air in your tires.
Your driver’s license – (and a parent if you are under 18)
Some cash – I usually get about $60 out on race day. Our local events are about $40 and that leaves me with money for lunch and dinner.
A helmet – Snell 1995 (SA95, M95, or K98) or newer. I picked up my first helmet used from a drag racer for $50. A used motorcycle helmet will do just fine. If you can’t find one, they usually have loaner helmets at the event. You may want to email the organizer and ask.
That’s it! – Show up and race! Sure, there are lots of other cool things to get for rallycross, but you aren’t hooked on it yet. Get your first couple races under your belt and then worry about the compressed air, the strut housings, and the service crew. :p

Basic Car Prep: After you compete in a few events, you’ll want to start looking for dedicated rallycross tires. This is going to save you from the occasional popped bead. If you jump into snow tires or used rally tires, don’t be tempted to drive to the rallycross on them! Any long trips on pavement are only going to eat your soft tread and you DO want a full season out of them, right? Try and get them onto stock aluminum wheels. 185/65-14. With the Neon you’re going to be stuck with 14″ tires. You probably have thought about running 15″ rims to take advantage of the truck-load of used rally tires from the Subaru kids. If you go with the standard size – 195/65-15 It’s going to rub with stock suspension. You now have giant tires on your car and will lose a lot of torque. Maybe you go for the lower profile 15’s like a 185/55-15 – good luck finding those used… 🙂

UPDATE: I just recently had success running only 2 front rally tires on a stock Neon. John let me dual-drive his Expresso. 🙂 The smooth rear street tires allow the rear of the car to slide around and you can save $180 on tires and be competitive in the M2 and R2 classes. Plus it’s a lot faster to change 2 tires instead of 4. We were able to run his car in two different classes on the same day!

Get your AAA membership. It’s cheap and if you have to use it once it will pay for itself. The most rallycross damage is done to tires and rims, but I have seen mufflers fall off, and the occasional damage or issues that will cause you to need a tow. My buddy John didn’t know that his Neon had a replacement rubber drain plug in the oil pan. After a fast run over a rutted course there was oil everywhere but in his engine. We called AAA to get him home. We drove the Neon to our first stage rally 70 miles away in Gorman. Some incentive for not destroying the car was backed up with a 100 mile free tow miles from AAA, which we didn’t have to use. 😀

Basic Driver Prep: Winning is 80% driver and 20% car. So, if you roll out of bed on the day of the rallycross, throw two energy drinks in a bag and run out the door – how prepared are you to win the race? How prepared are you to do the best you can? You show up late to registration and almost miss the drivers meeting cleaning all the loose crap out of your back seat from last weeks camping trip. Are you ready to drive? Are you ready to push the car as hard as it will go? You’re not even sure how much tire pressure you have? Where is that damn tire pressure gauge anyway? It’s stupid hot out there – no sunscreen or even a hat… Is that going to affect your performance? Of course it is.

You’ll be excited, but try to get some sleep. Wake up with enough spare time for traffic and if something unforeseen happens. Maybe skip the morning caffeine and go for a banana. Pack a cooler with energy drinks, water, and Gatorade. When Christine and I rally we go off caffeine and eat a light breakfast. Some juice or fruit, nothing that is going to sit in the stomach. We stick to water and Gatorade throughout the day and snack on beef jerky. It’s protein and salts, giving you energy and lets you retain some of that water. (So you’re not running into the woods before and after every stage.) On longer rallies we’ll have a small sandwich in the afternoon service. (Ask the crew – we love Quizno’s 😆 ) Are you prepared for the weather? Christine and I have a bag in the Rally Neon with rain gear and a towel. Sure it’s nice out right now – but what if it starts to pour out? Think about how much fun changing a tire in THAT is going to be.

The Rules: As of 2006 the SCCA and NASA regional events have a different set of rules. 😐 I say regional as – If it’s a NASA sanctioned rallycross, you will need to abide by the regional rules. For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll be using the CRS (California Rally Series) Rules.

SCCA RulesHere’s where I found an online copy of the SCCA Rulebook.
The cars are separated into 3 groups:
Front Wheel Drive, Rear Wheel Drive, and All Wheel Drive.
Then they are split into 3 modified categories:
Stock, Prepared, and Modified.

So, as Neons we’ll take a closer look at:
SF (Stock Front), PF (Prepared Front), and M2 (Modified 2WD – this includes front and rear drive cars) I’m not going to go over the rules line by line – that’s for you to do. I am going to go over what stands out to me as a long time rallycross competitor.

The most interesting thing about this ‘stock’ class is that it allows snow tires. I know for a fact that they are considering changing this rule, but for the time being it stands. I can say with certainty that you won’t be taking an SF win if another strong competitor shows up with snows on. Find some cheap snow tires with heavy, wide tread blocks in them. Don’t spend extra money for the softer ice compound tires. They’re too soft and won’t last a season of rallycross. This should cost you $200. The other modification that stands out is the air filter. Consider a K&N drop in panel filter. The exhaust is free as long as it meets noise levels. If you have a ‘performance’ muffler you’ll be fine. I’m right around the max noise levels with the Rally Neon and I have a cat and NO muffler. Keep in mind ‘stock is stock’ here – which means stock struts (or OEM replacements a.k.a the KYB GR2) and stock springs. Even if you were to go through the trouble of converting the car to an R/T or ACR – you’re still on stock struts. (Everything on the car must be upgraded to be exactly the same specs as that model. You have to get swaybars, struts, springs, rear disc brakes, etc.) Yes the R/T – ACR springs are a little stiffer – but this is just not worth the $1000 to do it. Autocross – maybe if it was 1997… Not now and not for rallycross. Get some meaty tires on there and sharpen your driving skills. 🙂

Find a set of used rally tires. I usually have a set kicking around. Find someone who rallies on 14″ tires they will love the $75 you give them for taking 4 tires off their porch. New ones will run you at LEAST $460 :eek:. Get a giant rear sway bar, and do what you can to get the rear end stiff. If you only have cash for one strut tower bar – make it the REAR one. Now you can add a set of SRT-4 Springs to your fresh KYB GR2’s. These can usually be found online for pretty cheap. Back end is stiff, ride height is up, good set of tires, this is how I would want the car for PF.

The sky is now the limit. This is what I would call an open class. You won’t be here until you are rally prepped – or on your way to becoming rally prepped. Are you ready to race against 200HP rally cars? Because if Bruce Davis shows up in his G5 250+HP SRT-4, you’re going to have your hands full. :p This is the class I would be racing in for the SCCA. You would think putting a P Class Dodge Neon up against a super HP car like that – there would be a no brained winner. BUT – If the course is tight and there are no long second gear straights, you’ve got a good shot at taking the win. 🙂

Jan Gerber at a rallycross in Nebraska!
Jan Gerber runs his Neon at a rallycross in Nebraska.
He regularly beats the AWD’s with a stock Neon and a set of snow tires!

NASA and CRS Regional Event RulesNASA Rules, CRS Rules, GCRallyX Rules.
These events focus on tires more then modifications. They are separated into 2 groups:
2WD and 4WD.
Then into 3 modification / tire categories:
Stock, Modified, and Rally (tires)

So, as Neons we’ll take a closer look at:
2WD Stock, 2WD Modified, and 2WD Rally. I’ll say it again – I’m not going to go over the rules line by line – that’s for you to do. I am going to go over what stands out to me as a long time rallycross competitor.

2WD Stock:
Straight up – no modifications. Unlike the SCCA class, snow tires are NOT allowed. So, you’ll want to get a fresh set of all season tires that are mud and snow rated (Look for the M+S on the sidewall.) I’m sure a panel filter is legal – but it doesn’t mention it specifically. So check with your local rallycross organizers.

2WD Modified:
Modified is modified. :p If you changed something on the car that gives you an advantage, then it’s modified. Get a giant rear sway bar and do what you can to get the rear end stiff. If you only have cash for one strut tower bar – make it the REAR one. Now you can add a set of SRT-4 Springs to your fresh KYB GR2’s. These can usually be found online for pretty cheap. You’re still on street tires though. 🙁

2WD Rally:
Now you can crack out the used rally tires. This is the open class. This is for rally prepped or future rally prepped cars. This is the only class that allows rally tires – so you’d be surprised who your competition will be. My advice in this class is go long term. Sure – rally prepped VW’s will show up and beat the crap out of you, but will they show up to every race? Is there a championship in your future?

Advanced Car Prep: You should be focused on making the car rotate better in the turns. Rear sway and strut tower bars are a must. I’ve been asked if removing the front bar is an option and I feel that it’s not a great idea for rallycross. You change the front roll rate and the car may be harder to handle.

Limited slip differentials are a must have upgrade. You have a few options: The $1000 Mopar differential is great, but if it’s keeping you from buying other essentials like tires – it may not be worth it. What’s an awesome diff with bald front tires going to do? There are newer $450 differentials on the market that may or may not be able to handle rally. I have had a good experience with the Phantom Grip and I think it suffers from a bad rap. It is a $250 friction locker. It’s NOT a progressive differential. It’s not a grand worth of machined clutches. Some people have sold it like that – and that’s where I feel the bad rap comes in. You need the unit and the Mopar differential tabs only – get more info here. Welding your differential solid is not worth the hassle. You risk breaking an axle turning hard on pavement. Is twisting an axle on a transit worth the traction and massive understeer you get from a locked diff? If you’re not on the gas – the car won’t turn. Have a good time with that. 🙂

If and when you decide to put a roll cage in, have a professional cage builder do it. Tie the cage into the front and rear struts and build some pre-load into the cage by hanging the rear of the car off blocks under the B pillars. This helps the car to be ultra stiff and extends the life of the car by connecting all the strut mounts to the cage. Ze’Neon lacks a rear swaybar, and I see no need to have one in with the stiffness the cage provides.

Suspension options are out there, but not a lot are “off the shelf.” I know DMS makes a kit for Neons. But at over $4000 for them and HUNDREDS of dollars to rebuild them after 2 rallies I don’t think they make a good fit for such a budget car. 🙁 I am currently running Bilstein inserts with success. I’m still working with Bilstein to get the damping down to perfection and the stock housings needed significant welding to survive rally life.

Underbody protection: The Neon also lacks any sort of “off the shelf” kit for underbody protection and skidplates. I’m gathering more information and pictures to find out what other Rally Neons out there use. If you’re at the point where you need some – start by using one plate of 6061 3/16″ Aluminum under the front of the car. You can use plastic from the firewall back. That’s 3/16″ HDPE (High Density Poly Ethylene) Available through McMaster-Carr. My front plate is tied to the car with 2 steel ‘skis’ off the sub-frame.

Advanced Driver Prep: I watched some in-car from a FWD the other day and what I didn’t hear scared me. The driver was setting the car up for the corner and slowing the car without down shifting. The revvs would drop as the driver went clutch in and got on the brakes for the corner. 😮 This is a very scary situation on dirt. Say the car digs a little too hard to one side when you get into a slide. You want power to pull you straight again. You can’t do that with ‘two feet in’.

The two most import driving techniques you need to learn to drive a Neon as fast as possible are:
1. Left Foot Braking. You want to be full throttle as much of the time as possible. Keep the power and speed up. Rotate the car with a little steering and a little left foot braking. You’ll be able to rotate the car harder then if you pulled the handbrake. 😀
2. Heel Toe Down Shifting. You simply cannot stop a car as fast and as controlled as someone using this technique. You are always in gear, you always have power as an option during braking. At this point I’m not going to go into all the details – there are advanced driving schools out there that will teach you these techniques.
A quick skim of Google found this: Heel Toe Downshift & Left Foot Braking

I hope to see you out there!
– Kris