The front stretch of Charlotte Motor Speedway is as far from the snows of Sweden or the gravel of Greece as one can get, but the results tonight were the same as they had been on such surfaces 30 times before as two-time World Rally Championship king Marcus Gronholm claimed victory in the first round of the Global Rallycross Championship at Charlotte.
The opening round of the 2012 season took place on a makeshift course that utilized the frontstretch of the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval along with the pit lane and the quarter-mile loop that the track uses for its summer Legends Cars event, with a number of water-filled barricades used to funnel race traffic through the course.
The event was dominated by Gronholm, who eased through his heat to gain the pole position for the final, then took the lead in the first corner of the nine-lap feature and rolled his Ford Fiesta to the victory.
“It means a lot for the team, the manufacturer and the sponsor,” Gronholm said. “It’s great to introduce the GRC to the States here in Charlotte and maybe we can grow this series more throughout the year.”
The event was run similar to a motocross event with four six-lap heats filling eight feature spots, with a three-lap last-chance qualifier yielding two more positions. Gronholm, 2011 series champ Tanner Foust, Travis Pastrana and Samuel Hubinette took heat race wins while Andy Scott claimed the LCQ win ahead of off-road star Rhys Millen.
The feature packed a night’s worth of action into nine laps as cars started leaning on each other at the drop of the flag. Gronholm paced a pack of five cars that took the shortcut on the first lap (the shortcut could only be taken once during the race), survived a little bump with Toomas Heikkinen and roared away to the lead.
Contact would be the theme of the night of Heikkinen, who ended the night for the popular Pastrana two laps later. Heikkenen pushed Pastrana into the pit-lane barrier on Lap 3 and took him out of the race, then spun out former BMX star Dave Mirra two laps later. Heikkenen ended the race in third after he spun out Hubinette on the last lap, but was black-flagged at the end of the race and dropped back to last in the 10-car field.
Foust was a strong second to Gronholm, while Stephan Verdier finished third after Heikkinen’s penalty. Scott took fourth while Hubinette rounded out the top five. Pastrana finished ninth after his suspension trouble, but his night was still better than that of GRC favorite Ken Block. Block had hard barrier contact that took him out of his first race, and he followed that with more trouble in the LCQ that left him out of the feature.
The series’ next event will be run at Texas Motor Speedway, in conjunction with the IZOD Indy Car Series event in June.