Motocross legend Jeff Ward made his rallycross debut at Daytona over the weekend on the eve of his 54th birthday. Charles Bradley went to watch him...
On Monday, Jeff Ward turned 54. A fair old age for any racecar driver. But far from backing off as he approaches his golden years, Ward decided to jump feet first into Red Bull Global Rallycross at Daytona over the weekend – in the middle of a heatwave, even by Florida standards.
I’ll give you a quick tour of my previous GRC experience: Before last weekend, the only time I’d attended an event was the Barcelona X Games in 2013 – a total shambles of an event that was rained out. Yeah, rain in northern Europe in the spring, who’d have thought?
Not the organisers, clearly, who hadn’t brought any tyres apart from slicks for an Olympic Stadium track that quickly turned into a muddy hell. After a three-day trip, the amount of competitive racing laps I witnessed? Zero.
So the series had something to prove to me at Daytona, where there was no chance of the event being rained out – it was over 90F in the shade, and 80% humid to boot.
Rallycross has always been a made-for-TV sport, with its quickfire race format and bunched-up grids – which I’ve always liked. So the emphasis is always going to be on ‘the show’, with the sport mixed in there somewhere. Contact, especially in the opening exchanges, is more likely then not.
And what about the drivers? Current Formula E points leader Nelson Piquet Jr, fellow ex-F1 racer Scott Speed, former Junior World Rally champion Patrik Sandell and, of course, Mr YouTube sensation himself, Ken Block.
But it was that debutant who grabbed my attention – Jeff Ward is a character who’s always fascinated me since he joined the Indy Racing League’s inaugural season. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, the son of a professional footballer, he swept to 125cc, 250cc and 500cc AMA motocross and supercross titles in a glittering 15-year off-road two-wheeled career, riding for the biggest factory teams.
After retiring from that punishing sport, he turned his attention to open-wheel racecars. His IndyCar career netted a third-placed finish almost immediately in the 1997 Indy 500 and then won his first race at Texas in 2002, beating Al Unser Jr by 0.0111s.
The team he drove for back then? Chip Ganassi Racing. And the team he made his Global Rallycross debut with last weekend at Daytona? Again, it was Ganassi.
“It’s just racin’,” he smiles when you ask him about all the changes of disciplines he’s experienced. “I think racing on the dirt on bikes and in trucks has helped me a lot in rallycross, knowing what to look out for, and where to find the grip. I’ve enjoyed this weekend a lot.”
In fact, the only real problem he had to contend with – as his pace was on a par with the frontrunners despite his lack of experience – was the complex start procedure, to ensure he got the best-possible launch from the four-wheel drive monsters.
“There’s so many buttons and levers to press,” he frowns. “If I can get into the first corner quickly enough, then I can race with any of them.”
At his grand old age, Ward showed no signs of slowing down either. Winning his heat, he grabbed a podium finish in Sunday’s final before a stewards’ decision – rather harshly in my opinion – demoted him to fourth.
“I’ll keep going as long as I can,” he says. “Practice day took it out of me, because we ran the entire hour – I really felt that I’d cooked inside the car. I actually don’t want to know what the temperature was in there…”
Well, I’ll tell you Jeff: they were recording cockpit temperatures of 150F, so he was literally being slow roasted inside his racesuit. Given his Glasgow roots, a city which is more prone to extreme chill than red-hot heat, the fact he survived is testament to the man’s will.
Next time, GRC, can I get somewhere in between biblical flood and an oven? I think Jeff might like that too…