The weekend of October, 9th marked the conclusion of an outstanding 2016 Red Bull Global Rallycross season. Set on the water at the tip of the Port of Los Angeles, the GRC track builders came in a week prior to the race and began drilling holes for Jersey barriers, moving tons of dirt for the massive setup and setting up grandstands for spectators. For this event, each outline of all the courses were painted in a brilliant fuchsia that stood out against the red, white and navy blue normally found at the GRC venues. Pink was the color of choice to help commemorate Breast Cancer Awareness month.
For DirtFish, this was a special weekend. DirtFish Motorsports driver, Conner Martell, would be contending for the overall podium with the possibility of winning the 2016 GRC Lites championship during his rookie season. Also joining Conner for this double-header race would be Washington native and stage rally driver, James Rimmer. Only two weeks ago, James competed in his inaugural Red Bull GRC Lites race at the Seattle round in Monroe, Washington.
Conner was back in his normal orange and grey colored suit, but the name sitting on the glossy back stripes was Axios by ECCO. This Idaho-based company designs and manufactures different types of modular safety lighting, used in multiple industries around the world and has helped support the DirtFish GRC Lites efforts throughout the 2016 season. Not only was their company name on the side of the car, we were also lucky enough to host a group from the company in the DirtFish paddock, allowing them a closer look at the unique dynamic the team has.
Friday was the beginning of the race weekend, with the first set of practice and qualifying sessions held that day allowing Conner and James to get a good feel for the very tight and technical track. The only thing that matters during qualifying is laying down the fastest possible lap. The driver’s fasted lap is what determines the starting position for the first of two heat races. This means there is no door-to-door racing, only the driver up against the difficult track and the clock. Conner and James ended up qualifying eighth and eleventh.
After a night of rest and relaxation, the two DirtFish drivers showed up to the track on Saturday morning ready for the second to the last race of the season. The first of two heats started early that morning. Conner had a great start getting to the front of the pack from the back of the starting grid. He had a great race until one of the other drivers made contact, forcing Conner to hit another car, causing him to loose all control of the steering and nearly drive off the side of the jump. Unfortunately, his car was not drivable from that point. The impact had bent and broken nearly every component of the front suspension. Once it was unloaded from the flatbed tow truck back at the paddock, the crew only had forty-five minutes to assess the damage, replace the parts and do an alignment before the car was needed back on the starting grid. These are the moments when the DirtFish team really shows what they are made of, because they were able to completely replace the front end of Conner’s car with time to spare.
Both James and Conner would be battling together with five other drivers in the second heat race. They both had great launches, putting Conner into the top three and making it through the first three corners unscathed. Even with Conner crossing the finish within the top three, it was all for not. Following the race, he was sent to tech inspection (which is routine for the top three drivers and a select few at the conclusion of each race). They check multiple aspects of the cars to make sure nobody has an unfair advantage. Throughout the season, Conner and his car have consistently weighed over the required weight for the GRC Lites cars. Unfortunately, this time was different. The final weight came in 17 pounds below what it should have been. Conner was given a penalty, sending him to join his teammate, James in the last chance qualifier. Lead technician, Sean Medcroft, checked and rechecked his calculations multiple times to find the culprit, with no avail. So, weight was added and both cars were sent to the start of the LCQ.
The LCQ was mostly uneventful. James Rimmer moved into the fourth position early in the race, a position he was able to hold to the end. Conner was held up at the rear by traffic for the majority of the race, until he was able to take the Joker lap and slide right in behind James. The teammates crossed the line together, however only James was able to move onto the final with a fourth place finish.
This would be the first time for James to compete in a Red Bull GRC Lites final race. Even though he started from the back row, James was able to get a good launch and pull ahead of a couple of the other drivers, heading downhill into the first set of turns. James laid down consistent lap times and ran a clean race to finally finish in 7th place, his best GRC Lites result to date.
James remarked, “Making it to the main event and finishing was a huge confidence booster for me. Having to compete against ten other drivers at once was crazy and like nothing else I’ve ever experienced!”
Following the race, there was minimal re-prep that needed to be completed on both cars. This allowed team to enjoy a relaxing dinner by the water with a view of the Port of LA.
Sunday morning, the final day of the season, was calm and clear with an unbelievably vibrant sunrise that brought out the bright colors around the track. The supercars were first on the track as the sun was still peeking over the San Gabriel Mountains to the east. During qualifying, Chris “Atko” Atkinson put the Subaru STI in the pole position. That is the highest qualifying spot Subaru Rally Team USA has seen in some time.
The final race of the Red Bull GRC season is notoriously the roughest round of the season. It’s an all-out, no holds brawl for each driver to put their car on top and settle any scores from throughout the season.
For the GRC Lites teams, qualifying took place the previous evening and went straight into Heat 1. Both of the DirtFish cars were on the starting grid for Heat 1B. Conner ran a clean race, finishing in the third position, while teammate James Rimmer wasn’t able to move through the traffic in front of him and finished 6th place. During heat two, Conner was edged out of the final qualifying spot by Alejo Fernandez and came across the finish line in fourth. On lap two, James was forced wide and tagged the safety barrier. Because of the contact with the wall, he was forced to retire from the race. Both drivers would move on to the last chance qualifier (LCQ).
While the LCQ isn’t necessarily the place any team or driver wants to be, Conner has proven his determination to be in the final. The few times that he has raced in the LCQ, he walks away with the win nearly every time. This time was no different. He jumped into the lead right at the beginning of the race, out-braking everyone else heading into the first set of corners, and increasing his lead throughout the race. James barely missed out on the final qualifying spot, ending up in 5th place.
If you don’t count the huge wreck at the race in North Carolina, Sunday’s final was one of the most eventful races of the season for everyone involved. Heading into the third corner, Miki Wekstrom hit the driver’s side of Conner’s car, then crashed into the back of two other drivers, spinning one and forcing the other into the wall. Conner luckily was able to make it through that mess and continue into the 4th position. Alex Keyes left the entire field behind from the start and was so far ahead that it didn’t seem like anyone was going to catch him. That was until his car had a mechanical problem and he was forced to pull off allowing DirtFish alumni, Cabot Bigham, to take the lead. A little further back in the pack is where Conner was battling hard with CORE Autosport Driver, Scott Anderson, for the second position. Conner was patient throughout the race and was working on closing the gap before taking the strategic Joker lap. That plan worked out in his favor, placing him close enough to Anderson and allowing a pass to be made on the final lap. It looked like Conner would take second place in the final, until Colin Braun hit Conner and took him out on the final corner of the final lap. Conner’s car had a broken steering column, not allowing him to finish the race because of the aggressive move by Braun.
Even without finishing the final race, Conner was still able to place fourth in the 2016 driver’s championship. For a rookie, he has had an unbelievable season- he won two rounds (including DirtFish’s home event in Seattle) and finishing second place in the first race of the season.
While these weren’t the finishes the DirtFish team was hoping for, this weekend was the perfect example of the strength and teamwork between the two drivers, the technicians, support staff and the team as a whole. The way our team works together is a sight to be seen and is on par with even the top supercar teams. The 2016 season couldn’t have been such a huge success without all of the hard work from every person involved.
We would like to send a MASSIVE thank you to every single one of them: Sean Medcroft, Michelle Miller, Carolyn Bosley, Andrew Caddell, Kelcey Shelton, Chase Schmidt, Galen Callahan, Scott Tell, Joe Lin, Ted Anthony Jr., Josh Tons, and of course Conner Martell and James Rimmer – thank you for an amazing 2016 Red Bull GRC season.
Article by: Trevor Wert (DirtFish)
Photos by: Josh Tons and Corey Silvia