I was at X Games 16 and it was awesome.
A dozen yards in front of me, Super Rally competitor Tanner Foust was twisting his cranking his car through a series of victory donuts, celebrating having just won a gold medal. Maybe.
Actually, none of the spectators gathered in the L.A. Memorial Coliseum knew who had won and even the event’s announcers were unsure whether to declare frontrunner Foust the winner.
Those at home watching the race on ESPN may have even been more confused. On-air commentators at first suspected the checkered flag had been waved a lap early, prematurely ending the race. ESPN.com chalks up the bewilderment to a technical error: “There was some on-air confusion when the lap count on television didn’t match the live race.”
The motorsport, in which drivers race highly customized cars on combined dirt and paved tracks, combines elements of drifting, offroad racing and street racing in an X-worthy adrenaline-fueled clash. In Rally Car Racing, they compete two at a time — driving the course in opposite directions — with the best overall time taking the gold.
Super Rally Racing, making its U.S. debut at XG16, comprises a more conventional race, four cars circling the track for several laps (having to take a jump on the driver’s choice of lap) before the finish line.
ESPN, which calls the shots for its X Games property, made two significant changes to Rally Racing that resulted in difficulties and frustration for drivers and fans alike. In previous years, drivers were accompanied by a navigator in the passenger seat, which is the practice in traditional rally races.
Instead, navigators were replaced by ESPN commentators in the cars. This wouldn’t have made a difference on a simple track, but the second change was that the course was a preposterous series over overlapping, circuitous turns weaving in and out of the Coliseum.
The drivers’ confusion was apparent throughout the elimination heats and finals; many lost their way and were disqualified. The strange course was unusually taxing on the cars, all of which struggled with the tight turns and many inclines. Unfamiliarity also contributed to the day’s carnage, as drivers wheeled into barriers or one another.
By the end of Rally Car Racing, only a couple drivers had actually correctly completed the course in their heats. In an anticlimactic finale, Foust won the gold only when his opposition, Brian Deegan, got turned around and lost his way.
Fan disappointment was understandable. It only grew when fan-favorite Travis Pastrana (who had already won Moto X Freestyle gold at XG16) was unable to return to compete in Super Rally due to irreparable — even after a new engine — damage to his car.
The X Games are as much about spectacle as competitive sporting event, though, and the drivers were committed to ratcheting up the action for Super Rally. Brushing aside any irritation with the previous event, the competitors took to the high speed, four-car dustup with renewed fervor, smashing and grinding their way to the finals.
Then there we were at the culmination of Super Rally, Foust’s car spirographing patterns in the track as onlookers and audiences at home scratched their heads wondering what was happening.
The other drivers joined in, revving their engines, spinning out, whooping and pumping their fists in the air. They leapt out of their cars, joining in a manly group embrace. Foust had won — or maybe he hadn’t. They didn’t seem to care.
At the X Games, sometimes it’s more about the thrill of being there than who walks away with a medal.
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Photo credits: Getty Images, Eric Almendral