Next week, hundreds of enthusiastic hobbyists and nearly all of the RC industry’s biggest racing teams will once again transform the Fear Farm R/C Raceway complex in Phoenix, AZ into a small town of tents and RV’s for the 19th annual The Dirt Nitro Challenge.
It’s the first major international nitro off-road race of the year (sorry I’m not sorry, Montpelier GP) and, with one will surely be another extreme track layout designed by Joey Christensen and his crew, one of the most exciting races of the year for both racers and spectators.
I’ve been fortunate to attend at least 17, and maybe 18 of them, as both a racer and member of the media, and the DNC remains one of my favorite races for several reasons. Its position on the calendar makes it an ideal preview of the year’s trends, and its format creates an exciting racing atmosphere that continues to draw the biggest entry counts in the hobby. Here’s what I’m looking forward to next weekend:
NEW PRODUCTS AND TRENDS
Tire companies AKA, JConcepts and Pro-Line often choose the DNC to debut new tread patterns for the outdoor racing season, though we’ve also seen new kits and prototype parts used for the first time in a major public setting. Among the notable items this year is the new MBX8 buggy that defending champion Ryan Maifield and his Mugen Seiki Racing teammates will be driving for its first elite race on U.S. soil.
It’s not just new products that could create a buzz. At last year’s ROAR Nationals, a rule change allowed drivers and mechanics to communicate with one another using two-way radios for the first time, and the devices spread like wildfire through the lower heats - but we hear that reigning national champ (and three-time DNC Pro-class winner) Jared Tebo is planning to try out the RC Racing Communications headsets to relay information to new Kyosho America team manager Zachary Rogers. Will other top pros follow suit?
The Dirt Nitro Challenge routinely draws a strong turnout of elite international talent, making a Pro-class victory at the Dirt Nitro Challenge as prestigious as any event outside of the IFMAR Worlds; in fact, reigning world champ David Ronnefalk is the only non-North American driver to win a major class at the race, as the Swede topped Pro E-Buggy in 2014 and scored the Pro Truck victory in 2015). British Kyosho star and fellow European Champion Elliott Boots was within 12 seconds of the Pro Nitro Buggy win last year, and his second-place finish is the highest for a foreign driver in that class. Boots, Ronnefalk and Italian phenom Alex Zanchettin all made last year’s final.
Those drivers will be among those chasing defending champion Ryan Maifield who, in his Mugen Seiki debut last year, became the first driver ever to win all three Pro finals in a single weekend. It wasn’t the first time Maifield crossed the finish line first at what has become his home nitro race: since the Dirt Nitro Challenge was first held in Arizona in 2007, Ryan has scored seven class wins - second only to Ty Tessmann, with nine total wins.
It’s not just the Pro ranks that are fun to watch. The unique four-day format of the DNC also includes Sportsman, 40-and-over, and 35+ Pro Legends categories (none of which I am fond of, at all), but the three-tiered separation provides the closest thing the nitro scene has to a Reedy Race Open-class environment where otherwise-under-the-radar drivers have a chance to shine. At any other race, drivers like Colin Herzig — who won both Expert Nitro classes in 2016 — are forced to choose between the Pro-class B-Main or being accused of sandbagging in Sportsman, but at DNC we get to see great stories like Charles Hicks and Carlos Arredondo earn career-defining wins on a Worlds-caliber stage.
FIFTH SCALE AND ULTRA-4 RACING
The Fear Farm RC Raceway is unique in many ways, among them having three different tracks packed into one expansive facility. The Dirt Nitro Challenge satellite races for 1/5-scale, gas-powered buggies and trucks as well as that for crawler-based U4RC rigs are among the biggest in their respective segments, and including them at what’s already one of RC’s biggest racing events is mutually beneficial.
Not only are 1/8-scale nitro racers exposed to forms of racing they may not otherwise see, the diehards who compete in either discipline get a boost of much-needed exposure to RC’s mainstream. Of course, it’s not uncommon to see a driver racing on the big track to split his time at either one!
Calling the pit area at Fear Farm a “tent city” during DNC is no joke - the sea of instant canopies and motorhomes buzzes with activity until the wee hours of the morning, with barbecues flaming and beverages flowing all weekend long. Friendly hospitality between racers provides more than a welcome reprieve from the Arizona sun, but an immersive hobby experience worthy of any RC racer’s bucket list. For those willing to withstand the 6 AM starter-box-tuning sessions, a weeklong-stay in the often-luxurious shanty town at the DNC is someone you have to try at least once.
This time next week, the drivers sorted into the first practice heat of the 2017 Dirt Nitro Challenge will be anxious to hit the track. I’ll be one of those traveling thousands of miles to get there, and I’m eager to once again be part of the crew that will broadcast the event to the computers and mobile devices of RC racing fans on the other side of the pit area, and around the world.