Last week at the Fear Farm RC Raceway in Phoenix, a field of 306 drivers totaling 728 entries completed 38,514 laps for a total of 500 hours, 54 minutes and 32 seconds of track time. The final race of the week came down to two former world champions looking for their first Dirt Nitro Challenge Pro Nitro Buggy title, both of whom with a chance to score a special place in DNC history, finishing just 0.65 seconds apart. It may not have been the biggest Dirt Nitro Challenge (there were 759 entries in 2017, and 799 in 2015), but it may have been the most exciting.
Predictably, not all of the action was as glowingly positive as one of the world’s largest gatherings of hobbyists being treated to a phenomenal show of skill from the best drivers on the planet — but at least no one got hit with a chair this year! Here’s a recap of the week’s biggest stories:
Euros Using Gyros
First things first - this part of the DNC sucked. The unfounded accusations against Joao Figueiredo of Portugal and Italian driver Marco Baruffolo of cheating by using an onboard gyroscopic device reek [redacted].
Marco Baruffolo ran three classes but clearly only cheated in one to make it look as obvious as possible.
Sure, it was a total shock that these two qualified second and third in Pro Buggy on what’s widely known as the most American of racetracks, and yes - they didn’t live up to that performance in the final, but there are more than a few American racers that have made a career out of falling short of their perceived promise. For both drivers, the average of their top 5, top 10, and top 15 laps in the A-Main matched those of sixth-place finisher and three-time European Champion Reno Savoya. Baruffolo is a three-time finalist at the Euros, and multi-time, multi-class Portuguese champion Figueiredo once TQ’d the Euros B. If those sound like reasonably impressive qualifications against a talented field of drivers, you should also know that getting busted with a gyroscopic driver aid device at an EFRA event means a ten-year ban.
And while talking to people before putting this article together yesterday, I heard secondhand that there were those who wondered if Robert Batlle — the 2012 IFMAR world champion and three-time Euros winner — switched on a gyro remotely halfway through the 45-minute race. Seriously?
How could one of the best European racers in a generation mount a late-race charge on a U.S. track unless he suddenly started cheating 95% of the way through the week? There can’t possibly be any other explanation!
Even though the DNC doesn’t have such strict rules about their use, because it has never been an issue, consider the consequences for any racer — whose sponsors spent thousands of dollars to send them around the world to compete at an event where they were heavy underdogs — getting caught. They’d be ridiculed and ostracized by the industry, and their sponsors shamed dramatically. [Redacted] “You have to admit, they are kind of bold,” someone said to me without a hint of irony.
Either way, Joey Christensen and The Dirt crew handled the situation as best as possible, even consulting with Brandon and me about how to address the developing rumors as well as inspect vehicles for gyros. And since nothing was ever confirmed, I think the RC scene as a whole owes those two racers an apology.
It's really too bad Joao Figueiredo had to wait 48 hours after nitro buggy qualifying to race a long nitro main on an unfamiliar track at night in cold weather because it totally proved he suddenly forgot how to remotely cheat.
JQ’s Ego Took Over
It’s exceedingly rare that an RC race director deems the actions of a driver bad enough to kick that person out of an event. It’s even more rare when that racer is a high-profile professional, especially a company owner.
But we’ve also never really seen a company owner act the way Joseph Quagraine did at the Dirt Nitro Challenge, either.
The #JQTakeover sticker tagging campaign was annoying to most (especially as the stickers were intentionally impossible to peel off in one piece), but pranks in the pit area are nothing new to RC racing. Some drivers get all of their gear stacked into a giant tower, super-glued together, and then super-glued to their pit tables, and people laugh it off. To that end, the #JQTakeover stickers were annoying but not as big of a deal as, say, writing on his team’s van with a Sharpie marker.
Of course, switching off a competitor’s transmitter during the Pro Truck C-Main is a bit of a bigger problem, which is why he was disqualified from the event. I thought that Christensen’s decision to let Quagraine stay at the facility and help his team was graceful, and I actually appreciated Quagraine’s contrite apology on his Facebook page. Both parties handled the situation remarkably well.
However, in an industry so increasingly polarized over everything from manufacturer allegiance to what’s a good or bad level of drama, I’m not sure who the winner is. Those that like JQ Racing will laugh it off, and the company will score some additional exposure, while those that dislike Quagraine and the company will probably hang onto this kind of thing for years. The Dirt Crew unfortunately had an additional headache to deal with over the weekend, and even though some others will agree with me that Joey did the right thing there are certainly going to be those that think he didn’t do enough to curb this kind of behavior in the future.
I’ve known Joseph as an RC racer for a long time - about 15 years by now — and we’ve always gotten along well enough. I’ve defended him, and written stories about him and his company, and while I absolutely admire what he has accomplished I also agree that he has earned a fair bit of the negative criticism he has faced. I think it sucks for both Max Mört and the JQ team that this story is going to be what people remember from this race, not Mört’s memorable win. As Quagraine said on his Facebook page, maybe this was the wake-up call he needed. The fact that I’m unsure if he’s going to recognize this as an attempt to stick up for him while also fairly analyzing the situation for those that weren’t there, or blow me up in his next blog or podcast or selfie video, is part of the problem.
One of the best live interviews, coolest success stories, and most polarizing figures in RC racing. And he can still be all of those things without putting a target on his own back.
Right as soon as practice day started I heard “I PAID $90 PER ENTRY FOR NO WATER ON THE TRACK?!” yelled by someone walking out to turn marshal. Never mind that it was someone who works for a large manufacturer, and that he likely wasn’t taking into account that the pump - which is used to feed the hoses with water that has to be trucked into the middle of the field and stored in a tank - had frozen overnight and that the track crew was already hard at work trying to remedy the problem. It was similar to the response of our LiveRC chat room when we’d pop a circuit breaker or lose generator power in the middle of the 40+ E-Buggy C-heat: “I’M GLAD I PAID $30 FOR A BLACK SCREEN!”
The DNC isn’t the only event where, every year, I hear someone say “every year I tell myself I’m not coming back, and every year I do.” For the sake of full disclosure, I used to say the same thing about Silver State when I raced a decade ago. Isn’t that a pretty dark and awful pattern to occur at our industry’s biggest events? It’s certainly not the status quo of a completely happy group of people having a wonderful time. Holding some of the biggest and most important events of the racing scene at facilities which requires totally temporary infrastructure — generators, trucked-in water, and a satellite dish, says more about our industry as a whole than it does the individual events themselves.
Since there’s no way I can out any of the naysayers here without creating even more outrage, how about a nice picture of a dog?
Ronnefalk’s Historic Win
If there was any justice in the allegations casually lobbed toward the European racers, it’s that 2018 was the first year that a non-North American driver won the coveted Pro Buggy title - and that a Swede and a Spaniard put on a brilliant show to cap off the weekend. Reigning world champion David Ronnefalk added to what has rapidly become quite an impressive list of accomplishments, including back-to-back European titles in 2013-14, and now joining Ryan Maifield and Ty Tessmann as the only drivers to win all three Pro-class titles at The Dirt Nitro Challenge.
How many more races does he have to win before this guy starts getting mentioned in best-ever discussions?
Tessmann’s Bad Luck
This was the second year in a row that mechanical gremlins knocked Ty Tessmann out of contention for the Pro Truck title - a class he won five times in seven tries from 2010 to 2016. He flamed out before the ten-minute mark, his XT8 lost a spring cup early on and it had to be replaced by the second pit stop, and he and father Gord agreed to pack it up after a second flameout just past halfway through the race. In Pro Buggy, he started first and led 29 of 69 laps, but none of them after the 30-minute mark. That’s totally uncharacteristic of the Tessmann team, especially at the DNC.
This family shows up totally prepared, tries their best, and puts up with more than their fair share of haters. Ty certainly drove better this weekend than his results showed.
Like every other event which tries to determine classes based on skill level, but instead differentiates by levels of sponsorship, there were a lot of fingers pointing at drivers questionably entered into either the Sportsman and Expert ranks.
For several years, the Dirt Nitro Challenge rule regarding sponsorship in its lower classes has been defined, according to the official event flyer, by the level of a racer’s sponsorship by a chassis manufacturer: Sportsman racers can’t have one, Expert drivers can be 1%-99% sponsored by a car company, and anyone with a 100% free ride must run Pro. Even as flawed as that reasoning may be, as there were multiple Sportsman drivers with fuel and tire sponsors, there’s still the problem about how define that level of sponsorship in the first place. What is “1% sponsored” by a chassis manufacturer with respect to such a rule? Should someone who is pitting with the team, has received a free set of suspension arms and shock o-rings to rebuild their car before the main event, and lists “thank to you the team manager and the whole Brand X team” on their own driver introduction sheet be allowed to claim zero sponsorship? What if they’re related to someone who is sponsored and has no doubt benefitted from the cost savings?
Similarly what is the definition of 100% sponsored? Some companies give drivers a set amount of free stuff, and a discount on anything additional. Is that 97% sponsored? Should a racer traveling with a team’s drivers be required to provide receipts to show he’s at least paying a percentage of the retail price?
To be clear, this is not an indictment of the way that The Dirt Racing crew handled the class divisions this year — I’ve watched a driver get disqualified at the trophy ceremony before, so we know they have the guts to enforce their rules. The overlap in qualifying times was no worse this time than in previous years, either. The problem, though, is that there’s no go/no-go gauge for this kind of thing, and it just invites unnecessary controversy. Surely there has to be a better way, right? If the racing scene can devise a format that leaves no doubt as to who belongs where, shouldn’t we try to figure that out?
By all indications of both his experience at DNC and his lap times, Max Mört belonged in Expert. It's not his fault that the existing rules leave him in the middle of two arbitrary classes - and in the center of controversy.