Since my last column unpacked all of the icky and dramatic junk that happened a couple of weeks ago at the 19th annual Dirt Nitro Challenge (click here to read it
), this week I wanted to focus on a handful of bright spots that left an impact on me after leaving one of the biggest, and most important, races in the RC scene.
You might’ve read rants on Facebook about how the race is dying and this year’s entry count is proof, but that’s totally fake news - the 728 entries across the nitro and electric 1/8-scale buggy and truck classes was the third-highest in the 19-year history of the Dirt Nitro Challenge. That entry count also includes 18 of the top 25 drivers in the world (according to Top 25 RC Rankings).
That’s certainly a sign of health, considering the concerns over the shutdown of the Fear Farm RC Raceway last December, and how The Dirt Racing wasn’t able to publish a press release confirming the event until just a month before its start date.
Yes, the U4RC and Large Scale races took a hit in attendance over last year; 14% and 35%, respectively. But we don’t have much data to diagnose trends in either of those industry segments, so to blame that downturn on the popularity of the overall event — and especially its main attraction — is at its best shortsighted.
Without digging through photos and race results from the last nearly-two-decades to make an objective observation, this might’ve been one of my favorite DNC track layouts of all-time.
It was fast, but with multiple sections that required stomping on the brakes to navigate tight sections quickly. It had big jumps, but nothing that required a huck-and-pray approach every lap. There were multiple spots on the track that had similarly fast alternative lines, and having so many consecutive corners in one direction gave pursuing drivers the opportunity to set up passes rather than waiting for mistakes. Whereas some previous tracks at the DNC have been hard to drive around, this year’s track was forgiving but hard to drive around quickly - and that sweet, sweet middle ground was ideal.
I can’t recall many nitro off-road tracks where the driver who started first on the grid suffered a poor start so often, given the relative ease of the first few obstacles, while at the same time benefitting those who had previously bumped up from a lower main event. In only 4 of the 13 A-Mains did the winner also have the fastest single lap. There were three battles for podium positions, including two for overall class victories, that came down to less than one second at the finish line.
This certainly wasn’t the first race result that suggested NorCal wunderkind CJ Jelin is the next big thing. He was in contention for a bump-up spot in all three B-Mains against an impressive field of top international talent — which marked a significant improvement over his first shot in the Pro ranks last year, in which he finished near the bottom of both Buggy B-Mains and failed to escape the C-Main in Pro Truck.
Jelin, who turned 13 years this past Friday, crashed in turn two of the Pro E-Buggy B-Main and was dead last by the end of lap one, but shredded his way through the field to finish just 0.222 seconds behind the race winner to earn the transfer position into his first-career DNC Pro final. About 20 minutes later he nearly did it again, having missed the Pro Truck final by just one point after qualifying. Jelin ran near the front of the B-Main for the first 23 minutes before his XRAY truck stalled one lap after his final pit stop. On Sunday afternoon, he started eighth in the Pro Nitro Buggy B-Main and raced his way into bump-up contention, where he remained within striking distance until dropping out of the race from the fourth position when mechanical issues cut his race three minutes short of the half hour duration.
It wasn’t just his driving, though, that earned my utmost respect. Following my interviews with the three bump-up drivers in the Pro Buggy B-Main, I walked down the drivers’ stand and gave him a high-five for his efforts. In that moment, when we’ve seen older racers throwing anything from obscenities to their own transmitters, Jelin was not just calm but excited about his performance — and after a sincere “thank you,” he immediately took off running and yelling with a fellow youngster before heading out to the track to turn marshal.
In just his second RC race in the U.S., 17-year-old Finnish driver Max Mört was the brightest highlight of a roller coaster weekend for the JQ Racing squad. Despite not running in the Truck category, and thus sacrificing quite a lot of track time to his competitors, Mört qualified second in Expert E-Buggy and first in Expert Nitro Buggy. A crash on lap two of the E-Buggy final knocked Mört out of contention early, and he dropped out of the race just after the halfway point. His run at the Expert Nitro Buggy title got off to a similarly shaky start, as Mört sunk as low as fifth in just the first three minutes, but he climbed back to the front of the field by the end of the first round of pit stops and pulled away for the win by nearly 16.5 seconds over a field of drivers of all ages, all of whom with more DNC racing experience. After the race, Mört gave a great live interview in which he talked about the challenges of the DNC and blocking out the controversy in his team’s pit area earlier that day.
PRO BUGGY FINAL
I know that I touched on the Pro Nitro Buggy A-Main as a positive note to last week’s otherwise negative column, but it’s worth reiterating how important it is to these major RC races that the finals, particularly the last race of a long and grueling week, be close and competitive. Full-size motorsports organizers and teams have spent millions of dollars over the past several years to increase passing opportunities and tighten up finishing results, and the need to make RC racing more riveting to watch — especially given the duration of large events, the absence of the human element, and the agonizingly convoluted qualifying format. Among the LiveRC crew as well as the small group of friends with whom I exchange text messages throughout these long races to get updates on the watching experience, there’s no stake in who wins or loses; we just don’t want a boring, runaway victory. When the track is being built, and the drivers arrive, the dozens of practice runs and qualifying rounds are run, the points are totaled, the bump-ups are determined, the driver intros are read and fuel stops are completed, there’s no way to know if the race will come down to the last corner. It should be mandatory that all races are that exciting.