Rough road for rally car privateers

Updated: July 30, 2011, 4:47 PM ET
By Jen Horsey | ESPN.com

Lars Gange/Shazamm/ESPN ImagesStephan Verdier churns up a cloud of dust during practice at X Games 16.

Being a privateer in car racing is tough. It's an eye-wateringly expensive endeavor, and while factory-backed teams enjoy the support of their car manufacturers to get cars built and budgets funded, privateers are going it alone.

Most of them have day jobs. They plunk down cold, hard cash to buy the vehicles they turn into racecars (called "shells" because they are stripped down to little more than a shell of a car before the roll cage is inserted and racing parts are added to turn it back into a competition vehicle), and they do a lot of the mechanical work themselves.

It isn't a small investment to run a racecar, considering the current resale price of the cars in the X Games field range from about $20,000 to more than $500,000 -- each. Maintenance and between-race preparation can cost just as much, if not more, in a single season. As one might expect, the privateers' cars are on the low end of the price range.

"It's not cheap, but it's really encouraging as a privateer to be able to fight with the big guys," says privateer Stephan Verdier. "When I passed [Marcus Grönholm] at Irwindale [CA, during the 2011 Global RallyCross Championship event there], that made my year."

Being a privateer doesn't mean these drivers are without sponsorship. The most competitive of the privateers in the XG 2011 Rally Car field, Verdier just picked up backing from the Disney property Kick Buttowski and has his engines supplied by top California speed shop Crawford Performance (the same outfit built the Gymkhana Subaru featured in Ken Block's original viral Gymkhana videos). But because he doesn't have factory backing, Verdier prefers to call his car the "Kick Buttowski STI," leaving the manufacturer out of it altogether.

"The racing, I love it. But it's hard for me as a small team," says Verdier, who finished fourth at his first X Games appearance (he competed in Skier X years ago, too) in the 2010 rallycross discipline (called Super Rally). "We're doing much better than I thought we'd be doing."

Even so, he wrenches on the car himself -- in his own garage -- and depends on the help of friends to get race ready. "We worked on it all winter long," says Verdier, who works as a driving coach for various companies when he isn't racing. "We took weight out of the car... I tried to keep it mostly stock, though. One reason is money; parts are less expensive and you can buy them at the local dealer."

On race day, Verdier will get his hands dirty if anything needs to be fixed. By contrast, the Ford drivers might watch while dozens of technicians hammer away. Or, they might just go into the team motorhome for a cold drink and wait for the work to get done.

Somewhere between full factory teams and privateers are a couple of drivers who have a level of factory support but won't have the same support as the big names for X Games. Liam Doran, whose Citroen C4 isn't manufactured or sold in the United States, and Michael Jernberg, who drives a foreign Skoda Fabia, are two of these, though Jernberg is closer to the privateer end of the scale. He left European Rallycross Championship competition at the end of 2010 to focus on America -- after Skoda backed out of his program.

Newcomer Nathan Conley, who was invited to compete in 2008 but bowed out just weeks before X Games after a big crash at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb left him with a broken back, is on the bottom end of the privateer scale. His family construction company, Redline Pipeline, tops his sponsor list, and he estimates he couldn't sell his 300-odd horsepower 2004 Subaru WRX STI race car for more than about $20,000 -- probably less than a quarter of what somebody might pay to buy Verdier's 500-horsepower car.

"The racing still comes out of my pocket," says Conley, who salvaged his shell from a junkyard, where it had been awaiting the crusher before it got a second chance at life as a racecar. The team -- largely made up of family members and friends -- has named the car "Bullet" because there was a surprise in the trunk when they brought it home. "If you pop open the trunk, it has bullet holes in it," he says. "I'm thinking it's from sitting in the salvage yard -- people shot it up. I don't really want to know any different."

Because it's a huge undertaking to make a go of racing as a privateer, many of them support each other. Conley and Jimmy Keeney, who are both from Colorado, have a long history of helping each other get to the races.

"We don't only do our car, we have to do everybody else's," says Keeney, whose family runs a body shop and is involved in rally and Pikes Peak competition. "We're working with Nathan right now; I just got his car painted yesterday."

Likewise Pat Moro, who lives in Ohio, will arrive in Los Angeles with first-time competitor Dillon Van Way in tow. Moro has arranged to rent one of the two rallycross cars he has built to the 19-year-old for his first campaign in an all-wheel-drive car and will help show him the ropes on the ground.

"I'm pretty much a one-man show trying to get all this stuff figured out," says Moro, a competitor in Rally Car Racing and the alternate in RallyCross. He's a construction specialist who has competed at XG in 2007, 2008 and 2010; he was an alternate in 2009. "Being able to do two of 'em has killed any time I had to do anything else. The whole concentration is trying to get these cars right."

Joseph Burke, the lone competitor in a Mitsubishi (Lancer Evolution IX) in 2011, competes when he can get away from his full-time studies in mechanical engineering at Auburn University in Alabama and longs for the day he can be part of a big team and take some of the burden off of his family. "I'm trying to make it a business where I can buy them flights instead of them having to buy me flights," says Burke.

But even though they may help each other out off course, don't count on these guys to go easy on each other on race day. With their helmets on, their rivalries run deep and some of the toughest match-ups will occur if some of the more evenly matched privateers start side-by-side. But the end result of these battles might just be a little different than the steak dinner awaiting a champagne-soaked winning factory driver.

"If Conley hits me, I'll have a discussion with him," says Keeney. "If I hit him, I'll just fix his car."

Jen Horsey is a commentator and reporter who specializes in rally. She competed as a co-driver in rally racing at X Games in 2008 and front-flipped over the gap jump.