Red Bull, Volkswagen bet on motorsports in D.C.

A Rallycross car in the paddock at the RBRDC event last weekend at RFK.
WASHINGTON — “Where’s the best place to watch the action?”

I’ve walked the full run of the grounds in the parking lot across from RFK for the Red Bull Global Rallycross D.C. event, presented by Volkswagen, looking for the best vantage point. There are two sets of bleachers running along parts of the track, but each only runs about eight rows deep, neither affording a full view of the track.

“Your best bet is probably to get yourself stuck on top of the Ferris wheel,” a vendor tells me.

He’s not wrong.

Unless you’ve got a VIP ticket that gets you up the tower constructed along the Start/Finish line several stories in the air, the Ferris wheel’s as good a view as you’ll find. And the fact that there is a Ferris wheel at all speaks to the mixed target audiences for this event, the first motorsports race in D.C. in 12 years.

Alexandria’s Joshua Rubenstein is attending the event with his girlfriend and another couple. As a self-described big motorsports fan, he’s traveled as far as Connecticut and Austin, Texas, to see some of the larger racing circuits, from Formula 1 and MotoGP to the American Le Mans Series.

“It’s definitely on a smaller scale than some of those other races,” says Rubenstein. “It’s definitely not as professionally run of an event. The scheduling’s a little off. They’re not really on time so much.”

But the smaller crowds also allow for a more personal feel, especially away from the track.

“The paddock’s really open, which is nice,” Rubenstein says of the prep area off to the side of the course where cars are on display before and after races.

“You get to get really up close to the drivers and cars, which is not the case at a lot of events, so that’s better here.”

Rubenstein’s right about the demographic the racing series is looking for — the coveted 18- to 34-year-old man.

But families with young children in tow are here too. Call it the Volkswagen half of the Red Bull/Volkswagen marketing tandem. Hence the Ferris wheel, and the kids’ play zone, and the half-dozen food trucks scattered around the venue.

“We’ve been delighted by the response of families,” says Tim Mayer, general manager of Volkswagen Rallycross D.C.

Mayer runs about a third of this circuit of events for Andretti Sports Marketing. The Red Bull Global Rallycross series began in Barbados in May, was tied into the recent X-Games in Austin and will hit nine American cities in all before concluding in Las Vegas in November.

There are several heats and a final in both the Lites and SuperCars divisions. Each race is short — no more than about 10 minutes, catering to shorter attention spans. Racing, once thought of in single multi-hour blocks, has been condensed into bite-sized packages.

“It has a lot of appeal to a casual fan,” says Rubenstein. “I feel like this is a more television-friendly format.”

Not just television, though. While the main event was broadcast on NBC Sports Network — as will be the case with each of the remaining seven stops on the tour — many fans have been drawn to the events online.

That’s where Rubenstein first learned of the series and some of its stars.

“I’ve seen Tanner Foust’s videos,” he says of one of the circuit’s young stars. “I know it’s been on XBox Live last year and the year previous, and I watched it on there.”

The series teased the event with a promotional YouTube video showing driver Rhys Millen buzzing through the streets of D.C., ushered by a motorcade.

It’s an obvious and not-so-subtle appeal to the Internet generation.

“It’s been a concern about how to reach the next generation in motorsports,” says Mayer. “This is a really exciting, up-and-coming, new demo.”

The event drew a two-day total of more than 10,000 spectators, which may not sound like many, but given that it was a first-time event and reached the fans it was created for, Mayer considered it a success.

“From our perspective it went extremely well,” he says, especially of the Sunday crowd, which he says maxed out the capacity they’d agreed on with fire officials. “That, for us, was a home run.”

There is an obvious desire for Volkswagen, based in Herndon, Virginia, to see a local event succeed. So will this be a one-time event or an investment for the future of motorsports in D.C.? Mayer says he wants to be back next year.

“We’re looking at reconfiguring the event site a little bit to give spectators more space, trying to change the track to make it more exciting,” he says, already looking ahead. “One of the things I love about racing is that you always have the opportunity to do it better.”

Fans like Rubenstein seem willing to be patient and to watch this new branch of the sport grow.

“Yeah, I’d probably come back,” he says. “I like to support keeping professional racing around the D.C. area. This is kind of all that we’ve got.”

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