Nitro Rallycross headed to Strängnäs Motorstadion in Sweden for the second round of the 2022-2023 season, with Vermont SportsCar eager to kickstart its campaign in the all-electric Group E category after a challenging start to the season in the UK.
The team had a strong run in practice, Travis Pastrana topping the opening session and Conner Martell winding up third, which set them up nicely for a competitive run in the battle bracket.
But before that, a new addition to the format in Sweden was the Bracket Seeding Heats – a pair of multi-car heat races that decided the bracket lineup on Saturday morning.
Martell raced in the first bracket seeding heat, and with the rest of the weekend to play for, he kept out of trouble and had a conservative run to fourth.
In the second seeding heat, Pastrana started on pole but immediately faced a robust challenge from Olsbergs duo Oliver Eriksson and Niclas Grönholm and eventually finished third after a few brushes with the pair during the race.
With the bracket seeding heats completed the teams moved onto the exciting 2-car head-to-head bracket battles, which serve as qualifying for the Sunday heats. Unfortunately for Pastrana, he lost out in his first battle bracket dual to Andreas Bakkeurd, but not before giving the eventual event winner a hard-fought challenge. He led during portions of the contest, only narrowly missing out after the joker strategy played out.
Martell meanwhile comfortably saw off Ole Christian Veiby and Grönholm – beating the latter despite racing with a puncture – before falling to bracket winner Eriksson in a tense semifinal.
Day two was a bit more tricky for the team. Contact at the beginning of the opening heat left Pastrana retiring with steering issues and setting his day back considerably, while a spin for Martell early in the day meant that he too had to qualify for the main event via the Last Chance Qualifier.
There, both drivers were strong enough to advance, but with four-time World Rallycross champion Johan Kristoffersson making a clear getaway and taking an untroubled victory, only one of the VSC drivers would be able to capitalize on the second and final transfer spot.
Martell jokered on the final lap, and with Pastrana having taken the longer route earlier in the race, it set up a nail-biting merge as the pair headed to the checkered flag. Martell took the spot by inches, advancing him to the final for the first time this season, while Pastrana missed out on moving into the Final for the first time since Nitro RX became a multi-round series.
“We had some great speed, a lot of fun, [and] the track out here was a lot of fun to drive,” said Pastrana. “Really hard to pass on, but we positioned ourselves good, both Conner and I for the final day of racing.”
“I had a little bump in the first turn with Kris Meeke in the first heat and it broke the steering so the crew worked very hard and did a great job of fixing it. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get it completely set for the semi, and then started on the back row of the LCQ with some really good guys that still hadn’t made the final.”
“So I didn’t quite make it, Conner edged me out in the LCQ and that was the end of our day.”
In the Final, Martell looked to play the long, smart game by hoping to benefit from anticipated first corner carnage and vault up the order from the back row of the grid. The drama, however, never came, leaving Martell to settle for sixth overall finish.
“Battle Brackets went a lot better for us, we went to the semifinals, lost to Oliver Eriksson – he was on fire all weekend,” said Martell. “Then going into Sunday, we had semifinals and I was sitting P2 and I made a really dumb mistake and tagged one of the tire barriers and it spun me around which was super-unfortunate for the team and for me because we could have just had a transfer spot right into the final which just didn’t happen.”
“But we made it, battled hard in the LCQ and made it to the final. We expected everyone on the outside to go wide but everyone funneled inside instead and it kind of just turned into a train in front of me.”
“But overall, we finished a final and I’m happy we made it. The VSC team did an amazing job and we’ll get ‘em in Minnesota on the home soil.”
Team manager Dan Anctil was pleased with the team’s performance, even though external factors in the races left the team with results somewhat below expectations.
“The event started out well, we’re doing really well throughout practice and qualifying, had some really good competitive times,” he said. “A number of things lined up and shuffled us kind of to the back of the field, and it’s difficult to recover from that in a spec series where everyone is at nearly the same pace. But we’ll move forward, bringing it home to Minnesota for the next round.”
Attention now turns to that next round of the season on October 1-2, the first of four to take place in the United States. It’ll be a return to ERX Motor Park in Minnesota, where VSC enjoyed a one-two finish with Scott Speed and Pastrana last season via the Subaru Motorsports USA supercar team.