Bark's Bites: The FiST Is a Rollover Risk, and Some People Don't Want You to Know
The year was 2008. I was working the course at the SCCA Toledo Pro Solo during the Ladies’ class runs. For those of you who don’t know what a Pro Solo is like, I’ll try to explain quickly. It’s a mirrored autocross course with two competitors, one on each side. Instead of being waved onto the course by a flagger, like in a regular autocross, there’s a drag tree that starts the drivers. It’s the closest thing to “racing” that you’ll find at an autocross.
As I watched one particular pairing of cars leave the line, I noticed that one of the cars, a Mini Cooper S, was getting up on two wheels in the first 3-cone slalom. As the car rocked back and forth from the left two wheels to the right and then back to the left, the front left wheel bent and caught the cement, tripping the car and causing it to flip forward. It bounced off of its roof, and ended up landing on its wheels, facing back toward the starting line.
It was the ultimate case of jamais vu. I had been autocrossing for about three years, and I had watched hundreds of runs, but I had never seen a car flip before. That sort of thing just isn’t supposed to happen in autocross – it’s supposed to be a totally safe way to participate in motorsports. I froze where I stood for several seconds before I snapped back to reality and ran as quickly as I could across the airfield to the car where the young lady who was driving had exited and fallen to her knees, screaming and keening like a banshee.
My brother had been working the other side of the course, and he and I were the first people to arrive at the car. We were also the only two people to really see what had actually happened. It was a clear case of equipment failure – the wheel had bent under extreme load. However, the wheels had been sold by the Tire Rack, and their on-site representatives were quick to denounce the incident as “driver error.” People were screaming in each other’s faces. It was an ugly, ugly incident.
It was equally ugly on the autocross forums. Amazingly, people who were hundreds of miles away from the incident all of a sudden became experts on physics and driving dynamics. For whatever reason, people just didn’t want to admit that the combination of a high-grip, concrete surface, R-compound tires, and a vehicle with a high center of gravity was a recipe for disaster.
Well, it’s happened again, and this time it’s happened with a car that nobody, least of all me, wants to admit may be flawed. But I’ll be the first to say it to a mass audience: the Ford Fiesta ST may not be safe to autocross, and you deserve to know.
The SCCA already banned the non-ST version of the Fiesta from street class autocross due to its high center of gravity back in January, citing it as a rollover risk. The ST meets the SCCA’s CoG guidelines, which are basically just a mathematical formula. But when I got my Fiesta ST, I received a few warnings from autocross friends of mine, all very hush-hush, Facebook Messenger types of warnings: “Be careful autocrossing that car. Those things are easy to get up on two wheels. And I’ve heard of people rolling them, too.” Nobody ever gave me any specifics, just that they had “heard” of incidents with them. A Google or Bing search for “Fiesta ST rollover” produces no results.
But that hasn’t kept the video at the top of this post from making the rounds of the autocross community. Eric Simmons, well-known as a serial car buyer, posted this video from an autocross at Hersheypark on November 9th, 2014, and it immediately become the subject of several forum threads. As you can see at about the :22 mark in the video, Simmons gets his Fiesta ST up on two wheels in a tight right hand turn, causing him to miss the next gate. The video, while somewhat terrifying, isn’t exactly news in the autocross community at this point.
The news that a Fiesta ST was rolled over the weekend, however, is. Word is that an autocrosser at a Texas autocross site rolled his ST in a fairly standard ninety-degree turn at relatively high speeds. A few friends of mine posted about the event on Facebook, some of them specifically to warn me because they knew that I have autocrossed mine before and plan to do it again in the future.
All of them were contacted and asked to take down their posts, either by their local SCCA regions or by the non-SCCA sanctioning club where the event took place. The obvious question is: Why?
Are they protecting the driver who rolled it? Possibly. It’s not unheard of for an autocrosser to have a contact-related incident during an event, load his damaged car onto the trailer, dump it in a ditch somewhere, and call his insurance company.
Are they protecting the SCCA and other autocrossing organizations? Eh, maybe. If too much press gets out about an isolated incident such as this one, then it could cause regions to lose their dearly needed autocrossing sites. The SCCA goes to great lengths to make sure that people know that autocross isn’t a “race” (despite the constant whining of its membership) because what parking lot owner would be dumb enough to have people racing cars on his property? The insurance risk is already fairly high for these sites, and nervous sponsors and site owners might just decide it’s not worth the risk if they were to hear about somebody rolling a freaking Ford Fiesta.
Are they trying to protect the Ford Fiesta ST’s reputation? We might be getting closer to the mark. The FiST has proven to be a very popular autocrosser nationwide. It’s taken the top spot in H Street class at nearly every national event in 2015 and has made up eighty to ninety percent of the field. It’s cheap, you can get inexpensive wheel/tire combos, it’s easy to modify, and it’s hella fun to drive. If word gets out that the FiST is a high rollover risk, then a fairly significant number of people might drop out of autocrossing, at least until they can replace the FiST with something else. The SCCA can’t afford that.
The problem seems to begin when you start messing with things that affect the grip level of the ST. In Simmons’ case, he only changed two things about the car, but they were significant: a stickier tire and a smaller wheel diameter, both of which change the behavior of the car in ways that can’t be perfectly replicated at Dearborn’s testing grounds. There’s talk that the smaller diameter of the FiST’s front sway bar (it’s actually smaller than the regular Fiesta’s) might be the culprit – any serious national-level autocrosser will replace it nearly immediately.
As you can see in the photo above, I have gotten my FiST up on two and three wheels several times, but I’m not a rookie, either. Rumor has it that the Texas incident occurred in a 40 mph sharp turn with a novice driver who had replaced his stock Bridgestone tires with the new RE71R, a tire that pulls more lateral Gs than the racing tires of yore. The car got unsettled in a corner, but instead of sliding laterally, like it normally would on the OEM tires, the tires gripped and the narrow sway bar couldn’t handle it, so the car started acting less like a car and more like a bicycle. As a novice driver, he likely got freaked out and dialed in more steering, which caused the roll.
Honestly, I’m not too worried about it for myself. I’m not a “fast hands” type of autocrosser, so I typically don’t unsettle my car that much. But, I do think that these sorts of incidents should be discussed and shared, not shoved into a closet. If the FiST is Unsafe At Any Speed (copyright Ralph Nader), how will those who think that the reputation of the “sport” and the clubs should take precedence over the safety of particpants feel the next time a FiST ends up wrong side up? There’s no legal obligation to share information, but shouldn’t there be a moral one?
I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t autocross your Fiesta ST, but I am going to tell you that there’s a risk, and that you should be aware of it. The rest is up to you.
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It certainly appears that the problem is the increased grip of autocross-type tires, mixed with the inherent danger of a car that is on the borderline of rollover in stock form. How much lower could the ST's center of gravity be than the non-ST's? An inch? With that body roll going on, fast cornering transfers a tremendous amount of weight onto the outside tires, which are now very grippy non-stock tires. Those tires respond by gripping hard and pulling the car into the turn. Unfortunately, the rest of the car responds by using the outside tires as a fulcrum and flipping right over. It seems that SCCA should, at the very least, inform Fiesta ST drivers that their car is a barely acceptable rollover risk in stock form, and may be unacceptable with tire modifications.
Holy thread resurrection Batman. And fook off