Saturday, January 22, 2011

Turning to the next Chapter in U.S. Rallying

The question is, can the Rally America stage rally series retain the fans that Block and Pastrana brought to the sport?.  Photo: Neil McDaid  
As we charge head first into a new season of rallying here in the USA, it’s hard not to reflex on the departure of Travis Pastrana and Ken Block from the Rally America National Championship. The energy and excitement brought by Block and Pastrana attracted some much needed exposure to rallying in the USA, but despite their best efforts in drawing many new fans to the sport, rallying still struggles to find its place in the crowded U.S. mainstream motorsports market. It will be interesting to see, as we move through the 2011 season, if their departure means a drop in spectators on the special stages.
But all is not lost. There has been some talk about Travis possibly running a few events in 2011 in a Rally Car. XGAMES for one is a must for Pastrana, but I feel beyond that it will be a challenge for him to find time with his new gig at NASCAR.

Subaru’s new front man,
David Higgins from the Isle of Man
is back rallying in the USA for 2011.
Higgins last stint here was for Team Mitsubishi.
 Photo: Neil McDaid

Ken Block, who is now on a full WRC program for 2011, is also planning to be at XGAMES and he has made it known of his desire to compete in at least one U.S. rally. That would most likely be “Rally of the 100 Acre Woods,” an event that Block has won five times.
But for Ken to defend his title at 100AW the question comes to mind as to what car he would use; a modified WRC Focus from M-Sport or, better still, an S2000 Fiesta? The latter would be nice but both are unlikely. I doubt that Ken would try and defend his 100AW title in the same Fiesta that that gave him so much heartache in 2010. Leaving the overall victory aside, there is always his MK11 Escort. Trust me, no one would complain if he arrived at the start control in that.
As Ken and Travis move onto their respective new challenges, we wish them the very best and treasure the good times they gave us as fans of U.S. rallying. And, yes, we will hold onto any hope of their return.

Moving onto the 2011 Championship, we breathe a sigh of relief that Subaru has decided to continue for at least another year with the U.S. based factory team and in their support of grassroots rallying with their contingency program.
Despite having a very challenging year in 2010, Subaru has elected to stick with Dave Mirra for at least another year. Dave will also get yet another change of navigator in 2011, as Irishman Marshall Clarke slides into the co-driver’s seat.

After much speculation on who might replace Travis, Subaru called on the services of David Higgins to fill the spot. I have to say that I was among many who initially grumbled at Subaru’s choice.
One could not blame Subaru for calling on the very talented services of Mr. Higgins to get them back to the top step of the podium. But it seemed that Subaru passed over many good North American drivers that could have secured them a podium finish just as well. 2010 Rally America National Champion Antoine L’Estage was though by many to be a natural replacement for Pastrana, to name but one. But in giving Subaru the benefit of the doubt, maybe they did the right thing for rallying by not taking Antoine out of the competitive mix.
So for 2011 Antoine L’Estage will stick with his Mitsubishi. He has, at this time, commitment to a full season in Canada, but has made no official announcement regarding a full Rally America season.

Will Antoine L’Estage and Natalie Richard have what it takes to stay in touch with Team Subaru in 2011, now that Higgins in on board? One would have to think that L’Estage will have the edge on the ice and snow heading into the Sno*Drift. Photo Neil McDaid
Crews and fans alike will be packing their thermal underwear as we head to Sno*Drift, the 2011 Rally America season opener in Atlanta, Michigan on Jan 28th-29th. Sub zero temperatures along with snow and ice covered stages are a staple of this classic winter challenge. Most of the stages at Sno*Drift are run at least twice, not if you took a Zamboni could you polish the ice on the stages any better than the first pass of the cars. Unlike Europe where studded rally tires are the norm Sno*Drive does not allow studs so rally teams have to pull out every trick in the book to get traction.

The starting order for the top three cars will be determined via a draw on January 27. It will be between David Higgins, Antoine L’Estage and Dave Mirra. Much to our disappointment, we have just learned of the withdrawal of Ramana Lagemann from the rally for undisclosed reasons. Ramana had made a very successful return to Rally in 2010 after several years’ in hiatus. Ramana would have surely been in the hunt for the overall victory at Sno*Drift. Hopefully we will see the return of Lagemann for round #2.

Travis Hanson will start fourth in his SP Class Subaru Impreza. He will be followed on the road by the 2010 Rally America Rookie of the Year Joseph Burke starting 5th. Burke steps up his game from the SP Class where he competed in 2010 to an open Mitsubishi in 2011.
The overall victory at Sno*Drift is hard to call. Without question, Higgins will push the hardest to prove his worth. Antoine will most likely slot in behind him and drive a no-risk event as he has the first round of the Canadian Championship the following week.
Mirra will be under pressure from the onset from the privateers. Expect Hanson and Burke to push to better their starting positions. Laughlin O Sullivan is also back in an AWD SP class car for Sno*Drift. I expect Laughlin to work his way up through the top 10 by the end of day on Friday.

The shape of things to come, Ford is hoping that their 2011 Ford Fiesta paired with their R2 Rally package will find its place in U.S. Rallying. In conjunction with building several of the R2 Fiesta’s Team O’Neill is also in the process of converting a drifter to a rally driver.  Verena Mei,  a drifter originally from Hawaii has moved to Littleton NH to totally entrench herself in rallying. Verena will co-drive for Team-mate Wyatt Knox at Sno*Drift to get her up to speed with the notes. Photo: Team O’Neill  /
The 2011 season is already shaping up to be a great year for the 2WD classes. Ford Racing, who made a return to U.S. stage rally in 2010 with Ken Block, have turned their efforts in 2011 to the development of a competition 2WD rally ready package for the all new Fiesta.

Ford Fiestas built to the R2 spec will be eligible, but not limited, to compete in the 2011 Fiesta Sport Trophy which will begin in June. Tim O’ Neill, who is the exclusive seller of the R2 package in the USA, is already well underway with the building of several R2 based Fiestas.
Although we don’t expect to see any of the R2 Fiestas taking to the stages at Sno*Drift, word is that Dillon Van Way will move from his regular Ford Focus to either to a G2 or Open Class Fiesta starting at the event.
Van Way’s Fiesta is expected to based on a more powerful 2.0 liter engine as he contests the overall 2WD RA title. It is unclear at this time regarding Ford’s actual involvement with Van Way and the 600 Team, if at all?.

Christopher Duplessis, the 2010 RA 2WD Champion, will back at it in his 2010 Scion XD. Duplessis is sporting a sharp new livery for 2011 that is reminiscent of the old Toyota/Castrol colors of days gone by. Duplessis is a master on the ice and snow, often setting faster times than the more powerful AWD drive cars.
Yet another fast 2WD man, Wyatt Knox, is expected to be behind the wheel of one of the Team O’Neill R2 Ford Fiestas later in the year. But, he will contest Sno*Drift in the TON Mazda 3SPEED. Knox, an instructor at Team O’Neill Rally School is also a dab hand on ice.
With the added incentive of the Sno*Attack cash, we expect to see an epic battle between these and the other fast 2WD competitors.
Sneaking silently onto the entry list is one Frank Withon in a 2010 Chevrolet Cobalt SS. I am surprised it has taken this long for the Chevy Cobalt to show up in U.S. rally. Although a little on the heavy side, the Cobalt is a very quick car.
This might be Frank’s first rally, but he’s is no stranger to motorsport. Whiton is well known in the Grand-Am paddock through his involvement with the GM Performance Division Cobalt SS racing program.
Check back for a full report and images after the rally. Or Check in with for live updates.

By Neil McDaid