Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Higgins Hunts Down Pastrana for the Victory, While Lagemann Drifts Sideways To Victory in 2WD

Hood River, Oregon, Sunday May 4th.  With Ken Block and Antoine L’Estage not competing at this year’s Oregon Trail Rally it was left to Subaru Rally Teammates David Higgins and Travis Pastrana to fight for the victory.  Of course we will never really know if team orders factored over the 3 day rally, but in the end 2 punctures on Pastrana’s Subaru on the penultimate stage of the rally, the rocky ‘Husky South”  sealed the deal for Higgins.  

Day one of the rally would begin at Portland International Raceway with four short stages run on a mixed surface of Tarmac, Gravel and some grass thrown in for good measure. Pastrana’s NASCAR experience would give him the edge on Higgins as he led the Manxman by a mere 4 seconds heading into the overnight halt.

Day two would see the teams head west to Dufur, dry conditions prevailed in the normally wet northwest. Privateer Adam Yeoman and co driver Jordan Schulze have been steadily climbing up the Rally America leader in the past few years was designated to run first on the road to balance out any dust advantage between the much quicker Higgins and Pastrana.

But for Higgins dust would be the least of his issues, as he attacked hard on the first pass of the longest stage of the Rally SS6 “Big Boyd” a little over a mile into the stage Higgins would pick up a rear puncture. Rather than stopping to change the wheel, David and Craig decided to push on over the relatively fast smooth stage.  As Higgins stopped the clock on SS6, despite a hard push throughout the stage on three tires, he would drop 54 seconds to Pastrana, but they still managed to hold second place overall by 9 seconds over Adam Yeoman.  

High drama would ensue on SS8 the second pass on “Big Boyd”, the SP class Subaru of Nick Roberts and Rhianon Gelsomino would develop a mechanical issue in the rear diff resulting in a dramatic fast moving intense fire. Nick and Rhianon were able to get out of the car, but not before Rhianon sustained second degree burns to her face and hands. Rhianon was transported to a local Hospital treated and released later in the day, the car was a total loss.

Over the final stages on day two David Higgins would set out to reel in his Subaru teammate Pastrana, David and co driver Craig Drew would post the fastest times on 7 of the 8 stages to close to within 39 seconds of Travis heading into the overnight halt.  Adam Yeoman was holding 3rd overall.

In SP Class Dillon Van Way was holding off defending SP champion David Sterckx, with Laughlin O’Sullivan rounding out the top three.

We did expect a solid battle in 2WD with the debut of the Ford Racing Fiesta ST, going head to head with Championship rivals Scion Racing, but it was a 20 year old BMW M3 in the very capable hands of Ramana Legemann that was stealing the show.  Steering with the rear throughout most of the fast flowing stages Ramana and his co-driver the equally talented Nathalie Richard were leaving the factory supported cars in the dust.
Day 3, Higgins had the big push in early stages putting the pressure on Pastrana in an effort to narrow the gap. After first loop of three stages, Higgins erased 30 seconds off Pastrana’s lead, bring Travis to within just 9 seconds. Yeoman was still hanging onto third but was over 5 minutes back off Pastrana. 
SP Class, Dillon Van Way was in a heated battle with David Sterckx for the overall lead. In 2WD Andrew Comrie-Picard was starting to cut into Lagemann’s lead as the tighter technical stages better suited the nimble Fiesta. After and impressive showing at 100AW before he eventually ran aground Will Hudson was again on an impressive pace holding third behind ACP.

As the drivers lined up at the start of SS17, “Husky North” which was the penultimate stage of the rally.
David Higgins was now just 6 seconds off Pastrana, with about 13 stage miles to the final time control it was questionable if Pastrana could keep Higgins at bay. Although Travis has gotten back up to speed quickly on his return to rally he is still several seconds a mile off Higgins pace.  If Higgins were driving at the pace he would if he were in the heat of battle with Ken Block and Antoine L’Estage, he would have easily overhauled Travis.

But unfortunately we will have to wait until another day to see how far Travis has come when victory is within grasp, Pastrana and co-driver Chrissy Beavis would suffer two punctures on SS17.  With a significant gap back to Yeoman in third, Travis would transit through the stage in an effort to salvage second.

For Higgins it was just a matter of getting through the final stage of the rally to collect his fourth consecutive Oregon Trail Rally win. “I just wish Pastrana didn’t get his puncture so we can see the real times,” said Higgins. “It would have been close, at least we could afford to cut back on the last stage because we had nothing left. It was so slick out there with the rain coming down. It was an awesome battle, fantastic for Subaru to sweep the podium.”

The 2014 Oregon Trail Rally had all the makings of a victory for Pastrana on this his second event with Subaru since his return from NASCAR, but he would have to be content with his second podium finish in so many events. Pastrana added, “It was such an awesome rally, We had some fortune to get the lead, but Higgins chipped away at it. We learned so much here and we are a lot closer than we were the first race. I can’t wait for the next round.” It very well maybe Maine or Mt Washington before we see Travis back in stage Rally competition as he heads down under with his Nitro Circus crew this month.

Dillon Van Way was also dealt a cruel blow on the penultimate stage; he would sustain ball joint damage therefore turning over his lead to David Sterckx who was tight on his heels throughout day three. Dillon was able to struggle through the final stage to salvage second over Lauchlin O’Sullivan, another 1,2,3, for Subaru.

Much to the delight of rear wheel drive rally fans, Ramana Lagemann and Nathalie Richard who grabbed the lead in 2WD from the start of the rally, and somehow managed to hold off a late charge from Andrew Comrie-Picard in the closing stages eventually claimed  the overall victory in 2WD.   “It always feels good to come back rallying,” exclaimed Lagemann. “This was a completely new car, experience and co-driver for me [referring to 2wd Rally]. We came here to have fun, but we didn’t know if we had the capability to win. This is totally unexpected.”

Higgins’ overall win extends Subaru’s first place position in the manufactures battle, with a very limited schedule from Ford Racings Ken Block; it seems that Subaru are well on their way to another Championship. With Antoine L’Estage also uncertain for the balance of the 2014 RA campaign, and Pastrana only contesting 6 of the 8 events it seems that Higgins is also well on his way to yet another title. Despite what seems a sure bet for Higgins to repeat as Champion, it will not take away anything from the action on the stages in the remaining 5 rounds.

SP Championship and David Sterckx added to Subaru’s points lead in the Super Production manufacturers’ standings. Andrew Comrie-Picard’s podium finish breaks the 2WD manufacturers’ first place tie with Scion, and Honda adds more points to their B-SPEC lead.

All of the Oregon Trail Rally drama is scheduled to be broadcast on the NBC Sports Network on June 1, 2014 at 6pm ET/3pm PT.

Next up is the STPR in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania May 30-31. We can expect an all out battle between Ken Block and Higgins on the fast twisty and always trying stages in Wellsboro. STPR will be the second of two Rally America events that Ken Block will contest in 2014.

Words: Neil McDaid
Photos; Neil McDaid, Rhianon Gelsomino/Instagram