Tuesday, June 26, 2018

David Higgins and Craig Drew Continue Their Winning Ways at STPR Rally

David Higgins and Craig Drew won the 2018 Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally (STPR) yesterday, their fifth win in as many years and Higgins' eighth overall victory in the Pennsylvania forests, a new record for the event. The Subaru Rally Team USA drivers fended off a strong early challenge from Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan before opening up a nearly 16 minute lead on their competition gripped by attrition.

“It's been tough, to be honest,” said David Higgins. “I think the healthy margin that we had doesn't really reflect how hard the weekend's been for us. Barry set an amazing pace today, we we're going full tilt to get him. We went into the Lebo and Cedar stages knowing that we had to do something pretty special and we put on some really good times. But unfortunately, Barry went off on the next one. This rally is so hard, it's almost the length of a full rally on some stage loops. Happy for the win, but definitely looking forward to a bit of a rest.”

The forest stages at STPR are always tricky. Tree-lined, narrow, and fast, Saturday's 110 stage miles are some of the toughest to navigate on the ARA calendar. Making conditions even more difficult, thunder showers swept through the region Friday night, wetting the stage roads. While terrific for limiting hanging dust, the rain had a side effect of wetting the clay surface of several stages, reducing grip levels significantly in some areas.

The resulting slippy conditions saw several teams crash out during the day. Most significantly, the McKenna Motorsports team of Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan. The pair started Saturday with a 14.3 second lead in the rally and set out to extend it by driving hard. The morning's first loop saw McKenna and Higgins battle on equal terms, with McKenna taking two out of three stage wins over the hard battling Subaru. The fight was decided early, on the day's second loop, when McKenna had an off on stage 9, high-siding the car and ending his event.

Chris Atkinson and Stephane Prévot, unable to refine their notes due to STPR's one pass recce, lacked the confidence to push hard and consistently lost around three seconds per mile to Higgins throughout the day. Adding to his troubles, Atko's car began to overheat late in the day, forcing him to run the 30 mile Mine Hole stage in 'road mode,' a reduced power setting meant for transits. The overheating problems would also be the catalyst for Atkinson's disqualification from the event and his exclusion from scoring.

In Parc Fermé at the Tioga County Fairgrounds before the evening's super special stages, Atkinson's car was serviced and it’s radiator refilled in the control zone. An inquiry was filed by another competitor and the incident was corroborated by a Judge of Fact, a ranking rally official, who was on the scene. The exclusion was given under Rally Competition Rule (RCR) 4.10.3, which states, “Except where specifically provided for elsewhere in the regulations, while the vehicles are subject to Parc Fermé rules, any repair, assistance or refueling is strictly forbidden, under penalty of exclusion.”

With Atkinson's penalty, second overall was inherited by Sam Albert and Michelle Miller. The result, alongside their first place finish in the Limited 4wd class, marks a career-best for the DirtFish drivers, and their second overall podium in a row puts Albert and Miller back into the thick of L4wd championship. The pair ran a consistent rally, but continued to have issues with low speed stalls throughout Saturday. Despite the gremlins, Albert drove a strong STPR, finishing the event with a nearly 5 minute lead in the L4wd class.

The third spot on the overall podium and the first in the Open 2wd class was taken by Seamus Burke and Martin Brady in their V6-swapped MKII Ford Escort. The finish marks a high-point for the Irish drivers at STPR, who last year lost the O2wd lead in the penultimate corner of the event after high-siding the car. This year, Burke and Brady put on a tour de force, consistently beating higher-spec AWD cars from higher-spec vehicle classes. Starting the day from sixth overall, Burke showed that experience is king at STPR with quick and consistent driving to earn his much-deserved finish.

Local favorites Paddy Brennan and Matt James led the east coast Evo contingent with a fourth place overall finish, earning second place in the Limited 4wd class. A tough Friday saw the pair lose several minutes on the day's stages. Despite the issues, Brennan and James showed that sportsmanship is more important than competition when they towed a stricken Troy Miller and Stephen Harrell back to service after stage 2. Brennan was back on his usual form for Saturday's forest stages, working his way through the field from thirteenth overall and seventh in L4wd up to the podium.

Travis Nease and Danny Norkus drove conservatively this weekend, but still managed to finish fifth overall and third in L4wd. A newcomer to STPR, Nease repeated several times throughout the weekend that he would drive a conservative event, and he delivered on that promise. In a typical Travis Nease rally, the DirtFish instructor drove clean and at his own pace as he watched other drivers succumb to issues and attrition. The podium result brings Nease within one point of the L4wd class championship leader, Jeff Seehorn heading into New England, echoing their championship battle from last year.

The honor of second fastest 2wd car belongs to Limited 2wd winners Jordan Guitar and Chris Sladek of the Maxxis Honda HPD Rally Team. Guitar knows how to make the lower-spec car punch above it's weight, but this drive was a cut above. The Honda drivers fought directly against O2wd entrants Keanna Erickson-Chang and Alex Gelsomino at STPR, the two teams trading stage times and positions throughout the weekend. The win in L2wd extends Guitar's L2wd championship lead.

While battling the Honda team, Erickson-Chang and Gelsomino solidified their second place position in the Open 2wd class on Saturday. The pair started Saturday's stages third in class and held that position for much of the day before inheriting the second place spot on stage 13, Mine hole. The class podium marks Erickson-Chang's third in a row at STPR and Gelsomino's first here since his overall win in 2013.

Third in O2wd were Frank Cunningham and, the aptly-named, Ross Forde in their MKII Ford Escort. Cunningham and Forde started the day holding second in class, behind Seamus Burke and ahead of Keanna Erickson-Chang, and worked to solidify that position throughout the day. But issues on the 30 mile Mine Hole stage saw them lose several minutes and drop one step on the podium. Despite the late disappointment, fans of the classics were happy with the result. The O2wd podium, a Ford lockout, also featured two historic rally machines, both MKII Escorts.