Oregon Trail Rally – Preview Part 2

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In this part I’m going to discuss the drivers and teams gearing up for the Oregon Trail Rally, and are they ever plentiful. At last check there were 79 entrants on the start list.  Sorry for the lack of images, but have been short for time.  I’ll be taking plenty out on the stages though!

The favorites are of course going to be David Higgins and Craig Drew in the Subaru Rally Team USA Impreza WRX STi. Team Subaru has a good lead in the points after getting second at Sno*Drift and winning the 100 Acre Wood Rally. David and Craig have won the Oregon Trail Rally the last two years by a considerable margin thanks to issues incurred by their closest rival Antoine L’Estage and Nathalie Richard. Higgins and Drew really like the forest stages in Oregon as they are quite similar to the conditions they have back home in Wales. This doesn’t mean they haven’t had close calls though, as last year Higgins went wide and grazed some vegetation and damaged the right rear suspension. They thankfully were able to make it to service and the team fixed it up right quick. Will Higgins feel the pressure this weekend and push a bit too much again?

One of the most exciting stories for this year is the new hardware arriving for the Rockstar Energy Mitsubishi team of Antoine L’Estage and Nathalie Richard. L’Estage won the first round at Sno*Drift by just a whisker, but unfortunately had a DNF at 100 Acre Wood. As we reported last month, the team was able to secure a deal with British MML Sports to supply a 2005 WRC Mitsubishi Lancer for Oregon Trail Rally as well as the rest of the Rally America season events. Previously Antoine and Nathalie could get close to the factory Subaru team, but when it came to all out top speed the factory based Mitsubishi EvoX just couldn’t match the pace. The short of it is that the WRC based cars are lighter, better balanced, more adjustable in setup, and just plain all out faster than a factory car with racing bits added to it. Not to say that a WRC car doesn’t start as a factory car, but it is stripped down to the bare bones and re-assembled with many custom engineered parts. Antoine and Nathalie now the Oregon Trail Rally stages very well, having won it the previous 2 years before Higgins and Drew came to Subaru. So now that the Rockstar Energy Mitsubishi team have proper hardware to compete, it should be a close showdown between them and Team Subaru.

Then there is the return of Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino. Ken comes to the Oregon Trail Rally with his HFHV Ford Fiesta ST which is based on the most current WRC generation spec car. The Fiesta ST is smaller, lighter, and accelerates faster than both the Factory Subaru of Higgins and Drew and 2005 WRC Mitsubishi of L’Estage and Richcard, but Ken still might be at a slight disadvantage. He’s fast for sure, but he hasn’t been to the Oregon Trail Rally for 4 years and if I recall correctly, 4 years ago his event ended early on Saturday with an off. Experience is usually key, but if Ken and Alex can keep it together, they will be a serious threat to Higgins and L’Estage.

Also in the Open Class will be the return of FY Racing’s Adam Yeoman and Jordan Schulze who were on the podium last year. They are still young and learning with a pace that has been steadily improving as well. Brand new to the Rally America series and making his debut at the Oregon Trail Rally will be Indonesian driver Rifat Sungkar who will have the legendary Marshall Clark as his co-driver. Rifat will be competing in the Open Class with a Mitsubishi EvoX.
Moving on to the Super Production Class, we should again have a close battle in what might as well be retitled the “Subaru Cup.” David Sterckx and Karen Jankowski won their class last year in their 2011 Subaru WRX STi, but they will be followed closely by last year’s national Super Production champion Lauchlin O’Sullivan and Scott Putnam. O’Sullivan had mechanical issues last year causing a DNF at Oregon Trail, however this year he comes into the event with a new car (a Subaru instead of the Mitsubishi he used to drive) and a significant points lead over Sterckx who has had mechanical gremlins of his own this year. O’Sullivan is coming fresh from his win at 100 Acre Wood, and knows the Oregon Trail Rally stages quite well, so he will be very tough to beat.

The points leader however is the young Evan Cline and Jake Blattner who have smartly managed their pace and have had few issues giving them a win at Sno*Drift and second at 100 Acre Wood. Cline’s Exedy Clutches sponsored 2005 Subaru WRX STi is admittedly not as fast as O’Sullivan or Sterckx’s more modern Subarus, but Cline’s machine is a proven stable and strong platform that can finish. As the saying has been said so many times before, “To finish first, first you must finish.”

Another one to watch out for is young Mason Moyle who is currently second in points overall. Mason has been steadily increasing his pace and has shown a big improvement since adding the well experienced John Hall to the co-drivers seat this year. Moyle has good experience at Oregon Trail having competed here the last 3 years, and if something happens to those in front of him he will take full advantage.
And then there is the 2wd class. In the absence of Chris Duplessis this season there has been total domination of the stages by the factory Scion team with driver Andrew Comrie-Picard and co-driver Jeremy Wimpy. ACP won almost every stage at Sno*Drift and was only challenged at 100 Acre Wood by Dillon Van Way’s turbo-charged Fiesta until Van Way went off into a stump ending his weekend early. Van Way has improved his pace considerably this year largely due to his new co-driver, the very experienced Andrew Edwards. With Van Way’s issues at 100 Acre Wood, it left the door open for last year’s rookie of the year “Fast Eddie” McNelly and co-driver Ole Holter to move into second in points. McNelly finished 3rd on the podium at OTR last year in his R2 Fiesta and he’s looking to improve on that position this year. Brand new to the fight though will be the brother and sister team of Brendan Reeves and Rhianon Smyth from Australia. As part of Team O’Neil, Reeves and Smyth are hoping to help Ford pull the championship out from under Scion. Another contender for championship is Chris Greenhouse in his turbo-charged Dodge Neon SRT.

There are also the Group 2 and B-spec classes to watch. For the first time in a long time a new Toyota is going to be on the stages in the B-Spec. Of all things the Toyota in question is a Yaris, and will be driven by Tag Rally Sport’s Tracey Gardiner and co-driver Krista Skucas. Friend of OpenPaddock Verena Mei has moved her Fiesta up to Group 2 with upgraded brakes and suspension. She’ll be going a lot faster this year, and will have more competition to contend with.

Others I’ll be watching this weekend are some of the amazing local / regional drivers. Even the national drivers will need to keep a look over their shoulder for some of the quick local drivers in this area. In Open Class, Doug Heredos has always done well at Oregon Trail in his 2007 Subaru. In Super Production will be professional mountain biker David Henderson in his 2004 Subaru. Finally in 2wd will be one that I’m really excited to see on the stages, Dirty Drifters driver Cody Crane. He drives an old 1988 Honda CRX that is faster than would seem possible. With an upgraded suspension and other components taken from the car I saw rolled last year at Olympus, the “Project Cojo” CRX is faster than it has ever been.

There is plenty of action to watch in all classes this year, better than any in recent memory and I can’t wait for it all to begin tonight!