Round three of the Rally America National Championship gets underway this week with the Oregon Trail Rally. The only event on the calendar in the western United States, Oregon Trail is also the longest event spanning 3 days.
Over the last week the Pacific Northwest has had some fairly heavy rain, however drying conditions are in the forecast with temperatures in the 70’s for Friday and Saturday with only a slight possibility of a few scattered showers on Sunday. Their could be some dusty conditions on Saturday with unseasonably warm 80 degree temp on Wednesday and Thursday, but hopefully there will be enough wind to prevent dust from becoming too much of an issue out in the forests.
Friday’s Super Special Stages at PIR will be similar to those from last year, including the jump in front of Grandstand B. The track opens up at 4:00 PM with a Rally Fan Fest for autographs and swag with the real action not starting until 7PM. That should be just about the right time for the sun to start setting and begin to blind some drivers. As has been said many times, a rally isn’t won on a super special stage but can be lost on one. Drivers will likely keep their cool and not push too much, although it can also be hard to hold back with the massive crowds cheering them on!
Saturday is when things change up a little bit this year as the rally stages farthest to the east in Dufur, south of the The Dalles, will be run first with the Hood River stages running on Sunday instead. It will be a long day on Saturday with 8 stages totalling 67 competitive miles and 3 service stops at the Dufur City, Park. The day starts with a short 1.5 mile spectator stage at Endersby Cutoff where large spectator crowds usually gather at the convenient viewpoint right off the highway to watch the cars come flying down the hill and turn hard through the ranch gates. The stage will be different this year as the cars will instead be starting back near Highway 197 and turning up the hill. This should give spectators a good idea of how launch control works and how differently the AWD vs 2WD cars claw for grip climbing the steep hill. The next stage is the new 15.2 mile Big Boyd that combines elements of the traditional Clausen, Summit, and Boyd stages into one long stage. Endersby Cutoff and Big Boyd will be run twice in the morning, then in the afternoon Big Boyd will be split up back to the familiar Summit and Clausen stages. Clausen will be run in reverse this time to present a new challenge. Summit and Clausen-Reverse will be run twice in the afternoon to finish up the day.
For a bit of spectator fun there will be the return of the Double Mountain Brewery block party in downtown Hood River on Saturday night at 7:30. Here they close off the street in front of the brewery and line it with race cars. It was a huge success last year with a ton of locals and area visitors having the ability to grab a beer, interact with the drivers, and learn more about the sport that passes through their proverbial backyard.
Sunday will be take place around Hood River starting with Parc Expose starting at 9 AM on the Hood River waterfront. The stages here are the rougher bits in the dense forests of the Hood River Valley. Unfortunately, there will not be any spectator areas in Hood River this year, so fans will be limited to viewing cars at the Port of Hood River service park. The traditional Fir Mountain stage is cut in half this year at 8.5 miles and renamed as Husky and runs twice in one direction and a third time in the opposite. Similarly the 4.8 mile Gilhoughley stage will also be run three times, once in the opposite direction.
The total racing distance of the 2014 Oregon Trail Rally is just under 116 stage miles (or 186Km for you European fans). The Awards Podium celebrations will take place on the waterfront in Hood River somewhere between 5-7 PM Sunday evening.
Who to watch:
In the Rally America open class it will be all Subaru Rally Team USA. David Higgins who has won the event 5 times, including the last 3 in a row, is by far the favorite. His teammate X-Games mega star Travis Pastrana may get a couple of stage wins as he gets more comfortable with his return to stage rally after a few year hiatus in NASCAR, but barring mechanical difficulties Higgins is still likely to come out on top. Waiting for either of them to slip up will be the increasingly quick privateer Adam Yeoman of FY Racing. Yeoman made it to a 3rd place podium back in 2012, but unfortunately had a DNF last year and will be looking to get back on the podium steps. As you may have noticed I didn’t mention Antoine L’Estage or Ken Block. Block we already knew had scheduling conflicts and is unable to make it to Oregon Trail, however L’Estage was the one we hoped for but sadly didn’t have the finances to make it out west. L’Estage has started a “Never Give Up” campaign selling T-Shirts to garner up some extra funds to continue competing in the Rally America Championship. Hopefully he’ll still make it to the rest of the eastern rounds.
Super Production is where the competition will be the hottest. 2013 SP Champion David Sterckx in his newly liveried Always Evolving branded Subaru WRX STi is still the favorite, however he has been battling mechanical issues this season. That doesn’t necessarily matter though as Sterckx had an engine that was on its way out last year at Oregon Trail and still pulled out the win. Behind him it get’s much tougher to decide who will likely make it to the podium. One favorite is local driver Dave Henderson of Suspect Motorsports. He’s always been fast on his home rally and last year battled closely with Super Production champion Lauchlin O’Sullivan trading stage wins all weekend. That was until O’Sullivan made a mistake and had a big off that ended his season early at Oregon Trail. O’Sullivan won’t make the same mistake twice though and is still a good candidate for the podium.
There are also a couple of Super Production young guns that have a chance for the podium, or even an all out win at Oregon Trail this year. Nick Roberts of the Nick Roberts Global Rally Team was last year’s rookie of the year and currently leads the Super Production category by a mere 2 points over the other young gun Dillon Van Way. Nick Roberts had his biggest accident of his career with a massive off at Oregon Trail last year leading one to think he might take things a bit more careful this time around. However he now has sitting beside him the highly experienced Rhianon Gelsomino as co-driver. Gelsomino along with her brother Brendan Reeves dominated the 2wd category and she’ll know exactly where to have Roberts push and when to have him take extra caution. This is Van Way’s first full season in 4wd, however his 2wd background has allowed him to carry more speed through the corners than most drivers that start with 4wd from the very beginning. He’s found the 4wd car much easier to drive than the Fiesta R2 he piloted before, and he even made it to the overall podium with a dominant SP win at the Lake Superior Performance Rally last year. Keep a very close eye on all of these Super Production drivers as it is anybody’s game.
In 2wd the battle will once again continue between team Scion Rally xD and the Ford Team O’Neil squad. Former Rally America media host Matthew Johnson has done extremely well as the new Scion team driver, even though he hadn’t competed since 2009. During the 2 month break between 100 Acre Wood and Oregon Trail, Johnson said they did a lot of testing and made significant changes in the suspension and handling of the car that should help him better carry speed through the corners. That will be necessary as the Scion Rally xD no longer has the turbo advantage over the Team O’Neil Ford Fiesta. O’Neil has chosen the Oregon Trail Rally to debut their new Fiesta ST R2T (turbo). team O’Neil driver Andrew Comrie-Picard already has a proven platform in the Ford Fiesta, however the team will need to adapt to the differences the new turbo model brings to the table to avoid any mechanical issues.
Of course Matthew Johnson and Andrew Comrie-Picard won’t be the only 2wd drivers looking to make it onto Rally America’s national podium at Oregon Trail. Fiesta R2’s driven by Brent Lee and Will Hudson are likely to be top contenders as well. Lee was actually the runner up to the Rookie of the Year spot last year and has been increasingly improving his pace. The eastern stages in Dufur will be to his liking as they will be similar to the desert SW series he traditionally rallies. Hudson already showed his talent with a great 2nd at Sno*Drift this year. He had a DNF at 100 Acre Wood, but has proven that he has the speed and is willing to take the risks when necessary to be competitive. Also don’t count out the monster BMW M3 driven by Ramana Lagemann and co-driven by none other than Nathalie Richard. It may be RWD, but those BMW’s are fast! What speed they lose in the twisty sections they more than make up for on the high speed straights. The action in 2wd should have plenty of excitement and drama this weekend.
I’ll be posting up another article regarding the regional drivers as this is also the first round of the new Cascadia International Rally Championship as this one is going a bit long. One last note though is that there will be a few regional classics that are fun to watch. Garth Ankeny returns in his 1969 SAAB 96 that is surprisingly fast for a car with less than 100HP. Victor Bartosek returns in the always awesome (although not many parts original) 1983 Audi UR Quattro and we’ll see a 1976 Porsche 912 on the stages as well. The 912 was the poor mans 911 with a flat 4 cylinder engine instead of the 6. There will also be a couple of old Volvo 242 and Toyota Corollas for some RWD fun, the old 1977 Lancia Scorpion returns hopefully running better this time.
Unfortunately the Nameless Performance GT-86 “Toyobaru” won’t be part of the action this weekend as the guys at Nameless said that they need to rebuild the engine and haven’t had the time nor the resources to get it running again anytime soon. It was an amazing project car and looked great on the stages it ran, but sadly I’m not sure if or when we’ll see it again.
I’ll be once again volunteering this year and reporting what I can if I have cell signal at my location. If not, my reports will come in the evenings. Follow me on Twitter as @oregonwings and I’ll also post to the Open Paddock Facebook page. In addition you should also follow @voiceofrally, as WRC Live Radio’s stage end reporter Colin Clark will be attending the Oregon Trail Rally all weekend and should provide some interesting international opinions.
For the latest audio interviews follow Rally America’s soundcloud files here: https://soundcloud.com/rallyamerica
For stage times and results go here: http://www.rally-america.com/events/2014/OREGON/results/standings/