The Oregon Trail Rally continued the dramatic final stage excitement we’ve been seeing all year in Rally America. It isn’t often stage rally can say that not one, not two, but three events in a row came down to the final stage to decide the overall victor. It was a battle down to the wire, in one of the most picturesque settings on the national championship calendar.
This year’s Oregon Trail Rally first started with some short fan friendly stages at Portland International Raceway, and then trekked out east to the beauty of the Columbia Gorge where brand new stages in Goldendale, Washington greeted both new and veteran competitors. Sunday saw a return to the more well known and fast roads in quiet little town of Dufur, Oregon.
We had a good idea that the national classes would be a close battle, especially after the dramatic finishes at last month’s 100 Acre Wood. Adding to the excitement was the return of the Green APU team who brought over French WRC driver Bryan Bouffier and co-driver Xavier Panseri. After a ride in their still under development Mitsubishi RS, I was certain Bouffier could bring back a Subaru vs. Mitsubishi battle of the likes we haven’t seen in years. Unfortunately it was not quite meant to be as the privateer Mitsubishi still wasn’t up to the level of the factory Subaru squad. But to be fair, it wasn’t that far off either. Finishing in a comfortable third and over three minutes back Bouffier and Panseri were still pleased that they had no reliability problems and really enjoyed coming to their first ever USA rally event.
At the front of the field it was of course the factory Subaru Rally Team USA squad. And once again we had a close fight between Travis Pastrana and David Higgins. When I say close, I mean really close! At the end of Day 1 at PIR, Pastrana had a lead of 0.5 seconds. The longer stages on Day 2 in Goldendale saw Travis and David trade stage wins throughout the day with Pastrana gaining a mere 3.1 seconds over his mentor by late afternoon. Higgins then took advantage of the fading light on Saturday’s final stage pulling 4.8 seconds ahead of Pastrana.
On the final day it was an all out sprint and that’s when David Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew showed why they are the multi-champions. Craig Drew said at the end of the final stage “I was on the door handles through there! All we can do is that, we can’t do anymore. If he beats that time and its enough to win the rally than I’ll take my hat off to him” . Higgins and Drew won that stage and 3 of the day’s 4 stages finishing the event 9.5 seconds ahead of Travis Pastrana and Christian Edstrom.
Upon seeing the final stage times Pastrana frustratingly exclaimed “They really put the hammer down on that last one. We were wide open man!” … “Always more fun to win than to lose, but I tell you what. Going against these guys, I feel really good about our drive.”
I can’t tell you how much I as a fan love close battles like this. Pastrana won 8 stages while Higgins won 9 with an average gap of 2.3 seconds over the entire rally weekend. A breathtaking performance by both factory drivers.
A similarly close fight took place in the National 2WD class. It was a 3 way fight between 100 Acre Wood winner Dave Wallingford with co-driver Leanne Junnila in a Ford Fiesta, Cameron Steely with co-driver Preston Osborn in their Fiesta ST; and Ryan Millen with Christina Fate in the TRD Rally RAV4. Many survived a series of minor issues such as Steely having a scary spin on the mountain pass while Millen broke his suspension at PIR, but the gaps between them stayed close all weekend. Wallingford had 3 stage wins, Millen 6, and Steely 7. The closest by far was the gap between Steely and Millen which averaged , with Wallingford slipping back a bit and spending most of the weekend 30 seconds to a minute back, but still a threat if anyone in front made a mistake.
Steely and Millen exchanged the lead 10 times over the 18 stages and averaged a gap of a mere 8.5 seconds. Again, this kind of close battle is almost unheard of in stage rally.
The biggest drama in 2WD came on the final stage, the 10.8 second running of Boyd Loop. Cameron Steely had a 13.4 second lead going into that final stage, but 5 miles from the end had flat right rear tire. As he came to the top line he said “we lost a lot of time, so I just don’t know. It’s gonna be close. Hopefully we can pull it out. Holy crap that was a scary ass ride though!”
Ryan Millen and his fiancé Christina Fate co-driver pushed to the limit through the water splash and over the big jump. When they came to the stop they were all smiles. I asked Christina if she thought they had done it, but her quick math in the moment said that she thought they’d be about 2 seconds short. Well, it turns out she had some digits wrong in the heat of the moment, because they did it! The first Rally America win for Ryan Millen and the Rally RAV4. I must say for a mostly showroom stock vehicle, it’s really proven itself as a contender and Millen has shown that he’s got the driving prowess to get the most out of it.
We were all hoping for a close battle in Super Production between Jeff Seehorn and last year’s 2WD champ Troy Miller. That didn’t happen as Seehorn and returning co-driver Karen Jankowski were simply flying in their 2005 WRX STI on the stages. Even a collapsed rear suspension on the 10 mile Columbia Hills couldn’t prevent them from getting a stage win. In fact they won all but 2 of the super special stages. Seehorn and Jankowski were pleased to finally be on the top of a national podium together, even if their car was too old to win any contingency dollars.
Unfortunately Troy and his co-driver brother Jeremy were nursing power issues which eventually culminated into a complete engine failure by the end of Day 2. The DNF not only cost him a chance for another podium, but also the funds to continue racing on the west coast and make a bid for the SP championship.
Somewhat surprising was the performance of Seehorn’s fellow Spokane friend Matt Binczewski and co-driver John Kessler. This was Matt’s first time entering as a national entrant. Although not quite as fast as those at the very front, Binczewski was consistently finishing stages in 2nd or 3rd most of the weekend save a couple of stages on Saturday. When Miller dropped out, Matt and John slid into a solid 2nd spot, or so they thought.
Agatino Fortunato had a bad start to the rally, with two false starts at PIR that cost him 2 minutes each in penalties. I must say I find 2 minutes excessive considering the WRC only gives a 10 second penalty for a jumped start. Starting Saturday’s long loops of stages would have any normal person feeling deflate, but not Tino. Tino and co-driver Randy Biehl were having the time of their lives smiling at every stage end, sliding in front of spectator areas, and trying to get the biggest air off the big jump on Boyd Loop. The last jump was a bit much as they bent some control arms on the landing which left the car crabbing its way to the finish. Still, the determination to press on regardless afforded them a 3rd place podium and more contingency funds to continue with their championship run. Tino keeps proving that even if he doesn’t have any wins, consistency can carry a team a long way.
Post podium celebrations added bit of extra drama for the Seehorn Motorsports team when a post tech inspection was required. The stewards wanted to review the turbo restrictor on the car which proved challenging to remove. Once freed the measuring tool showed it to be 0.04mm too large and the stewards administered a penalty of one position. This means Seehorn has yet to win his first Rally America national event and will be looking for redemption at Olympus. Although frustrated that a part he had bolted in years ago and thought he could forget about was no longer up to spec, Jeff didn’t feel too bad as good friend Matt Binczewski inherited the win.
In the national B-Spec class it was unsurprising that Honda Performance Development driver Jordan Guitar and co-driver Brian Penza dominated the class in their Honda Fit. The factory backed team’s experience and consistency is hard to surpass. Unlike 100 Acre Wood the only other national B-Spec competitor over the weekend was Keanna Erickson-Chang and co-driver Ole Holter in their Ford Fiesta. They would have liked to challenge the Honda team, but unfortunately were fighting the same sensor issues they had at 100 Acre Wood. Hopefully Keanna and the team will get it all sorted for Olympus and we’ll get to see their true pace.
All in all it was a great rally for both national and regional competitors. Everyone appeared to enjoy the new roads, the local communities came out in full support, and the even mother nature cooperated as the previously forecast rain never appeared. Full results can be found on Rally America.