Once again the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood had plenty of action. As everyone descended into Salem, Missouri (or at least attempted to), it wasn’t the teams or the drivers that everyone was talking about, instead it was the weather. On Thursday as everyone went out to do their Recce to adjust their pace notes on the stages, a freak winter storm brought a combination of freezing rain, sleet, and snow. In some places, the icy mix was deeper than the snow in the previous Sno*Drift event in Michigan. The lucky few that brought snow tires to what is traditionally a gravel event would have a distinct advantage.
The weather wasn’t just a problem for the race course. The organizers had the added struggle with a shortage of volunteers. Many of the registered volunteers were traveling from Kansas where the state declared a weather emergency and many roads were impassable. Even our very own Doug Patterson made it only halfway to Salem on Thursday before calling it quits and staying with family to let the worst of the storm pass. Thankfully the Missouri transportation crews cleared the roads and Doug was able to make it to the event in time for the start on Friday afternoon. Additionally, a call went out over the interwebs and many local fans turned into volunteers to help make the event still happen.
The top drivers of Ken Block, David Higgins, and Antoine L’Estage had a lottery draw to pick their start positions. Higgins drew the ace and chose to start 3rd, L’Estage went for 2nd, and clearing the path as first on the road was the master “Hoonigan” Ken Block.
At the end of Stage 3 on Friday, Ken Block and co-driver Alex Gelsomino had the early lead with Antoine L’Estage and Natalie Richard in their Rockstar Mitsubishi a scant 12 seconds behind. David Higgins and Craig Drew held the factory Subaru in 3rd another six seconds behind L’Estage. Super Production had a close battle as well with Lauchlin O’Sullivan leading Evan Cline by only 18 seconds. Further back in 2WD was the closest fight with Dillon Van Way in his turbo-charged Ford Fiesta leading the factory Scion of Andrew Comrie-Picard. Van Way took an early 10 second lead on the first stage, but ACP was chipping away with faster times all afternoon.
To add a bit of additional drama, Stage 5 was cancelled. Not due to anything having to do with a driver or car, but rather uncooperative spectators. A group of young adults decided to make a fire in an area of the national forest where fires are prohibited. They refused to put it out, causing the entire stage to be cancelled. Rally organizers have a strong relationship with the US Forest Service to use these roads. The Forest Service and their property must be respected if we want events like this to continue.
As day moved to night, the conditions got worse as some areas partially melted and re-froze. Drivers were contending with a guessing game for which corners had good traction versus those that were slippery. It still wasn’t cold enough to stop L’Estage’s Mitsubishi from over-heating though as what appears to be a head gasket blew. They tried to continue at a slower pace, but then the heater core went filling the cockpit with steam and smoke so bad that they couldn’t see. L’Estage’s race was done as he didn’t have the spare engine to parts to continue.
Playing it safe proved to be the best method in the dark as Ken Block unfortunately found out on Stage 6 where he slid off and hit a stump. He was able to finish the stage with a flat front tire and damaged suspension, but closer examination while in transit showed that the car wouldn’t likely make it through the final stage of the night. He limped back to the service park with plans to continue on Saturday under “Super Rally” rules.
End of Day 1 finished with Subaru Rally Team USA leading by almost four minutes over Joseph Burke in the Open Class. Lauchlin O’Sullivan was able to pull over 30 seconds ahead of Evan Cline in Super Production with David Sterckx an additional minute behind. Back in 2WD Andrew Comrie-Picard pulled the factory Scion into the lead going into the next day with Dillon Van Way trailing by just 13 seconds.
Day 2 of the event ended up being just as slippery and challenging even though the sun was out and temps had climbed above freezing. In fact, some places were even more slick as ice melted into slippery mud. Ken Block began the day with an eleven-minute penalty and tried to claw back time to gain some points. Unfortunately, luck wasn’t on his side as a broken throttle ended his event on Stage 10. That left Team Subaru with an easy victory provided they could keep it on the road.
Meanwhile in Super Production the battle was heating up. David Sterckx and co-driver Karen Jankowski started the day over a minute and a half behind class leader Lauchlin O’Sullivan and co-driver Scott Putnam. With class stage wins on SS8 and SS9, Sterckx clawed back more than 45 seconds. This put them in a fight for the second place on the podium with Super Production Sno*Drift winners Evan Cline and Jake Blattner who they trailed by only 14 seconds by the end of SS9. By the end of SS11, Sterckx had pulled ahead of Cline and set his sights on O’Sullivan. Sterckx chipped away at O’Sullivan’s lead and was within 40 seconds of him by SS14. Both O’Sullivan and Cline answered by turning up the wick with both trading class stage wins on the final three stages.
The 2WD battle for the top continued until SS11 when Dillon Van Way had an off and hit a stump. His car was unable to continue. That put “Fast Eddie” McNelly in 2nd for 2WD followed by Team O’Neil Rally School owner and instructor Tim O’Neil who was battling for 3rd position with the Super Charged SRT Neon of Chris Greenhouse.
Experience won the day in every class with the slippery conditions. David Higgins and Craig Drew won the event eight minutes ahead of Joseph Burke and Alex Kihurani. 3rd on the overall podium went to Super Production winner Lauchlin O’Sullivan and Scott Putnam. 2nd in Super Production went to Evan Cline and Jake Blattner, and a hard fought third to David Sterckx and Karen Jankowski.
In the two 2WD class, the Scion Rally xD factory team of Andrew Comrie-Picard and Jeremy Wimpey stayed out of trouble and claimed the win, with Eddie McNelly and Ole Holter holding on to second. In a great battle for 3rd, the teacher himself Tim O’Neil and co-driver Terry Hanson took the final podium position.
It was a great event, even if the weather made it cold and driving conditions unpredictable, but that’s rally. Weather will never prevent a rally event from running, however a lack of volunteers can. I’d like to send a big shout out to all the volunteers for braving the weather and helping make this event possible. A slightly embellished version of the postal service creed would fit rally perfectly: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these…rally drivers from competing!”
Check out the rest of the awesome pics our skilled photographer Doug Patterson took here: Rally Photos from the 100 Acre Wood
Next up in the Rally America series is my home event, the Oregon Trail Rally. I’ll be a volunteer for the first time this year and will bring you the inside scoop on what a volunteer does and what action they can see that regular spectators don’t.