Another day, another rally. The fourth round of the Rally America series took place in the hilly countryside of Pennsylvania, aroundd around the picturesque little town of Wellsboro. Every year the town gets ready for the influx of flat four boxers and rowdy fans.
Although for me the story starts some 400 miles away in Rochester Hills, MI with my team, Noble Star Rally. Wednesday morning we were up and ready to go, but a problem with our trailer brake pushed our out time from roughly 9am to 1pm. So needless to say, we had a long drive ahead of us.
With summer in full swing here in the Eastern part of the states, the bugs were out in full force during our night trek through New York and Western Pennsylvania. It’s a simple thing, but I’ve never seen a bumper so covered with bugs in such a short time!
With dawn approaching, we finally made it to our cabin and rested for the next day. For the teams, Thursday mostly consisted of final checks, fixing major problems, and getting the cars to the fairgrounds for what I feel is one of the hardest parts of rally…
…Inspection. Even the biggest of teams seem to be under stress when they pull up to the line for their turn. Every inspector has their own way of interpreting the rules and regulations they’re told to enforce. So it usually means there are often various crew members running back and fourth from the trailer to inspection with parts and tools. But the inspectors are patient and let the team do what’s needed, unless it’s something major.
One of the biggest stories coming into STPR was the fact that Antoine L’Estage would have to sit out after crashing his Ex-WRC Lancer at the Oregon Trail Rally, leaving him and his co-driver Nathalie Richard without a ride. Nathalie was teamed up with Verena Mei in her Ford Fiesta. What about Mei’s usual co-driver Leanne Junnila? She had been invited to speak at a conference in Rhode Island so it worked out perfect.
All while this was going on, the drivers and co-drivers were out on Recce, which is pretty much a slow run of the stages to make any additions or corrections to the pace notes and get a feel for the courses they’d be running on the next couple of days. And judging by how the cars looked at the end of the day, it was going to be a muddy rally.
Thursday night there was a shakedown stage available to all the drivers to test and tune their cars on a stage to see if any more adjustments were needed, or just to get a little seat time in on the roads to get used to how the car handles of the local gravel. This was also the first time the shakedown stage was available to all drives without a fee. (Thanks Amanda!)
Friday only hosted three real stages, then ended with the Super Special. Two of the stages were run on Waste Management property, which meant it was hard for any spectating, and meant that media would get a shuttle ride out to the stages, so the only glance of the cars people would get before night was at the Parc Expose in the town center.
If you ever go to rally and wonder where Ken Block is, just look for the massive group of people, and nine times out of ten he’ll be in the middle. It’s still amazing to me how many people show up just for him alone how the crowd goes crazy every time he comes by on stage or his named is mentioned over the loud speaker.
Don’t have a poster or anything handy to sign? A couple dollar bills will do!
Even though L’Estage wasn’t driving he still showed up to sigh autographs and just take in the event. Too bad too, I would have loved to have seen his WRC Lancer. I guess there’s always next time!
The locals didn’t disappoint. Team Hazard Rally brought out their Jeep Cherokee with chalkboard paint and let everybody go crazy with chalk and do as they wish.
Even with just three stages, some of the drivers still managed to get their cars into trouble some way or the another. Everyone was still on good spirits though. while the guy was hammering away, he looked at the driver and said, “You always wanted rolled fenders, didn’t you?”
After the 25 minute service, it was time for the Super Special, which was different in a couple ways. Instead of running fastest car to slowest car like usual, they ran it in the reverse order, making it so the spectators would see every car run before seeing Ken Block run, because let’s face it, most of the people were there for him.
The other difference is something I’ve always wanted to see ever since playing the first Colin Mcrae:DiRT Crossover. Although there was no bridge, or even jump, seeing two cars run at the same time was pretty cool. The faster driver would pick which line they wanted first, run it, then go again with orders reversed.
You couldn’t really tell how close it was until the final stretch which ran right in front the spectators. It was definatly a confusing layout at first with a couple drivers taking wrong turns and running on the wrong track, sometimes slowing the car down. Each run was a race, but also counted as a time to their overall rally time.
The final turn consisted of the both cars coming down the straight away into a complete 180 degree turn, and then down into the finish. Some cars hugged the inside tire, and others went a little too wide and just drove right over the barrier. That’s rally.
I was next to a large rock pile for a good part of the SS, and I kept hearing a weird noise like a bird chirping or something. I looked down and saw this guy looking up at me. Isn’t nature just amazing? Rally must have one of the most diverse fan bases out there. No opossums though.
During the rally, Higgins went out with damaged steering, and sat out the SS on Friday. The final battle was between Adam Yeoman and Ken Block. When the light turned red (but it meant go) Yeoman had a great launch while Block just sat there. And he continued to sit there during all of Yeoman’s run.
Once they finished though Block took off and did his run. Some said he did it for attention, others say he just waited to avoid getting in Yeoman’s way and wanted to make sure no one had to worry about running over each other.
During the rally weekend, a local garage, All Wheels Driven, opened their doors and let various teams come in and fix problems. Many teams owe a huge thanks to them for lending their lifts and various tools to the teams to get there cars back on course. Noble Star Rally’s teammate, Brian McNamara, was running without first gear for a better part of the day and needed to start in second.
Once the transmission was dropped, we got a look into why he was having these problems. I was surprised he could even keep going like that. Being rally though, there was a new clutch and flywheel brought in within five minutes. Of course, the next day he lost control and backed the car into a tree. Luckily there was no damage, so he just kept on going.
Jon Kramer in his Subaru WRX rolled on day one, but with help of All Wheels Driven, they found a windshield to try to replace the cracked one. I’m not sure if there’s a right way to get a cracked windshield out, but the AWD owner jumped right in and started helping.
The next morning, it was time for the big day. With nine stages on deck it was a bright and early morning in Wellsboro with Mr. Block leading the way.
It seems like Rally America loves to make the stages as far apart as possible, but all start close together. On a Right 1 (the sharpest corner in rally), you can really see the difference in lines of the top drivers. Here, you can see Ken going all the way to the ditch.
As opposed to Higgins who kept his line a little cleaner and not as wide. European Rally compared to American Rally, maybe?
There’s just something awesome about seeing old Subarus sliding around a corner with a dented door still going all out.
It was good seeing Amanda of Noble Star Rally really starting to push her car more and more. I’ve been with them for just over a year now, and it’s definitely showing that she’s getting more comfortable with her car, even if there’s something different on it every rally.
I decided to take the Alex Wong approach with the next stage and stand right in the apex. Nerve-wracking? Without a doubt. Awesome? Best thing I’ve ever done. I’ve been close to cars before, but having them slide right past me is a rush that probably will never get old.
A tree to my left blocked my view, so I had to go off the engine noise to know how close they were. So if they were going to crash, I would be out of luck. Higgins was on a roll during Saturday trying to make up for his problem on day 1. He managed to finish 3rd overall. He went out on the third stage on Friday, so he didn’t lose too much time, but still an impressive comeback nonetheless.
Brakim Racing’s BMW E36 was one of my favorites throughout the rally. I’m a sucker for RWD, and they were letting it all hang out. They were leading in Group 2 the first day but got penalties that put them in third. On Saturday they went off the road. They were also in a train of three cars in this very turn, that’s a first for me in rally.
Seeing cars coming right at you in the middle of the forest never gets old. I’d much rather do it in 80-90 degree weather as opposed to 10 like at Sno*Drift, but I’ll take what I can get.
It was pretty well set that Block was going to take the win, but to keep him hyped for the final Super Special, Ken and his trainer had a quick sparring match in the paddock. You never know what you’ll see in the paddock at a motorsports event.
Higgins knew he had to make up as much time as possible, so during the SS battle he was just flying. I think he took home the “Best Hairpin Turn” award by the way he flicked his Subaru around the tire barrier. Block ran the SS with a cracked exhaust manifold, forcing him to run in transit mode giving an easy win to Higgins.
Block took the win with an easy ten minute gap back to second place David Sterckx and Karen Jankowski with Higgins and Drew making it in third with a comeback drive. With Yeoman’s engine seizing up and L’Estage missing this round, they both dropped in the standings. Higgins missing part of Friday with damaged steering was a blow but he’s still has a commanding lead in the championship over second place Block. After all the dust had settled, Sterckx ended up sitting in third overall. This was certainly a rally like no other.