It’s another month, which means another rally. Here we are now in Newry, Maine for the New England Forest Rally. Antoine L’Estage was looking for his fourth consecutive win at this Rally, David Higgins was looking to extend his lead this season, and Ken Block was out to do whatever it took to make that gap smaller
But, before the main event on Friday, we go back to Wednesday at the Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire. O’Neil’s was open for a little test and tune before the rally. There was a six mile loop stage that was open for the drivers to run to get an idea of how the surface of the stages should feel on Friday and Saturday.
Nick Roberts and Nick Judkins were back in a brand new STi after rolling their last car in the Oregon Trail Rally. They would end up keeping this car clean, and bringing it home 10th overall and 3rd in class.
David Sterckx was taking full advantage of the open testing, pushing his car furthet beyond the limits than anyone else out that night. Can’t blame him either, he ended up taking the Super Production win and a 4th place overall finish.
The Sunday River Resort was the center of both Parc Exposes, first day service, the Super Special, and the media shakedown/test stage on Thursday night. Luckily for Alex Wong and me, we were with Noble Star Rally, who had a nice cabin a mere five minutes from the resort. After a last minute run to tech, we came across the shakedown stage and got a little sneak peak for what tomorrow had in store.
With Friday morning upon us, we made our way through the paddock to see what was in store for the weekend. We “accidentally” ended up in the fueling lane after following Block’s Fiesta. A quick talk with an official, slipping him a “we’re media” like that would make us special or something and we got to wander around.
After seeing photos of the Nameless Performance GT86 online at the Nameless Performance Rally in Washington, I continually checked the NEFR entry list for their name. I never saw them on the list, but when their trailer pulled up on Thursday night, I knew I had a new favorite car.
There was also the most legit looking start I’ve ever seen at a Rally America event. Dillon Van Way started the day just fine, but due to mechanical problems he went out on Stage 3, which seemed to be a theme for this rally.
Then it was finally time for some real rally. The Super Special, literally a one minute drive from Expose and the start had a dirt to tarmac transition right at the end. The dirt road, which looked like a parking lot, widened to about five lanes just before the sharp right hander onto the tarmac. The lead guys had no problem with the transition, but the more cars that ran it, the more dirt and dust ended up on the tarmac, making it slippery for the rest of the field.
Ken definitely had the most exciting transition, letting it all hang out around the turn, almost coming in backwards just before the guard rail.
The amount of speed he carried up the straight to the finish was incredible. It just goes to show how powerful and quick these Open Class cars are. The suspension travel however, is even more amazing. The cars sit level and decently low when parked or traveling straight, but once they hit the throttle the wheel wells just open up.
You can see how wide the road gets just before the transition. The straightway gave a good opportunity for the cars to get up to a good amount speed, just before they needed to slow way down to avoid hitting the the guardrail, which many did.
On our way to our first stage of the day, we couldn’t help but be sidetracked by the scenery of Maine. Some of the stages were 40 minutes apart, as per usual in rally, but unlike some of the other rallies it was okay because the scenery seemed to never end.
Alex and I hiked in about a mile just to the start, and we were already about halfway through the field. Alex decided to continue to hike in, and I stayed back to watch the start. It was pretty cool to watch the launches of the cars on the dirt. Seeing how the dirt moves around the body and mud flaps are the little details that you don’t always see.
After the stage was done, I hiked in to catch up with Alex. We originally stopped at a spectator point, but there’s the never ending question of “What’s around that corner?” After a quick hike, we found a downhill turn and hoped for sideways jumps. We both agreed, even before the first car, that it was the scariest place we’d ever been. The reason being, we were right in the runoff area. Here’s Antoine’s Hyundai Tiburon making its return after a long break. After crashing the WRC Lancer, and his Evo X out on rent, he brought out the Hyundai.
Block didn’t disappoint, giving it his usual all, he managed to get a little air to please our expectations. After Block’s pass, we booked it to a “safer” spot up the road.
Darkness started creeping in slowly during the stage. Being the final stage of the day, we made it back to the start shooting as the cars came by.
It’s amazing how close you can get to the cars while they’e on stage. Verena Mei never fails to be a crowd favorite. Her 5th place in class finish and 15th overall finish keeps her 5th in overall points. And just finishing was an accomplishment itself this weekend.
The reason being these gigantic rocks right in the middle of the stages. To try and help avoid as much damage as possible some of the rocks were painted a bright orange to help with visibility, but the sheer number of them was no match for the paint.
After we left the stage, Alex and I went into the town of Bethel, Maine, to get food for breakfast the next morning. We decided to eat at a roadside Barbecue just outside of town. After you purchased your food, you were encouraged to sign the trailer. Mixed in with all of the various signatures and stickers there are many signs of rally all over the siding. Block stickers, Mei stickers, Evan Cline stickers, and even a #GravelMachineGun sticker. That’s my kind of place.
The next morning it was back to the Super Special at Sunday River. I mentioned earlier that Antoine’s Evo X was out on loan. The person who was running it was Rifat Sungkar. A very successful rally driver in Asia and a newcomer to the Rally America Series. He was fairly quiet during the rally, but by no means slow. He managed to get 3rd overall with Antoine going out on day two when his lugs sheared off, taking off his wheel.
I don’t often get to see rally cars on tarmac, the grip and following launch the higher cars would get was ridiculous.
As with every rally, I came out with the Noble Star Rally team, who had a three-car team present at NEFR. Amanda came in with brand new coilovers from Evan Cline. After Day 1 she was third in class, but Day 2 took many casualties. A flat tire, broken tie rod, and broken exhaust would push her down to the back. But that’s rally.
Now this is the point in time when I say rally never goes according to plan. Alex spent part of the night before looking over the schedule and setting up the best route possible. It started off great, but our second stage would prove to be different. We heard of a good spot fairly far into the 16-mile stage. The farther we got, the closer we came to the start time which made us more and more nervous of running into a sweep car, something you never want want to run into.
We pulled into a checkpoint spot hoping for the best.
We tried and tired, but all we had was a little straightway and a slight bend. Walking was out of the question due to the terrain of the stages. There were no run off areas, and even less shooting areas.
Our gamble meant that we’d been staged locked and would have to for the sweep cars to be able to leave. So I guess just make the best of a bad situation? The amount of lens/body combos we tried throughout the stage was pretty impressive I’d say, Alex even got into the bus a few times.
However, we were’t the only ones who had a bad time on stage. This one stage alone took five cars out and caused a huge delay for the next stages. As for us, well this was our view for 30 minutes as we waited for the sweep vehicles and tow vehicles to come by and clear the stage, effectively wiping out our plans for the rest of the day.
The Nameless 86 was doing well, up until they started loosing their rear brakes. Unfortunately for them, it was only a refuel stop meaning their crew couldn’t help. So it was up to Will Orders and Toni Feaver to handle it on their own. They still managed 2nd place in the 2WD class.
Cutting our losses, we headed to the end of the last stage to get our last bit of racing in.
I can only imagine the relief the drivers felt after crossing the final time point. Day 1 consisted of four stages, but Day 2 had nine. Between the tight stages and the rocky and car-killing roads, this is the hardest rally on the Rally America schedule.
With almost 12 hours of racing and transit on Saturday, I’m sure everyone was happy to be done. Crossing state lines between Maine and New Hampshire, dodging rocks, offed cars, and anything else that could possibly show up, just goes to show how unpredictable and awesome rally is.
At the end of the day, Ken Block came through with the win. Through Day 2, Ken and David swapped the lead all day. Ken grabbed two stage wins on the final day, with David taking seven, which explains the 6.5 second final gap. There was even a moment where Ken and Co-Driver Alex Gelsomino lost radio contact for 13 miles on stage. Relaying on hand signals, Ken still went all out.
Ken’s wife, Lucy Block, also entered her own G2 Ford Fiesta for the first time in three years. She managed a 14th overall place finish in the Maine Rally, a regional event within the main event. After congratulating Ken on his win, Alex decided to bring her into the champagne celebration.
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