“SOS FIRE,” was the signal sent to race control not long after the start of stage two on the Ojibwe Forests Rally last weekend.
The signal came from car #243, Pat Gruszka and Florian Barral.
“First we lost power, that was the turbo going,” Gruzska told DirtFish, “and then somehow oil got out and it lit up.”
Gruszka had been running fourth overall in his Mitsubishi Mirage RS Proto Evo II, behind only Hoonigan and Subaru Motorsports USA, and put in some good distance at the famed Crossroad Jump as well. Not bad at all for a 19-year-old in his second year of competition.
“The first stage was absolutely incredible! We had a blast. Our notes were on point, and I was really happy about that.”
Unfortunately, the drama was starting early for Gruszka and the Green APU team.
“We had no problems aside from a small warning at the end of stage one that we had high oil temp. Everything seemed fine. I chatted with [my father,] Art, and he said the temperature range was OK, that the warning pops up and it turns off, it was safe enough.
“I looked at the temperatures and I thought I was fine, so I made the judgment to keep pushing. Come stage two, we’re about eight miles in, and we lit on fire.”
Let’s take a step back for a minute. Where did Pat Gruszka come from? How is such a young rallyist already right behind the biggest names in US rally?
It all starts with dad. Arkadiusz Gruszka, who started rallying in 2007 in the Rally America Championship. Pat, who was just four years old at the time, watched his dad every step of the way.
“I remember coming to Sno*Drift, and all those events when I was like this big,” he said reaching down toward the ground.
“When he did X-Games and stuff like that, I was super excited to see him there and cheer him on every step of the way.”
Pat started out karting young at age nine, much like any up-and-comer in any motorsport these days, but thankfully instead of heading to the circuit, he followed his father’s steps and started rallying.
Last year Pat competed in the go-to humble starter car in the ARA, a L2WD Ford Fiesta. Entering Regionally in Eastern ARA events, Gruzska scored podium finishes in all six rallies he competed in, and got himself the class championship in the region at the end of the year.
2022 would bring a massive upgrade to the Mirage RS Proto Evo II, one of the faster cars in the series, but it hadn’t been the first time Pat had driven it.
“I did a rallycross in Wisconsin with this car when I was a sophomore in high school,” Gruszka said. “That was Art’s season where he won the Rally America Championship, and he was fresh out of the car, maybe a year break, and it was my first time ever competitively driving the car.
“There was like five or six other cars there. Some Evos, some Subarus, and then also, we were switching between him driving and me driving, and I could barely reach the pedals! It was super funny.
“I managed to beat Art by a second and everyone there by three. From that moment on I just gave him so much crap about it, you know? I’m like, ‘listen, remember that time where I sat in the car for the first time and managed to beat you?’”
While bruised, Art’s ego was clearly not damaged enough to keep his son out of his car. The Mirage Pat has been driving this year is the same one Art has campaigned since 2015. While it’s hard to compare results between the two with the massive changes in the ARA over the past few years, it’s clear after six events that Pat’s not afraid of it.
On the wildly icy season opener, Gruszka finished fifth overall – in Super Rally – his first time taking the Mirage on stage! He won three stages, and even managed to beat Brandon Semenuk on one before the Subaru’s transmission let go.
Southern Ohio was also an impressive showing for Gruszka, finishing fourth overall, and showing similar pace to Will Hudson’s Fiesta Rally2 on many of the stages.
Gruszka chalks up his promising looks to “a bunch of testing”.
“We’ve done, in the past two months, alone around 1000 miles of testing,” he said. “We just came back from Europe, where we did some more testing for some 200km. It’s just sitting in the car constantly and picking up more speed and confidence.
It's like painting a work of art, you know? It takes time and you have to get all the strokes correctPatrick Gruszka on perfecting rallying
“You can’t be good at racing without just sitting in the car you know. Simulators, sure. I have maybe 2000 hours on sims. I started racing when I was in eighth grade on sims. So props to that for giving me the basic controls, but once you get into the car and stuff like that, it’s completely different.
“You are controlling your mental and your physical. People always think that rally is just you getting into the car and you’re sending it down this road but to be honest, it’s a bunch of different things combined.
“You have to manage your mental state, and how you react to different things happening in the car, and then you have to physically be in shape, to maintain that pace and endurance throughout the entire event and all that stuff.
“It’s like painting a work of art, you know? It takes time and you have to get all the strokes correct. And at the end of the day, we’re left with something beautiful. And this is beautiful.
“I managed to somehow transition into this glorious sport here in the USA and I’m super happy to compete with some of the greatest competitors here in the states with Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, Brandon Semenuk, Barry McKenna, all those guys.
“I’m happy I can even be here. You know, my dad, it’s hard for me to put it into words, what my dad did for me and the opportunity that I have here. So I’m super happy about that and trying to make the most of it.”
Let’s get back to that fire, because thankfully “it wasn’t anything too bad”.
Despite the SOS signal, Gruszka and co-driver Florian Barral were able to put the fire out themselves by the time the next few cars came by.
“I’m really sorry to 24 competitors that had to suffer and transit through the stage instead of going through a full speed,” he explained.
“I didn’t know how bad the fire was and by the time we put it out was already too late [to take back the SOS].”
Despite entering Super Rally after just one clean stage, Gruzska’s team put the turbo back together, and he was back out for the fifth stage, where the car held together perfectly.
In fact, for the rest of the weekend Gruzska and Barral were right back on pace, finishing fourth in times on most stages.
Yes, Gruzska’s fast, and that’s important, but more than that, he seems to understand exactly what rally is, and how you have to handle it.
It’s not just driving fast, it’s not just doing a good recce, it’s a combination of days, weeks, even years’ worth of efforts to run at a high National level, and he’s not just taking advantage of it because he can. He’s grown up in it from day one, and is happy to even be in a car at all.
The fire? The SOS? The transited stage? It’s a flash in the pan. Come STPR no one will think of it much ever again.
But Pat Gruszka’s rallying career? Certainly not. He’s here to stay, and it’s only up from here.