Sometimes as a member of the DirtFish editorial team you just get a sense that a grenade is about to be lobbed into several of the many internet rallying forums when you hit publish on a story.
Such a moment came last week when we ran a story from Travis Pastrana, who believes the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National series is as good as any other national championship out there.
But, if I’m honest, the avalanche never came which is indicative of the strong progress the ARA has made as a championship in the last couple of years.
As a European writer but rallying fan first and foremost, I would have more than understood the backlash had it arrived. To be really open and honest, the American championship isn’t one I paid particular attention to before joining DirtFish.
I was more than aware of what David Higgins was up to – and Oliver’s Solberg’s appearances in 2019 created some intrigue – but to be brutal they were rallies at unsociable UK hours that lacked serious competition.
How times have changed.
I’m now far more in tune with the ARA than I ever used to be through work, but the evidence suggests I would be paying close attention irrespective of my job. All of my UK rallying friends are doing just that because, quite simply, how can we not when the competition is now this good?
As neutrals, we all owe Barry McKenna a large degree of gratitude. The fact he’s managed to create a team that’s not just rivaled, but beaten, Subaru Motorsports USA is incredible and is undoubtedly a major reason why the ARA has become more interesting for those outside of the US.
But there’s also the number of Irish drivers that have decided to see what it’s all about to factor in. Josh McErlean, Callum Devine and now Marty McCormack have all entered a round each this season – and have loved it.
McCormack was third on last weekend’s New England Forest Rally, and his post-event discussion with DirtFish on the state of ARA compared to British and Irish rallying is telling.
“I would say that definitely the pace here of the front guys in the big cars is faster,” he says. “Anybody that questions what goes on over here in American rallying should come and try it for themselves.
“We’re big R5 supporters back home in Ireland but the big cars really suit it here and there’s a place for them here, so it’s really good to come and experience that as well.
“The pace and the speed of the rally was mind-blowing on the first day. It’s been a really, really enjoyable event.
“Definitely very good, very fast guys and hopefully we’ll be back.”
I know McCormack well and while he is one of the happiest rally drivers around, he doesn’t say things for the sake of it. He won’t feed you a line to please the PR man; what you’ve read there is genuine sentiment.
And who can disagree with him? I certainly can’t.
It's amazing for the championship to be like it isDavid Higgins
Higgins believes the presence of McKenna’s all-new and bespoke Ford Fiesta WRC has made a tangible difference.
“The pace has got a bit quicker because Barry’s car is better so then Subaru have had to up their game a little bit,” says Higgins, who won on his return to the series last weekend.
“But the biggest difference is going back a few years ago you were generally racing against one, maybe two really quick people whereas on this rally [NEFR] there was five, six of us; so if you had a problem you would drop back much further.
“It’s amazing for the championship to be like it is. I’ve been involved with the championship a long time on and off and there’s always been some quite good peaks and then it’s sort of dropped off. Now the ARA are doing a really good job with the series.”
It isn’t just the heat of the competition that’s appealing though – it’s the presentation and accessibility of the information too. While there is still room for improvement on this score, things have rapidly moved on a positive trajectory.
I like to think that DirtFish is playing a significant role here with our dedicated on-the-ground media team and loop reports on the website delivering all the latest news and analysis in a way that simply wasn’t available before.
But there have been other advances with technology as well that have brought the ARA more in line with other series further east.
“RallySafe as well has made it so much easier for the fans to watch because you can be watching from home now and see the stages and see what’s actually happening,” argues Higgins, “whereas before you’d be at home and wouldn’t have a clue because the times would be wrong or different things, it was almost more confusing to try and watch it.
“We’re now in a situation where fans can engage with it and get behind some of the technology as well so it’s made some really good pluses and still some classic stages.”
If Pastrana wasn’t already correct about the ARA being on par with other national series, New England Forest Rally confirmed it. This is a genuine peak for American rallying, and one that all responsible should be incredibly satisfied with.
The challenge now is ensuring that this era isn’t short-lived and instead will be remembered as the springboard for putting the ARA right at the center of the global rallying map.