The rain came. And went. Then came back harder. The blue tarpaulin above the marshals at the start of Saturday’s final stage of the DirtFish Olympus Rally was becoming worrying convex; the plastic pole supporting it flexed.
I stepped into the rain and, immediately, everything felt right. Brandon Semenuk’s Subaru WRX STI had just pulled up to the line for the second run of Stillwater. Nobody likes delays on rallies, but this time they’d possibly worked in our favor. A fraught Saturday morning had cost the organizers time and tipped a potentially dusk SS6 very much into the darkness.
Vermont SportsCar builds a mighty fine car and standing alongside the burbling #1 Red Bull-backed machine only served to heighten sensitivities to what an amazing discipline of motorsport we work in. The Subaru has a real menace about it. With 30 seconds to go before launch, Semenuk gave the throttle a stab to build some revs and raise the intensity. The flare of noise was stunning and only topped when he pulled first; that mechanical clunk is symphonic.
Loud. Louder. Loudest.
Cue the machine gun chatter of gravel on sills accompanying an iconic flat-four bark.
Up front, LED lights cut a blue-white swathe through the trees, spearing the heart of the darkness to briefly return daylight to the Olympic forest.
Welcome to Washington.
I’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. The Olympus Rally is, for me, part of our discipline’s legend. It’s where Juha and Markku went head-to-head. Friends and rivals, they squabbled over a world championship through these very woods. The sight of the Tacoma Dome was similar to a first view of Sydney’s Opera House or the Pyramids. That, my friends, is where 1986 started.
The place totally lived up to expectations.
And so did the rally. The American Rally Association is undoubtedly a championship at a crossroads, but one thing will never change: the community of competitors, volunteers and fans in the US is among the most welcoming, humble and exceptional to work with.
But one group of folk took those three virtues to the moon and back: Team DirtFish.
Professionally, I’ve never been much of a team player. I’ve never had the chance. I worked at Autosport for a couple of decades, pounding the streets of the WRC alone in search of scandal and stories.
Joining the world’s best rally school three years ago was a life-changer for me and last weekend further demonstrated why I’m blessed to have landed a place in the world’s best team.
Olympus being our local ARA round, DirtFish had a presence in seven cars. Each one of those seven cars told a tale. And I’m starting with the main player, Tennis.
Nate Tennis is the very definition of a rally nerd. Like the rest of us, he lives for it. But he does it properly, giving every waking hour – and a sizeable chunk of his bank account – to an outlandishly big Volvo 940 Turbo.
Nate had spent four months preparing for last weekend. Four months building the car, the hope, the anticipation. A week out from the rally, he still wasn’t sure he’d make the start. The Swedish beast was still giving trouble. He made it.
Waiting for Nate the Great at the end of the rally opening Nahwatzel stage, the red and white motor filled the horizon. He’d made it.
Opening the door, the emotion was raw.
“I genuinely do feel emotional,” he said. “The car worked. It ran cool and we made it fly…”
Tennis’ voice faded as he gave himself a moment of composure.
Moments like that – they’re what make rallying special. He’d built the dream, then lived it.
A strut making a bid for freedom through the hood a handful of stages later wasn’t the way this story was meant to end, but Nate was philosophical. Yes, the car had let him down, but it didn’t matter. It had relit the fire along the way.
Departing the classification earlier than Nate – earlier than anybody, in fact – was the man who’d built a car which commanded more attention than any other, Semenuk’s Subaru included.
DirtFish instructor Sam Albert has become something of an internet sensation. Type in the words Subaru and Ferrari into your favorite search engine and 122 million results are returned in 0.42 seconds. A good few of them and certainly the headlines are all about Sam’s V8 Ferrari-powered Impreza.
It’s a mind-bendingly wicked piece of kit. Sadly for Sam, right rear hub failure spelled the end of his run at the first corner. He’ll be back and so will the car that’s caught the attention of our world.
And don’t worry, this isn’t where Sam’s story ends on DirtFish. We’ve got some exclusive content coming from him in the next few weeks.
Fellow instructor and Subaru driver Jason Cochell was a man on a mission in an Impreza close to all of our hearts – as an ex-school car. He flew through Saturday and carried all of our hopes, running second in the Regional category. Could it happen? Might DirtFish land a win?
His hopes were dashed on Sunday when a slippier-than-expected left-hander tipped him into a ditch second time through the Dayton stage. He eventually made it out, but all hopes of a result were gone.
A broken control arm and a smashed window were the scars of that battle when he eventually arrived into service. New suspension and something to keep the rain out had to be sourced if he was to take one last shot at the final stage.
And this is where the rally community came into its own, running around the service park, he found both, bolted them on and finished the rally. It wasn’t the second place he deserved, but the adventure was all there.
DirtFish photographer, the lovely Romain Beaulieu, sadly wasn’t able to source the replacement transmission his BMW E36 required on Saturday night. And Romain took his search outside of the service park and across the road to a 25-hour endurance race taking place at a local race track.
Touring the paddock, all he found was sympathy for his plight. His response? He returned to the rally and advised fellow E36 runners of the spares he had available if they needed them. Outstanding.
He wasn’t the only BMW in trouble. Top instructors Sean Edwards and Kendra Miller joined forces in colleague Mitch Williams’ gorgeous 2002. Competing on his first ever rally, Sean showed why he’s one of DirtFish’s best. Hampered, but undaunted, by a worsening misfire, he guided the car through the sodden stages in perfect order.
Sadly, it all came to an end within sight of the stop line of Sunday’s third stage. My colleague Brenten Kelly and I were waiting for him at the end of the road. Without a moment’s hesitation, when we saw him stopped, we ran to help.
“That’s our guy!” Brenten told the marshals, who weren’t far behind us in helping.
Sadly, the BMW couldn’t be coaxed back to life and ended its rally on the back of a tow-rope.
No matter. Sean’s hooked. “I found my sport,” he grinned.
Josie Rimmer and Michelle Miller also suffered mechanical issues when the rear diff on their Subaru BRZ cried enough on Cougar Meadow. Having been one of many crews to miss out on running the first two stages, the frustration was obvious for the pair, but they bounced back with a solid Sunday packed with ever-improving pace and the most important thing ever, absolute harmony in the car.
Josie said: “Michelle is the most amazing co-driver and she’s been unbelievably supportive. This was my first real rally and to have her alongside me meant so much. Michelle and I had talked about when the notes would sync and how that would feel. When I started to really drive to the notes and trust myself more, it happened. It was the most amazing thing. It felt like I was floating.
“It’s a fresh mental challenge to be brand new to a sport again. But I’ve got this team beside me that I wouldn’t trade for anything, and they’re allowing me to be exactly where I’m at.”
Here at DirtFish Rally School, we’re all about the customer experience and about bringing the best out in people. Michelle did that for Josie, but she wasn’t the only instructor in the co-driver’s seat to deliver the dream.
Step forward Eric Schofhauser. Eric has worked with one of our favorite clients Neil Dana for a while now. Having graduated from DirtFish with flying colors, Neil was looking for some post-grad excitement. Eric told him he was ready for the stage. Neil told him he’d only do it with his wingman alongside. They smashed it, guiding a Subaru BRZ to a debut class podium.
Another chapter in a stunning story.
This particular story can’t be closed without paying tribute to the other heroes of the hour. Sean Medcroft and Ryan Skinner worked the spanners with typical aplomb, while Zander Lozano and Micah Wesson never stopped smiling on the DirtFish merch stall.
Brenten was a rock star. He’s a driver, a talker and a true media professional, as was Josh Sikora, our top photographer and videographer. Special mention, however, has to be saved for Jack Harrison. The legend. At a moment’s notice, Jack agreed to jump in at the deep end and steer DirtFish Live Center for us. He’s some wheelman. Thanks brother.
There’s one more to mention, it’s the team captain. Steve Rimmer.
A little over three years ago, Steve and I came up with the plan to make some media. More than anybody, he welcomed me to his team and I can’t thank him enough.
And Olympus Rally, we’ll be back next year to conquer.