The 2021 running of the New England Forest Rally brought with it some of the most nail-biting competition the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National series has ever seen. With Barry McKenna, Ken Block and Brandon Semenuk all in the field, there was plenty of racing to behold, but by far the best battle of the weekend was between Subaru Motorsports USA driver Travis Pastrana and 10-time US rally champion David Higgins.
The story of Pastrana and Higgins goes back far. They’ve competed against each other many times as team-mates, but with Higgins making his return after two years in a McKenna Motorsport 2011 Fiesta WRC car, the two would be facing off as true rivals in Maine.
Both drivers had a lot to prove: Higgins that he hadn’t lost his touch during his absence, and Pastrana that he could carry the torch for Subaru against his former mentor and team-mate.
“David was my coach when I first started rallying, I based everything I do off of David,” Pastrana explains.
“He was my team-mate, we shared telemetry, we shared videos, we shared everything. It’s like if I was doing circle, or pickup racing, [I took] after Matt Crafton.”
In Higgins’ absence, that feeling hasn’t quite gone away either. Over the past year and a half Pastrana has continued to use Higgins’ notes, videos, and previous advice at every rally to try to put his WRX STI in the winner’s circle – quite successfully too with three straight wins at the beginning of the year.
“The hard part is, for me, a second is still really good for the championship. For David, his job is to beat me,” Travis said at service after SS9, five stages from home.
With a target on his back from Higgins, and the two trading times less than six seconds apart most stages, there was no holding back. Corners needed to be cut, braking points needed to be pushed, and speed needed to be increased as much as possible. And the threat from three other drivers running within seconds of the lead pace didn’t help either.
“You have to go ten tenths because someone is going to make it,” Pastrana said. “McKenna and Block didn’t the first time, there’s a good chance Higgins and I both won’t, and then Semenuk is going to win the rally.”
The drive flat out and hope to survive method is of course nothing new in rallying, but at no point in recent history of the ARA has it ever been this prevelant.
Knowing that the last big loop was coming up, as well as the remarkably rocky SS10, and after the next service only three stage miles would be left, Pastrana predicted the deciding factor of the rally.
[Pastrana] said to me he would rather crash trying to win than let me beat himDavid Higgins
“I’m calling it right now, there’s a really good chance that David or I won’t make it through stage 10 cleanly,” he said, “but we’re gonna go for it!”
Both drivers would make it through SS10 clean, but SS13 was a different story. Making a push to steal precious seconds away from Higgins, Pastrana went too hard on a right-hand corner, went wide and went on his lid with less than one mile left in the stage, and four left in the rally.
Higgins completed his race, managed to win his first rally back and defeated his former team-mate and protégé.
Pastrana has pushed for no-holds-barred racing even in the face of a huge benefit if he takes it easy, as proven with the utilization of the dollar stage bet – a scheme devised to make top drivers go flat out for a fastest time on a late stage of each rally with the stakes being, of course, one dollar.
“We used to [do the dollar bet],” Higgins explains, “but he stopped doing it with me because I got too many of his dollars. I need to up it to a fiver just to see if I can get a bit more income!
“[Pastrana] said to me he would rather crash trying to win than let me beat him,” Higgins said of their battle.
Of course Pastrana was making playful banter with his good friend and former team-mate, but there is likely a bit of truth hidden there.
Higgins was able to offer more insight into why Pastrana likely had his off though. Remember how Pastrana has been using Higgins’ old videos and notes?
“The corner where he crashed on, we had quite a big moment there the first time through.” Higgins explained. “We clipped the bank on the outside with a back wheel. Then obviously he’s using part of my notes and part of my things and then he goes off on the same corner.
“So I said to Craig [Drew, co-driver], ‘It’s strange how he’s having moments at the same place we do,’ and he goes ‘Maybe not if he’s watching our videos!’”
So through it all, it seems there’s more Pastrana can learn, or possibly even unlearn, from Higgins as he continues to lead points in the ARA National championship.
For Higgins, it was a genuine moment of triumph in adversity given his leg was only “80% fit” and his period on the sidelines was the longest of his career which began in the early ’90s.