Seamus Burke’s much beloved Mustang V6-powered Ford Escort Mk2 was suffering from overheating issues at the New England Forest Rally. Not a huge deal, but with Open 2WD championship hopes on the line, Burke wanted to manage his gap to his main competition, Michael Hooper, in the Lexus IS350.
But on SS12, Sturtevant Long, Burke had just pulled fifth gear through the third corner of the stage and took the opportunity to change the digital dash from the temperature page that they were using to monitor issues on the transit.
Unfortunately, in that split second Burke’s eyes were elsewhere, his Escort was suddenly on-line with one of NEFR’s plentiful large stones, and whole evasive action was attempted, it was an honest mistake that caused Burke’s first real crash in recent memory.
Burke, who is known for wheeling his Escort around corners with the beauty and control that would make you think he should be competing in Formula Drift, looked back to the road to see a massive rock in his line, and when he turned the wheel to avoid it, the rear end snapped.
The car ended up 90 degrees to the road when it finally caught and rolled one and a half times, before a relatively soft landing against a tree.
Thankfully Burke and co-driver Martin Brady were fine, but one of America’s favorite rally cars was badly damaged for the first time.
Brady, who has done over 40 rallies with Burke, called it “rare” and “uncharacteristic” for something like this to happen.
This isn’t a story of Burke’s wreck though, this is a story of how a privateer team pulled together to reprep their rally car in just three weeks to be ready for the next round of the championship, the Ojibwe Forests Rally.
It’s a story of some of the most passionate workers in the world making everything come together for the perfect redemption arc, as Burke remained determined to make those points back on Ojibwe.
If you don’t know, Seamus Burke rallied Escorts in Ireland in the 1970s and 80s and although he took a hiatus after moving to the US, he’s one of the few to compete in US rallying all the way since 1999, where he competed in a host of all-wheel-drive cars (finishing a close second in 2001 behind the works Subaru outfit) before returning to his Escort roots in 2017.
Now powered by the Mustang V6 – origianlly an $800 junk-yard alternative to the sometimes $25,000+ BDG motor – it’s one of the loudest, best sounding, and, arguably, best prepped two-wheel-drive cars in US rallying, and has taken Burke to three national championships.
Joseph Burke, Seamus’ son and fellow ARA competitor, was on-site spectating that fateful weekend, and shared the experience of coming up on the accident with DirtFish.
I'd say within about 45 minutes of us being back in the condo, we had all sat at a round table, and my dad was going through what he was planning on doingJoseph Burke
“I’ve been on the receiving end of a few accidents over the years,” he said, “so I’ve witnessed light rolls from fairly heavy ones and just the way the car was sitting, you could tell it was a fairly big speed roll.
“He [Seamus] was standing in front of the car when we pulled up, and kind of gave me a look, as if to say, ‘it was a ride.’”
Thankfully, the roll wasn’t actually that bad. With very few hard hits, it was about as soft as an incident at that speed could be.
What was remarkable was that before the crew had even arrived to recover the car, Seamus had already taken full inventory of the damage, and what was or wasn’t repairable. With that done, they took the car back to the condo they were staying at that weekend.
“I’d say within about 45 minutes of us being back in the condo, Seamus had showered and called everyone around a table,” Joseph explained.
“It started with asking Martin how many weeks it was until Ojibwe, which I’m fairly sure he already knew but used it as an icebreaker on where he was heading… and then looked to Pascal about what was needed to get the car back on it’s legs… Pascal [Belperron] was kind of, you know, laughing a little bit.”
Pascal is Pascal Belperron, the Burkes’ crew chief – but he’s only been with the team since 2021, and only been focused on the Escort since the beginning of the year.
He was also the only one who didn’t realize how serious Seamus was being about having the car ready for Ojibwe in just under five weeks.
“It took until about 45 seconds into it,” Joseph continued, “then Pascal realized that my dad wasn’t kidding, that he was going to Ojibwe.
“My dad runs a fairly successful business here in Atlanta and has always treated his rally repairs in the same way as he treats the business. Nothing’s really an issue. It was a business transaction at that point, it was all about schedules. Making sure everybody knew their task and what they were responsible for.”
Thankfully, Belperron was up to the job.
“We discussed the possibility of Ojibwe before leaving NEFR,” he told DirtFish. “It’s always hard to determine on the first look, but I find it helpful to have an optimistic outlook on what can be repaired both in terms of feasibility and timeline, by that night my feeling was that it would be possible to repair in time.”
So with the plan in place, Belperron started out on what would be a tight turnaround to get the car ready for Ojibwe.
“The timeline was definitely the most difficult aspect in terms of getting the full job complete,” he said.
“The workload in terms of total hours needed was pretty big and also getting parts to arrive in time and scheduling the extra help, paint work etc in a way that would get it all done before Ojibwe required some good fortune to have all work out.
“I began with getting the car washed and moved into the shop the Sunday of NEFR immediately after arriving back from the rally. The first week and a half were spent assessing the damage and stripping the car as required to carry out the repairs. During this time, we were also able to get most of the major parts and panels needed.
“The driver’s side of the car fared well with only some minor cosmetic body work needed. The co-driver’s side needed to be completely replaced or repaired from the front fender, through the rear quarter and around the taillight and a large section of the sill. It also needed the roof skin replaced.
“Mechanically, the car made out pretty good, although there was some damage in the rear with two trailing arms bent, and the rear axle assembly was bent on the passenger side.
“While Seamus carries a full axle assembly as a spare, I decided it would be better to straighten the bent axle as the spare is an older unit which also has repairs made to it. This way we retained two usable axle assemblies for Ojibwe.
“One watts link mount on the body was also moved and it was important to get that back into alignment. In addition, there were many other smaller components that required attention getting rebuilt or replaced.”
Of course, all these parts had to come from somewhere. Enter Dan Brosnan.
“Dan was a huge part of it,” Joseph said. “Dan’s a fellow rallyist and long-time friend of Seamus, and rallied the US for a long time and is commonly referred to as ‘Dan the Man.’
“Dan, on Monday morning, I think had a plane ticket booked and a Penske Truck Rental reserved for him to fly down to Atlanta and drive a Penske truck full of parts back up to Pascal [in New Hampshire].
“That drive is around 1100 miles! Quite a big task for someone who didn’t plan on it just a few days earlier.
“Without that, you know, we probably would have missed another week, maybe 10 days. The repair itself was somewhat down to the wire, so I don’t think it would have worked without Dan.”
Belperron added: “Dan Brosnan was a massive help in getting some of Seamus’ spare body parts from Atlanta to my shop in NH, and also in organizing the paint work and transporting the car there.
“I also had help from Dan and my dad, Pierre, to get the windscreen installed. Not a job that would have happened with one set of hands.”
The paint was another part of the process that required outside help. As Joseph explained.
“Especially getting somebody to prep a body that’s got fresh welds on it, body shops in the US want a long time to do that. So my dad’s cousin, Patsy, actually lives up in Boston. Himself and his brother actually painted the car in a shop in Boston.”
However the tightest time crunch came right at the end, when Belperron was left with just four days to get the car put back together. Thankfully, planning ahead made things just a bit easier.
“Ultimately, the car ended up arriving back from the paint shop in the afternoon, Friday the 12th, which left four full days before I had to depart for the rally to still arrive in time for scrutineering.
“That was probably the tightest aspect in terms of time. There were also a couple small sections of the Escort body work we couldn’t get, so those areas required extra time either repairing the damaged sheet metal or making new sections from scratch.
“Before the shell went to the painters I pulled all of the suspension out of the car, so that week I was able to check and re-prep those components, along with anything else that had been stripped from the car before the repairs started.
“Then from the 12th until I departed for the rally the car was re-assembled, and having a lot of the components organized and ready to be bolted back on was a big help over those four days.”
Job done? Not quite. The car still needed a livery.
“The hardest thing to get done that we couldn’t get done was the last piece of the puzzle and it was a wrap,” Joseph explained.
“We had started that process fairly early on knowing that we were going to go back with a full wrap. So we thought it wouldn’t be an issue to get it done.
“People are wanting two to three weeks to wrap now. We actually had it organized, and a wrap shipped in from Ireland, which is actually faster than getting it printed in the US. We had an installer lined up and he cancelled the week of. So it was just unfortunate we didn’t get the last piece of the puzzle done.”
Despite the lack of wrap, the car came together thanks to the team’s tremendous efforts.
“Seamus doesn’t give up much, but I think he was pleased it was back.” Belperron added.
Of course, when Seamus got back in the car at Ojibwe to transit to the first stage, it was the first time he sat in it since he was upside-down in the car in New England.
Despite some concerns from onlookers about if the car – and Seamus – were ready, it was evident after a class win on the first six stages of the rally that Burke, Brady, and the Escort were back in full force, and a class win overall cemented that they’re here to stay.