How to win in ARA with a stock Toyota Yaris

Tracy Gardiner's Yaris used to do the daily commute. Now it's running for class wins in ARA

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Reliability. It’s something Toyota has been known for in road cars for decades, and, more recently, on the stages of the Safari Rally where it earned a 1-2-3-4 result by having the cars that held together the best.

However, another rally-prepped Yaris made waves for its reliability in the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National championship last weekend as Tracey Gardiner and Tabitha Lohr of TAG Rally Sport won the National 2WD class on the New England Forest Rally.

This isn’t a Yaris GR, make no mistake. And it’s not a hot-hatch custom build with fancy Japanese Vitz RS, or European Yaris TS bits added. This isn’t even a US-spec Yaris RS, which didn’t offer anything resembling a performance upgrade over standard anyway.

No, this is a 2007 Toyota Yaris Liftback with the 1NZ-FE 1.5-liter inline-four producing 105 horsepower, and 103 lb ft of torque. The license plate is ‘MYARSE’, and it’s a car that Tracey has rallied since 2012 with a life before that as her husband’s daily commuter car before it got a cage and hit the stages.

We're slow and steady and we finished! Tracy Gardiner on her NEFR class win

“It’s great,” Gardiner said of the Yaris to DirtFish. “I love it.

“This Yaris has been with me since 2012. It’s been rolled several times. As you can see the graphics are a little bit wonky this time because I rolled at 100 Acre Wood but it’s great.”

There’s something to be said for tiny, low-powered cars on tight and twisty stages having more of a chance, but NEFR is known for being the fastest in the ARA with average speeds on some stages reaching over 80mph for some competitors. It’s certainly more of a horsepower rally than many are.

So where did Gardiner find the advantage? Reliability, and driving within her limits.

You may have already guessed by now, if you didn’t already know, that the attrition rate for the 2WD National class was quite high. And you’d be right. In fact, the attrition rate for the whole rally was high, and NEFR always tends to be one of the biggest car killers on the calendar.

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High speeds mixed with dust, rocks and blind crests causes breakages, crashes or other rally-ending issues for a larger-than-average percentage of competitors every year, and in 2022 a third of the field did not finish.

“We’re slow and steady and we finished!” Gardiner told DirtFish in parc ferme. “Lots of rough spots but we made it through no major damage so we’re good.

“We started out really good on Concord Pond. The second time through we beat our time by like 15 seconds, so that was great. We’re at the back of the pack. So the roads are really chewed up by the time we get there so I have a lot of wheelspin.”

But undeterred, Gardiner continued to fight from the back of the field, and kept the car running and on the road.

With Cam Steely suffering an off, Michael Hooper retiring from fuel delivery issues, Cian McCormack rolling and Nick Allen crashing all on the opening day, Gardiner had already found her way into fourth place and ahead of some drivers continuing to compete under superrally regulations.

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Day two proved to be just as hard on cars, as the AMC AMX of Tim O’Neil retired from oil pressure issues, Seamus Burke crashed out hard in his Ford Escort MkII Escort, and the Subaru BRZ of Erik Potts ran into fuel pump relay problems.

Steely had managed to continue under super rally but then had to retire entirely due to a blown engine, and Gardiner suddenly found herself only behind the Ford Fiesta R2-sharing pair of Nick Allen and Steve Harrell who, despite a crash the day before, had made it into the class lead, with only had a small super rally penalty.

SS13 would seal the deal for Gardiner and Lohr though, as Allen and Harrell rolled onto their side and had to scramble to get the car back on its wheels to finish the stage.

While they made it happen, the 16-minute loss was too much, and Gardiner (with a 2m40s penalty of her own) finished as the fastest 2WD National car on NEFR by 4m47.6s ahead of Nick Allen after 15 stages.

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Sometimes there’s a stigma around winning a race of attrition, and while it certainly is different than winning a race of speed, in grassroots rallying in the US it’s a much smaller difference.

Well over 90% of the competitors in the ARA build their own cars. They aren’t purchased from a manufacturer, they don’t have a team of 15 able to tear down the entire thing at a moment’s notice. They don’t have six-figure budgets.

Building a car that can withstand the worst of what rally can throw at it, while understanding how to keep it within its limits is just as important as knowing how to drive fast in many cases.

That’s why we celebrate the likes of Mark Piatkowski being the overall winner of the Sno*Drift Rally in his garage-built Impreza. Or Al Dantes Jr’s Mazda RX-7 only having two retirements in its past 38 rallies.

TAG Rally Sport has proven that while often it seems like you need custom suspension geometry, a sequential gearbox, big turbos and a high horsepower figure with your rally car, sometimes all you need is something nice and reliable, and to be able keep it within its limits, and you can still walk away a winner.

I’d hate to make a tortoise and hare comparison, as it implies the rest of the competitors were arrogant, blasé, or unprofessional, but part of the story rings true. Slow and steady can still sometimes win the race.