Inside the unique world of American rallying

David Evans got his first experience of US rallying in 20 years. Here's what he made of it


Over there. Over there behind the truck. And the truck, to be clear, is a big truck. And over there is where the easy-up landed. Picked up by what some say was a tornado, then dropped from a not insignificant height when the tornado (or not) fizzled out. That particular structure wouldn’t be covering Michael Hooper’s black Lexus IS350 rally car anymore.

And nor would it be covering the team’s white sister car. The Lexus called Dolly. After Dolly Parton. But you knew that.

With the wind came the rain and with the rain came an abrupt end to the recce. A water crossing had become a flat-out river, with a raging car-towing torrent down the center. Marveling at how quickly the tide had come in on the banks of the River Ohio, I was joined by co-driver Andrew Sims. He too marveled. Briefly. Then took his shoes and socks off and waded in.

Almost up to his waist, he beat a retreat. His tiny Toyota something recce car would be swimming with the fishes had he followed the prescribed route.


A handful of hours later, it was all a little bit academic for Dylan Murcott and Sims. Their rally was over. The jump at the end of the Yoctangee park superspecial stage on Thursday night had done for them and their Subaru Impreza.

“We took that jump at 70mph last year,” Sims said. “We barely lifted. This year we hit it at 85mph and…”

And they flew. Flew like properly ballistic, zipping through the Southern Ohio airspace. Until gravity and aerodynamics did their thing and speared the car’s nose into the Tarmac. The radiator burst, the fan broke and almost immediately caught fire. Not to be outdone, the rear of the car got in on the action by throwing off its rear spoiler a nanosecond after it returned to earth.

Between man walking in water and cars taking flight, there had been a media briefing reminding those with cameras in hand to not wade too far into the greenery. Why not? Rattlesnakes.


Of course. Rattlesnakes.

Coffee and cake is a sensible way to restore order to a day. And it did briefly. Then Brandon Semenuk walked in, ordered some sort of cold coffee-type arrangement and settled down to watch his onboards with Keaton Williams at the table next to mine.

Thursday last week, it’s fair to say, wasn’t exactly a run-of-the-mill Thursday.

Welcome to the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish. And welcome to the Southern Ohio Forest Rally.

If any of the above sounds negative, you’re reading it wrong. It’s all positive. Rattlesnakes aside, Thursday – and the rest of the week – was a sensational trip into an apparently parallel universe.

A ridiculous number of ARA-WRC clashes have kept me away from a DirtFish ‘home’ round for far too long. Last week, I put that right.

For Europeans, American rallying has always been something of an enigma. Thankfully, that hasn’t changed in the near two decades since I was last Stateside watching rally cars.

One of the things I remember most about my last trip was the sense of adventure which accompanied the event. That hasn’t changed at all – and that’s something lacking in the world championship these days.

A few days before I’d been in Sardinia for Italy’s WRC round and seen more of the same. More Monte Lerno, more Micky’s Jump, more rough gravel rallying before a service by the sea.

In Chillicothe last week, Seamus Burke fired up his Ford Escort Mk2 and sent me into a flat spin. Well acquainted with the noise of a BDA being stirred into life, you build an aural picture of what’s to come. Nothing prepared me for the brutal acoustics of a Mustang-sourced 3.7-liter V6 firing up. Certainly, nothing readied me for a Honda Passport (think super-comfy mid-size SUV) following Murcott’s lead over the jump with a landing so hard that it broke suspension parts on two of its four corners.

Talking to people who’d built themselves a Volkswagen Jetta or a BMW 325 made sense. It just made sense. This was the very antithesis of the WRC’s hybrid Rally1 gen.

The ARA and Southern Ohio combined to demonstrate there’s still plenty of life in this great sport of ours yet. America’s never been one for following the latest WRC trend. This is America and the American Championship; this is a country so big and so varied in terms of geography, topography and roads, it could comfortably run its own 13-round WRC in the land that lies north of Mexico and south of Canada.

Yes, it was a touch frustrating that results, onboards and live action wasn’t at your fingertips, but as the stages started to roll in, that also became part of the event’s appeal. If you wanted to know something, you had to go find out. Watching and working on Southern Ohio Forest Rally was an experience as rewarding as it was revealing.

Talking to people who’d built themselves a Volkswagen Jetta or a BMW 325 made sense. It just made sense. This was the very antithesis of the WRC’s hybrid Rally1 gen.

It wasn’t better. It wasn’t worse. It was different and last week I was very much a fan of different.


It was the same with the route. Forget landing into a single service park and not moving for three days. We had three different host towns in as many days – all of them tremendously well supported and doing a great of bringing the sport to the people. Saturday morning’s Parc Expose in MacArthur was a breath of fresh air. Main street shut, the people just kept on coming, kept on buying the t-shirts and kept on standing there saying: “Ken Block’s a lot taller than I thought…”

The sense of community in ARA is one of its strongest assets. I’ll be honest, last week was a blast.

From the start, the surprises were all good.

“OK, Mr Evans, we have a RAM 1500 for you,” was the word from the hire car desk.

Not massively up on the RAM range, I thought my decision to go for the budget end of the range had landed me a 1.5-liter entry level RAM something or other. It took me a good couple of laps of the Alamo car park before I realized it was me making the lights flash on a pickup truck so big, you’d struggled to contain it in one county at home.

I hooked up the phone, Spotified some of the rudest music my son swears he doesn’t listen to, and I was out of there, feeling very much the badass in a pullover

The 1500 is an all-American brute with 5.7 (rather than 1.5) liters of displacement, four (five if you include a jump seat-cum-coffee table in the front) seats and a space measured in hectares out back over the rear wheels. I loved it.

The only irony? Ignition delivering ‘50s Gold’ on the radio. I hooked up the phone, Spotified some of the rudest music my son swears he doesn’t listen to, and I was out of there, feeling very much the badass in a pullover.

The feeling is that America sits very much at a regulatory crossroads. I think it’s been sitting there for years. The difference now is that there’s somebody playing inappropriate music too loud in a RAM 1500, honking the horn to get it out of the way.

Change is looming over the horizon. Or is it?

An initial plan to make ARA available to Rally2 cars has been tweaked to offer Open class cars a stay of execution. Admittedly, the open class will be slightly less open in an effort to bring parity between them and Rally2. Will it work? Time will tell.

It’s back to that perennial question for America: go your own way or conform. The handwringing goes on. I can see benefit in both. The Open class keeps Subaru in place, and nobody has done more for rallying on the west side of the Atlantic than the Japanese manufacturer. Subaru doesn’t have a Rally2 car.


But making Rally2 rule would open the series up to a much wider swathe of the competing community. Let’s not kid ourselves, Rally2 cars are hardly cheap as chips, but they’re someway south of an Open car.

That argument was rebuffed on numerous occasions last week, with questions of relevance of a bunch of cars so small they would have fitted in the trunk of my hire car. And, more pertinently, cars not sold in America. Ford’s Fiesta is all well and good, but it means very little to the good folk sitting either side of the Ohio-Kentucky border.

I’d counter that with the argument that America’s progression to become a world power in the drivers’ championship was dependent on the switch to Rally2. Experience of a car used at the sport’s second tier would offer an enormous leg-up as a driver looked to progress towards rallying’s ultimate goal.

And all of that was fine until you got out there and watched Block, Travis Pastrana and Semenuk doing their thing. The spectacle of those three Open class cars was amazing. They were travelling at true WRC pace on roads which would rival anything on the world championship calendar.


But do you run the ARA for three – or four if Barry McKenna brings his Fiesta WRC – cars?

As I turned north, crossed Pee Pee Creek for the final time and started a journey taking me to London via Cincinnati and Chicago, that debate raged on.

Open class, Rally2, whatever works for the front, the one thing America can’t do is close the window of opportunity that remains further down the field. The engineering ingenuity that brings a 3.7-liter Mk2 or an Adam Brock’s ridiculously cool – and quick – Volvo 244 must be allowed to continue.

The ability to modify doesn’t end at the exit of the service park. Just as I thought I was coming to terms with American rally culture, just when I thought I was starting to get it, a bunch of doorless Jeep Cherokees arrived.

Answers on a postcard.