American titles are nothing new to Subaru. Brandon Semenuk will, more than likely, have another one chalked up in a matter of days. That wasn’t always the case. In 2000, when the Japanese manufacturer was looking for a way into US rallying, Mark Lovell answered the call.
And delivered immediate success, guiding a Vermont SportsCar-run Impreza to the 2001 SCCA Pro-Rally Championship.
American rallying appealed to Mark. It was run the way the sport should be. As a sport.
The son of a Ford dealer, it was little surprise that Lovell gravitated towards rally cars badged with the blue oval, but starting out in a Ford Escort RS Turbo was by no means the springboard to anybody’s time in rallying.
That Lovell rose above the technical difficulties of the front-wheel drive machine and ultimately won a hard-fought 1986 British title at the wheel of a Group B Ford RS200 was testament to his prodigious talent.
Much as he loved rallying, Lovell wasn’t beholden to it and when Ford’s commitment to him started to wane, the frustrations were clear. That vexation was vented in the most public fashion possible when he was forced to hand a win to team-mate Russell Brookes on the 1989 Manx.
Instead of meekly pulling over and ticking the 44-second gap down, ‘Shoves’ spun his Sierra RS Cosworth in a series of donuts, then reversed it, ever so gently, into a television camera.
It was a class move. Just not one that did his career much good.
From then on he was on the periphery of the British series as he built a shipping and logistics business with co-driver Roger Freeman.
The American call was very much of interest and Lovell and then co-driver Steve Turvey cantered to the 2001 title with six wins.
The following year I was invited to join Lovell and Turvey in Maine for the New England round. The enthusiasm around what Subaru Rally Team USA was doing was infectious. It was great to see two west country boys doing what they loved: great friends enjoying their sport.
This was, however, a time of change in American rallying. Other manufacturers were getting involved and the series was becoming more professional. Lovell had been there and done that.
When he started Oregon Trail Rally in 2003, just weeks after winning the Pikes Peak round of the series, he’d already made his decision: this would be his last event. He was done with rallying. Aged 43, the time was right to spend more time with his young family and his burgeoning business.
Then came Louie Louise, the first corner of the first stage. The #4 Subaru hit a tree and both he and Freeman were killed instantly.
It’s hard to imagine a pair more well liked in rallying. Lovell’s relaxed demeanor made it almost impossible for him to take anything – himself very much included – too seriously. And Freeman was the sort of man who made you wish meal times or even just a pint alongside him would last forever.
Their deaths shocked rallying to its core and to the very heart of its governance. Richard Burns and Robert Reid immediately started working with then FIA president Max Mosley on ways to improve side-impact safety in rally cars. Reid has, of course, continued that work as the governing body’s deputy president for sport.
This week will, no doubt, be one of celebration for Subaru in America, but Vermont SportsCar president Lance Smith won’t forget the foundations Lovell laid.
“We had the great pleasure of working with Mark throughout the 2001 season and his support and the lessons he taught us will never be forgotten,” said Smith. “He was a bright light when he arrived in the US championship and he helped grow the sport of rallying in America as a whole.”
There will forever be a blue and yellow flag flying in the names of Mark Lovell and Roger Freeman. And never more so than today. Two decades to the day on, they’re missed as much as ever.