In the mid-2000s, action sports athlete Travis Pastrana started transitioning to top-level rallying with Subaru Rally Team USA under the watchful eye of veteran driver David Higgins.
Now in 2020, history appears to be repeating itself with action sports athlete Brandon Semenuk transitioning to top-level rallying with what is now called Subaru Motorsports USA under the watchful eye of veteran Pastrana.
Of course, Semenuk’s move to US rallying’s biggest team isn’t his first foray in the discipline, it’s the result of several years of hard work by the three-time victor of the Red Bull Rampage freeride mountain bike competition to rise through the rallying ranks in his native Canada and the US, underlined by winning the North American Rally Cup twice.
On that rise Semenuk took part in a young driver test, which gave him the chance to work alongside 10-time US rally champion Higgins – the driver he is now effectively replacing.
“About two or three years ago they [Subaru] did a young drivers test. They brought out five of us and Higgins was there and he’d go on [the] stage with our notes and basically drive the stage reading through our notes to see how we were with our notes, then we got tested in the cars,” Semenuk told DirtFish.
“They gave us a production car, then the full-blown open car to see how we were able to adjust and handle the situation and then we talked with the engineers.
“They really dug into each one of us to see where our experience lies and how quick we are, how quick we could be.
“We did that, but there was no drive out of it, they just wanted to see how everyone was doing. For us it was pretty incredible to jump in a car like that and not have to pay a bill at the end of the day and gain all that experience from such a knowledgeable team.”
Higgins has now departed the factory Subaru team after winning eight titles in nine years, allowing Semenuk to follow the same path that fellow two-wheel convert Pastrana followed many years ago.
“It’s really interesting because we’re both from the action sports world and he [Pastrana], at one point in his career, had to take this leap into rallying and kind of learn and gain all this experience really fast with the same team, and he had David as his mentor,” Semenuk said.
“So it’s cool that now I’m like in the same position he’s been in, but now he’s sort of the guy that gets to mentor me and you can tell he’s pretty excited about it.”
Before the global coronavirus pandemic brought a temporary halt to proceedings across sport, Semenuk got some seat time in Subaru’s Open Class car alongside his team-mate, and the test left an instant positive impression.
“[Pastrana] was so cool at the test we did, helped me so much,” Semenuk said. “He wasn’t trying to hide anything, he wanted me to figure out the car as fast as I could and it’s great because he’s had that experience and he knows that now I’m in the same shoes he once was so you can tell he’s trying to pass on the information that’s important to grow.
“I’m excited about it, I couldn’t ask for a better team-mate, honestly.”
Semenuk is the latest in a long line of action sports athletes to make the move from a completely different discipline to driving cars at speed, following in the footsteps of Brian Deegan, Bucky Lasek, the late Dave Mirra, and of course Pastrana – who can share his experience of going from two wheels to four.
“The actual mechanics of it is completely different. Obviously on a mountain bike it’s two wheels and I’m using my body to basically manipulate the bike. In the car you’re using a couple of pedals and a steering wheel and that’s what you’ve got to make this big piece of machinery move,” Semenuk pointed out.
“So in that sense it’s so different but I’m still reading the lines the same in a car as I would on a bike trail. And the grip, you understand when the road’s cambered or if it’s wet or dry and what that is going to do for you as far as the grip levels so that completely comes into play.
“And then the mindset going into the stage – I’ve done lots of competitions on bikes, being hyper-focused and kind of letting your mind focus in on the important things, listening to the notes, looking at the road on the bike is the same thing, envisioning the tricks and trail and all that, it’s a similar feeling.”
On the bike course Semenuk is used to winning, and while he isn’t ruling out repeating that on the rally stages later in the year, at first his maiden American Rally Association National series campaign with Subaru will be about gaining experience.
“I want to take advantage of the position of gaining experience. I don’t want to go into a rally and crash out in the first couple of stages because then I’m not going to learn anything from that so the first couple of events it will be important to just get through them to learn the car faster, get the speed, get the confidence.
“Then maybe take that into the later part of the year where maybe I could start challenging.
“My goal is to go in and have some competitive stage times, but maybe not overall try to go for the win. Obviously Travis is going to be fast, he’s driven this car for I don’t even know how many years now, he knows it like the back of his hand so it’s a bit hard for me to jump in and think that I could just compete with that.
“Obviously Barry [McKenna, ARA National points leader] is going to be fast too so I’ll go in and try and be competitive on the stages for sure but I would say maybe in the second half of the year where I would get to the confidence level and have the speed to really push those dudes.”