The American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National podium had a new face at the top spot at Sno*Drift last weekend.
Mark Piatkowski of MAP Rally Team beat the odds in his home-built, humble chariot of a Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS in one of the most treacherous rallies the ARA has seen in a while.
While Piatkowski is the defending National LN4 champion, he hasn’t stepped up to anything more powerful this year; managing to grab an overall victory while competing in that same class – something that hasn’t been done since Jeff Seehorn took top spot at the Idaho Rally in 2019.
Having accomplished the rare feat of defeating Subaru Motorsports USA without as much of a turbo car, it’s time to talk in-depth with the latest ARA event winner and find out just how he did it:
Rallying in the genes
Piatkowski comes from a long line of racing. His father rallied in Poland in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and then after moving to America rallied in the US in the late ’80s too. Beyond that, his grandfather raced motorcycles and performed in a touring stunt show in Europe.
It was basically destiny that Piatkowski would follow suit, and his father helped by immersing him in the world of rallying from when he was young.
“The first rally my dad ever brought me to was Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally in 1992,” Piatkowski told DirtFish. “I don’t remember that, but I have vague memories of standing next to the crashed rally cars and just being scared to stand next to them for some reason.
“I just have that vivid memory in my mind. I must have been like, three or four, one of the earlier memories people have in life and for me it was a rally car.”
In my profile I put ‘future Subaru World Rally Team driver, just watch'Mark Piatkowski on his rallying ambitions as a child
Growing up Piatkowski became more convinced he was destined for rallying year after year. He not only knew he would be a rally driver, but he had self-described “delusions of grandeur” about it.
“There used to be an online forum called NASIOC, North American Subaru Impreza Owners Club,” Piatkowski explained. “In my profile I put ‘future Subaru World Rally Team driver, just watch.’
“Obviously as any toddler growing up, and teenager, you have delusions of grandeur of how you’re going to make it up the ranks, but when reality comes, it’s much, much, much more difficult than what people think of it.”
A lifelong obsession with the GC
The first-generation Subaru Impreza, often referred to by the chassis code of the four-door model GC, is one of the most well-known vehicles in rallying. It was at the forefront of the WRC in the 1990s with Colin McRae and remains one of the most sought after vehicles to compete in.
Many in the US buy and flip these machines, and Piatkowski is no stranger to doing so. But much like his love for rallying, his love for the GC started early.
“The GC Subaru is something that I hold very close to my heart,” Piatkowski explained. “It actually stems back to the Colin McRae days.
“I convinced my dad back in 1995 to buy a 1995 red Subaru GC Coupe. They didn’t have the RS back then, it was the 1.8 liter, but that’s kind of what started my whole Subaru love affair.”
This love affair has worked out well for Piatkowski, because now, rebuilding and restoring these machines as a side gig has allowed him to fund his rallying endeavors over the years.
“[I’ve owned] 50+ for sure,” Piatkowski said. “I think wherever I see an [Impreza} RS, I’m fairly confident I’ve had my hands on it at some point, or know its story.”
Over the 15 years he has been building these cars, he’s learned everything there is to know, and found out exactly how to build the most bulletproof GC possible.
“Any first generation of any historic car holds a lot of clout within the car community, so I’ve had a lot of great luck buying either beat up Subarus or wrecked Subarus, or blown-up Subaru GCs and fixing them up and selling them.
“But little did I know that that experience would then transfer over to me building my own rally car and making a very sound car myself.
“I’ve put a lot of reliable parts on the car just based off my knowledge that I have and this car is a conglomerate of a bunch of different Subarus that are here stateside, and also overseas. The thing about Subarus is they’re all kind of like Legos how they all build up.”
Not only does this make his car strong, but his experience working on the cars, along with some planning, makes rally prep a streamlined process for Piatkowski between rounds.
“[Rally prep] actually starts the rally prior. The second the car comes back home, the prep starts. When the car gets home I try to fully clean it, so when I start working on it, everything is squeaky clean.
“Then it’s basically going through suspension, at this point I can pretty much remove a motor in 15 minutes, so usually at the end of each race I remove the motor and just check everything over. I go through the car basically in segments with plenty of time to spare so that it’s not a rush. I think that’s the key.
“So by the time, two weeks before the event comes the car in theory is already prepped, on jack stands, cleaned, ready to be put on the trailer.”
Winning the most treacherous rally in years
Sno*Drift is often billed as a rally that anyone can win due to it being run in the snow and ice without studded tires allowed. The lack of traction means driving skill takes precedence over horsepower or aero.
This year, however, conditions were much icier, and much worse than normal. The pace was somewhere around 30-40% slower than the previous two years in most cases, as cars struggled to find any semblance of grip – and a lot of the best competitors at other rallies found themselves struggling in the ice.
Piatkowski, however, found the conditions to be extremely promising for him as he saw them approaching.
“Just submitting my entry to Sno*Drift I thought, ‘well, you know, maybe depending on who enters I have a shot at top five overall,’” he admitted.
I drove like my grandma… if I did something stupid then I would’ve never forgiven myself for thatMark Piatkowski on taking the lead of the rally
“Then I was watching the forecast very heavily the week prior to the rally and saw that Wednesday was going to be raining and have a high temperature of like 46, and then I saw the low that night being under 20, and knew that everything was going to freeze over and it was going to be an ice rink.”
Piatkowski was right. From the moment tires touched the stages on recce it was apparent that Sno*Drift this year would be a tall order, with, to be honest, just about everyone involved cracking the ‘Ice*Drift’ joke at some point heading into the event.
“Obviously it was very treacherous on recce,” Piatkowski explained, “but as I’m going through and I’m marking all the icy spots I’m thinking to myself, ‘well, here’s your best shot at doing well Nationally because, whatever car they have, it’s not going to matter.
“So if I can play it smart and use my momentum, I can potentially land a podium finish,’ is what I was pretty hopeful for but didn’t want to say publicly.”
“I attribute [my ice driving abilities] to being just a hooligan when I was in my teenage years taking my dad’s car out without a license and every single snow storm just being crazy and drifting sideways throughout my neighborhood and trying to make every street a rally stage,” Piatkowski recalled.
“Being from New Jersey we don’t get that much snow, but whenever it did I would put in the hours, like literally full tanks of gas at 3am while my dad’s sleeping just being a hooligan with one of his Subarus at that point.
“So I think that was a good solid foundation. Every rally I’ve done ever since, and I’ve done some ice racing as well, all of this kind of like low level grip was just really good foundations. So on the first stage when I press the brakes and nothing happens, I’m like, ‘OK, I’ve witnessed this before, let’s do it,’ type of mentality.'”
Piatkowski was right on with his top three potential. From the start of the first day he was battling with Kyle Tilley in his Ford Fiesta R5 for second, and never dropped outside of podium position.
As competitor after competitor fell to either the conditions or to mechanical failure, Piatkowski found himself comfortably in second, behind Subaru’s Brandon Semenuk, with only two stages to go at the start of SS14, which is when Semenuk’s Subaru suffered a fatal transmission failure.
“Before I even saw Brandon [on stage], the RallySafe triggered and I’m like ‘ah man, that must be some sort of glitch’ because we’re driving so slow throughout the event that sometimes the RallySafe would act up,” Piatkowski said of his experience on SS14.
“But then, there was like a big crest, and then I went over the crest and I saw [Semenuk] was there and it didn’t register to me.
“All that registered was ‘oh here’s a car I kind of have to go around because he’s blocking the road,’ and then maybe an eighth of a mile later it just dawned on me that, ‘holy cow I’m leading a national rally!’
“I remember saying to my co-driver Aaron ‘uhh yeah I’m going to slow down a little now.’
“I drove like my grandma… I backed it down a notch because if I did something stupid then I would’ve never forgiven myself for that.”
Despite Piatkowski and his team’s excitement at achieving the unthinkable, no-one was as excited for Piatkowski as his rally loving father.
“[My dad] called me as I crossed the finish line, so he was clearly refreshing the app every two seconds,” Piatkowski said.
“I got a call from my dad literally as I was at the finish control line, but I didn’t have any service to pick up the phone. He was obviously very emotional congratulating me and what he said was fairly true, he said, ‘it cannot get any better than this.’
“He’s right, this is not a class win, you won a rally overall, and you beat Subaru Motorsports USA fair and square. So that was the moment that was like ‘this is real.’”
Recognition from a legend
It was impossible for the rallying world not to pay attention to Piatkowski’s incredible achievement. Even though he was back in the UK competing in an event (but in the co-drivers’ seat!), 10-time US champion and Subaru Motorsports USA legend David Higgins still had his eye on what was going on.
Naturally, Higgins was impressed with what Piatkoswki managed to do – describing it as a “brilliant story” for both the MAP Rally Team and American rallying as a whole.
“A lot of people miss these events because it’s not an easy rally to do or whatever but it’s probably the best opportunity for a privateer in America to go out there and have a good go to be at the front,” Higgins told DirtFish.
“He beat some good cars and did a mega job – it’s one of those things that he’s forever going to be known as a winner of an American rally so hats off to him. They’re cracking lads, always try hard and are very keen for it so it is a brilliant story for them to actually get out there and get it done.
“A lot of people sit on the fence and think ‘I can’t beat these cars, I can’t beat them.’ Well you’ve got to be in there to give it a go. It was a perfect opportunity for him and he’s leading the American championship whichever way you look at it going into the next rally.
“Even if one of the top guys come back and will probably win the [100 Acre Wood] Rally, they’re still only going to be on equal points to what he’s got already so he’s going to be leading going into the third round [if he finishes].
“So it’s a nice little story and it’s nice that the press and people have picked up on it as well to give them their chance as well.”
Looking to the future
As someone who still has the aspirations of the teen who promised he’d one day be a Subaru World Rally Team driver, Piatkowski sees this as his greatest moment in rallying yet, but still another step along the way.
“[Getting to this point is] a great story to be honest, but everyone’s been messaging me lately like congrats on Sno*Drift and I appreciate that but to me the story is not over,” he said.
“I don’t want to be this privateer who just did well and nothing ever came of it, right? It was a great story, it was something that I’ve worked for and that I built with my own two hands but I’m not just satisfied with it just stopping there.
“I want it to continue, I want to see how I can perform in a higher spec car if that ever happens, and I don’t want to end my career without a shot at a top level car.”
I’m pretty confident that if I ever had the opportunity, I could put together a kick-ass teamMark Piatkowski on his future
We asked Piatkowski what his plans for rallying would be if he were to have an unlimited budget.
“I’ve always wanted to have the same equipment as the top guys,” he responded. “So whether the same equipment that Barry [McKenna] has or like another Subaru Motorsports USA car, I would just like to see how I would stack up against those folks, so that’s like part one of the answer.
“Part two would be for my old-school GC heart, I would love to build some like banzai GC and put it up to everybody, and I think that it’s a realistic possibility because that chassis is very stout, very light, and I think it would be possible if I had two or three more zeros in my bank account.”
However if Piatkowski did manage to secure any funding for his rally team, the car would be the last thing he would start to change in building his operations out.
“I think it’s wise to have a good place to work on the car, because you’re only as good as the workshop you have,” he said.
“It’s all fine and dandy buying a nice fancy car, but if you don’t have means to work on it or a place to work on it properly, then you’re not going to get anywhere quickly. So I’d probably invest in a garage and get a whole outfit to work on cars, and then honestly I would pay my friends.
“It would be great to have them onboard and to pay them a salary to maintain my cars, and then obviously buy a few cars and go from there.
“I’m pretty confident that if I ever had the opportunity, I could put together a kick-ass team.”