The third year of the American Rally Association (ARA) National Championship in 2019 featured major expansion and four crews scrapping against each other for the overall championship lead.
The famed Sno*Drift Rally, the 100 Acre Wood Rally, and the Lake Superior Performance Rally were brought into the national calendar, which took the total number of events to nine.
Across those nine events, long-time US rally king David Higgins and his new Subaru USA team-mate Oliver Solberg battled against Poland’s Piotr Fetela and Ireland’s Barry McKenna in their Fords for the overall title.
Here are the highlights of how the action unfolded:
Sno*Drift returned to the US rally calendar as the opening event of the ARA championship. Though it was one of the coldest Sno*Drift rallies on record with a low of -25F, that didn’t stop a heated battle between Fetela and McKenna. Subaru Motorsports USA did not attend this event.
After McKenna and co-driver Leon Jordan suffered from transmission troubles, Fetela and co-driver Dominik Jozwiak would take the top spot. Cameron Steely/Preston Osborn were second overall.
Still only 17 years old at this stage, Subaru newcomer Solberg was making his debut both in US rallying and in an all-wheel-drive car
100 Acre Wood Rally
Out of the freezer and into the frying pan. The snowy conditions of Sno*Drift were swapped for the fast gravel roads of 100 Acre Wood.
This time around, prior rainy conditions made the usual high speed roads extremely treacherous. Out of the 75 entrants competing, 35 dropped out through mechanical problems or accidents.
Subaru Motorsports USA returned to the championship at this event, creating a four-way battle between Higgins, McKenna, Fetela, and Solberg.
Still only 17 years old at this stage of the season, Subaru newcomer Solberg was making his debut both in US rallying and in an all-wheel-drive car on the event – watched on by his 2003 WRC champion father Petter and mother Pernilla.
Higgins lost his lead when he suffered electrical issues on day two. McKenna inherited the lead and pushed hard to fight off Solberg.
Despite a spin on the final stage, McKenna was able to just barely hold on to his lead – earning the win by just 6.8 seconds. Solberg finished second and Higgins was third.
Fetela took fourth place, which was enough to keep in the lead in the overall national championship.
DirtFish Olympus Rally
The championship was now in full swing as the competitors battled it out over these infamous historic roads that were once a World Rally Championship event.
Olympus features the grueling Nahwatzel stage: 21 miles of fast and technical former WRC road.
Solberg surprised everyone by taking victory over his team-mate, Higgins, by nearly 26 seconds. Fetela took home third place, which still keep him in the points lead for the overall championship.
Oregon Trail Rally
Now hunting his rivals, Higgins returnsed to form at Oregon Trail. He would take a commanding victory there and his first win of the 2019 season.
Travis Pastrana subbed in for Oliver Solberg, and he achieved second place.
McKenna took home third place after a huge push from 23rd at the start of the second day, having ripped his Ford’s front right wheel off in an accident on the first day.
Not to be totally out done, Pastrana set a new record jump, flying 134 feet on the famous Boyd jump. That was 21 feet farther than the next car.
Competitors swapped the fast and loose roads of Oregon Trail for the tight, narrow, and technical roads of the Idaho Rally.
This was not to be Subaru Motorsports’ rally. Both Higgins and Solberg suffered from mistakes and mechanical issues throughout the event.
After an uncharacteristic off on the final stage, Higgins would relinquish the win to Jeff Seehorn – giving Seehorn the first national overall win of his career! Ken Stanick took second place and Steely rounded out the top three.
New England Forest Rally
The Finland of North American rallying, the New England Forest Rally gave Subaru a chance for redemption after a disappointing showing at Idaho.
Solberg set a blistering pace, winning 10 stages outright. However, luck would not be on his side. He suffered tire troubles and lost over 10 minutes. From 24th position, he pushed back up to finish fifth overall.
Veteran Higgins showed why he was already a nine-time national champion. Through a smart, steady, yet conservative approach he claimed the victory.
That victory put Higgins back into the points lead in the national championship – though Fetela was just 10 points behind Higgins, certainly still well within striking distance.
McKenna finished second, and Ramana Lagemann and Chrissie Beavis piloted their classic blue and yellow livery Subaru WRX to a third place finish.
Ojibwe Forests Rally
The pressure was on Higgins now to maintain his points lead in the championship. That is exactly what he did. Ojibwe marked his third victory of the season, extending his points lead.
McKenna would come second, with returnee Pastrana third after a puncture on day one and an off on day two.
Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally
For 2019, the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally (STPR) moved from June to mid-September. What was once a typically fast and flowing rally became a muddy and treacherous one for competitors.
STPR was Higgins’ chance to seal the overall ARA national title and the event proved to be a battle between him and team-mate Solberg.
Solberg pushed hard maintaining a solid lead over Higgins. With the overall title win on his mind, Higgins backed off – accepting second place and ensuring Solberg took the win.
With that result, Higgins second the national championship. It was his 10th US rally title and his second in ARA.
McKenna had to settle for third place on the rally behind the Subarus.
Lake Superior Performance Rally
Lake Superior Performance Rally (LSPR) is the traditional final round of the U.S. rally calendar. The pressure may have been off Higgins, but coming into this final round, second and third places in the national championship were still up for grabs – with Solberg, Fetela, and McKenna in a brawl.
Solberg would take the win, his third of the championship. Higgins’ luck ran out at this event when his car stalled out on stage causing him to slide into a tree stump and break his suspension.
Despite a perfect storm of mechanical issues, ranging from loss of power steering to a gearbox change, McKenna fought his way to a second place ahead of Fetela.
The results at LSPR meant that McKenna earned second overall in the national championship and Solberg narrowly beat Fetela for third place.
A great launchpad into 2020
The 2019 ARA national championship featured some great jockeying between the top competitors, ending with a no holds barred match up for second and third place.
Ahead of them, that 10th title win for Higgins led to him being inducted into the Off Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.
The 2019 ARA championship produced great growth, not only in its calendar of events but also in the amount of competitors. The average amount of entries was 62 cars per event.
The number of female competitors skyrocketed in 2019. Over 100 women registered as a driver or co-driver, a 62% jump over 2018.
The ARA also had a 63% jump in the amount of volunteers, attracting 1700 volunteers across the 2019 calendar.
The 2020 ARA championship is shaping up to be another successful and exciting year of rallying, with many of the top competitors returning and the Southern Ohio Rally joining the national calendar.
Battle resumes with the 2020 edition of the Sno*Drift this weekend.