The 2021 American Rally Association National Championship presented by DirtFish has been one of the most exciting seasons in US rallying in years. Countless moments of triumph and tribulation defined the year as some of the greatest teams in America battled tooth and nail across all eight rounds.
Seasoned veterans and fresh newcomers alike battled it out over the almost 900 stage miles this year, and as we were fortunate enough to be there every step of the way, we’ve compiled some of our favorite moments into a single place to reminisce while we wait for Sno*Drift in February.
Nostalgic Competition at 100 Acre Wood
With Subaru Motorsports USA being rather clear that they were out to beat 2020 National Champion Barry McKenna, it was clear McKenna would have to step things up if he wanted to retain his title. And after his Škoda was missing from the first round at Sno*Drift while he piloted a Fiesta R5 car, we were left a bit perplexed as to what his game-plan was.
That being said, the next month at 100 Acre Wood Rally, all became clear. Not only was Ken Block joining the fun in the Škoda Fabia R5+, but McKenna had moved on to something even greater, his one-off M-Sport WRC Fiesta, built to ARA regulation rather than FIA.
If Subaru wanted to send a message to McKenna, McKenna was ready to send a bigger one back. Plus, with Block racing his first event as a free man from Ford contracts, surely the last thing people would have expected him in was a Škoda.
The racing was exciting enough, with Pastrana winning, Block taking second, and McKenna taking back 90 seconds off a two and a half minute time loss due to a flat on stage, but the event seemed to be a sign of things to come with an increase of overall championship level competition.
After finishing the last stage Pastrana said it felt like he was right back in the 2006 season with the level of competition, but Block’s response was, “well, in 2006 I won this rally!”
While posing for photos with their first and second place trophies, Pastrana, with his trophy and medal high and a huge smile said, “Welcome back buddy!”
“F*** you Travis!” Block quipped back with a grin.
Return of the Legend at New England Forest Rally
Speaking of an interest in competition, another place that was evident was at New England Forest Rally, as Block, McKenna, Pastrana, and Brandon Semenuk were all met with their biggest challenge of the season yet, 10-time champion David Higgins.
McKenna had Higgins behind the wheel of his S2000 Ford Fiesta hoping to throw a wrench in Pastrana’s growing points lead.
Five US rally superstars hit SS1, and immediately they started trading times and dancing around the podium positions, but David Higgins sat comfortably in fourth, allowing himself to learn the car and get reacquainted with rallying after a near two-year break.
As other competitors pushed each other over the edge, cars broke, and positions changed. Eventually going into the final loop, the leading Pastrana said that he had no choice but to go ‘ten-tenths’, because he knew Higgins would do the same. Of course, a second place finish would still be very good for Pastrana’s championship, but never one to take the easy way out, Pastrana told Higgins that he would rather crash out of the rally than let Higgins win.
Careful with your words Pastrana.
Four miles and one stage left in the rally, Pastrana rolled, letting go of a sure win, and allowing his friend and mentor to walk his way into the winner’s circle.
Close Competition at Ojibwe
By Ojibwe Forests Rally, the overall and 2WD championships were all but wrapped up, but there was one championship quickly coming to a head.
Mark Piatkowski and Ele Bardha went into the round separated by only five points, and with only a few rounds left in the season this result would be imperative to either of their championships.
Having run profiles on each of these drivers at points earlier in the season, we knew they were both highly qualified, highly motivated, and overall just great guys who love rallying old Subarus
Despite both driving red GC Imprezas, Piatkowski’s home-built 2.5 RS and Bardha’s ProDrive Group-N car are vastly different beasts, and on any given stage one could have the advantage over the other.
Going into the final two Super Special Stages at Detroit Mountain Recreational Area the two had just about seven seconds separating each other after trading times the whole weekend with Piatkowski in the lead, and after the first running of the Super Special, the gap had closed closer to just three seconds.
In a nail-biting finish, Piatkowski held off Bardha by just two seconds.
The battle was a fantastic showdown of two drivers who were both competing in their first real National Championship attempt, and both sealed themselves as serious contenders in the future of rally racing. In the future, we might look back to this moment as the start of a famous rivalry.
Rear-Wheel-Drive Classics at Lake Superior
While Lake Superior Performance Rally was void of SMUSA and McKenna leaving Block to lead the charge, further back in the field one of the coolest two-wheel-drive battles of all time was going on.
Mike Hurst, behind the wheel of a 1973 Ford Capri, was fighting with Tim O’Neil’s 1969 AMC AMX. Two classic cars that would be at home in any high-end classic dealership were instead being used and abused, fulfilling their purpose, in a battle that has decades upon decades of combined rallying experience.
While O’Neil held the lead over Hurst in the first four stages, Hurst overtook him on SS5, holding on to the lead from that point on, but not without a fight.
In the last six stages of the rally, each driver won three stages each, making sure the other didn’t have it too easy at any point, and in the end the duo were only separated by 13 seconds.
While it’s not the closest or craziest battle of the season (though it is pretty close), more than the battling, it just warms our hearts to see such badass, old-school cars driven to their full potential by some of the most experienced veterans in the country.
O’Neil and Hurst, we tip our hats to you.
Semenuk’s Season Closing Success
It’s understandable to look at a Subaru Motorsports USA driver winning a rally and not think much of it, but Semenuk has had a very tough year.
Any time he has been fast, he’s had an issue take him out of contention for the win, and when the car holds together and everything goes right there, it’s come on rallies that he’s never raced before, and doesn’t have the experience to outpace his competitors.
While it was expected that Semenuk would still be growing and learning in his second season due to not running so many of the rounds due to cancellations last year, it was still somewhat heart-breaking to see the newest star on the US rally scene get caught out every time he had an opportunity to prove himself.
Though it’s rare for Semenuk to show much emotion, as opposed to his team-mate Pastrana, somewhere around the middle of the season he almost seemed a bit dejected and solemn about his performances at points.
While he was able to pull off a record-setting fifth win at Red Bull Rampage to continue his BMX career, he still needed the success in a rally car before the end of the year.
Oregon Trail just felt like Semenuk’s to win from the beginning. A slightly rough start at the Portland International Raceway Super Specials on Friday night was no matter with the real racing still to come, and having ran this rally in the past behind the wheel of one of McKenna Motorsport’s Fiesta R5 cars, he had the on-stage experience necessary to push hard for the win.
At one point we caught up to Semenuk and asked if we could expect to see the same level of excitement he showed at Rampage, and he responded with “we’ll see.”
Of course, being team-mate to Pastrana, his podium celebration had to be paired with the infamous ‘shoey’, so we’ll count that as all the emotion we need.
Leave your favorite moments from the season in the comments below or on our social media, and we’ll go through them to share some next week! Here’s to even more great moments in 2022.