In the absence of Rally Argentina and Rally Portugal, the latest two rounds of the World Rally Championship, we delved into the rich histories of both events with #DirtFishArgentinaWeek and #DirtFishPortugalWeek respectively.
This weekend was supposed to be round four of the 2020 ARA National series, the DirtFish Oregon Trail Rally. And in similar fashion to Argentina and Portugal, we’re going to be looking back at what makes the Oregon Trail such a special event and retelling some of the most iconic tales from its proud history.
The first ever Oregon Trail Rally was held in 1984 and won by John Buffum’s Audi Quattro A1 but the rally as we know it wasn’t established until 1995 when Oregon Rally Group took over; 11 years after the one-off rally held in November.
Tim Paterson took the inaugural victory in his Mazda RX-7 and followed that up with another win in 1997. But one name crops up time and time again on the Oregon Trail Rally roll of honour: David Higgins. 10 times in total, to be exact.
It’s an impressive list that reads as a who’s who of global rallying, with Travis Pastrana, Australian Andrew Pinker, Brit Mark Lovell and even 1984 World Rally champion Stig Blomqvist all conquering the event in the past. The original Stig’s victory is one of several we’ll be covering this weekend.
Today, the Oregon Trail is the only three-day event on the US calendar which makes it a stern challenge. The weekend kicks off on the Thursday with a media day in downtown Portland before Friday night’s action at Portland International Raceway; a venue also visited by the IndyCar series. This is key as it brings large crowds in to watch the rally.
“Portland International Raceway is right next to downtown Portland so you always get a ton of spectators show up so that’s really fun,” says Sam Albert, who has started the event twice in 2018 and ’19. “Everybody loves any chance to do some night stages [too], so that’s really fun.”
Alex Kihurani, whose last Oregon start was alongside Chris Duplessis in 2015, adds: “It’s one of the few rallies in the US that can actually connect to a major metropolitan area so it does get good spectator interest in numbers and a way of attracting new people to the sport.
“From a publicity standpoint I’d say it’s a bigger event than most of the others [because of that] and it’s had the history of being a very competitive event year on year. The big names come out, and it draws a lot more attention and spectacle to it.”
After Friday the rally heads out into the countryside for Saturday and Sunday’s action. It used to be based at Hilsboro, featuring famous stages in the state forest near Tillamook that hugged the coastline of the Pacific Ocean, but these tests are now consigned to the history books.
“The roads along the coast are completely different to those wide open spaces you see now,” Kihurani explains. “[They were] very heavily cambered roads, very twisty and technical, really, really cool, lots of big drops, almost like a cross between Wales and New Zealand.
“You sometimes hear Hayden [Paddon] say that Wales is a bit like New Zealand, this will definitely be the in between.”
In the last decade the rally has had to move away and head eastwards. Saturday’s current itinerary is based in Washington, near the town of Goldendale, before the rally heads further south and into Oregon with the base in Dufur on Sunday. It’s a truly nomadic affair as the rally moves throughout its duration, much like the RAC Rally in the UK did in its heyday.
The views are extraordinary too with some beautiful backdrops of Mount Hood on display. Albert believes the Dalles Mountain test is the “stage of the rally”, as depending on whether its being run in its ‘Up’ or ‘Down’ configuration, the crews are climbing away from or descending towards the Columbia River Gorge that separates Washington and Oregon states.
It’s a suitably historic location for a jewel-in-the-crown stage too: Columbia River is the waterway American explorers followed when discovering the western parts of America in the 19th century on the original Oregon Trail through Missouri, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.
But that’s not Saturday’s only gem, according to Albert: “One other stage which is [really cool is] the Maryhill hill climb which is actually an asphalt stage. They do a tire change but that’s all you can change.”
“Your crew is allowed to meet you at a remote service area [but] they can’t do any repairs, can’t swap out dampers or put Tarmac springs or anything like that on. That makes it fun and [in 2019] it was the first time I’d ever done a Tarmac stage with Tarmac tires and I actually did pretty well on those, I was kind of surprised. I kind of learned I was decently OK on Tarmac.”
Sunday’s stages are out in the farmlands where power and top speed are critical. But despite them not being the most technical in nature, the famous jump competition on the Boyd Loop stage requires maximum precision.
“You’re just pinned the whole going up to it,” Albert grins. “You’re either lucky and your cooling system can handle it or you’re kind of managing your speed but either way when you come up to that jump, [you’re asking yourself] how hard do you want to take it?
“Right before it [the jump] there’s a little kink in the road and if you want to not lift for it [the jump] you have to do a little bit of a cut [on the kink]. How well you take that corner really defines how you’re going to do on the jump.”
But unfortunately Albert’s attempt last year was hampered by cars ahead of him.
“As soon as we got up to that crest I knew that there was going to be a problem because whoever Higgins, Pastrana one of those guys, probably Barry McKenna more likely cut really hard and pulled out some big rocks and I just nailed them and flatted both left tires right before the jump.
“Luckily they didn’t completely air down by the landing but that’s why I lost my placing last year and we fell back a few spots. And then the next time around I wanted a little bit of redemption so we went flat out.
“[The rally in general] tends to be really hot and dusty. Lots of cars have cooling issues but it’s definitely a really good first-timers event too because the sight lines are really long so if you’re not comfortable with [pace] notes you can still be pretty quick because you can see pretty far through.”
We’ve got three days packed with epic stories from this classic event coming up on DirtFish, so keep checking back in over the weekend for more stories. Let us know your favorite Oregon memories too, using the hashtag #OregonTrailWeekend.