Committing to just the American Rally Association National championship would be too easy. So would doing it in a car you’re well acquainted with.
That’s why Kyle Tilley has his eyes on the UK, Ireland and potentially even Africa as well as the US, and is starting this weekend’s American opener in a car that was only released from customs on Monday.
For those that aren’t familiar, this is the Tilley way.
An established and championship-winning endurance racing driver turned rally driver in recent years, Tilley’s not approaching this with even an ounce of caution. He’s all in – even if he recognizes that isn’t the way he needs to drive.
“In a race car you’re at 10 tenths, and I struggle not to try and find that limit in the rally car because I’m just used to searching for that feeling, and that’s how you have an accident in a rally car, as I’ve found out!” he candidly admits to DirtFish.
“To me it’s learning how and when to push I guess is the big thing, it’s just dialing it back slightly compared to maybe what I’m used to.”
Dialing it back will certainly be the name of the game this weekend as Tilley takes on the Sno*Drift Rally – the traditional season-opener for the US championship and famed for its notoriously tricky, icy roads as state law prohibits drivers from using studded tires.
Tilley and co-driver Martin Brady will take it on in a Hyundai i20 R5 recently purchased from Spain. When DirtFish called Tilley, his Era Motorsport team were converting the car from Tarmac to gravel spec.
“It got released from customs yesterday [Monday] night, so yeah!” Tilley laughs.
“The boys drove to Atlanta, picked it up, turned around, drove back home, got back here and we’re now in the middle of converting it from Tarmac to gravel spec. And we’re supposed to test it tomorrow.
“I’d looked at bringing my Mk1 Escort but there’s two reasons why we decided to bring the Hyundai. I like supporting the Open and RC2 classes in ARA because stereotypically the RC2 class is the one with the fewest entries, so it makes sense to bring something that fits in there and also those are the cars that are the big draw for the spectators that do come out to a rally in the US.
“So for me, it makes sense to try and bring something to help anything that makes rally in America a little more appealing. And plus, the Mk1 Escort in the snow and ice just sounded a bit s***!”
But the Hyundai wasn’t ever plan A. The studious among you may have noticed that Tilley’s name originally appeared on the Sno*Drift entry list alongside a Toyota GR Yaris instead.
“That will make an appearance this year but it’s not going to be until later in the year,” Tilley explains.
The Toyota will be built to the ARA’s new and revised Open 4WD technical regulations.
Tilley adds: “The basic car was built in Finland as like a Group N+ and then I’ve got… I can’t tell you who but a rather well-known rally car designer who’s been doing the aero kit and long travel kit for it to bring it into the Open class regs.”
Asked why he wanted to build his own O4WD car rather than run a Hyundai, or a Ford Fiesta he has previously, in RC2, Tilley replies: “Just because it’s something different, honestly.
“I wanted to do it as a showcase for what we can do as a company from an engineering standpoint and from a carbon composite standpoint as I also own a big carbon composites company.
“Plus, the Yaris is a car which obviously we don’t get in the US. I’ve got one as a street car back home in England but it’s such a cool little car that it’ll be cool to see it on the US stages
“It just didn’t do quite as well as we’d hoped when we put it in the windtunnel, and then there’s been a couple of delays with the fuel cell so we’re redesigning the fuel system on it right now.
“I’d hoped it was going to be at Sno*Drift in its first evolution but the fuel cell system hold up prevented that so now it makes sense just to wheel it all out when it’s completely ready.”
That’s a car that’ll no doubt be eagerly anticipated, but Tilley himself is equally an exciting proposition this year given his rapid rate of progression. He may only have 15 rally starts under his belt, but he’s already won two of them and scored a podium at ARA National level too – actually at Sno*Drift last year, even if he didn’t particularly enjoy it!
“It’s my least favorite rally I’ve done, but I respect the challenge of it,” Tilley says.
“If you ask anybody, patience is probably key for Sno*Drift and that’s probably my weak point, if I’m honest.
“We’ll just see how it all plays out, right?”
It’ll be one of six ARA events Tilley tackles in 2023. Clashing racing commitments mean he won’t make the trip to Missouri for the 100 Acre Wood Rally or the final stop on the calendar, Lake Superior Performance Rally, either.
But the British-born driver is spreading his wings further this year with rallies in the UK and Ireland including Killarney’s famed Rally of the Lakes.
“The level back home and the level in Ireland is like nowhere else in the world apart from WRC,” Tilley believes.
My historic spec Mk2 Escort on gravel, for me that's the most fun you can have in any kind of carKyle Tilley
“So for me, still learning, it gives me an opportunity to push myself and gauge myself against some of the quickest guys out there without doing it at a WRC event.
“My British championship schedule is all of the Tarmac rounds apart from Ypres, and obviously I know more what I’m doing on Tarmac than gravel, so we’ll be on a bit more of a push there rather than a learning experience.
“On Tarmac I’m pretty comfy in a rally car and we have a Citroën C3 Rally2 car, a new one, that we’re going to use for that.
“But we’ll do those Tarmac events and then we’ll see come the end of the year how they’ve gone and, if we’re in a position to put something together championship wise, we’ll make a decision if we purchase a gravel kit for the Citroën for the last two.”
Alongside that, Tilley will pilot his historic-spec Ford Escort Mk2 on UK national events like Rally North Wales and the Carlisle Stages all in preparation for the mammoth five-day Roger Albert Clark Rally in November.
“My historic spec Mk2 Escort on gravel, for me that’s the most fun you can have in any kind of car,” Tilley says.
“I went to spectate the RAC in 2021 and it was being there at that event I was like ‘alright cool, I’m definitely going to purchase an historic spec Escort’ because I’ve always joked around, everybody says what’s your dream car and for me it’s been a full FIA Appendix K Mk2 Escort.
“We’re fortunate enough to have a really nice one and looking forward to getting it out on the RAC.”
And, if everything aligns, Tilley fancies a crack at the East African Safari Classic in December too.
“It’s on the schedule but we’ll see,” he cautions. “Probably it depends on crash damage at that point of the season.
“But it’s an event that’s on the schedule, I’d love to do it but a couple of things need to fall in place first for that.”
A season that includes potentially three different continents in at least four different cars is certainly ambitious, but that’s Tilley. He’s got the means to it, he wants to do it, so why on earth wouldn’t he do it?
Ambitions remain in check for the first stop on Tilley’s self-designed world tour this weekend though.
“We’re literally just going to try and get some points on the board,” he admits.
“Because I can only do the six events, I just want to finish and get some points on the board and not do anything silly because I can’t afford to throw it off the road and not get any points because I’ve not got enough other events to give me that kind of buffer.
“But for me this year is about doing as much as I can this year, learning as much as I can and then just focusing on one championship, whether that’s over here [in the US] or over there [in the UK or Ireland] for next year.”