Much is rightly made of the Olympus Rally’s history in the World Rally Championship, but before the Pacific Northwest came Michigan. For Press on Regardless read Lake Superior Performance Memorial Rally. New name, same woods, same challenge.
It’s half a century since the world championship visited this part of the world, but Saturday’s Mount Marquette stage remains. When Brandon Semenuk launches his Subaru WRX down that day two road, he does so following in the footsteps of some mighty history makers.
Press on Regardless was one of the founding rounds of the world championship in 1973, but the European teams largely stayed away. Walter Boyce won in a Toyota Corolla, giving the Japanese marque its maiden win at rallying’s highest level.
One year on and Alpine, Renault and the Italians came in force. Jean-Luc Thérier won in an R17 Gordini, but there was a strong argument for a Markku Alén success – had it not been for the Finn being hit with penalties for speeding in his Fiat 124 Abarth, he’d have won.
Speeding was something of a talking point on that 1974 event, with Sandro Munari chased into a stage by a local sheriff. Talented as the local constabulary was, it didn’t stand much of a chance up against a Munari-wheeled Lancia Stratos.
The sheriff crashed, making Halloween 1974 a night to remember for the organizer of the event. Sadly, that was the end of Michigan’s time in the world championship, but the sport continued and the stages provided yet more history-writing storylines: Gene Henderson’s victory aboard his four-wheel drive Jeep Wagoneer, for example, was enough for the FIA to ban four-wheel-drive rallying.
Last year was no exception, as Semenuk lifted his maiden ARA title after Ken Block slid off the road in a winner-takes-all thriller worthy of the classic John Buffum-Rod Millen battles of days gone by.
Chairman of the event Stephen Gingras is a man who knows more than most about LSPR and rallying in this part of the world. As a competitor he was on for a win in Michigan’s biggest event, until he suffered a transmission problem and retired ahead of the final stage.
One thing which doesn’t change in this part of the world is the weather. Those from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are known as yoopers – they have a line on the weather: “Don’t like it? Give it five minutes, it’ll change…”
The close proximity of the Great Lakes provides a multitude of microclimates, turning sun to snow and rain to shine in no time at all in the fall.
And those roads?
Gingras: “We checked the stages, a good mix of technical and fast, flowing roads, two weeks ago and they were in beautiful shape. Maybe the best ever.”
All of that and a sell-out entry makes this an unmissable week for American rallying.
There will, of course, be more than one name sadly missing from the entry list this week. Al Dantes Jr. lost his life on the eve of last year’s rally. Tributes will rightly be paid to one of the true grassroot heroes of American rallying throughout the event.