It was clear at the beginning of 2021 that we would be seeing the most exciting years of National championship competition in the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish’s history, and Brandon Semenuk was easily one of the most exciting characters.
There were high expectations for the now second-year driver at Subaru Motorsports USA, due not only to the pedigree of the team but also to the promising podiums and pace displayed by the Semenuk and John Hall duo in the four events Subaru was able to make last year.
“Going into the season, I obviously had my target events,” Semenuk said. “Some events I had experience at, these are the ones I could actually do well, hopefully take a win or at least get a bunch of points.
“Then there were other events where I knew I wasn’t going to be as much of a challenge for the other guys, but if I could be right there, get some points, be on the podium, then I could have a strong overall by the end of the year.”
Early in the year, it seemed like Semenuk was a shoo-in to impress and rise to the top. He had tons of snow rallying experience prior to Sno*Drift, a win on 100 Acre Wood’s sister-rally, Show-Me in 2020, prior experience on Olympus’ tough stages.
But when the time came, Pastrana ran away with Sno*Drift, the Show-Me experience didn’t seem to carry over into 100 AW, and while Semenuk was consistently showing speed and was on-track to overtake Pastrana for the lead at Olympus, he had an off on SS7 in the same place a safety car was totaled just before the stage was supposed to start, taking him out of the rally.
Southern Ohio, which in 2020 was Semenuk’s first event with Subaru, also seemed to be going Semenuk’s way early on with two stage wins and an overall lead after the first day of racing, even over McKenna’s WRC Fiesta. Semenuk fell to second on the second day but stayed consistent, only for a mechanical problem on SS13 to lose him close to three minutes.
Wins on the final two stages of the rally were enough to prove his skill and hold on to a podium spot, but without the time loss they would have been enough to overtake McKenna for the win on the last stage (though McKenna’s times seem to imply he was taking it easy to easily hold on to the win).
“It seemed like everything went completely backwards,” Semenuk explained after last week’s Oregon Trail Rally, “where some of my strongest events were ones where I hadn’t even competed at, and the events where I had a good chance to take a win I made a stupid mistake or ran into troubles.
“That’s rally though.”
At New England Forest Rally, for example, Semenuk was a potential winner – albeit an outside bet – going into the most competitive field a US rally has seen in over a decade as 10-time US rally champion David Higgins rejoined the fray.
In the end though, it was an easy second overall for Semenuk who, although he didn’t have the ultimate pace, was able to drive safe enough to keep the car from breaking, or from meeting a last-second fate like Pastrana’s rally did as he crashed out four miles from a win.
Not a win, but second overall isn’t bad for the field he was against by any means.
Despite this, the next event would be the biggest disappointment of the season yet for Semenuk. Ojibwe Forests Rally was promising as it was one of the events he’d had experience in the Subaru at, but come testing a small roll would damage the cage just barely enough to fail tech, and Semenuk was out before the rally even started.
I feel like 2020 was too good to be true. Whatever I didn’t get seemed to land on me this yearBrandon Semenuk on his 2021 season
A rather successful outing at Red Bull Rampage would take Semenuk out of the car on the weekend of Lake Superior Performance Rally, and though Rampage history was made as Semenuk became the first rider with four wins at the event, it meant there was only one rally left for him to prove himself this year in the ARA.
While it would be easy to assume the success at Rampage would give Semenuk confidence going into Oregon Trail, he disagrees.
“If anything [Rampage] stood in the way because I was very occupied with that for a long period of time,” he said.
“Maybe I was just excited to get in the car again because there was that big break, but the cards felt right for us this time.”
And right they were.
Oregon Trail is a rally Semenuk has experienced in a McKenna Motorsport R5 in the past, and being the last event of the year, he truly had nothing to lose.
Multiple stage wins, a nearly flawless car, and an early puncture for team mate Pastrana made it easy for Semenuk’s precision driving to take control of the event, and hold on for the win that Semenuk needed this year.
It’s easy to forget how shortened Semenuk’s first season with Subaru was, and how it didn’t get to serve much as a full rookie season. This year played a similar role as Semenuk had to learn half the rallies he entered, and had to work through some of the typical rookie issues he didn’t face last year.
If we see Semenuk next year in the ARA, we’ll likely finally see a fully prepped ARA National Championship contender.
“[I definitely have] more confidence going into next season.” Semenuk admitted.
“I feel like 2020 was too good to be true, coming in with next to no experience in the car and then having a pretty successful season, podium every rally, no big offs or anything.
“Whatever I didn’t get in 2020 seemed to land on me this year.”
“It’s all good though, I think we can continue to be competitive if we come back.”