The 2021 American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National Championship has welcomed some of the greatest drivers competing in US rallying in decades.
Countless guests from other championships, more high-end competition than ever before, and some of the greatest drivers in the world racing some of the most diverse fields of cars in all of rallying has made it a classic season.
While this made it extremely difficult to narrow down, we’ve finally decided on who we think might have been the best 10 drivers of the year in the ARA National championship, and here is our verdict:
10 Enda McCormack
Co-driver: Liam McCormack
Car: Hyundai i20 R5
It was a very difficult call between Enda McCormack and John Coyne for who would make the last spot in the top 10. Coyne placed higher in points overall, but lost the RC2 championship by just one point.
Each driver had multiple in-class podiums, one retirement a piece, and Coyne even had an extra win over McCormack, but in the end it was McCormack’s steadfast consistency that got him the extra point over Coyne for the RC2 championship. All five events McCormack finished this year he finished on the class podium.
A class victory at Sno*Drift also helped push McCormack over the edge, while his competitors all fell victim to the overly-slick conditions. McCormack knew just where to draw the line between speed and caution – and gave up his car for Josh McErlean’s stunning debut on the Olympus Rally.
9 Paul Rowley
Co-driver: Dominik Jozwiak & Darragh Mullen
Car: Ford Fiesta R5
Paul Rowley has been rallying for over a decade, but 2021 was only his second year in the ARA. Stepping up from RC2 class to O4WD by fitting a 36mm restrictor to his R5 Fiesta, he’s been a bit more in the mix towards the top of the field.
With limited experience on the US stages compared to much of his competition, Rowley showed very impressive pace wherever he went, often finding himself in the top 10 overall of stage times.
Rowley’s best moment of the season no doubt came at Lake Superior Performance Rally where he was able to take second overall, only slower than Head Hoonigan In Charge Ken Block. But he was also able to finish just off the podium at New England Forest Rally, when there was more competition at the top of the field than the US rally circuit has seen in years.
Without the full R5+ kit it’s unclear if Rowley’s car is capable of running with the VSC Built WRX STIs like McKenna did in 2020 with his Fabia R5+, but with more seat time, and more stage experience, Rowley could be a surprise force in 2022.
8 David Higgins
Co-driver: Craig Drew
Car: Ford Fiesta WRC
While any other year David Higgins in eighth would be pure heresy, he only raced one event in 2021. That was of course one more than 2020, but it’s still just not enough to really gauge his performance overall – even if that one performance was a victorious one.
Plenty of one-time competitors were able to show top five, sometimes podium-level, pace, but Higgins was the only one who was able to take a win in a car he had never driven before, after almost two years without hitting a stage no less.
If anything, Higgins’ hesitancy towards pushing too hard in a new platform was probably what got him the win. Higgins consistently ran in fourth until the later stages of the rally when competitors one-by-one retired due to mechanicals leaving him second until Pastrana rolled with just four miles to go in the rally.
Keeping cool and collected earned Higgins the win while tensions were running high for most other drivers, and that’s a skill that can be difficult to achieve.
7 Ele Bardha
Co-driver: Corrina Roshea
Car: Subaru Impreza
Exploding onto the US rally scene in his ex-Higgins Prodrive Subaru Impreza, stuntman Ele Bardha impressed from the very beginning this year taking an LN4 podium at his most experienced event, Sno*Drift.
While he may have already had the experience necessary to perform at the unique season opener, he managed to back the performance up in his first full season attempt, constantly putting in impressive times in a Limited class vehicle while battling for the LN4 National championship.
Modifications to the car were expected to make for a very close battle going into the last two events of the year between Bardha and Mark Piatkowski for the LN4 title, but a family emergency had Bardha withdraw at the last second, making for an unfortunate end to his season.
Regardless, Bardha was able to get just about everything out of the car he could right up until the end, and having been only his first full season, it appears there’s plenty more to come.
6 Mark Piatkowski
Co-driver: Aaron Crescenti, Claudia Barbera-Pullen & Anthony DeGuiseppi
Car: Subaru Impreza RS
Picking between Piatkowski and Bardha truly is a toss-up that was only decided by the points themselves. Also sporting a red GC Impreza, though this one being an RS, Piatkowski also managed to greatly impress in his first National attempt.
The second generation driver has been rallying on a Regional level for 10 years. And the time behind the wheel and under the hood showed, culminating in outpacing R5 cars, zero mechanical retirements, and of course, the LN4 Championship and NA4WD Cup.
Going forward it’s unlikely for Piatkowski to run another full season in 2022. Building the car and managing every aspect of his team by himself without any real sponsorship is no easy task on top of a full-time job, but with a championship under his belt, Piatkowski shows potential to become a sponsored driver as interest in the ARA continues to rise.
5 Seamus Burke
Co-driver: Martin Brady
Car: Ford Escort Mk2 & Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX
While there wasn’t much in the way of another high-end team competing a full season in the 2WD category, Seamus Burke’s performance was still extremely impressive.
Burke started off his season in an O4WD Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IX, placing fourth overall at Sno*Drift before switching back into his more well known V6 Mk2 Escort. From there he won the 2WD class in each event he entered, easily locking up the championship
While at a glance it may look like no big deal, avoiding mechanical issues, offs, and other mistakes while showing top 10 overall pace is no easy task. Putting a two-wheel-drive car higher in the National dhampionship than many very capable four-wheel-drive cars earns Burke the first of the top five on the list.
4 Ken Block
Co-driver: Alex Gelsomino
Car: Škoda Fabia R5+ & Subaru WRX STI
While Ken Block’s detractors will be glad to see him in this spot, it’s somewhat painful for me to list him here.
Block no doubt has struggled the most out of the three people behind the wheel of a Vermont SportsCar Impreza this year, and although he picked up a win at LSPR, even he will admit that it’s because Hoonigan was the only team that showed up with a car capable of winning.
That’s not to say Block hasn’t been very impressive though. His first event of the season saw him taking second overall in McKenna Motorsport’s Skoda Fabia R5+ – a car he had only a little experience driving.
After that he bit the bullet and bought VSC’s back-up STI, and started running full-time. Driving the large Subaru has taken about a whole season to learn after being used to the smaller, more nimble Fords on stage for so long, meaning while Block has been fast at times (especially at NEFR right before his transmission failure), he hasn’t been able to get the car to its full potential.
3 Brandon Semenuk
Co-driver: John Hall
Car: Subaru WRX STI
Brandon Semenuk was cheated out of a real rookie season with Subaru in 2020 by a shortened schedule, and entered his second year still pretty green compared to his championship rivals and how he could have been.
Semenuk had to use this year to learn many rallies that he wasn’t able to race the year prior, and unfortunately the times that he was able to prove himself on stages he was used to, it very often was met with car problems.
Southern Ohio saw Semenuk trading times with Subaru team-mate Travis Pastrana, and staying right behind McKenna ready to pounce into the lead at a moment’s notice. But unfortunately with three stages to go, an electrical connection caused a huge time loss, ruining his chances.
Olympus Rally saw him leading before suffering an off that took him out of the rally, though to be fair, the 00 safety car was also caught out on this turn.
Finally Semenuk was able to take the win in the last event of the season in a moment of true redemption for a very rough season. If he’s back next year he should be ready to impress all those who weren’t already hyped on him.
2 Barry McKenna
Co-driver: Leon Jordan
Car: Ford Fiesta WRC
While Barry McKenna wasn’t as prominent as anyone wanted him to be this season, his driving ability was without a doubt on display for the events he made this season. A rough start at Sno*Drift saw him take third overall, but from there he made a move that put him on the map even more than winning last year’s championship.
He bought an up-to-date M-Sport WRC car.
The car make its first public appearance on 100 Acre Wood, but McKenna was only able to pilot it to a third place finish due to a puncture that lost him over two and a half minutes. Despite this the rest of the event he absolutely took off, and gained back about 90 seconds. Another loop of stages and it’s very possible McKenna could have taken back the lead he had held before picking up a flat.
He finally picked up a win at Southern Ohio Forest Rally, after missing Olympus last second due to a family emergency.
McKenna found himself in a bad championship position at this point and went for a Hail Mary at NEFR, getting Higgins in his other car to try to take points away from Pastrana.
While we know it was Higgins that won the rally, it was McKenna who had the fastest pace, but broken transmission left him out of the rally at about the same time Block retired for the same thing.
From there, work and other things kept keeping McKenna away from the seat, but for the time he did have there, he proved himself to be a real threat so long as new-car gremlins could be kept at bay.
1 Travis Pastrana
Co-driver: Rhianon Gelsomino
Car: Subaru WRX STI
No matter what way you look at it, it has to be Pastrana at the top of the list. Pastrana re-committed to a full season of rallying last year for the first time in a few years, but due to the shortened schedule he wasn’t able to make back the points he needed against McKenna after missing Sno*Drift and his car burning out in Ohio.
This year it was an absolute take over from the very beginning. Sno*Drift, 100 Acre Wood and Olympus yielded three straight wins, before second place in Southern Ohio. Early on Pastrana had basically already sealed his championship, but he didn’t slow down.
Losing NEFR only due to a roll in the final miles of the rally, he picked up another win at Ojibwe Forests Rally, and then second at the season closing Oregon Trail Rally.
Pastrana’s dominant season comes in the middle of an absolute banner year for him as well, having just won the Nitro Rallycross Championship against some of the greatest drivers in the world, taking the world record at the Mt. Washington hill-climb, and more!
Expectations are high for Pastrana next year after being near-flawless this year, but hopefully he’ll allow himself a moment to appreciate what he’s managed to do in 2021.
Who would you have put on this list? Who would you have taken off? Let us know in the comments below and join the discussion.