Last year after Lake Superior Performance Rally, we introduced you to the Honda Performance Department Maxxis Rally Team as it announced its plans to compete on a national level in 2022 with Chris Sladek at the wheel of its 2022 Honda Passport rally truck.
And what a debut year the team had. It didn’t just compete in the 2022 American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National Championship’s Limited four-wheel-drive category, it went on to win it. And yes, Sladek did it in the Passport.
At the beginning of the year, not a single person could have seen this coming for the Ohio-based team of Honda engineers. But it’s not that the team isn’t capable, it’s that they’ve pulled mom’s car out of the garage and taken it on stage!
The Passport is outfitted with all the safety gear necessary for the ARA, and a transmission cooler from the factory-installed Honda Passport towing package. But other than that, it’s still basically a stock, 4500lb SUV with a 3.5l V6 mated to a nine-speed automatic (with paddle shifters) producing 280 horsepower.
Sladek and the Honda team were absolutely thrilled at parc fermé on Saturday night as they pulled in, having sealed their victory. Between the running around and hugs among team members and competitors alike, DirtFish managed to get in for a word.
“I’m speechless honestly,” Sladek told DirtFish. “The hard work finally paid off at the end of the season, and it couldn’t be more exciting for us, and I think the fans loved it too.
“I think the race being close and down to the wire was certainly a little stressful at times, but we kept doing what we always do and ran consistently, kept our pace up and it paid off.”
Close is a bit of an understatement. Sladek had the likes of Texas Dave Carapetyan, 2021 champion Mark Piatkowski, and newcomer Dylan Murcott all hunting for his points lead coming into LSPR, with the first two only a matter of six points behind him.
Thankfully for the HPD Maxxis Rally team though, the Passport stayed the course and delivered exactly the event they needed to get the championship.
Of course, as you may have already suspected, the Passport’s strategy isn’t pure speed, but instead is consistency and reliability; waiting for your competition to take care of itself.
Co-driver John Sharps touched on this when he spoke about how their weekend went on stage.
“We thought that we’d have a lot of people off on Wildcat and Trouble,” he said, “and that we would make up a lot of time [there], but today it was a lot drier than we actually expected it to be, and we didn’t make up a lot of time.
“We actually picked up speed on Friday stages and came through there.”
That said, Sladek and Sharps were far from slow at LSPR. If anything, it was their most impressive event with the Passport yet. Having somewhat of an upper hand with their Maxxis mud-terrain tires and high ground clearance, the Honda team put in their highest event speed factor yet, a rather healthy 67.39.
While they managed a class win on STPR and didn’t even reach the podium of LSPR, their overall placement, and the competitors they were trading times with are what really stand out.
Just take a guess, out of a field of 68 entries, where did Sladek and Sharps end up?
The Passport was built in order to sort of break the mold of what a traditional rally car wasChris Saldek
Ninth out of every single car that ran the rally, and eighth in National entries.
They beat the R5 Fiesta of Dave Wallingford, the STI of Olympus class-winner Dylan Murcott, beat the likes of Pat Moro, Michael Hooper, Tim Whitteridge, and even 2021 champion Piatkowski on various stages.
“I mean it kind of goes back to when we originally built this thing,” Sladek said. “The Passport was built in order to sort of break the mold of what a traditional rally car was and show that, you know, you can really rally anything.
“That’s kind of the nature of the sport and as we’ve learned the car, and personally as I’ve got more comfortable with the car, we started picking up our pace.
“We put in a lot of homework, time into a recce and notes, video review, and as the conditions turned in our favor, we certainly turned up the heat and the times spoke for themselves.
“Seeing our name and in the middle of some incredible competitors, incredibly fast people was kind of surreal. Running in and around the top 10 all day today was very different for us, but it was tons of fun.
“So it’s obviously a labor of love for us. We put in a lot of volunteer hours after work, working on the cars, thinking about what we can improve on the cars.
“Luckily, we start with a very solid base and minor improvements as we can get a little bit more here and there definitely gives us a little bit more of an advantage but like I said, starting with a solid base has really helped us come a long way. Most of it is personal improvement and the equipment does most of the work for us.”
As next month marks the 50th anniversary of Gene Henderson’s 1972 Press on Regardless win in the “Moby Dick” Jeep Wagoneer, the first four-wheel drive win in an FIA rally, it’s only fitting that a spiritual successor of that vehicle finds success on the spiritual successor of that rally, and the fans seemed to love it.
As John Sharps said, “Man, I don’t think people know how to react to it!”
“Every rally we go to, almost every fan that we come across is really shocked that that’s what came around the corner. They say they can hear it a half mile down the road and then ‘it’s a Passport!’ or whatever, they might call it a CRV, an Odyssey, it’s been called everything, but it’s a great vehicle and it’s awesome.
“Hopefully we can get more people out here like it and start a different trend, and something different than a Subaru,” he joked.
As far as 2023 for the HPD Maxxis Rally Team, Sladek wants to see the team continue to grow, and get more of his co-workers involved in rallying through the volunteer racing programs.
“I think this season was big for us because behind the scenes,” he said. “We had a lot of internal team growth. We brought on a lot of new members. Just today we had one of my co-drivers who co-drove me at Southern Ohio this year actually drove in his first rally and had a brand-new co-driver who joined the team earlier this year.
“Building the team and building that strong foundation within all of our members, I think really goes a long way. I’ve seen tons of growth from our past events where we’ve been really short-handed.
“You know, it adds to the stress of an already stressful event. But, now that we’ve grown the team and are focusing on that growth, we’re going to bring strength in numbers.”
Join us in sending a big congratulations to Sladek, and the entire team. If they continue on this path, it certainly won’t be the last national championship they earn.