Last week, the American Rally Association (ARA) announced that Preston Osborn had been hired as the Rally Series Competition Director as part of a raft of leadership changes. DirtFish spoke to Osborn about his new role and what he plans to achieve.
Approachability. That was the main take-away from DirtFish’s chat with Preston Osborn. As a passionate rally man who wants to make a difference that’s how he came across and it’s how he wants the ARA to be seen too.
Osborn knows US rallying better than most. Competing at the turn of the last decade as a co-driver, he has gone from strength to strength; winning multiple two-wheel-drive class championships and last year’s Limited 4WD class in the ARA. But the recent Ojibwe Forests Rally could be his last rally for a while as he steps into his new role with the ARA itself.
“For me rally is very much my passion and the way I look at it it’s something that hopefully I can do right by rally and advance it within the US,” Osborn tells DirtFish.
“A big part of course is going to the races and just making sure they’re in alignment with ARA and our expectation for races both from a competition and a safety standpoint,” he adds, describing his new role.
“Rules direction, I’m involved in that with the competition side of it and our technical director Doug Nagy handles the technical rules with some input from me and a couple of other people. There’s the boring side of it, the more business side, with sanctioning documents and things like but then the other big thing and part of the big reason they brought me on was helping guide the direction of ARA rally for the future.
“That’s looking at different technologies we can use. The US is a little behind the ball on tracker technology and so that’s becoming more common place. It’s all about looking into our options for that moving forward.
“Looking at media too and how we can handle that is another thing, so there’s a lot of different hats I’ll be wearing but I’m certainly looking forward to it because ultimately I want to see rally grow in the US and see what I can do to help that happen.”
Rallying isn’t a new sport in America, but the ARA is still a relatively young championship. The current 2020 season is just the fourth since what was previously known as Rally America was rebranded as ARA and third since being taken under the wing of the United States Auto Club (USAC).
Osborn – who has excellent managerial experience having previously acted as the team manager for O.D.D. Racing – isn’t the only one to be hired or promoted though. Series manager Doug Shepherd will be moving into a series advisory role in 2021 while current marketing director Jeremy Meyer will move into a larger, more business-orientated position.
But what does all that mean? What is the ARA trying to achieve going forward?
“Really what they’re looking at by bringing someone in like me is just fresh ideas,” Osborn explains. “I see things differently than a lot of the guys that have been around for a long time.
“I think the two big things I’m coming in to do and hit the ground running with is that technology point that I mentioned with tracking and the way I look at it is that helps competitors if we can get to a point of doing some more things electronically and some timing electronically,” he adds.
“But I think that also helps from a spectating standpoint as well. For one reason or another spectating in the US has never been huge and I think part of the reason why is that it’s just very difficult to approach. Over in Europe, you guys don’t mind hiking in the woods for a bit to find a good spectating point, sitting for hours, cracking open a beer and getting the grills going.
“I think technology can make the sport more approachable for fans in the US without them having to physically be at the races, so we want to look pretty closely at that.”
But it’s not just in terms of spectating that the ARA might consider looking to the way things are done in Europe. Osborn admits he would like to see more Europeans coming over to compete in the US – like Oliver Solberg who won events with Subaru Motorsports USA last year – and therefore hinted that the current class structure could be adjusted. But not to the detriment of what makes US rallying unique.
“The other thing I want to look at is I want to make rallies in the US more approachable for international competitors,” Osborn says.
“Take someone like Oliver Solberg who of course was over here for a year and had success running, I’d like to see more of that so I think one of the things we’re looking at is how we can align ourselves with some of the FIA rules from a performance and a safety standpoint but still keep the spirit of US rally.
“We have a relatively unique set-ups where we’ve just got wild cars at rallies from your Mazda’s with a big V8 in it to the Chevy Sonic which of course has been a popular one with a big V8 in that.
“I don’t want us to get to a point where we’re only running Rally4 and Rally2 cars and that kind of thing but at the same time I want some of the international competitors to come over and be able to get into a car they’re familiar with and compete on a relatively equal playing field with the US competitors.”
But in practice, how can this be achieved?
“I think that’s still going to be a working progress in figuring out how to kind of strike that balance,” Osborn admits.
“Of course, the easy solution is just adopt all the FIA rules as far as car classing and go from there but I don’t think that would work for the US market. So instead it’s taking a good look at the cars we have within the series and seeing how we can kind of equal the playing field a bit and develop some classes so that we can fit your homologated cars within them.”
It all points to an exciting future for ARA. This year’s potential title victory for Barry McKenna could prove a catalyst for bringing some of what Osborn into fruition as an Irishman winning behind the wheel of two FIA-homologated cars across the season: a Škoda Fabia Rally2 and Ford Fiesta WRC.
But more than that, it points to a championship that is willing to learn and listen to its competitors and their issues. The recent clamping down on fresh air valves being used on anti-lag systems is arguably something that should’ve been resolved months and months ago, but it was done so after one competitor approached the ARA and outlined their grievances.
Osborn can’t wait to get stuck in and do all he can to build upon the ARA’s success.
“I’m obviously excited to take this position and one of the big things that I want to push as I come into this role is I want ARA as a whole and specifically me to just be more approachable to competitors and organisers and anyone involved,” he adds.
“I certainly have no issue with anyone sending me an email (email@example.com) if you think something needs changed or there’s questions about anything. I feel like sometimes with these organizing and sanctioning bodies it’s just the guy behind the curtain if you will and I don’t want that to be the case.
“I know that a lot of people have great ideas on how to make this sport better and I am by no means the keeper of all the good ideas, so I certainly want to hear them.”