Change is afoot in the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National championship.
From the 2023 season, the regulations are being overhauled to limit the performance of the top class cars – Open 4WD – to bring them more in-line with Rally2 machines.
It’s a move that’s been made to reduce the overall development cost and allow more vehicles to fight for overall wins and ultimately the National title – something that’s been reserved for Subaru Motorsports USA or Barry McKenna’s rapidly growing McKenna Motorsport outfit for the past decade.
But is this the right direction for US rallying to take? Is the ARA shooting itself in the foot outlawing the last breed of World Rally Cars just as more have joined the party? Or is allowing more cars and drivers to fight for honors undeniably the best thing for rallying’s growth Stateside.
Our writers offer their thoughts:
Far more enticing to competitors and manufacturers
Look, I’m going to be the first to say it. To lose WRC cars in the US so soon after getting them sucks. Finally getting a chance to see the M-Sport Fiesta and 2C-Competition i20 rip up US stages has been unreal.
The competition has been greatly advanced by Barry McKenna’s and Ken Block’s pressure on Subaru. It’s refreshing to see other teams win, and Subaru can’t deny that it enjoys having competition equipment capable of keeping it on its toes for the first time in years.
That said, having the series ruled by multi-million dollar cars and only the most affluent of privateers being able to hold any shot against Subaru is a huge risk going forward. If costs continue to rise to be competitive, there’s a good chance the battle won’t be won on stage but in budget spreadsheets, and we’ll be left with just one high-end team again.
With US rallying growing at a rate we haven’t seen in over a decade, it’s time for tough decisions – and I believe the ARA is making the right one.
I’m not under any illusion that even a used $125k R5 car is cheap and accessible for most US competitors, but if I’m a racer looking to be competitive in my chosen sport, it looks a hell of a lot better than needing a car worth five to 10 times that to be at the top of the game. Not to mention that for teams who could afford the WRC level cars, they can now run multiple RC2 level machines for the same cost.
It’s also worth noting the Toyota GR line and Hyundai N line growing in the US is bringing a new wave of economy based performance cars, similar to what the greatest rally machines in history have been. Hyundai and Toyota already have their WRC programs, and Hyundai already has its Rally2 car while Toyota has been rumored to be building one for a long time now.
How much more enticing is the ARA to those manufacturers, and other teams, when they can bring in a car they already have and be competitive for the championship, vs having to retool old WRC cars with higher running costs, or even develop an entire new vehicle at a huge expense just to compete with Block, Subaru and maybe McKenna?
The level of vehicles we’ve reached in the US is amazing, but unfortunately it’s probably not sustainable in the long run
Not to mention the leagues of AP4 cars and Proto cars that can reach similar pace for similar, if not lower costs. If a team with one of those cars is shopping for sponsors, would ‘I’d be competing directly against the likes of Ken Block and Travis Pastrana’ or ‘I’d be competing in the class below’ be more enticing?
Bottom line: the level of vehicles we’ve reached in the US is amazing, but unfortunately it’s probably not sustainable in the long run.
Would we rather see a championship fought between two to four drivers for years to come, or open up the possibility to double that immediately, draw in more interest in the long run, and give more opportunities to privateers, all while reducing costs for the teams that are pushing the limits of their budget fighting for the championship?
Huge for ARA’s wider credibility
This is something I’ve been wanting for for years. As much as I love the ‘run-what-ya-brung’ nature of the majority of the ARA field, at the sharp end it is pretty depressing that we have one factory team, a decent multi-car privateer, and the occasional Ken Block appearance making up the fight for the front.
Now making the rules to be somewhat in-line with other championships across the world will not only open the door for even more high-level cars and professional teams to come and play, but we know that they’ll instantly be in with a shot at victory.
More importantly, they add credibility to the series. America’s rallying community is as passionate as any in Europe, but when its major series only has enough top entries to count on one hand, it’s not exactly the best look for a country that’s clamoring for a spot in the world championship.
Now imagine this: 10 or more R5/Rally 2 cars, all capable of winning, at every round. ARA won’t just be better within itself, but it’ll look good internationally too. It’ll be taken seriously like other major national championships on the other side of the pond, and for a community as passionate as this one, they deserve that recognition.
Of course, I don’t want the grassroots side to suffer as a result of this, and hopefully we’ll still see a plethora of self-built, self-run machines out there. But up top, the professional side of the series really needs this. Bring it on.
America needed this to create WRC interest
When it comes to sport, America goes its own way. It always has done. The national sport is baseball. America’s national baseball championship is called what? The American National Baseball Championship?
Nope. The World Series.
While the US has now firmly embraced Formula 1 to the tune of a second race in Miami and third in Las Vegas, the view that IndyCar provides planet earth’s premier single seater series is never too far away.
There’s been a similar view of American rallying. And why not? Such is the diversity of roads on offer within a national boundary encompassing 3.8 million square miles, the idea of hosting the entire World Rally Championship in the United States is not as outlandish as one might think.
The fact that the WRC hasn’t visited the USA since 1988 makes it all the more understandable that the FIA’s pyramid of rally cars hasn’t been wholly embraced. The Open class car vs the pinnacle of the WRC is an argument that’s raged for a good number of years.
I can see both sides. The US’s desire to retain an independence of choice over what thunders between its trees makes sense to many.
But there’s one incontrovertible fact which would indicate the time for change is now. Walter Boyce remains the only North American ever to have won a round of the WRC. And his victory came on the Press on Regardless in 1973. And he’s Canadian.
For years I’ve lobbied quietly for this and to see change coming across the horizon should come as a significant relief
Ken Block, Travis Pastrana, Sean Johnston have all done their bit to move American drivers on from John Buffum, but the decision to equalize Open class and Rally2 performance is, for me, one of the biggest single steps forward in American driver development in history.
While shipping outside of the national boundaries is the only way a driver can take experience of the WRC calendar, getting there with a working knowledge of how the series’ second-tier car works will offer an invaluable leg up to genuine contending Statesiders.
For years, I’ve lobbied quietly for this and to see change coming across the horizon should come as a significant relief to the nationwide American rallying community.
Scrapping O4WD would’ve been better
Limiting Open 4WD to offer performance parity with RC2 is a good start. But that, in itself, is a compromise.
ARA is blessed with a contingent of marketable drivers that no other rally series in the world could hope for. In Travis Pastrana, Ken Block and Brandon Semenuk – plus occasional drop-ins to the support classes from the likes of Bucky Lasek and a literal rockstar in Vivian Campbell – ARA is sitting on sports marketing gold.
What does this have to do with the tech regs? Simple. You need a set of technical regulations that’s uniform at the top level, so these drivers are always competing on a level playing field. No ‘my car isn’t right for this type of rally’ cop-outs. The fastest driver is the winner – a simple but necessary concept to bring new fans into the world of US rallying.
That’s a bit hard to do when the top level isn’t a single technical formula. Open 4WD in itself has four accepted combinations of engine type, displacement and restrictor; five if you count the rule-flexing needed to allow Block’s Hyundai. And that’s before Rally2 is thrown into the mix.
Try explaining all this to someone who’s followed Travis or Ken doing cool Gymkhana stunts and wants to see them rallying. Should a debate about adapting a Hyundai i20 from WRC to ARA regs and whether that’s fair or not form the basis of a newcomer’s introduction to rallying?
That’s not how you win new fans over.
We need parity. We need David Higgins, who’s showing up to Olympus in an old Citroën DS3 R5, to be able to at least be on a similar pace to Block, Pastrana and Semenuk. How do you explain why a 10-time champion is unlikely to be on the same pace as them? People who know this sport inside and out understand it. But ARA should want to appeal to the masses – that means making the top level as straightforward to understand for the casual fan as possible.
We still need the colorful diversity of cars in the support classes to keep things interesting, definitely. If someone wants to enter a Honda Passport or Chevrolet Camaro, let them. I don’t want to clamp down on what’s allowed to compete. But better still than trying to equalize Open 4WD and RC2 would have been to just get rid of Open 4WD entirely.
Imagine this: Subaru builds its new WRX contender to RC2 regs. Not only do we get a continuation of its works effort but those same cars start appearing all over the world in customer teams.
Rally2 works. There are over 1000 cars currently in circulation and that number will continue to climb. Alas, the US faces the same problem it always has: the permanent short-sightedness of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
It’s like David says: America goes its own way. In this case, it’s a huge mistake – and it’s nothing to do with ARA itself. So long as the NHTSA has its pointless restrictions against importing perfectly safe vehicles from abroad in place, the ARA can’t adopt Rally2 as its standalone top level. It’s just not practical given all the complexities of bringing Rally2s to the States. And that’s a huge shame.