When the American Rally Association announced its new rules for the 2023 season, there was bound to be some controversy.
We all know that fans still want to watch WRC cars on stage, and we’ll be sad to see the current WRX STI monsters go. But what do those drivers, and those who want to catch them, think?
DirtFish reached out to a wide variety of US rally players to find out:
Black Rifle Coffee Company, current ARA National RC2 class leader
Of course, those who stand to gain most from these changes are those who are already competitive at the RC2 pace. Tom Williams currently leads the RC2 championship and is looking forward to what the new rules mean for him, and for the sport in America as a whole.
“Open class is really cool in America because of course you’ve got Subaru involved, the cars are really fun and they’re really fast but there’s been a big buildup of people spending a lot of money and it’s really fast and exciting, but it’s not sustainable,” Williams told DirtFish.
“So of course the answer to this is the RC2 way, but not purely, because what I love about America is it’s not FIA [so] people can be really creative.
“If you could do that to a more capped budget which is more like RC2, that kind of speed of car, it’s more achievable than the Subaru or the World car spec which is basically unlimited.
“Any of these cars could disappear on a rally and you have no frontrunners and that’ll completely destroy the championship. It won’t have any progression.
“So with the new rules being RC2 but having some of that Open class equivalent it means it’s open to RC2, AP4, homebuilds and Subaru making an equivalent car so that’s quite exciting to see.
“I think the rules have been made with a lot of common sense which is nice and I think that’s what they’re very good at in America. If they’re going to make rules and make a process it doesn’t have to go through groups and groups of management, it has quite a neat board of people at the top and they talk to the competitors directly and get real feedback I find.
“So the rules got handed out to quite a few people on the last rally just to have a quick flick through, and all of us generally are coming to a group decision saying ‘this makes a lot of sense’ which is really nice that we can all have a group decision.
“But there are a few things that could be looked at like they want to run six-speed gearboxes, so Subaru will just develop a car with a six-speed gearbox and that means people with Rally2 cars will go to M-Sport and buy an optional six-speed gearbox, which is a quick rule that will make people just spend more money, you don’t need to.
“But generally everything’s pretty good and I’m quite excited to see it. Me and Dave [Carapetyan], who runs Rally Ready, we’ve already spoken to various teams in Mexico and Europe and said ‘if these are the rules next year, will you guys come up?’ and everyone’s said yes. There are so many people I know who want to compete in America, they just don’t want to make the step of being there if there’s not any competition.”
Subaru Motorsports USA, current ARA National championship leader
What about the current Open class competitors?. Brandon Semenuk is currently in the lead of the ARA National Championship presented by DirtFish but despite being on top with the fastest car, he agrees this is a welcome change.
“I think it’s awesome,” Semenuk told DirtFish. “The competition’s amazing but I think there’s just so much vagueness in the rules right now, and then obviously some of these cars are very different than the other cars. It’s hard to really let some of that competitiveness shine through.
“I think moving it to a more even playing field, and those cars at [RC2] level are still really exciting, honestly I think you’ll see people pushing even harder, and maybe more tactics will come into play so I think it’s great for the championship.
“I think the rule change will, first of all, help privateers. I mean, I was a privateer for many years and it was just like, ‘well I’m never going to be able to compete with these cars,’ and [in the] event when I spent the money to get an R5 it’s like ‘well I’m still not gonna be competitive,’ especially going to an event like Oregon, it’s like.. you’ve got no chance.
“It’ll be cool to see, it’ll give some privateers a chance to be closer to the factory cars, but also just to bring down costs and hopefully see more manufacturers want to be involved because it’s a justifiable expense, or a reasonable price that they can have a more competitive team.”
WRC co-driver to Sean Johnston
Alex Kihurani has been involved in US rallying since 2003. In that time he has navigated in SCCA, Rally America, Canadian Rally Series, and now is the full-time co-driver for US WRC2 driver Sean Johnston. Having seen it all, DirtFish reached out for his opinion on the new rules.
Kihurani likes the direction, but thinks the loss of spectacle could mean less visibility for the championship.
“It would be a dream to be able to match the American rallying tradition of ‘run what you’ve brung’ with having a depth of potential rally winners at a reasonable cost,” he told DirtFish.
“My concerns would be that, first, American rallying seems to gain the greatest reach when the spectacle is at its highest. The competition itself seems to take a backseat to that somewhat. Unfortunately, this would decrease the spectacle somewhat.
“Second, the devil might be in the detail to actually create something equitable when dealing with a wide variety of cars.
“I’d almost want them to allow Rally2 cars to have a bigger restrictor/more power, but that would mess up all sorts of things and make it no longer comparable to Europe.”
2018 ARA National L4WD champion
Arguably these rules hit home more for Jeff Seehorn than anyone else. After two years of entering in O4WD and gauging how competitive he can be, he’s dropped the car back to L4WD for the 2022 season. No matter though, as Seehorn has, in the past, come close to some of the RC2 competitors in pace using this setup before.
Seehorn spoke with DirtFish about the financial aspect of being competitive in the sport.
“I think I’m still living back in the ‘build-your-own car days’ because that’s what I think is the cheapest,” Seehorn said.
“Bringing stuff back down to an R5 is a great step, because at least it’s more cost-effective than, y’know, Subaru Rally Team. I think the parts list on those cars is up around $600,000, and I’m assuming WRC cars are about the same, but they’re pretty much cutting that in half.
“Some of the used R5 cars, if you can find them well-prepped, I think are around $130,000-$150,000 once they’re imported. The parts level I have on my car right now that I’ve pieced together over the years between sponsorships and winnings and just spending money when I can, I think the parts list on my car is right around $85,000-$90,000 now.
I know I’m not the only regional [competitor] to get caught out by changes really meant to rein in the front four cars.Jimmy Pelizzari
“It’s a big curve to get to that next level, but if they can bring it down a notch I think that would be a good step for everybody.”
That said, Seehorn thinks the professionally-built R5 and Rally2 cars still have an advantage financially, with a much larger engineering budget behind them.
“I’ve always been kind-of competing pretty closely with some of the RC2 guys in my car, and the engineering that goes into those is just another step. The custom bumpers and the intercooler packages where they have all the ducting, I mean it’s endless. You almost have to be an aeronautical engineer.
“Those cars are built with a team of engineers that build WRC cars. You’re competing against all these guys that have been in the industry for years and that’s their dedicated job where you’re getting off of work at five, getting into the shop at six, and trying to stare at the car and figure out how you can make it better.
“That’s kind of why I stepped back down to Limited, because the amount of money it takes to run in open class is impossible with my level of support.”
2019 ARA East champion, Regional O4WD competitor
Jimmy Pelizzari is a true sleeper in US rally. Only able to run a couple of rallies a year, Pelizzari shows some of the fastest pace in the entire series in a home-built Subaru GC Sedan. DirtFish caught up with him to see how these changes might be affecting some of the regional competitors, and it wasn’t all good news.
“Overall, I think the latest rule changes for the O4WD class are a good thing. Sustainable competition at the front of the field should always be the primary goal.
“Keeping costs relatively low allows for more drivers to compete against the likes of Subaru and Hoonigan. It also makes it easier for teams like Subaru, Hoonigan and McKenna to stay in the sport long term – even more important now as marketing budgets look to hybrid [and] electric powertrains.
“The WRC level cars are unsustainable. Building a more sustainable top class for the series is a great start to helping build and draw attention to the sport. Look to any other top-level motorsport, true open class motorsport doesn’t exist for a reason.
“The downside here as a regional competitor is that the 33mm restrictor will result in unexpected cost and lost seat time. It will likely push many regional O4WD into L4WD which, while probably the intent, will require more costs sunk.
“I know I’m not the only Regional [competitor] to get caught out by changes really meant to rein in the front four cars. If the series would like L4WD to be the top class on a Regional level, it should just do it but work with teams to bring their existing builds into the class.”
DirtFish also heard a number of concerns from competitors who are worried that such a change, rather than cutting costs and making the top end more competitive, could make things more difficult for current O4WD competitors. How? By sparking a wave of engine wars, specifically related to high-compression motors, and TR30R turbos.
While the rules haven’t been finalized, it does appear that this could come as an unintended consequence of removing aerodynamic advantage, and not explicitly preventing builds like this from happening.
It’s a tricky line, having already scaled back quite a bit of the performance; you don’t necessarily want to restrict the Open class anymore. But multiple competitors who sit rather close to RC2 pace are concerned that if the money of the big teams starts getting redirected into engine wars, they’ll be even more out-of-luck than before as the money required to reach that level remains far out of reach.