With the American Rally Association National title already claimed by Barry McKenna on last month’s Show-Me Rally, there’s now nothing left to fight for as the season reaches its conclusion in Washington state.
The shackles are off.
The battle between McKenna, Subaru Motorsports USA’s Travis Pastrana and his team-mate Brandon Semenuk has been ferocious in 2020, and the DirtFish Olympus Rally will be even more thrilling with no championship points to worry about. This weekend, it’s all about who has the heaviest right foot.
The Olympus Rally is a real gem of the US rally calendar. Dripping in a rich history, that includes World Rally Championship title deciders, the final ARA National round of this year really is something special.
It has, fittingly, attracted a rather special entry list too. Alongside all the usual suspects, rallycross racer Cabot Bigham has joined the fray as well as DirtFish rally school instructor Sam Albert who’ll make his first start of the season.
Fourteen stages across two days, totalling 109.5 miles, will decide who comes out on top. But what exactly lies in store?
To get more of a flavor of what the Olympus Rally offers, DirtFish has spoken to Semenuk, 10-time US rally champion David Higgins and Alex Kihurani, co-driver to Sean Johnston in WRC3.
Here’s what they had to say.
What makes Olympus Rally special?
Usually staged towards the end of the spring, Olympus has been a fixture on the American rallying schedule for decades. Kihurani, who has five starts in Washington, thinks the event’s illustrious history is a major factor in its appeal as well as the diversity of the rally.
“Of course its status as America’s last World Rally Championship event and also the decider of the drivers’ championship for the last round of the Group B era in 1986 makes it special,” he tells DirtFish.
“So some of the history makes it stand out. The other part that makes it stand out is really the roads, which are of fantastic quality. They’re most similar to I’d say Rally GB, although maybe a little bit wider and a little bit smoother and there’s actually tons of roads to pick from when you can go west of Olympia towards the coast.
“Throughout the years, the rally has varied quite drastically using different roads in different areas but all the stages are of really, really high quality and the organizers have been able to do something different all the time.”
“I really like the rally for two reasons,” he says. “One, it’s probably the most similar surface and surroundings to what you’d get in the UK. It’s the one that would represent a UK-style event more than anything else so that was always a plus point.
“But they’ve got such a massive road network that the rally can be so different from year to year because they definitely have more roads to pick from than any other rally. It always felt like a bit of a home rally as well because our team would generally do all of our pre-season testing out on the west coast because you’d get the weather plus the availability of roads was very easy, so it always had that feeling of sort of a home event to us even though it’s a bloody long way away.”
Semenuk reckons the scheduling of this year’s rally – postponed from its usual slot due to COVID-19 – could propose a new kind of challenge and he says the roads demand the utmost respect.
“It’s probably one of the most challenging rallies of the championship, and now it’s in November it’s going to become even more challenging,” Semenuk says.
“It’s definitely going to rain, it’s definitely going to be wet, there might be fog, there are a few night stages. Obviously, the goal is to push and I’d like to try to be on the podium, I’d say I’d be pretty stoked with like a second [place]. but obviously [we’re] going to try and go for the win.
“But it’s a tough one because it’s so easy to go off the road there if you push, so it’ll be a bit of a balance there I think. Because it’s pretty long, there’s quite a bit of stage mileage, we’ll have to be a bit more careful with the cars compared to the last two events. [It’s] just [so] easy to tear a corner off doing something dumb, going a tiny bit wide, [because] the roads are narrow.”
What does it take to succeed there?
Semenuk has already hinted at the perils, suggesting that to get the top result you have to keep it tidy. But he gives away even more tips, telling DirtFish that a “steady push” is the optimum strategy to adopt.
“I would say for this rally you’ve got to push because the roads are actually quite fast even though they’re narrow and technical in a lot of places,” Semenuk explains.
“There’s a lot of junctions so it’s really fast; there’ll be a junction and [then] you’re back into some tight stuff. Even those braking [points coming] into the junction, making sure you’re as late as possible on the brakes; you might gain a couple car lengths there, something like that.
“I think the notes are going to be super important because if you’re braking a little too early at things you’ll start bleeding time, so you need like a steady push where you’re going hard into everything but you’re never overdriving because as soon as you overdrive you’re going to get a flat or rip something off. Because like I said, there’s really a lot of stuff on the side of the road and it doesn’t take much.”
As a four-time winner of the Olympus Rally, any advice Higgins has to offer is definitely worth listening to too. He notes similar observations to Semenuk, highlighting the danger that lurks at the side of the road, the deceptive speed within the stages and pinpoints the Nahwatzel stage – which runs as SS9 and 12 this weekend – as a key test.
“It’s a difficult rally in the fact that it’s a lot faster than people think so when you do the recce, you always think it’s quite technical compared to some of the other roads but actually the average speed and the actual speed of the rally is very, very fast,” Higgins points out.
“In the summer it’s very, very hard on tires but obviously this time of year, they won’t really be having to worry about that.
“But the roads, there’s quite a lot of danger at the side of the roads because you can be in a very, very fast section, especially in the Nahwatzel stage; those roads have got some real quick link roads but there’s big rocks waiting at the edge of the roads so if you’re not mega precise it can bite you in the ass there.
“It is a rally where it wouldn’t be as forgiving as some of the other rallies but you’ve still got to be pushing on at the same sort of speed and remembering it is a very fast rally.”
Kihurani adds: “The rally is a bit more abrasive on tires, quite a bit of loose gravel and some rocks in some longer stages, particularly Nahwatzel which is through all the logging areas.
“In general the roads are a bit more technical than most of the other ones in the US and there’s a lot of stage changes and configuration changes so you just need to stay on top of that year-on-year.”
Is Olympus the rally best equipped to host an American WRC round, should that opportunity ever arise?
There is, sadly, no strong rumors linking the USA with a return to the WRC calendar, but this seemed like a fun question to ask. Olympus, which was last included in the WRC 31 years ago in 1989, is one of just two American rallies to have featured in the world championship, but would it still be in prime position if WRC Promoter came searching?
WRC3 competitor Kihurani seems like a sensible place to start. He admits to DirtFish “it’s a tough one for me to answer” but thinks the rally “probably offers the most options for WRC caliber roads”.
“That area that has the infrastructure to be able to hold a round of the WRC,” he adds. “So in that sense it still seems like probably the best choice and with the history it makes it quite a cool choice as well.
“At the moment I don’t see other events that really have the ability to give the right quality of special stages and the right quality of infrastructure. Plus DirtFish is close by, which could be helpful as well.
“I still like the prospect of it being there. It would probably just need a bit more support from the local government and administration to make sure that it happens and that some of the issues that have cropped up in the past don’t crop up when it’s a big international event.”
However, with the character of stages similar to a Wales-based Rally GB, Kihurani doesn’t think it’s a feasible conversation to have, even hypothetically, but of course Northern Ireland looks set to replace Wales as the base for Britain’s WRC round.
“With Wales in there, even though it’s so far away it feels maybe a bit too similar, but with it not on the calendar it’s actually very similar types of road and a similar type of event so could be in that context really cool to have,” Kihurani says.
Semenuk meanwhile thinks Olympus would be an “amazing rally” to have in the WRC, both from a driving and an event perspective, and argues the stages will pander well to the TV requirements of the WRC.
“The roads are insane and obviously I’ve never been to GB or anything like that but from what I’ve seen watching GB, Olympus is quite similar,” he tells DirtFish.
“GB is maybe a little bit faster but you’ll be in and out of the forest and every corner’s got a log pile or stumps on it. If it’s wet, you’re like ‘seriously I feel like I’m at Rally GB’.
“I think it would be great because first of all it’s private roads and it’s endless stage miles, there’s so many different variations of stages they could use, fairly easy and close to the airport for everyone to get set up and since it’s a lot of logging land and there’s a lot of cut blocks, the cars are in the open quite a bit so you could get a visual.
“Obviously WRC’s got the helicopters, it’s got the livestream and you want to see the cars so there are a lot of areas where you could set up a bunch of stages that are more cut blocked but still have amazing roads and capture a lot of the content.”
Higgins offers more, saying: “I think it would be the best for two reasons.
“Onem because they’re probably one of the closest [roads] to a major city, like a big population, in Seattle and everything else around there.
“They’ve definitely got more use of roads than any other rally we’ve been to and they’ve probably, without pissing anyone else off, got one of the most experienced and best organizing teams.
“The guy who runs the rally, he puts on test days, they’re just proper old-school guys that know what rallying’s about. I’m not saying that the other people aren’t good but there’s more things going for them than probably anywhere else really.”
Your move, WRC Promoter…
Who’s going to win this year?
Time to put our guest pundits in the hot seat. Semenuk in particular seems caught out at first by the question, and declines the opportunity to back himself for a second successive ARA National victory.
“I don’t know! That’s a tough one,” he says.
“I’m not that confident but I’m going to try. I probably feel the same as the other guys, I think we all know we can do it but if you push too far, that’s it there. I’m expecting Travis [Pastrana] to really go hard at this one. I think he’s going to try harder than me and Barry, so I’d say if it’s a clean rally Travis probably has a pretty good chance.”
That’s one vote for Pastana, what does Kihurani think?
“That’s a tricky one,” he says, mirroring Semenuk’s response before nailing his colors to a mast. “I think I might actually put my money on McKenna this time.
“I think with the championship wrapped up he doesn’t have anything to lose. Last time I did Olympus in 2017 he was very fast there then. He has some experience there. I think the roads, he’s done a little bit in the UK and has been quite fast in Wales so I think he’ll be able to pull something together. I think he’ll be fastest with nothing to lose this time.”
Make that one vote for Pastrana and one for McKenna. Over to Higgins.
“Barry, I’d say,” he reveals. “I think Barry this year’s been the class of the field. He’s been unlucky on some of the ones when he hasn’t won, so I would definitely say Barry would be the person I’d put my money on, especially now he’s won the championship.
“The last couple of rallies he’s definitely not been going as hard as he’s had to go because he’s wanted to get the championship where now that’s all done and dusted so he can go out there and let his hair down a bit.”
It won’t be long until we find out…