It’s official, DirtFish is now an official partner of the American Rally Association as we take over the branding and promoting of the United States’s premier rally series.
This is undoubtedly an exciting move, but what’s more exciting is the opening round of the 2021 ARA season is now just a week away.
The Sno*Drift Rally will once again kick off proceedings in Michigan – although it has been slimmed to just a one-day event and runs in February not January this year – before a further eight rounds running in consecutive months.
DirtFish is the place to be for all the pre and post-event news, reaction and analysis as well as live reports as the event unfolds. But first, let’s focus on the likely 2021 title battle by reminding ourselves how it all went down last season.
The 2020 ARA National season was one of change, and not just in terms of its reshuffled calendar. For the first time since 2010, 10-time American rallying champion David Higgins wasn’t driving for Subaru Motorsports USA or indeed driving anywhere: it was time for a new name to step up to the plate.
The stage seemed set for Travis Pastrana, himself a five-time US rally champion and the only man to halt the Higgins juggernaut since 2011. Stepping up from a partial to a full-time campaign for 2020, the action sports star would be leading the blue-and-yellow charge.
But emerging from the shadows of the works cars came one very determined Irishman. A win on the Sno*Drift pre-pandemic, with the Subaru cars absent, teed Barry McKenna up perfectly; his lead only boosted when Pastrana’s WRX STI burnt out on its first appearance of the year at the Southern Ohio Forest Rally.
Becoming the first non-Subaru Motorsports USA driver to win the American rallying title since Canadian Antoine L’Estage in 2010 took the spoils in his Mitsubishi Lancer E10, McKenna’s 2020 success wasn’t just historic for the series but for him too. In just his fifth full season behind the wheel, he was a national champion.
McKenna will therefore start as favorite this year with the #1 stickers on the side of his car. Of course, Pastrana will again provide him with a stern challenge but it could well be Patrana’s team-mate Brandon Semenuk that will be giving the new champion the most headaches.
But before we assess each protagonist’s prospects for the year – hearing from them on where they each feel they need to improve – let’s remind ourselves of the form they’re all in by examining the season just gone.
Wins: 3 (Sno*Drift, Southern Ohio, Olympus)
Before the COVID-19 pandemic was present in the USA, McKenna was allowed to open a comfortable championship lead over his inevitable title rivals Pastrana and Semenuk who were absent from Michigan back in January.
Ultimately it was a barrier that neither Subaru pilot was able to smash through, as McKenna was simply too good. Giving him that points injection essentially put an uncatchable driver already out of sight. Some six months later when the ARA resumed after the globe’s first coronavirus lockdown, McKenna was victorious again. Pastrana’s Subaru burning out and Semenuk’s inexperience with his new team and car perhaps helped, but McKenna was in another league on the Southern Ohio Forest Rally.
Second place on the Ojibwe Forests Rally was one he would rue as McKenna opted to use his Škoda Fabia Rally2 instead of the Ford Fiesta WRC on super-fast stages that perhaps, in hindsight, proved to be the wrong call. But it still set him up for a title shot a round early on the Show-Me Rally and McKenna duly delivered with another second place.
A win to round out the season on the DirtFish Olympus Rally was icing on the cake of a sublime year. He even proved adept at organizing rallies, putting together the New York Forest Rally in a matter of weeks.
McKenna turned a corner in 2020, managing to find that devastating blend between pace and consistency.
Wins: 1 (Show-Me)
By no means was Semenuk a rally rookie heading into 2020, but he certainly wasn’t used to the surroundings of a works team, let alone the biggest rally team in the United States. Ironically in 2019, he drove a Ford Fiesta R5 from title rival McKenna’s McKenna Motorsports operation.
Learning a new car and environment, Semenuk was strong but not attention grabbing in Southern Ohio, netting a solid third place behind McKenna and interloper Ken Block. Another third place in the Ojibwe Forests banked a solid haul of points to begin the year.
However from Show-Me Rally onwards, Semenuk seemed a new driver: one ready to fight at the front for years to come. A sensational victory was claimed there ahead of McKenna, and he narrowly lost out on the Olympus victory too.
“I’m starting to eliminate all these things where I might lose some time on the stages because Travis and Barry are just dialled and you can’t rely on them to make any mistakes, even really stupid things,” Semenuk told DirtFish at the time.
“So just for me it was like trying to flush all that out: make sure I knew what the car was doing in every situation and I sort of felt like I was on the pace at the end of the Ojibwe, I was like ‘OK cool, I’ve got it’.
“It is there, I can do it, it’s just now creating that consistency and at Show-Me Rally every stage felt pretty good, I didn’t have too many hiccups and that’s sort of what kept me in the battle so hopefully we can just keep running like that and create such a good battle with those guys. It’s fun to challenge them.”
Wins: 1 (Ojibwe Forests)
It’s hard to properly gauge Pastrana’s season in comparison to his two chief rivals, as it’s clear he was by far the unluckiest of the three. COVID-19 travel complications left him without regular co-driver Robbie Durant and his crew chief ,forcing an unexpected period of adaptation, and then the fire that lost him a car and a vital haul of points made a tricky situation diabolical.
After just two rounds, Pastrana had already lost 44 points to McKenna – a mountain even the great Higgins would have struggled to climb. A win after a close fight with McKenna on the Ojibwe Forests Rally was the shot in the arm he needed, but a mistake in the ruts on Show-Me restricted him to third there as the title battle was settled early.
Pastrana’s title bid was never really given the chance to blossom, but perhaps he didn’t quite have the bettering of McKenna anyway. Another third on the Olympus, behind McKenna and Semenuk, capped off a year that will ultimately be quickly forgotten by the Pastrana camp.
The competitors’ view
It can sometimes be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from one season and assume they’ll hold true for the next. After all, if the year 2020 as a whole proved anything, it was to expect the unexpected.
However, there are some things we simply can’t ignore from the 2020 ARA National season. Or should that really just be one thing?
The Canadian’s progression was startling in the second half of 2020, and this year he has the chance to hit the ground running in this form.
“I’m getting familiar with the speed, especially this rally it was awesome,” Semenuk told DirtFish at the end of the Olympus Rally.
“A few big mistakes put us back behind Barry but pretty stoked on a second overall, we got a podium on every rally. A couple of thirds, a second and a first is a good way to show we’re in the battle for next year.”
But what can he do to ensure he really is in that battle?
“Honestly it’s just more time with the car, and hopefully we’ll do some testing and be prepared for a long season ahead,” he replied.
“But yeah, more time in the car, four events is just barely scratching the surface.
“I think that’s sort of what took me a little while to get in the groove is realizing those dudes, Barry and Travis, aren’t backing off at any point.
“There’s no stage where they’re just going to be ‘I’m going to chill on this’ unless they have like a massive lead going into the last two stages or something. So that was definitely the big thing [I learned].
“Ohio I was obviously just getting to grips and then Ojibwe I kind of just let them get ahead of me way too early like I wasn’t going to be able to catch up again, so going into Show-Me Rally the first two stages were flat out to see if I could be close to their pace by the end of the first couple of stages, and then figure it out from there. That was it, just really getting on the pace and not worrying about the car so much.
“But I’ve got a long way to go so we’ll see, definitely keep pushing and I’m stoked on the pace we’re able to find this year. I feel like for me there’s a lot more to learn, so I know there’s quite a lot more pace there.”
Pastrana is under no illusions that he’ll need to be on his A-game if he is to be an American rally champion for a sixth time. He pinpointed damp and unpredictable conditions – as experienced on the Olympus Rally – as an area he needs to work on for 2021.
“There was a lot of switches [this year],” Pastrana told DirtFish.
“Coming to the first round without being in the car for a while after COVID-19 and then having Chrissie [Beavis] who hadn’t been in the car for a long time either and my crew chief swapped because they just couldn’t get over from Europe, so I was really happy that we found Rhi [Gelsomino] and she came out and we were able to work together so well right off the bat.
“Definitely I need to do better in the ruts, I need to do better in the fog and the rain, so we know a lot of stuff we need to improve on for next year but at the same time this has never been a strong rally [Olympus] for me. So we’ll work on this.”
Pastrana is excited to kick the season off on the Sno*Drift Rally this year, as that will undoubtedly help his title credentials. It’s an event Subaru has traditionally skipped.
“I was really excited we got our contract and everything sorted out,” Pastrana said.
“[In 2020] Subaru was still trying to figure out if we’d have a second car, what Brandon was doing, so we weren’t able to make it to Sno*Drift which we’ve missed quite a few times in the past just working through the off-season if you will.
“So having a game plan, knowing that we’re going in, knowing that Brandon did so phenomenally this year. No crashes and some amazing pace, he’s going to very, very tough to beat.”
Of course the man with the target on his back has to be McKenna. It’s hard to contemplate how he could possibly try to improve on what he described as a “great” season of rallying.
“We’ve essentially won the championship with three different cars,” the Irishman explained.
“First of all it was an R5 Fiesta, then we’ve used the Skoda. We’ve used it in R5 and we’ve also used it in Open class which was this weekend [Olympus] and then we used the WRC car. So it’s just been a big mix and match. Luckily enough we were able to test a good bit this year.
“We’re going full championship again, full National [for 2021],” McKenna added. “We’re planning on running our New York Rally again, it’s an ARA Super Regional so a two-day event.
“I think between the National and that and see what else opens up around the world, we’ll probably try and do one in another country somewhere.”
What it all means for 2021
It’s time to reach into the cupboard, find the crystal ball and dust it down. Who can we expect to be winning the 2021 championship?
Truthfully, it could be any one of McKenna, Pastrana or Semenuk, but it’s hard to look past McKenna and Semenuk as the favorites. Pastrana might have the pedigree, but based on 2020 form at least, he appeared slightly more accident-prone than his two rivals who were practically flawless all year.
Between McKenna and Semenuk, it could genuinely come down to the strengths and weaknesses of their respective cars. It’s perhaps undeniable that McKenna is the quickest driver in America right now when it comes to raw pace, but Semenuk is getting closer and closer with each rally he does in the Subaru.
What’s clear is the championship is a long way from the foregone conclusion it occasionally has been when the Higgins and Craig Drew express was in town, steamrolling everyone around them.
One bad result, mistake or mechanical mishap could prove the decisive swing for the entire title battle. As the defending champion who is in the form of his life, McKenna will start the season as the man to beat but Semenuk is very clearly a champion in waiting. It would be foolish to dismiss that promise being delivered as early as this season.