The American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National season heads up north to Maine this week for round five: the famed New England Forest Rally. It’s now officially the second half of the nine-round season, making it a vital round for those hoping to hold on to title hopes.
Subaru Motorsports USA’s Travis Pastrana still leads the way in the points standings but by a lesser margin after coming second place to Barry McKenna last time out at Southern Ohio. Only four points behind McKenna is Brandon Semenuk, ready to pounce at a moments notice!
Here’s everything you need to know about round five of the 2021 ARA season.
NEFR can trace its roots back to 1989 when former NASCAR sponsor Carl Merrill took an interest in rally and sent a Mazda 323 GTX to US rally legend John Buffum for preparation. The duo quickly started looking into the idea of running a rally close to them, and the pair were given the green light to run their first Divisional event in Maine.
In 1991 the Maine Forest Rally ran for the first time and was quickly picked up as an SCCA ProRally National round. Originally run in the winter, the stages were usually snow-covered and slick. The first Maine Summer Rally came in 1994, and was run on many of the same stages, and this is the event that would eventually be renamed to the rally run in ARA today.
NEFR has historically been a very popular event, having set multiple competitor entry records, peaking with 121 entries in 2001. The event has had many famous past winners, such as Paul Choinere, David Higgins, Antoine L’Estage, Travis Pastrana, and even Stig Blomqvist in 1999!
It might go without saying, but cars are hard to control when the tires are multiple feet off the ground. NEFR is known for being the most airborne rally on the ARA schedule, with stages being high-speed and peppered with countless blind crests. The Concord Pond stage even mimics the style of the World Rally Championship’s famed Rally Finland in this way.
Trustworthy pacenotes around blind areas will be vital. Drivers’ biggest advantage will likely be their own level of bravado, mixed with their level of adaptability in case the other side of the hill isn’t what they had expected.
With so many jumps and crests, mechanical components will also be undergoing a lot of hard hits and added stress, making build quality and service time integral to a team’s success as well.
What happened last year?
Well, unfortunately last year there was no NEFR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning this will be the first running of the event in two years.
In 2019, however, the event was won by long-time veteran David Higgins for Subaru Motorsports USA. Oliver Solberg, his team-mate at the time, won 10 of the 13 stages convincingly, but a flat tire on SS3 put him too far back to fight for victory, and he ended up fifth overall.
Second place was taken by Barry McKenna in his Ford Fiesta S2000 Turbo, finishing 1m49.4s behind Higgins but being only a few seconds slower than the veteran on many of the stages. In third came former Subaru driver Ramana Lagemann, and fourth was Piotr Fetela in his Fiesta Proto.
The 2021 entry
With this year’s NEFR, it’s almost more of a question of who isn’t running?
The usual suspects of Ken Block, Travis Pastrana, Brandon Semenuk and Barry McKenna are all here driving their Vermont SportsCar-prepped Subarus and self-run Fiesta WRC car respectively.
The RC2 class entry list is one of the biggest ever seen at NEFR, with 10 R5 cars, including Irish rally star Matty McCormack getting behind the wheel of McKenna’s Škoda Fabia.
Another big story is 16-year-old Baja truck prodigy Jax Redline making his stage rally debut behind the wheel of Ken Block’s Ford Escort ‘Cossie’ V2, marking the vehicle’s first event since Block’s contract with Ford ended.
Overall 83 entries are making their way out onto Maine’s famed stages this year, and there’s plenty of competition for drivers in every class. This marks the third ARA National event this season to reach over 80 competitors, following the Olympus and 100 Acre Wood rallies.
The 2021 itinerary
This year’s NEFR comprises 14 stages, making up just over 108 competitive miles, though 400 transit miles separates them.
The whole thing kicks off on Friday morning with the Concord Pond stage running twice in a row, giving spectators plenty of time to see the flying cars make their way through the forest.
One service interval later, competitors will compete in their second and final loop of the day, totaling three more stages, and bringing the daily total up to 41.6 miles.
Saturday’s stage action totals over 66 miles, across three loops. Loops one and two will be the same combination of the Wilson Mills, Aziscohos, and Morton Cutoff stages, but Sturtevant Short will start the first one, while Sturtevant Long will start the second.
The final loop will consist of only the 3.8-mile North Road stage to give competitors one final push to make up precious seconds and decide the rally winner.