The American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National season has been dormant since the end of April, but finally, we can once again say: it’s rally week!
And excitingly, spectators are welcomed for the first time all year. The excitement for this one is off the scale.
Subaru Motorsports USA’s Travis Pastrana lead the standings after winning the first three events, but he will face a tough challenge from all the usual suspects if he wants to make it four from four on the Southern Ohio Forest Rally.
Here’s everything you need to know about round four of the 2021 ARA season.
Ohio is one of the oldest battlegrounds in American rallying history, but the Southern Ohio Forest Rally specifically can only chase its roots back to 2017.
However the area hosted its first event all the way back in 1973 and ran until 1996, crowning several victors including the legendary John Buffum and Paul Choiniere each winning that rally a total of five times.
But after ’96, the forests in Ohio wouldn’t be alive to the sound of turbo chatter for two decades until, finally, in 2017, the Southern Ohio Forest Rally was born and joined the Rally America series.
Two years later the event became an ARA round and last year it was elevated from Regional to National status, running as the first rally in the US since the coronavirus pandemic first took hold.
Winners of the new-look event include Piotr Fetela, Adam Kimmett and reigning ARA National Champion Barry McKenna.
One of the words you might hear a lot from drivers this week is “technical.” By that of course they’ll mean that the stages are littered with corners, junctions and generally just hazards that are ready to catch them out.
Pacenotes will therefore take on more prominence than on some other rallies, making the pre-event recce vital to success or failure. The gravel is typically quite loose too which can be a major disadvantage to whoever’s running first on the road.
Dust can be a problem too given the humidity of this time of year and the deep forest sections that punctuate the event. Asphalt sections have been known to appear on some tests too, so drivers will face a mix of everything.
Some of the classic stages include the famous City Park and Tar Hollow State Park, with the action taking place in Scioto Trails and Shawnee Forests.
What happened last year?
Because SOFR was the first event to be held since COVID-19 last year, that enforced some fairly major itinerary tweaks. Instead of running across two days, the event was condensed to just one with only two stages – repeated twice – that ran well into the night.
That created a new kind of challenge, but it ended up being the last thing on several crews’ minds. Pastrana was the first victim, despite setting the quickest time on the opening test. His Subaru WRX STI burned to the ground and, obviously, he would be playing no further part in proceedings.
McKenna was the chief beneficiary but he faced tough opposition from Pastrana’s team-mate Brandon Semenuk and a returning Ken Block.
However the Irishman, debuting a Škoda in the US, was practically untouchable to record his second ARA victory of the season that set him up perfectly for the 2020 title.
It wasn’t an entirely smooth ride though as he hit a concrete block that had been left in the middle of the road on the final stage. It cost him 1m20s to Block, but that wasn’t enough to deny him victory.
The 2021 entry
The big news on the entry this year is that McKenna is back, and in his brand-new Ford Fiesta WRC.
The Irishman sat out the DirtFish Olympus Rally for personal reasons and completed the 100 Acre Wood Rally under appeal due to the aerodynamic package on his Fiesta not conforming to ARA regulations. But McKenna has won his appeal, and will therefore take to the stages in his ultra-fast machine.
He and Leon Jordan start as favorites for the win, even though they face a massive challenge to overhaul Pastrana and Rhianon Gelsomino in the championship given their flawless start to the season.
Block and Alex Gelsomino are back in their Subaru – the first time they’ve done back-to-back events in the same car since October – and Semenuk and John Hall will be out for glory after crashing out of Olympus.
In total, 75 cars have registered for SOFR and there’ll be some drivers in new machines. John Coyne steps up to the latest evolution of Fiesta Rally2, Robert Sanders has his hands on a McKenna Motorsports R5 instead of his Subaru while Enda McCormack returns to his action in his Hyundai after giving up his car to allow Hyundai Motorsport junior Josh McErlean to compete last time out.
The 2021 itinerary
This year’s SOFR comprises 15 stages, totaling 117.9 miles of competition.
SOFR is therefore a beast, and the majority of that mileage is on the Saturday. Friday evening eases the competitors into the action with 13.5 miles split into three stages: Yoctangee Park, Sunriser Vista and Brutus West.
That loop only runs on Friday, as Saturday offers six different stages, further south, that are all repeated once either side of a service break.
Diagon Alley, Disco Inferno and Top Gun North Short are each run twice in the morning before the loop of Lampblack West, Hello Middle Earth Hairpin! and Top Gun South Short concludes the event.