It’s time to buckle up and prepare for an awesome week of rallying! Not only is the World Rally Championship season resuming after a two-month break, but the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National series is back in town too.
That town is Shelton, Washington. The rally is the DirtFish Olympus Rally. And the excitement is palpable.
The ARA is going from strength to strength this season with epic competition boosted by an increased number of front-line competitors. But more on them a little later on…
DirtFish is the place to be this week as we bring you the inside line on round three of the 2021 season, starting off with this handy guide about the history of the Olympus Rally, its challenges and who’s succeeded here in the past.
First run in 1973, the Olympus is perhaps the best-known American rally outside of the US given its brief spell as a counting round of the World Rally Championship.
The rally’s debut in the WRC in 1986 could not have been set up better if a Hollywood scriptwriter had planned it. Lancia’s Markku Alén and Peugeot’s Juha Kankkunen headed to Washington with a world title to dispute on what also happened to be the final ever WRC rally of the iconic Group B era.
Alén won the rally and what he thought was the title, only for Peugeot’s exclusion from Rally Sanremo to be overturned, handing Kankkunen the spoils.
But Lancia would win all three WRC editions of the Olympus Rally; Kankkunen topped the 1987 event in the Group A Delta HF before Miki Biasion triumphed a year later in the Delta Integrale.
The late Hannu Mikkola also conquered the Olympus, winning in 1985 before the rally became an official WRC round a year later.
However, it’s two giants of US rallying that top the Olympus roll of honor in John Buffum and David Higgins, as well as New Zealander Rod Millen. All three drivers have won the rally four times, with Ken Block and Travis Pastrana both taking two victories here in the past.
The winners’ list has a real international flavor, with Dutchman Hendrik Blok, Irishman Barry McKenna, German Hardy Schmidtke, and Swedes Patrik Sandell and Oliver Solberg all proudly on there as well as Finns Mikkola, Alén and Kankkunen, Italian Biasion, Brit Higgins, Kiwi Millen and the Americans.
Olympus has long been likened to Wales due to the changeable climate and long, sweeping nature of its forestry stages. But perhaps one of the biggest challenges for competitors is the lack of familiarity as with such a huge network of roads available, the route for the rally can change year after year.
Higgins outlines the tricky, deceptive nature of the stages to DirtFish: “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 [top] speed of the rally is very, very fast.
“It’s very, very hard on tires [and] 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 are big rocks waiting at the edge of the roads. So if you’re not mega precise, it can bite you in the a** there.
You need a steady push where you’re going hard into everything but you’re never overdrivingBrandon Semenuk on the challenge of Olympus
“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.”
Subaru Motorsports USA’s Brandon Semenuk adds: “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.
“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.”
What happened last year?
With his maiden ARA National title secured, Barry McKenna headed to Olympus – the final round of the 2020 season due to a rejigged calendar thanks to COVID-19 – with the shackles released.
It showed in his driving. The Škoda Fabia R5+ driver took a 30.9-second victory over Brandon Semenuk’s Subaru, although Semenuk won six of the 11 stages. The Canadian, who headed to Olympus as a new rally winner, briefly left the road towards the end of the day which cost him 20s and realistically any chance of victory.
Semenuk’s team-mate Travis Pastrana was over a minute behind in third.
Running in an uncustomary November, the weather played a major factor and indeed Sunday’s itinerary was heavily compromised due to layers of snow lying on the Cougar Mountain and Out Windy tests.
The famous Nahwatzel stage ran three times instead of twice to complete the rally.
The 2021 entry
We mentioned that the ARA is going from strength to strength at the moment, and that is abundantly clear from the 2021 Olympus Rally entry list.
Joining the usual suspects McKenna, Pastrana and Semenuk are two exciting Irish drivers: Josh McErlean and Callum Devine. Both are previous British Junior Champions with European Rally Championship experience and will shake up proceedings in their R5 cars.
Hyundai junior driver McErlean will pilot a PCRS i20 R5 – the car usually driven by Enda McCormack – while Devine will get behind the wheel of a McKenna Motorsports Ford Fiesta R5.
Ken Block is also back after his return to US rallying on last month’s 100 Acre Wood Rally. Stay tuned to DirtFish this week for an exclusive announcement on what Block will be driving this weekend…
In total, 87 cars will start the rally with one of the most competitive top 10s seen in the USA for years. Ryan Booth, Jeff Seehorn, Paul Rowley and John Coyne complete that list.
The 2021 itinerary
Sadly as a consequence of the ongoing pandemic, the Olympus Rally is strictly a non-spectator event but DirtFish is here to soften that blow with comprehensive rally coverage as it progresses.
The crews will tackle 12 stages totaling 140 competitive miles with eight on Saturday – including two at night – before four stages on Sunday.
Three of the six individual stages are over 10 miles long. The real beast is Nahwatzel at 19.84 miles. It will be a rather rude awakening at the start of Sunday.