There are never any guarantees in life, particularly in motorsport, and especially in rallying. So many external factors affect results, performance and organization, such is the discipline’s nature. But few could have foreseen the logistical nightmares of 2020.
COVID-19 has done its best to crush anyone’s optimism this year, but not the organizers of the Southern Ohio Forest Rally. Yes, the rally was postponed from its original June 19 date, but a replacement slot on July 18 was quickly confirmed.
As anybody who has watched the first three Formula 1 races of season will know, a motorsport event can no longer be run in the same manner as it was just five months ago. The organizers needed to do things differently.
Whereas last year’s event was a 114.6-mile, three-day affair, the 2020 edition was just 85.2 miles long and all held on a single day. Beginning on Saturday evening at 19:00 local time, the rally ran into the small hours of Sunday morning with two stages repeated three times each.
“We did have 140 stage miles on the original schedule back in February and then in March everything happened and we just didn’t know what was going to take place,” Jeremiah Johnson, the chairman of the rally, admitted to DirtFish.
“We had internal meetings to discuss canceling until 2021, and then when a lot of the other events were canceling I kind of went to the forestry department and the local communities and said ‘What are our odds, will you guys let us try this?’
“There was a glimmer of hope for July and we worked with the local health department, the state and the forestry department here in Ohio and they fortunately said they can give us one day and one forest. Normally we’re spread out two to three days and three forests.
“I’m a little biased, but I thought our clerk of the course Justin Pritchard put together a fantastic schedule based on what we had to deal with.
“Steve Aprin, the [rallycross] racer was there as a guest, and he even made a comment saying ‘hey, this is cool how you guys were able to pull it off and check all the boxes’.”
It was important that the SOFR organizers got this right as the spotlight was well and truly on them. For the first time it was part of the American Rally Association’s National schedule – having run as a Super Regional event in recent years – and had the unenviable task of being a test subject.
This was the first proper US stage rally to run since the Sno*Drift in January and the very first to run in the middle of the ongoing pandemic. Johnson thinks the organizing team thrived under this pressure.
“We didn’t want to screw up and then be a bad example for ARA or rally in the United States, but at the same time it was great that we were given the opportunity to be able to prove that we could do it,” continues Johnson.
“I think overall for the learning process – again, I’m a little biased – but we did a great job. We could’ve done better but we had paid security that was checking if you either had a wristband or an official lanyard as to whether you’re allowed to come in or out.
“We’d managed to pull off a very successful rally for the last three years and we had big teams but we’ve never had the Subaru and the Hoonigan team there, so again, we had the opportunity to show them what we could do and fortunately it went well.”
One of the biggest fears during the event was crowd control, especially with social distancing in mind. Spectators were prohibited to stand stage-side, but Johnson admits he was “floored” with what he saw.
“I think we had four people come up to spectate at the one spot we thought was going to be big.
“I am fairly certain there were people hiding out in the woods but we had no spectator issues, none at all.
“I thought for sure that that was going to be a problem. I was so afraid we’d have to cancel a stage or something, and with the limited stages my goodness, that would not have been good. It worked out so far beyond what I could have imagined.”
Johnson wasn’t the only one impressed either. The ARA hailed the SOFR organizers for their efforts to get rallying back up and running again. Marketing and media director Jeremy Meyer thought it didn’t just set a template for the remaining events in 2020, but lessons learned can also be carried forward into 2021.
“We learned a lot going into it and a lot coming out of it,” Meyer tells DirtFish. “It was such an unknown.
“We are lucky to have United States Auto Club behind us which is running events already and have been at the forefront of bringing racing back here in the States, so what we found was a lot of the processes worked probably better than we expected them to work.
“What did we take out of it? The online, digital registration was huge for us. We found new technology and new practices that I believe are going to transfer onto the next four events that are on the schedule and probably into 2021.
“It was a conversation we were having, even before the pandemic hit: how do we get more technology into the series, how do we become more modernized?
“This [pandemic] kind of forced us to do something. How do we get a new technology at the end of stages to report times back quicker, or to import them in a digital manner?”
Meyer stopped short of saying a true blueprint has been created following the SOFR, because each region and state has different stipulations. However he acknowledged that aspects like the single service area and the narrower route offered a strong indication of where rallying will need to go in the future.
“It’s important for rally in America that we’re moving forward and building and growing it to be at the forefront of being one of the first real grassroots efforts here in the US to get back on its feet.
“You’ve got NASCAR and Indy and drag racing, they’re all going but those are big money series with history and years of expertise and people. What Southern Ohio organizers did and us working with them to get back, it’s huge for our sport.
“In America we like to spread our wings but that might not be in the best interest here [this year] and, at times, moving forward. If we can get centralized and create a fan base and buzz around one little area and have killer roads [we will be onto a winner].
“Everybody talked about these roads, and there were [just] two stages which ran three times but they were unbelievably good. And I think that right there shows when you keep it simple, you can probably do more with less.”
Mason Runkel was on the ground for us last weekend, staying up beyond 6am to bring us all the action and information from the ARA’s return.
He tells us what it was like from his perspective last weekend:
“It was definitely strange, I’ve never been to a motorsports event of any type where the only people there are those involved in running it. I think with a rally it felt a bit more normal than other races might have, since typically people aren’t all crowded into one area anyway, apart from a few areas or popular spectator corners.
“But I think personally the ‘podium celebration’ was the most unique feeling part. It took place in a sort of livestock judging barn which was also being used for impound. There was no physical podium and no champagne, just calling the drivers up for a quick trophy presentation while the other competitors waited around their cars, some of which were pretty damaged from the racing like Brandon Semenuk’s. It just felt more intimate I guess.
“I was also surprised when I went out on stage one to watch. They were saying that they had barely any issues with people trying to sneak their way into spectating. I would’ve thought a sport like rally would be really hard to maintain that kind of security, but they had a really good hold on it all so I was impressed.”