Velocity Invitational: An unforgettable rallying experience

Cars and stars from the sport's past and present put on a show at Sonoma Raceway's festival of motorsport


Brandon Semenuk is trying to talk to Max McRae, but he can’t. Not right now. Not until Lando Norris has gone through turn one and the wailing V10 McLaren MP4/14A is away up the hill.

Conversation has to be crammed into 60 seconds before James Hunt’s M26 arrives to show the Seventies were better than the Nineties. Welcome to Velocity Invitational. It’s Goodwood Festival of Speed by another name. And on another continent.

In fairness, it’s not quite FoS spec. Yet. But it’s considerably closer than you might imagine for two events separated by as many decades. Goodwood is a vigorously polished performance which delivers a corporate, manufacturer-driven message alongside mass motorsport fan appeal. It’s a show.

Velocity is the same, just without the showbizz. That’s a good thing. There was a purity in both delivery and appreciation across Sonoma Raceway last weekend. This was global motorsport being delivered to the very heart of California’s wine country.


Not that Max McRae cared about California or a weighty Cabernet Sauvignon. All he cared about was putting a DirtFish Subaru BRZ back on the lock stops so he could eye-up the fall-coloured vineyards through the side window, while kissing the limiter in fourth.

It was the same for Semenuk. The champ’s an enthusiast, but he’s rarely more enthusiastic than when he’s flicking the switch to send his Subaru from road to stage mode.

Team DirtFish had been in town for a couple of days building a two-and-a-bit-mile stage when Semenuk landed for a super-early Saturday shakedown. The billing wasn’t the best: a gravel parking lot out the back of the track.

But the billing didn’t do it – or Ulf – justice. Ulf is Ulf Henriksson. He’s the main man when it comes to getting fast on the loose at Velocity. He’s not a native Californian. He’s pure Swedish. Pure rally man. Nothing was too much trouble for him. He made everything work. He moved fences, built barriers, founds thousands of gallons of water to dampen the dust and then sat back and waited for the verdict.

Semenuk came out of his first recce run and smiled. A big smile.


“That’s a great stage,” was the Canadian’s verdict.

Wide open spaces had been narrowed, but not too much. There was still room for expression. There was still room to back a nearly brand new Subaru WRX in to most corners. The stage was a genuine sensation. The Forest Rally Stage at Goodwood is cool and, as you’d expect for something designed by Hannu Mikkola, it’s a challenge. But it doesn’t give you much time to go through the gears. It’s tight, twisty, nadgery and sometimes naughty.

Velocity’s stage was the absolute opposite. It positively demanded another gear, a brave pill and the desire to truly send it. If there was a downside, it was the limited spectating opportunities. On track, there was a plethora of epic cars coming from a multi-million dollar paddock, there was the boy Norris and there was a whole bunch of apexes hit lap-after-lap.


But there weren’t many yeehaaas. The yeehaaas were all coming from the dirt. And all coming from inside the cars. DirtFish BRZs sat alongside the factory WRX to provide passenger rides for folk who wanted to become part of the action the others were just watching.

We had 100 passenger rides on offer. They all went. And we could probably have done another 100.

Much as we loved the dirt over the weekend, we didn’t neglect the track. DirtFish owner Steve Rimmer generously sent a fine collection south from Seattle, with the Ford Fiesta Pikes Peak Marcus Grönholm used to take on America’s Mountain joined by an ex-Tommi Mäkinen Subaru Impreza WRC02, an American Impreza WRX driven by Travis Pastrana and a glorious replica Hannu Mikkola Ford Escort RS1800. Naturally, they cast everything else into the shade. Especially when James Rimmer demonstrated how sideways the Pastrana car really could go.


Velocity had run at Laguna Seca for its first three years before it made the move north to the circuit just 30 minutes outside of San Francisco. And, honestly, Sonoma and the surrounding Bay area just caught the bug.

Eating in Blazers Smokehouse, Novato on the eve of the event, Josie Rimmer got chatting to Hette. Hette knew motorsport, with a family history in circuit racing. But she didn’t know rallying. Josie had her signed up for a passenger ride and by Sunday afternoon she was a total convert.

“I’ve never done anything like that,” she said. “I had no idea. That was crazy! Like I say, my family has raced for a long time – I raced. But it was nothing like that. Now I need to know more. And who was that kid driving me?”

The name’s McRae. Max McRae.

“He’s going places…”

We believe so, Hette.

Having Max and Alister McRae with us for a second year in succession was great. Two generations of rallying’s greatest dynasty bring presence and purpose to any weekend.

But it wasn’t just the two of them that made it special.

This year’s Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Benjamin Pederson made for the muddy side, just for the weekend. It was so cool to see the AJ Foyt Racing (and DirtFish-backed) circuit hero’s reaction to a ride with the super-Macs and Semenuk.

Listening to rallying tails dropped Pederson’s jaw to the floor, but he returned the favour when he mentioned the numbers, three, nine and four. That was the number of kilometres per hour he managed down the straight at Indianapolis this year.


That’s a cool 244mph. That got Max’s attention.

And Velocity Invitational got all of ours. What a stunning weekend. Big congratulations to Ulf and, of course, to Velocity founder Jeff O’Neill for what they achieved last weekend.

DirtFish is proud to be associated with such a great event. The final word should really go to the 100 or so passengers who rode alongside our rallying rockstars. It was their word. But we can borrow it.


Well said.