What was Tennessee Rally USA all about?

The Chattannooga event was seen by some as a step towards a slot on the WRC calendar, but there's still work to do

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Opinion was divided on Bullet Creek Road, Tennessee, last Saturday.

The inhabitants of the Ford F150 were waving the flag, living the dream of a World Rally Championship return to the United States. The inhabitants of the house on the right, less so. Rally fans, they were not. And last week did little to endear them to our world.

Running out of Chattanooga, Tennessee Rally USA was, we were told with great enthusiasm, could be the next step on America’s road to a WRC return.

Despite what you might have heard, Saturday wasn’t part of the actual process of WRC inclusion. The WRC Promoter was – and is – very clear that the rally was considered a local test event over which it sought no jurisdiction.

Don’t read the promoter or the governing body of world motorsport wrong, both are committed to a WRC round in America and the next 20 months will dictate where that event goes.

And who takes it there.

The United States is well and truly ready for the world championship to be back in town. That anticipation can be felt across the entire community. Since talk of America’s first WRC round since 1988 emerged, there’s been no shortage of excitement and appreciation for what we’re hoping will be coming our way.

The process itself dictates that we can’t talk in certain terms of an arrival time. Yes, 2026 is the target, but the WRC Promoter and the FIA have to be satisfied the proposed calendar qualifier works on every level.

So what Saturday about? It was, we’re told, a volunteer training event. The absence of WRC Promoter and FIA personnel underlined the absence of an official tie to the World Rally Championship.

In real terms, Saturday was Tennessee Rally USA – half of it, at least. What should have been a two-day weekend event was trimmed to the first half of the weekend (with a ceremonial start on Friday night) when a couple of stages were lost to road repairs. That was a shame – not least because those two roads were reckoned to be among the best on the itinerary. But, ultimately, it didn’t really matter too much.


The Friday night ceremonial start was included in Chattanooga's weekly music festival

Saturday was about introducing the volunteers and the people of Polk County and Chattanooga to the sport of rallying. Now, that did matter.

How did that go? Mixed reviews, if we’re honest.

DirtFish is, as you can imagine, desperate to see the WRC back Stateside. Through DirtFish.com we’ve been telling our fellow Americans how awesome the WRC is from the other three corners of planet earth. And now we want to shout it out from our own backyard. We want to welcome our colleagues and show them what the sport’s all about on this side of the Pond. And Pacific.

At the same time, we have to be up front and honest about all aspects of this process (even before the WRC Promoter and FIA gets officially involved) in the same way we have been with the other rallies returning to the WRC. We didn’t, for example, shy away from the security issues Japan faced on its event in 2022 and we were quite clear the service park on the Central European Rally wasn’t up to scratch.

In certain areas, last week’s Rally USA fell well short of what will be expected at the highest level of the World Rally Championship. Rally manager Stuart Wood knows that and, perhaps correctly, he would point out that dress rehearsals (and, presumably, volunteer training events) are about identifying such weaknesses.


The event was hard on tires with punctures aplenty for the nine-strong field of competing cars

Let’s dig in to what we saw on Saturday.

Embracing the enthusiasm

Before we go any further with this analysis, the most important thing is to say thank you. Yes, thank you to Wood, his team, his ambassadors – many of whom DirtFish met in Casino Square, Monaco at the start of the season – for the work with the FIA and WRC Promoter to get us to this point.

But mainly we have so much gratitude for the volunteers working at every level and coming from across the country. You made this thing happen. To the father and son team out on recce day, rebuilding the roads literally by hand, or those taping off the spectator areas or making sure the timing system was up and running – we thank you. And to the experienced volunteers who were turned away, we thank you for trying to get involved.

The rally community in Tennessee deserves the praise here, boots were on the ground from before dawn until well after dusk on one of the hottest days of the year to make this happen.

Engagement with ARA

Working away at ARA rounds for the last couple of seasons, a disconnect between some aspects of American rallying and America’s potential round of the World Rally Championship have become obvious. You don’t go to Missouri or Michigan or New England and hear fans talking excitedly about their event, their possible round of world championship. That’s wrong.

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Engagement with the American rally community is vital for a WRC round to flourish

It might have been a while since Britain had a round of the WRC, but back in the day, there was no mistaking the sense of pride from fans, volunteer crews and fellow British rally organizers up and down the country when talk turned to November and the big event. There was a sense of belonging, a feeling of unity and an appreciation for what was inclusion in a very special club.

Yes, it’s important for Wood and his team to get out to WRC events like Monte Carlo, Latvia and Finland, but isn’t it equally – possibly even more – important for them to be present on the rallies happening week-in-week-out across America? The community of rallying right here is what will put the USA into Rally USA. We are nothing without our precious volunteer workforce, not for nothing are these awesome folk labelled as the backbone of events. Every event needs its backbone.

The stages

Saturday’s roads were some of the roughest American drivers have seen in a good while. Picking a way around some of Tennessee’s bigger boulders and widest expanses of bedrock was no guarantee of escaping punctures and it’s little surprise only four of the nine-strong field made it to the finish. Some of the road sections were even rougher, which is partly why cars were running out of fuel.

There’s nothing wrong with rough roads. We love a good rock garden here at DirtFish. But there are some lovely wide, fast and flowing roads to be had around Chattanooga – Starr Mountain, which concluded the event was great after the organisers spread 70 tons of gravel across the road.

Attention to detail is vital on those stages. Having porta-johns (or portaloos, if you like) on the outside of corners is not useful – especially when you have fans very much in need of the facilities and not fully understanding of the toilet being out of bounds in a dangerous position.


The Tenneesee roads were among the roughest the competitors had seen

As mentioned, two stages were lost to road repair ahead of the event, then more mileage went south in SS1 because the start wasn’t marked and early arriving fans unwittingly parked their cars on the stage. Another mile was lost to discontented locals in the second stage – the event was 40 minutes late after SS3.

And that was with eight cars running (Sehsuvar Jesse Yuvali’s BMW didn’t make it beyond SS2).

Looking after the fans

A process of education for volunteers and fans alike is vital for the event. It’s been a good couple of decades since high-level rallying ran through this part of the world. Rally México organisers Patrick Suberville and Gilles Spitalier are working with Wood and know all about schooling folk in what to expect from our sport – they went through the process in the villages out and about around Guanajuato 20 years ago.

Signage is vital in that process and simply telling people the road ahead will be closed for a ‘special event’ doesn’t paint a sufficiently accurate picture of what sits in wait for any unsuspecting local.

Fortunately for Wood, he’s heading for Jyväskylä, where he can learn from the best. The spectator infrastructure at Secto Rally Finland has been fine-tuned for the past half a century. What you won’t find among the 1000 lakes of central Suomi is fans, after being charged $10 to park their car, then stumping up another $10 (per adult, $5 for children) for a trailer ride to a spectator point, only for some fans to arrive too late and end up watching the cars going into a control. Wood admitted fans were disappointed on Saturday. He’s right. And now those fans have to be reached out to and an arm put around.


Local media intrest in Tennessee Rally USA needs to be ramped up

Making the media work

Media interest in Tennessee Rally USA has to be ramped up. Putting it politely, there was a danger there would be more seats than people sitting in the pre-event press conference. Local media must be both encouraged and educated, we simply cannot allow first-timers out on stage without ensuring they’ve been through something similar to the ARA’s excellent, tried and tested process of media preparation for standing stage side.

Fundamentally, if the world’s second biggest motorsport series behind Formula 1 is coming to Chattanooga it was shocking to see the lack of local promotion. That’s another area where the event is out of sync with the series, WRC Promoter is pushing America at every turn, every conversation, every news cycle.

It’s all about priorities

Wood: “World rally is entertainment. If you don’t have the entertainment pieces, you don’t have a world rally.”

That thought process is insightful. I can absolutely see his perspective and the party aspect of Chattanooga was reasonably well worked. Integration into the city’s Friday night music festival is precisely what’s needed – it was just a shame about the confusion which ensued when crews wanted to start their engines to leave the ceremonial start in the middle of the concert. After half an hour, they were pushed out silently.

There are, however, priorities well above this one. Focusing on the entertainment is folly right now. And don’t be fooled, Stuart, when you get to Finland. Jyväskylä does entertainment brilliantly, but that’s underpinned by the best stages and, even more importantly, an organizational infrastructure well capable of capitalizing on those roads.


The organizing team took to the podium themselves after what had been a long, hot day in Tennessee


We now know what Saturday was. As Wood told DirtFish in Chattanooga last week, in his eyes it was an operational success. The law enforcement agencies and the EMS now fully understand what a rally’s all about.

But the next event in March – reported to be another training operation – is around the corner and attention is required for much of the above. Right now, the American rally community feels split in two: those who are still blown away by the opportunity which sits before us and will do all they can to pave a way back onto the calendar and those who appear disconnected, disenfranchised and seek to distance themselves from Tennessee Rally USA.

One has to be fostered, the other very firmly fixed.

Interestingly, while the WRC Promoter and FIA were quick to point out there was no official link between the event and the world championship, Wood continually referenced the rally’s roadmap towards inclusion in the premier series.

From what we saw on Saturday, there’s some way to go yet. American fans, volunteers and the community deserve a WRC round – and Chattanooga’s a great place. But not at any cost.