We’re in that innocuous-feeling downtime between rounds of the World Rally Championship, right? It’s a couple of weeks since México, the same until Croatia. Bit of asphalt testing going on, not much else.
Apart from Saturday.
Saturday is arguably one of the biggest days in the recent history of the WRC. Not that you’d get the FIA or WRC Promoter to talk expansively in such terms. At least not on the record.
Truth is though, the world will be watching Tennessee on Saturday.
So, Chattanooga. Working title: Rally USA.
I was there 18 months ago for the 2021 Chattanooga Motorcar Festival and I arrived without having done much homework. I was ready for a voyage of discovery. I wasn’t ready for the number of people who offered a cheerful “Choo-choo”, accompanied by a slightly self-satisfied smile assuming they’d just broken the news of the train.
I still don’t really get it.
What I did very much get was the stunning collection of cars (which included our own Steve Rimmer’s Lancia 037) for the festival.
Basically, I was in the city to be nosey. Could this be the place where the World Rally Championship landed back into the United States for the first time since 1988?
The one piece of homework I had done was to understand that this place doesn’t exactly have what you’d call a rich history in rallying. Yes, the Chattanooga Trails Rally counts, but it’s been a while since that event ran.
Think of America’s natural home of rallying and our own corner – the Pacific Northwest – undoubtedly springs to mind. Shelton, Olympia, Seattle are all parts of Washington State instantly recognizable from the last time the World Rally Championship visited. In fact, the last three times the WRC visited.
And, of course, it’s home to DirtFish.
It’s been talked about. It’s being talked about. And the talking will continue
But the here and now is in Tennessee.
More pertinently, the here and now is the USA. The current manufacturers couldn’t be clearer on the fact that America has to happen. And it really had to happen yesterday. So it really does need to happen soon.
Soon is next season. Sooner is a test event in September and soonest is a proof of concept one-stager on Saturday.
America is days away from taking its biggest step in decades towards a return to the world championship. The driving force behind what’s coming in Chattanooga is all-American – but both the FIA and WRC Promoter are as invested as they are interested in how it works.
In terms of what’s coming, Saturday starts on Thursday with a welcome reception for all parties in the Chattanooga Hotel. Friday includes a morning conference for regional government officials to talk through plans before the whole thing starts to look a bit more like a rally. The crews will recce a single test stage, while their cars are simultaneously scrutineered at the city’s Ford dealership.
Parc exposé and a Ken Block tribute run from six until eight in the evening before the service park opens at 8am on Saturday. The stage runs from 8.30am until 11am with the stage then available for testing through the afternoon.
It’s an opportunity for the world to come and take a look at what a rally means and what it could look like in Chattanooga.
It’s an entirely sensible first step into wheels turning rally running.
Talk to a good number of the local government folk about a service park, stage or regroup involves. Talk to them after Saturday and they’ll know exactly what’s on offer. More importantly, they’ll know precisely how to turn each one into a moment of its own – a moment capable of delivering partner value and entertainment for the population and the people.
How will the WRC fit into Chattanooga? Nicely would be the answer. The rally will be big enough to make itself felt without getting in the way too much. When I was there, I was struck by just how much of a European feel downtown had; there’s a few swanky-looking high-rise office buildings, but the cityscape’s certainly not overwhelming.
There’s a perfect opportunity for a superspecial in the heart of a city which sits neatly on the wide meander of the Tennessee River.
And breakfast, oh my goodness breakfast. It’s something of a sight to behold to see what can be achieved when you apply yourself fully to maple syrup, pancakes and the odd blueberry.
The Finley Stadium Davenport Field, home to Chattanooga University of Tennessee’s football team, will be more than capable of swallowing the service park on, while Lookout Mountain and the surrounding forests will offer a wide range of gravel stages.
From what I saw, there’s double-width, smooth, fast flowing stuff which can easily be dissected by tighter, narrower and Greek-like bedrock surfaced stage at the turn of a junction.
It has a bit of everything.
And it’s going to need all of that everything when Saturday comes and government officials need to see evidence of the thousands of bed nights and targeted spend within the city limits.
We know from what the teams have told us, America’s a necessity for the WRC, so Saturday will come with no shortage of pressure and expectation.
Commercially, America’s stacked up for years, but now comes the opportunity to demonstrate the required sporting prowess to bring the WRC back for the first time since Miki Biasion and the Lancia team departed in 1988.