2018 Oregon Trail Rally Competitor Preview
The Dalles, Oregon (April 21, 2018)
An impressive 58 teams have descended on the Columbia River Gorge this weekend to start the 2018 Oregon Trail Rally and compete at Round 1 of the American Rally Association National Championship Series. Starting from Portland International Raceway before heading eastward to Goldendale, Washington and Dufur, Oregon, OTR sees a wide variety of surfaces, conditions, and obstacles for competitors to overcome.
The OTR field runs deep with talent this weekend, with strong competition in all classes. 2017 event-winner and ARA champion Travis Pastrana will not be defending his title this year, leaving space open for a new winner to be crowned. Mind you, it isn't a large space to fill. The Oregon Trail Rally is a matchup of seconds; two years in a row the event has been decided by a near 10-second gap: 9.5 seconds in 2016 and 10.5 seconds last year.
With so many talented teams at Oregon this weekend, it’s tough mention them all. But here are some of the competitors we think you should keep an eye on.
2017 Oregon Trail Rally runners up David Higgins and Craig Drew will be looking to improve on last year's performance and challenge for the 2018 championship. Despite a loss at OTR last season, Higgins and Drew have a strong history in Oregon. As a driver, Higgins has scored a record eight wins in the Columbia River Gorge and, as a pair, Higgins and Drew have won here on six occasions. They have the experience and the pace, but they have a deep field of competition to overcome.
Slotting into Pastrana's vacant vehicle and joining Higgins in the Subaru tent is SRTUSA rallycross driver Chris “Atko” Atkinson and Stéphane Prévot driving OTR as a one-off event. Atko competed in the World Rally Championship for three years with Subaru World Rally Team, scoring 41 stage wins and six podiums in that time. Since joining Subaru Rally Team USA's rallycross effort in 2016, he scored the team's first-ever pole position in the sport along with two podiums. Atko knows how to be quick in a rally car, but he's looking at his first stage rally in the US as a fun experience more than a points paying event.
Returning after a promising season in 2017 are Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan in the turbo Ford Fiesta S2000. The pair introduced the car at this event last year, but teething problems with the car ended their event early. Quickly bouncing back, McKenna Motorsports team scored their first overall podium at Olympus Rally the following month and later, at STPR, logged their first of several outright stage wins. The pair have the pace and they're looking to take the championship fight to Subaru in 2018.
This weekend’s biggest wild card, meanwhile, is Ken Block, who finally returns to stage rally after an extended hiatus in Oregon. He’s got the same panache (and co-driver, Alex Gelsomino) that he’s always had, but this time, the car is completely different: a 1993 Ford Escort Cosworth, much like the ones that starred in WRC in the 1990s. While he’s admitted that the new car is mostly about rallying for fun, Block is still expected to take on the top names in Open 4WD for the podium.
If Block is the X-factor to watch, though, Conner Martell can’t be far behind. The talented young rallycross driver has had more than one taste of stage rally over the past few years, and his closed-circuit pace has certainly carried over to the open roads. Partnering with Robbie Durant, Pastrana’s regular co-driver, means he’ll have a steady presence in the co-driver seat and an opportunity to surprise in his Rocket Rally-prepped Subaru Crosstrek.
When the ARA class system was simplified in the offseason, defending Restricted Open 4WD champions Jeff Seehorn and Karen Jankowski transitioned into the new Limited 4WD class. No matter: they’re still among the favorites to take home hardware this weekend. After taking an Overall podium at OTR last year, they’ll face stiffer competition in that regard, but another class victory shouldn’t be out of the question.
Still, with Sam Albert and Michelle Miller running a DirtFish Motorsports-prepared Subaru WRX STI, the battle for Limited 4WD glory will be an exciting one. Albert, who embarks on his first full season of rallying in 2018, steps into the ride that James Rimmer shared with Miller at this event last year. While the entry didn’t finish OTR in 2017, Albert enters this weekend with a ton of potential.
Fellow DirtFish instructor Travis Nease, meanwhile, finished second to Seehorn in RO4WD last year and also moves into Limited 4WD for 2018. One of the top five fastest drivers in last year’s event, Nease and co-driver Danny Norkus have a special tie to OTR: it was Nease’s first stage rally event ever, and the duo took it on together. Another podium performance would give them plenty of reason to smile.
Also joining Limited 4WD this year is Cameron Steely, who fell just short of Ryan Millen in an epic Open 2WD battle for both the class win at OTR in 2017. Steely and co-driver Preston Osborn raced a Ford Fiesta last year and are building a new Focus RS for a move up to the Open 4WD class. But this weekend they'll wheel a 2007 Subaru WRX STI in order to stay active in the championship chase.
Finally, one of the brightest and most identifiable liveries in the entire ARA paddock returns to action this weekend as Tino Fortunato brings the All Fours Rally Team back to the stages. Fortunato cracked the podium in class when he last competed at this event in 2016, placing third, and could surprise with an impressive run in his return to competition.
Coming down from Canada in the fan-favorite Trailer Park boys R2 Fiesta is OTR regular Jason Bailey and new-to-him co-driver Leanne Junnila. The two were fierce rivals last season in the Canadian Rally Championship, but with Junnila's usual co-driver Dave Wallingford still recovering from their roll at Rally Mexico the two have joined forces. Don't worry though, Leanne is still repping the #SavageDave t-shirt under her suit.
The second car in the Hoonigan camp is a little more tame than the vintage WRC Cossie. Lucy Block is here and competing alongside her husband in an R2 Fiesta. Joining her for the first time since the 2015 New England Forest Rally is 2017 RO4WD runner up Krista Skucas. After some testing in Washington state last week, the pair are ready to send it.
Speaking of NEFR, Erick Potts and Claudia Barbera-Pullen are back in the car together for the first time since NEFR last season. The pair have made a number of modifications to their Subaru BRZ in the off-season for the move to Open spec and will be competing at all seven ARA events in a run for the championship.
After winning the Open 2WD championship last season, Rhianon Gelsomino has gone independent. This weekend she will be co-driving for Hollywood stunt driver Eliza Coleman in a Scion xD. Though this is first time Gelsomino and Coleman have driven together in competition, Coleman has driven with Alex Gelsomino at a number of rallies, including Tri-State last season.
Also running the full ARA season are Jordan Guitar and Brian Penza in the factory Honda Civic. The car, run as a special project by a group of Honda engineers in Ohio, is a staple of the 2WD classes in the US rally scene. Despite being a fully-prepped rally car, the Civic still has all the creature comforts, including satellite radio and air conditioning. The team is fast and punches above their weight; don't be surprised if Guitar and Penza find their way onto the Open 2WD podium.
Photo credit: Chris Daley (Top, 2), Subaru Rally Team USA (1), Alex Wong (3)