Detroit Lakes, Minn. ~ All of the testing, marketing, and anticipation for Subaru Motorsports USA's launch of its new rally car culminated in a successful first day of competition at the Ojibwe Forests Rally in Minnesota's Northwoods.
Ojibwe marks round six of the American Rally Association's Green APU National Rally Championship, and to date, Brandon Semenuk and co-driver have been perfect, taking home overall wins in the first five rounds.
But mixed in the champagne celebrations and recce road trips, Semenuk and Williams have been logging extra seat time in the year-long development of Vermont Sports Car's latest creation, the 2023 Subaru WRX Open Class car.
Any apprehension about unleashing a new build in the middle of the season floated away as quickly as the wind-blown dust on Ojibwe's first day. Semenuk and Williams seemed at ease in the new car, winning all eight stages and building up a 9m 44.1sec lead as they transited into the Pioneer Service for the nightly regroup.
"It was really fun to drive today," said Semenuk. "We've done lots of testing, and I'm pretty familiar with it, but definitely a new experience putting it in a race format, and things are a little more against the clock. We are still learning, but the car is so great, and these are awesome roads to bring it to and give it the first real test.
Behind the defending champions was an all-day, three-way boxing match for the runner-up spot. When the dust literally settled, Javier Olivares and co-driver KJ Miller had pushed their 2021 Ford Fiesta to second overall (and first in a very tight Limited 4WD). But it wasn't a runaway runner-up finish on day one. Pat Moro (Claudia Barbera) and Matt Dickinson (Chris Kramer also held second place at one point during the day's first eight stages. As cars headed to service, they were only separated by 22.7secs.
"I expected an interesting race behind Brandon, and that's what we got," said Olivares. "It's been fun just trading times and watching the board swap around. It's nice to have that going on and help push us a little bit more and keep our focus."
Both Moro and Dickinson dealt with mechanical issues throughout the day. Dickinson had a flat tire and brake issues, while Moro was dealing with a broken sway bar and an obstacle from Mother Earth.
"We just got stuck in a lot of the dust," said Moro. "There's a lot more dust in the fives, and you have to really commit on the five pluses and the five minuses, and we were not committing to them because there's so much dust, and it was a complete white out for us.
Seamus Burke (Gary McElhinney) controlled fifth overall all day and the top spot in Open 2WD. But Michael Hooper (Michael Hordjik) found their groove on the second loop, besting Burke's time on the final two stages to pull within 7.1secs.
There is also a growing showdown in Limited 2WD between Chris Sladek (John Sharps) and Sean Donnelly (Zack Pfeil). A close competition throughout the day tightened up over the final two stages. Sladek grabbed a lot of time (nearly 57secs) on SS7 before Donnelly took back 18.4secs back on SS8.
Engle Excited After Day One Lead in Regional
Mike Engle was beaming when asked about his day one performance at the Ojibwe Forests Rally. Engle and co-driver Ryan Scott pulled into service with five stage wins and a 45.7sec lead in the ARA Central Regional championship event, but for Engle, it was a drive where he felt everything went right.
"Thanks, Ojibwe, for an awesome day," said Engle. "Good roads. Good driver. Good co-driver. It looks like we might move up (on the start order) a little bit tomorrow, so we're pretty happy."
Ryan Rethy (co-driver James Dallman) has been driving exceptionally well this season. The 100 Acre Wood and Missouri Ozark winners took three stage wins on Friday for second, and the NA4WD lead over the third place team of David Peretz and Cora Masson.
Stephen and Katy Gingras are looking to keep their podium streak at Ojibwe in tack and ended the day fourth overall. The 2020 Ojibwe regional winner will push hard on Saturday for their third straight Ojibwe podium.
Levi Johnson's (Griffin Johnson) rally career is only five rallies old, but he has quickly notified the regional field. Johnson drove his 1986 BMW 325 to a fifth-place finish on day one and the lead in Open 2WD. It will be a competitive class race on Saturday with Brian Katz (Matt Vaught), who is second in class and just under 30secs back.
Richo Healey's first rally as a driver is getting a boost from the experienced navigational skills of Michelle Miller on their way to leading Limited 2WD. Sebastian Salgado (Adolfo Espinosa) is second in class, just ahead of Alastair Scully (Alison LaRoza).
The Ojibwe Forests Rally continues on Saturday, concluding round seven of the ARA's Green APU National Rally Championship. Spectators will have ample opportunity to see the rally up close on its final day, with spectat0r stage on SS9, SS12, SS16, and SS17. Please download the Ojibwe Forests Rally Spectator Guide for more information and directions.
You can follow every twist and turn of this weekend's Ojibwe Forests Rally at DirtFish Live Center.