Why is ARA's Top Class so Varied?
Though we've only seen it run two events, ever since the introduction of Barry McKenna's special built M-Sport WRC car in the American Rally Association, there has been a myriad of questions raised about not just the car, but how well the competition stacks up against it.
It's no secret that the Vermont Sports Car Subarus have dominated the US rally world for about a decade, but ever since last year saw McKenna take the National Championship primarily behind the wheel of a Skoda Fabia R5 car, the question of how ARA classification levels compare to WRC and FIA has been on many people's minds, and the introduction of McKenna's WRC Fiesta has only heightened curiosity.
So why is it that WRC results are usually predictably close in WRC Class with a roughly +3s per mile gap before Rally 2, while in the ARA we often see more mingling between that top O4WD, and even RC2 cars?
While it's hard to say for sure why all these cars are able to be competitive with each other, there's many factors we can look at to get an idea of what's going on.
First and foremost, one of the main reasons we saw McKenna being so successful in his R5 cars prior to his new WRC car is because he often runs them as R5+.
More often than not, when the headline was McKenna beating the Subarus in his R5 Fabia, he wasn't racing in the RC2 class with your average R5 car, but had outfitted the Skoda with a 34mm restrictor instead of the usual 32mm required by FIA regulations, as well as a few other small tweaks, typically aerodynamic related.
This was also the same setup used when Ken Block raced the car to second place earlier this year at the Rally in the100 Acre Wood.
While this pushes the car out of the RC2 class, it allows it to be far more competitive with the VSC built Subarus, and even allows it to be a better choice than McKenna's S2000 Fiesta on many stages due to how it can out-handle the larger cars on more technical roads.
ARA Open Class
An obvious but important factor is that the ARA Open classifications, specifically O4WD, are set up different from the FIA's classifications.
ARA Competition Director, Preston Osborn, describes the ARA's open class as "truly an open class."
"There's very few restrictions on what you can do to modify the cars, and a lot of it is driven by the teams that were involved in the past," he says.
"Even if you look back when John Buffum had the Hyundai Team running the Tiburon. That was back in the open class."
Though a few decades removed, the wildly successful Tiburon is a great example of the open class.
Utilizing an AWD system that was never offered in the road car, and a special built turbo 4-cylinder based on the Sonata's engine block, Paul Choiniere was able to win multiple US rallying championships behind the wheel of the O4WD Tiburon, probably thanks to the fact it shared very little mechanically with the road-going Tiburon.
This is all to say O4WD really requires no resemblance to whatever original production model the car is based off of, and is instead limited more by power, weight, and cost.
A modern equivalent would be Pat Moro's LS3 powered AWD Chevy Sonic, or, on the O2WD side of things, Seamus Burke's Mustang-powered V6 MkII Escort.
While O4WD gives us the crazier builds, it's also the class many spec-built cars fall into when they race in the US. R5+, WRC, AP4, R4, Proto cars, and likely anything considered above Group N that isn’t FIA-spec RC2 most closely fall under the regulations of the ARA's open class, though changes in restrictor size and vehicle weight, as well as the conversion to a mechanically actuated transmission might need to be put in place before getting actual approval for competition.
"I think with the way rally is here in the us, because we have so many different makes and models involved, writing rules to really try and fit different manufacturers is difficult," Osborn says.
"So over the years the rules have become, or I should say have stayed much more open than the FIA classes that have been developed."
Regulations are also always evolving as necessary. The most obvious examples include the recent aerodynamics debate that came out of the grey areas pointed out by McKenna's WRC car, and the anti-lag rule grey area's that were revealed at Ojibwe last year.
McKenna's WRC Car is a One-Off
We also can't necessarily look at McKenna's performance in the WRC car and compare it to the performance of, say, Gus Greensmith driving an M-Sport Fiesta in the WRC because the cars are different, and we don't have a sure comparison of which would be faster and by how much.
Thanks to the O4WD regulations in the US, McKenna is able to run a larger 2-liter turbo-four based roughly on the old Ford WRC car's block, but is also required to run a 34mm restrictor on the turbo, as opposed to the 36mm restrictor used in the WRC.
McKenna's car is also unable to use the electronic differentials and paddle shift transmissions of the WRC to fit into the more limited side of the ARA's regulations.
We can speculate, but overall it just becomes difficult to tell how much faster McKenna "should" be than a top RC2 class car.
Osborn thinks it might just even itself out between the two series.
"Your WRC and your Rally 2 cars are upwards of 2-3 seconds per mile difference." he says.
"I think if you took, say, Barry's car, and ran it equal drivers compared to a Rally 2 car we would probably see similar results."
Perhaps with more time and events we'll be able to get a more consistent picture of how the car competes performance-wise with traditional WRC and R5 cars.
Subaru Has Been Dominant For Years
Being the only factory backed team, Subaru was easily able to put together a car capable of outrunning the competition that they had, and while it was a fast, well put-together car, there was no reason for aiming for any FIA standards, or any other standards for that matter, so long as it held together well, and competed at the top of the US rally game.
The closest Subaru came to a true competitive benchmark would be when McKenna brought his S2000 Fiesta to the US, but even then the car was outdated compared to WRC standards, and Subaru was typically able to pull a few minutes ahead by the end of most rallies.
In fact, the first time we've seen a car able to completely run away from Subaru was at 100 Acre Wood when McKenna debuted the WRC Fiesta.
If it hadn't been for a costly puncture, McKenna could have walked away with a decent lead for his first event in the car, and he proved he could take plenty of time out of Block, Semenuk, and Pastrana every stage after suffering the time loss.
You can already see the effects of the new competition on Subaru's approach as they showed up to Southern Ohio Forest Rally with a new aero package in hopes to hold their own. Despite this, Barry was still able to take a two minute win, but in a rally plagued with offs, delays, punctures, and countless other issues, it's not a very straight comparison either.
So why then is it that it seems R5's, WRC cars, and the ever-dominant Subarus are all able to compete so well with each other in the US?
The reality is there's no simple answer, but the closest I can say is that We're currently in what feels like a very transitional time for the sport.
In the US, where the interest in racing is high, and the competition is growing faster and stronger. Because of this, changes are happening to regulations, the driver skill-levels, the interest from drivers overseas, and many other things.
We might just have to sit back and wait out a few more events before we can really say for sure how the competition stacks up across classes, but in the mean time, we can enjoy a liminal period in which the outcome of any given race can be uncertain, and a good underdog story is still possible.