Newry, Maine (July 20, 2018)
The American Rally Association midseason break is officially over, the New England Forest Rally (NEFR) starts today. The event sees one of the most talent-staked fields in ARA history, every class is sure to have a close fight to the finish.
The event sees competitors face a challenging mix of crests corners, and jumps, sometimes all at the same time. NEFR roads reward commitment; drivers who are able to turn the car in the air do well here. Many blind crests require a strong trust between driver and co-driver. But the sinuous nature of NEFR's stage roads aren't the only hazard. Rocks, both embedded in the road surface and laid stage-side create a constant threat of punctures, or worse.
Though scheduled for 115 stage miles, NEFR this year has unexpectedly lost a few with the last minute cancellation of the B-17 Stage. Severe storms in the area this week have washed out several sections of the stage road and a nearby bridge. Other than that loss, this year's event shares the same schedule as last's.
David Higgins and Craig Drew of Subaru Rally Team USA come into NEFR riding high thanks to their recent win at STPR and their retaking of the championship lead, but they have a tough relationship with NEFR. Last year, the pair slide wide late in the rally and struck a rock on the outside of the corner, tearing off the right rear corner of the car and forcing them to transit the 30 miles back service on three wheels. In 2016, their rally ended early when a front suspension strut broke its mount and crashed through the hood of their Subaru. Staving off the bad luck is the key for Higgins and Drew.
Continuing to challenge the Subarus are Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan in their M-Sport Ford Performance Fiesta S2000 Turbo. The pair put on a strong performance last month, leading STPR for 9 stages until an off high-sided their Fiesta, ending their event. The rally lead, their second in as many events, shows just how much the team is improving event over event. Continuing that progress and winning more stages are what the team will be focusing on this weekend.
Returning to ARA competition together for the first time since Ojibwe Forests Rally last year are reigning ARA champions Travis Pastrana and Robbie Durant. Pastrana has had a busy two months, competing in multiple disciplines over several weeks in events such as One Lap of America, the Pike's Peak Hillclimb, and Americas Rallycross. He also recently broke several motorcycle jump records set by Evel Knievel in Las Vegas. The sitting champion, Pastrana's car will eschew the traditional #199 on the door banner for a symbolic #1.
Also returning to ARA competition are Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino, back again for Block's first event since the Oregon Trail Rally back in April. Competing more for fun and love of the sport over competition for the overall win Block has once again brought his fan-favorite Group A Escort Cosworth. 2018 marks Block's first NEFR since a one-off event in 2015 and he's sure to put on a good show.
Limited 4wd class leaders Jeff Seehorn and Karen Jankowski return after skipping STPR, but they didn't waste their time off. The pair recently equipped their Subaru STI with a sequential transmission, replacing the 6 speed manual they were using the before. The hope is for the team to repeat their win here last year, but with even quicker stage times. But the new transmission could be a double edged sword by forcing a different driving style on the Seehorn Motorsports crew. The time it takes for Seehorn to become comfortable with the new setup will make all the difference in his performance.
Travis Nease is reuniting with his Olympus Rally co-driver Caron Tomlinson for NEFR marking their second event together. The pair showed an impressive pace in their last outing and will be looking to keep Nease's championship hunt alive. Nease currently sits a single point behind Seehorn in the L4wd driver's championship, an incredibly close fight. NEFR also holds the dubious distinction of being the one ARA event where Nease had mechanical troubles last year. Hopefully his Subaru STI has new wheel scrapers installed!
Fresh off of a second overall finish at STPR, DirtFish Motorsports drivers Sam Albert and Michelle Miller come into NEFR sitting a mere 4 points behind the leaders in the championship. That points gap between the top 3 in L4wd fits inside of the difference between a first and second place finish, highlighting just how close this championship fight is. Now that Albert and Miller are on their pace the real fight can begin in this championship.
Entering NEFR as a one-off entry and competing in his first event since Climb to the Clouds last year is US Rally veteran and former ARA President Tim O'Neil in the Team O'Neil Ford Focus RS. Joining him in the co-driver's chair is O2wd Oregon Trail Rally winner Leanne Junnila. This will be the first time the team's Focus RS has competed in a stage rally event since NEFR last year, where it won the Production class in the hands of Andrew Comrie-Picard.
Coming off a second place finish in Limited 4wd and a fourth overall finish at STPR are Paddy Brennan and Matt James in their Mitsubishi Evo. The pair know the New England roads well and are usually quick. Can they act as a spoiler and podium again?
In Open 2wd class, Seamus Burke and Martin Brady are at NEFR for the first time since their overall win here in 2016. The win came in a different car, but don't count the pair out in the V6 MKII Ford Escort. As they showed at STPR, Burke and Brady are a threat for not only the class win, but also the overall podium. With the field more stacked than ever, can they make it two overall podiums in a row?
Fighting the Irish contingent hard will be O2wd class championship leaders Erik Potts and Claudia Barbera-Pullen. This year's NEFR marks the first anniversary of the pair's first stage rally together; in 2017, they won the Production 2wd class here. To celebrate the occasion, the team will be looking to avoid some of the issues fought at STPR. There they lost comms early into the weekend, dropping time to their competition in class that couldn't be made up. The team will be looking at the championship, a strong performance to secure the points is what matters for them here.
Keanna Erickson-Chang is switching up the Gelsominos this weekend, bringing sitting O2wd class champion Rhianon into the co-drivers chair after placing second in O2wd at STPR with Alex, who is driving with Ken Block this weekend. The strong performance at STPR marked a career high finish in ARA competition for the team. With her experience at NEFR, Erickson-Chang is a favorite to podium again.
In Limited 2wd the Maxxis Honda HPD Rally Team returns with Jordan Guitar behind the wheel. This time though, Guitar has his third different co-driver in as many events with William Jang filling the roll this weekend. Whether the team's pace will slow due to changed in-car dynamic or if both driver's experience in New England will balance it out remains to be seen. Regardless, this Honda is always a favorite for the podium.
Photo Credit: David Cosseboom
About American Rally Association (ARA)
A member-driven organization dedicated to the sport of Stage Rally, the American Rally Association provides a transparent, inclusive, and growing sanctioning body to competitors throughout America. A 501 (c)(3) non-profit and wholly owned subsidiary of the United States Auto Club (USAC), ARA is led by seasoned Stage Rally professionals who work hand in hand with an experienced Board of Directors to deliver a framework for safety, competition, promotion, and education for all aspects of the sport. The common goal of our members, volunteers, and organization is a thriving Stage Rally program in America.