2020 ARA Southern Ohio Forest Rally
Part 1: National Competition
Hello and welcome back! It’s been awhile and we’ve missed you all. Rally is back and what a welcome back it was at the American Rally Association Southern Ohio Forest Rally. Initially set to run in early June, the event was postponed until this last weekend, the middle of July, right as the heat and humidity of the midwestern summer hit its peak. With the high temperatures in mind a decision was made to not start the event until dark was setting in and run it well into the early hours of the morning, harkening back to the older days of rally. Running the event in the middle of the night also helped to enforce that no spectators were allowed in order to comply with social distancing regulations put in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was going to be a test of both human and machine on the extra long stages through the forests of Ohio in the sweltering darkness. To add to the challenge, a rain storm popped up just as the event was about to start, greatly cutting down the amount of dust, but making the twisty roads slippery and treacherous.
The big story of the night was overheating, fatigue, exhaustion, dehydration, and motion sickness affecting drivers and co-drivers alike, resulting in several of the DNFs, despite the fact it was run in the cooler night and early morning hours.
After taking the victory in the opening event of the season at Sno*Drift way back in January, and before the pandemic set the world upside down with cancellations or postponements of several events, Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan were set to be the first car on the road at SOFR following the seeded draw. Being first out would’ve been a huge advantage given the dust and dark, but the downpour just before the start eliminated that advantage and leveled the playing field for the rest of competition which included Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, Joseph Burke, and Brandon Semenuk who was making his debut for Subaru Motorsports USA. Speaking of debuts, SOFR would be the first U.S. event for a Skoda R5, the same one that Barry ran earlier in the year at WRC Rally Mexico.
McKenna jumped out to an early lead on the first loop of stages, followed by Joseph Burke and Rhianon Gelsomino, Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino, and Brandon Semenuk and John Hall. Presumably Travis Pastrana and Chrissie Beevis would’ve been in that mix, but their rally abruptly came to an end on the second stage when their Subaru burst into flames and continued to burn until there was only a shell of a car left. Luckily they escaped the fire without injury, but the car is a total loss. The incident cancelled the stage and the rest of the field would be forced to transit.
The second loop of stages was not kind to the JRD Rallysport EVO of Joseph Burke and Rhianon Gelsomino, as they suffered a broken control arm causing them to lose precious time to Block and Semenuk, dropping them from second to fourth. McKenna kept up his pace, taking stage wins on both stages of the loop and extending his lead to nearly two minutes ahead of Block.
McKenna continued his domination of stage wins on the penultimate stage of the final loop, further extending his lead over Block. But there was one stage left and even with a two minute lead, nothing is certain.
This hot and humid night that, in the end, would claim 29 of the 60 cars that started, still had some tricks up its sleeve. Somehow a chunk of concrete had made its way into the stage and McKenna put his car in the ditch to avoid hitting it, resulting in a broken wheel on the Skoda and a damaged bottom arm. He limped his car to the finish, but lost over a minute. After a tense 20 minutes on the roadside, they were able to make enough repairs to get the car back and miraculously check into the final MTC with only a 10 second penalty and get the win. Co-driver Leon Jordan said,
“It was great to put the Skoda to the test against the championship regulars. It showed great pace from the start. With it being so well balanced it really suited the tight and twisty stages. The conditions were tough from the get go with a mix of heat, fog and of course the night stages. But all and all happy with the day. About a mile from the end of the last stage we came around a Right 3 and there was a piece of concrete on the tarmac section in the middle of the road. This forced us out of the racing line and into the ditch on the left side of the road causing us to break a wheel and damage a bottom arm. But thankfully lessons learned in WRC Mexico meant it is one item you should always carry in the car and frantic roadside repairs by us got it fixed enough to struggle to the end. It is great to get a second win on the board for the championship and we are already looking forward to Ojibwe in late August.”
Ken Block would have to settle for an impressive second place, the best finish yet for the Hoonigan Cossie V2 in the ARA, a car that suffered from its own overheating issues earlier this year at WRC Rally Mexico. Co-Driver Alex Gelsomino was happy with the result,
“A fantastic event that featured two of the most amazing stages I’ve competed on. Our week started with two days of testing to get back into the groove of things after the long break but also to setup the car for these very unique stages. The main important factors of these stages were the long corners, crown on the road and the tarmac sections, so to work on the test with these factors in mind was going to give us a car perfectly suited for the conditions.
One thing we couldn’t have predicted was the visibility on the stages due to fog or dust.
We spent some time during the test to fine tune our Rigid LED light pod, which worked to our advantage on the night portion of the event. After the disappointment of WRC Mexico, our Ford Escort Cosworth worked flawlessly in Ohio, which is a massive credit to the team, considering that last weekend’s stages were as challenging as Mexico.
Ken and I worked really hard on the recce to create a system of pacenote that was ultra precise, consistent and focused on committing to the high speed sections. I think that the work done on the test as well as the recce allowed us to start fast and consistently from the first mile and then continue to fine tune the notes “on the fly” for the more challenging run of the stages at night. The hard work paid off. To finish second with our “25 years old” Cossie is very rewarding, especially considering the level of cars that ran in the top 5, from latest version R5s to WRC spec like factory cars.”
Brandon Semenuk and John Hall would have their own problems in the final stage avoiding the same concrete obstacle causing them to go wide and break their rear suspension in the process, yet was able to still make it back and round out the podium in their debut for Subaru Motorsports USA.
A small off on the penultimate stage resulted in in the retirement ended Burke’s run at the podium vaulting Ryan Booth in a Ford Fiesta R5 into fourth. Co-Driver Rhianon Gelsomino said,
“The event started extremely well for us. The first stage we were 3rd, only McKenna and Pastrana quicker and then the 2nd stage we were 2nd. All our hard work was paying off on these tight and technical roads.
Unfortunately stages 3 and 4 we had a broken control arm and the car was really moving around. we lost time to the top 3 other cars and fell back to 4th. We fixed the car at service, but in the process incurred a 30 second penalty for late check-out fixing the car. This meant we were now 40 seconds to a minute off the others.
Stage 5 it was important we remained consistent as we were still very close to that podium position, unfortunately we ran wide on a Left 3 and lost time getting the car unstuck. With another 2 minutes lost and the damage to the car, we pulled out of the event with only stage six to go.”
Jeff Seehorn and Cody Crawford making their debut in the Open class would round out the top five.
The day started with an impressive group of Fiesta R5s and for the first time in ARA competition, a Skoda R5, but attrition would soon start to take it’s toll. Rally overall winners Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan were in control right from the beginning and of course were dominant throughout. The rest of the field was led by Ryan Booth and new co-driver Kenneth Quirke jumped out to an early lead on the first loop of stages with the teams of Paul Rowley/Greg Dorman and John Coyne/Ryan Dunham giving chase. At the end of the second loop Booth was still in control of second place, but Coyne had jumped Rowley to claim third. It was all for naught, as by the end of the fifth stage Booth was the lone Fiesta R5 remaining to challenge McKenna’s Skoda R5. Ryan Booth told Mike Shaw,
“It was only our 3rd rally in the R5 and he plan for this one was to gain experience and learn the speed of the R5 on stage. This was my first rally in dry, gravel conditions as well as proper tarmac. We accomplished what we wanted to. I was also working with a new co-driver, Kenneth Quirke, who subbed in for Andy this race due to the travel bans. We meshed well and we found a rhythm quickly. It’ll be a few more rallies before our stage times are up there with the big boys, but I am happy with the progress we made throughout the night. The stages at SOFR were unbelievable! Proper forest stages that featured sections that were fast, technical and everything in between. The tarmac was especially fun and surprisingly had more grip than you would have anticipated with a gravel setup on the car. We were so lucky to be able to have such a great rally during such challenging times. Big shout out to the organizers as well as the whole McKenna Motorsports team! The car was great all night and I can not thank those guys enough for busting their tail ends off during the intense summer heat and humidity. Excited to get back at it in Colorado and Minnesota.”
It would be a tough event for the combined class of Limited 4WD and NA4WD with multiple teams suffering early retirements. Mark Piatkowski and Tony DeGuiseppi would jump out to an early lead on the first loop of stages, closely followed by Gary Donoghue and Kiernan Mcelihny. That would be as far as either team would go, both suffering retirements on the second loop of stages clearing the way at the top. Jon Kramer and Jason Smith would take full advantage grabbing the top spot on the third stage. Despite co-driver Jason Smith getting sick at the end of the second loop they were able to hold on to it through the wee hours of the morning to grab the top spot. Kramer summed up his win saying,
“The twisty roads were fun from the drivers seat. I felt like the guy operating the sketchy spinning ride at the county fair and my navi was the kid trapped on it for 20 minutes. We had less bad luck than some other teams and landed on top.”
Jon Schrage and Neil Hancock would fight off the GoSpeed Racing Subaru of Robert Sanders and Boyd Smith for second in the combined group. Jon was really pleased with the result, especially with their lucky escape,
“Going into the rally there was a lot to think about. It would be Neil’s first rally ever and my first time writing notes from scratch. We also knew the stages were long but we didn’t realize that with such a short transit time it would feel like one really large, near 30 mile, technical stage. Combined with the 2:00am fatigue it made it very tough but fulfilling.
All things considered, we had a fairly smooth rally. We had one moment on a transition from gravel to tarmac that got slick and we slid into a large culvert. Luckily we hit it in the perfect spot, barely missing the front wheel and suspension. It hit only the bumper beam which spun us around instead of flipping us over. We continued on and the car tracked straight making us realize we had just gotten away with it.”
The 2WD drive battle is always a fun one to watch, featuring a slew of exciting cars and this year’s SOFR battle was no exception. Chris Greenhouse and Ryan Scott jumped out to an early lead on the first loop of stages despite having to remove the big wing from their Dodge SRT Neon to pass tech inspection. But a power steering failure caused them to drop considerable time in the second loop. Michael Hooper and Claudia Pullen would take their place followed by Seamus Burke and Martin Brady who had suffered bent suspension on the opening stage. Martin Brady told Mike Shaw,
“On SS1 we cut a corner, our fault we had it marked as don’t cut but we were greedy and we actually hit the bottom arm of the suspension on the hole that we should have avoided and it bent things badly. We discovered in service just how bent our steering was and we had no spare so it fell to Nicolas our mechanic to beat the banana shaped metal with a use of a big hammer and wooden chock blocks and it looked straight if you squint. We made it out of service just in the nick of time thankfully, but on full lock the car was far from correct so hairpins were a challenge…. and there seemed to be many hairpins!”
Greenhouse nursed his car to service, but would ultimately be forced to retire when they discovered the power steering failure led to damage to the steering column. Burke and Brady moved up to second, behind Hooper and Pullen with young Ryan Sanders and Oliver Smith making the final podium position in a Limited 2WD Fiesta. Not bad for a couple of 18 year olds! Michael Hooper was ecstatic to get the top spot,
“Very happy to be coming home with a win. Competition was fierce as were the conditions. The car was very forgiving, but you really had to use 110% of the road with the size and RWD of the Lexus to get through with speed. We’ve been working with Bilstein to evolve the suspension and the car just keeps getting better. Amazing feeling to repeatedly hang the car off the edge and get away with it… mostly!”
Brady congratulated their rivals on their victory,
“Mike & Claudia were just brilliant and we finished a very socially distant second to them, they had great speed. It was a challenging event with great stages, would be back to them every year if possible.”
Brad Morris and Michael Hordijk, debuting their brand new Mitsubishi Mirage built by JRD Rallysport, showed pace until they were forced to retire with a mechanical problem after Stage 3.
Next up on the American Rally Association National Championship schedule is Ojibwe Forests Rally in Minnesota in late August. Check out the American Rally Association site for more details of the remaining events as they could change at any time.
A special thanks to Mike Shaw of Open Paddock Rally for providing a bunch of driver and co-driver quotes from the event. Make sure to follow Mike Shaw Rally on Facebook, Instagram @oregonwings74 and don’t forget to check out his amazing RallyCast podcast on Open Paddock.