The 2019 American Rally Association championship starts this Friday

Article originally written for Autoweek here.

The 2019 American Rally Association championship starts this Friday with Sno*Drift Rally, a 118-mile race in the northern reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The traditional start of the U.S. rally season, Sno*Drift pits the best rally drivers in the country against some of the year’s harshest conditions — snow, ice, below-zero temperatures and nighttime’s darkness. All without the aid of studded tires.

2019 brings big changes to Sno*Drift. The storied event has switched sanctioning bodies to join up with the American Rally Association as the first round of its nine-event national championship. Sno*Drift also marks the start of U.S. rally’s first unified season since the end of its two-year split.

With all major American rally events now under a single umbrella, expectations are high for the 2019 U.S. stage rally season. Sixteen total events, including five regional and two super-regional rounds, represent the sport’s largest season in over a decade. A unified sport also means that many of the country’s top drivers will now be competing against each other for the first time. One of the largest championship fields in recent memory is set to battle it out in 2019, and they’re in some crazy machinery.

Subaru Motorsports recently announced a new name and throwback branding for its rally team. Though they won’t be at Sno*Drift, David Higgins and Craig Drew will be defending their championship title starting at the second ARA round, 100 Acre Wood Rally, in March. Travis Pastrana, Chris Atkinson and Patrik Sandell are expected to guest-drive throughout the year in the team’s second car. There are also rumors that four-time U.S. rallycross champion and former F1 driver Scott Speed might try his hand at a stage rally this year. Alongside Subaru’s two-car program, Ken Block is rumored to return to the series at some point with a new Ford Escort Cosworth build.

The privateer end is where the builds get creative, though. Veteran U.S. rally and rallycross driver Pat Moro showed off his crazy 4WD LS-powered Chevrolet Sonic back in December. A naturally aspirated V8 challenger in a world dominated by turbocharged cars with half the cylinders, the Sonic is the most unique rally car we’ve seen in years. Speaking of unique 2017 2WD class champion Ryan Millen recently unveiled a brand-new Toyota RAV4 build for 2019. The car, a spare shell from his championship run, was converted to the turbocharged and four-wheel-drive AP4 spec by Force Motorsport in New Zealand.

Moro and Millen aren’t the only familiar faces gearing up for 2019, though. Former 2WD class champions O.D.D. Racing are building a Focus RS rally car for competition later in the season. Arek Gruszka is also expected to return this season with his Mitsubishi Evo X-powered Mirage. And Dave Wallingford will bring out his WRC-spec Fiesta R5 once he fully recovers from back injuries sustained in a big crash at WRC Rally Mexico early in 2018.

Focusing on the teams coming to Sno*Drift, 34 cars will tackle the winter-weather rally in one of five different classes:

  • Open 4WD (O4) — Factory teams and high-profile privateers build cars from the ground up or import World Rally Championship-caliber machines to the U.S.
  • Limited 4WD (L4) — Independent teams buy showroom stock cars and modify them for high-level rallying.
  • Naturally Aspirated 4WD (NA4) — A class for weekend rallyists driving cars without turbos or superchargers.
  • Open 2WD (O2) — Another class for factory teams and high-profile privateers, but for cars with two driven wheels instead of four.
  • Limited 2WD (L2) — A class for weekend two-wheel-drive rallyists. 

The top battle in the O4 class will be a first-time meet-up, as Barry McKenna and co-driver Leon Jordan will face off against 2016 Sno*Drift winners Piotr Fetela and Dominik Jozwiak. Both have Fiesta-bodied cars, but they’re built with two different philosophies in mind. McKenna will be driving a brand-new Fiesta R5, a WRC-spec machine built by rally powerhouse M-Sport, while Fetela will compete in a Proto Fiesta. The Polish-built machine was designed for the European Rally Championship, using an upgraded Mitsubishi Evo X driveline married to a Fiesta shell.

Moving down the order, the L4 class is shaping up to be a four-way fight between former champions and past Sno*Drift winners. Tim Rooney and Anthony Vohs won Sno*Drift in this class last season, while Zach Whitebread and Cameron Carr pulled off the same feat in 2017.

2017 ARA championship runners-up Travis Nease and Matt James both have experience at Canadian winter events but have never been to Sno*Drift before. And while they aren’t driving their new Focus RS just yet, Cameron Steely and Preston Osborn will be out with their venerable Subaru STI. They won the 2WD class at Sno*Drift in 2016, but this will be their first time here in a 4WD car. Also listed on the Sno*Drift L4 entry list is a Prodrive Subaru WRX STI to be driven by Ele Bardha and Corrina Roshea.

In the NA4 class, well-known competitors Amanda Skelly and Amy Feistel will celebrate a homecoming this weekend. Skelly is a Michigan native but hasn’t competed in the Midwest in several years. They’ll be battling against Leo Hughes and Glen Ray, who rally to benefit the Phoenix Project, a veterans organization. Autoweek staff member Jimmy Pelizzari and Kate Stevens, who together finished fourth overall here in 2018, will also be fighting for the regional win in this class.

Honda Racing HPD will bring a fan-favorite car back to competition, as Colin Robinson and Ricardo Gonzalez will pilot the team’s K20-swapped Honda CRZ. This will be the first rally for the drivers and car since an engine failure at an event last August ended their 2018 season early. Challenging the factory team will be Keanna Erickson-Chang and Alex Gelsomino in a Ford Fiesta R2, another WRC-spec car.

If you’re looking for live updates, Sno*Drift will be heavily covered on the official ARA Rally App and its social media channels, and most competitors post frequent updates online. But the best way to see rally is in person, so if you’re in the Detroit area, take the three-hour drive north and watch along. There’s a free spectator guide that gives you the full event viewing schedule and directions on how to get around.

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