Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Rallying in the USA

As I was perusing this morning, the main online community for US rally, I was not surprised to see that many, many posts on their forum concern the "direction" of the sport in this country. A reasonable topic of discussion, given that we have only one factory team involved, two separate national championships, very few local events, a shortage of spectators and fans, and staggering insurance liability costs for sanctioning bodies.

However, all is not as bleak as it seems. Yes, it's true that having two competing championships seems to split those competitors with the budget to run a full national program, but it does mean that there are 17 full-on national events in the US. Compare this to the UK, where there are also two major championships, ANCRO and the BRC, which seem to split the competition. Ireland faces a similar problem, with a multitude of different championships to choose from.

The two contrasting series here are Rally America and the US Rally Championship. Three years ago, virtually all rally events were sanctioned by the SCCA. Then, on one fateful day at the Sawmill Rally, the deaths of two spectators changed the US rally scene forever. All regional events were cancelled in order to investigate the cause of the accident and prevent the same thing recurring. In the massive void, NASA, an upstart organization known mainly for track days and regional road-racing, stepped in to sanction a few events. It went well for them, and in concert with USAC they decided to sanction a championship of 4 events. Coincidentally, one of these was the Ramada Express Rally, which had always been outside the SCCA and under control of USAC. Another event was Rim of the World, previously an SCCA event, but organized by the same folks who organize Ramada. The other 2 events were east of the Mississippi. This series was chistened the US Rally Championship.

Meanwhile, the SCCA decided that rallying was just too expensive to insure and was impacting risk assessment for their other more profitable categories. In its place, an organization called Rally America took over. They had been providing live timing and scoring at all national events, so it was a natural progression for them to take the reins. Having deep pockets helped, and Doug Havir, the CEO and a banking millionaire, was willing to put his sizable wallet where his mouth was. The RA calender for 2005 was similar to the SCCA calender of '04, albeit without Rim. RA also agreed to sanction many smaller regional events, realizing that these events are critical to the success of the sport.

2006 sees the USRC expand to 8 events, and RA expand to 9. The USRC picks up Rally Tennessee, a second New York rally, this time on tarmac, the wonderful Prescott Rally in Arizona, and sees the return of the legendary Olympus Rally, a WRC event back in the 80s.

Pikes Peak disappears off the RA schedule to be replaced by 100 Acre Wood in Missouri, previously an event for regional winners to go head-to-head for the confusing title of Club Rally champions. Also joining the calender is the Reno Rally, positioned in December and therefore almost assured of snow.

So things don't look too bad for US rallying, at least not as bleak as some naysayers on Specialstage would have us believe. Perhaps the most exciting announcement however is that rallying will be part of the X Games in Los Angeles in August. This event, which Rally America is overseeing, will be invite only and will be sure to feature the biggest personalities from inside (and maybe outside) the sport. Look for supercross star Travis Pastrana, already big on the rally scene, to be the main draw here.

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