ARA Oregon Trail Rally: Weekend Preview

by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images by ARA/Alex Wong (1-2); Ken Block (3)

A new year means new faces and plenty of changes for the American Rally Association.

The biggest changes come within the sanctioning body itself, which has been absorbed by the United States Auto Club. After running certain events alongside the Canadian Rally Championship last year, ARA has expanded to a seven-race schedule for 2018 that kicks off this weekend with the Oregon Trail Rally. The three-day event kicks off Friday with spectator stages at Portland International Raceway before crossing state lines into Goldendale, Washington on Saturday and back to Dufur, Oregon to finish up on Sunday.

Coming off of a successful first season, the champion’s crown is up for grabs, as 2017 title-winning driver Travis Pastrana scales back to a partial schedule for Subaru Rally Team USA. He’ll be unavailable for this weekend, but that doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of big names behind the wheel.

Five of the six competitors to stand on last year’s podium return to action this year. Subaru Rally Team USA’s David Higgins and Craig Drew placed second overall in 2017 and lead the Open 4WD class, while Jeff Seehorn and Karen Jankowski aim to improve on last year’s third place finish as the likely favorite in Limited 4WD. As for the fifth: Robbie Durant, Pastrana’s co-driver last season, will partner with Conner Martell in a Subaru Crosstrek campaigned by Vermont SportsCar.

But with two World Rally Championship veterans joining the paddock, they’ll have their hands full on the path to another podium.

Chris Atkinson is a well-known name to rally fans the world over, but has in fact not yet competed in stage rally in the United States. Focusing instead on rallycross, he gave Subaru Rally Team USA its first-ever rallycross pole in 2016, and took two podiums last year. With Pastrana not competing this weekend, he and Stephane Prevot will slide into the two seats of the team’s second Subaru WRX STI, and look to challenge Higgins and Drew for the overall win.

The second name, meanwhile, is one that rally fans have been aching to see back on the stages for years. Ken Block won’t bring his Ford Fiesta HFHV to Oregon this time around, though—instead, he’ll be behind the wheel of a Ford Escort Cosworth, the same model car that took ten World Rally Championship victories in the 1990s. Returning to the co-driver’s seat will be Block’s long-time co-driver Alex Gelsomino. Block and Gelsomino finished second overall the last time they entered OTR in 2013.

Other notables include Open 4WD competitors Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan in a turbocharged Ford Fiesta S2000; DirtFish Motorsports’ Sam Albert and Michelle Miller, who return for a full-season campaign in Limited 4WD; and Cameron Steely and Preston Osborn, who step up from 2WD to Limited 4WD in an older-model Subaru while preparing a Ford Focus RS for later in the season.

Finally, fans looking to follow the field will notice a change to the class structure in 2018, one that simplifies the proceedings to three 4WD and two 2WD distinctions. Both drivetrains feature Open and Limited classes, while Naturally Aspirated 4WD also returns. Seehorn and Jankowski are among the biggest names affected by the shift, as they shift from the defunct Restricted Open 4WD class to Limited 4WD for 2018.

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