Sister Sports: Off-Road Racing and Rally

Off-road racing and rally are unique types of motorsport unlike most other and not just because they call the dirt home. Desert racing as it is known today is a comparatively young sport going back to the 1960s.

Rally can trace its roots back to the very first horseless carriage owners around Paris, France in the late 1800s. These automotive pioneers would pick a pub in the French countryside as a finish location, start from town and “rally” to the pub. From these early pub runs legendary events were born such as the Monte Carlo Rally.

The entire rally happens under the watchful eye of Mt. Hood (top) which is visible from almost every stage from Portland to Dufur to the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. Oregon Trail Rally Fan Fest at Portland International Raceway (left). The only rally stages run in a major metropolitan city in the United States. Garth Ankeny and Russ Kraushaar (right) speed their Toyota Starlet under the raceway pedestrian bridge.

Rally progressed onto the world stage with manufacturers using arduous events in England, Greece, Sweden, New Zealand and Argentina to prove the worth of their vehicles with flamboyant driving styles and legendary endurance. Off Road in the meantime was advancing the technology needed to tackle the Baja, Nevada, Arizona and California deserts. Each on their own trajectory, separate, but more the same than either liked to admit.

By the 1980s there was a fair amount of crossover between the sports with names like Rod Hall, Malcolm Smith, Bill Holmes, Steve Mizel, Rod Millen, Ivan Stewart and Jerry MacDonald tackling rally stages and desert tracks often, but not always in the same vehicle.

Karen Jankowski and Matt James (left) bottom out over the spectator jump in their Scrubblade sponsored Dodge Caliber. Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan (right) entertain the crowd at Portland Raceway sending the Ford off the spectator jump.

The format is different and the vehicles don’t look the same but our two sports share a lot in common. Both are based on winning with the lowest elapsed time and the skill of making the vehicle last over challenging terrain.

Each sport can go long past 24 hours, only rally does it a little more civilized were servicing the vehicle is done off the clock and breaks are built into the schedule. Racing speeds happen in stages, closed sections of roads varying from two to 30 miles long and linked together with transit sections where teams drive at the speed limit on public roads.

The Daughter-Mother team of Kristen and Janice Tabor are always a crowd favorite. Here at the end of Sunday’s first stage, they are on the gas to a class podium finish.

One thing that off-road did take from rally directly was turning the co-driver into more of a navigator. In the earliest days of the Baja 1000, a co-driver was just that, they would switch seats when one got tired and the right seat would just try to rest. Later the co-driver became more or less a ride along with mechanic, eyeing the gauges and pointing out caution arrows.

With the onset of GPS and mapping technology desert racers were laying out precise notes, something rally has done for decades. Today a good off-road co-driver can easily assimilate him or herself into a rally car with ease. Aside from the rougher ride and longer hours a rally navigator could be of great help to any off-road team.

Oregon Trail rightfully is one of the most scenic events thanks to views like this of Carl and Alexander Jardevall (left) taking a flying finish flag in their Nordic Motors Volvo 940 Turbo. Sometimes in rally, you can push too hard into a corner (right) which can put you in an interesting position on the other end. Here we see Chris and Michelle Miller doing a half spin on Day Three of the event in their Ford Focus.

The first weekend of June was the Oregon Trail Rally, one of the premier events in the American Rally Association. Oregon has the distinction of having stages run in the middle of a major urban city, Portland. The rally uses the Portland International Raceway as a Fan Fest using roads on and around the raceway. The next two days are run around the Columbia River Gorge in both Oregon and Washington.

Taking a long stream of banner tape for a ride usually means you had a great time at a spectator corner, it is not always the fast way, but it can be the fun way. Vadim Sofiyskiy and Vasko Nikolov (left) finished the event fifth in class. Jacob Sturgeon and Alex Chadney (right) came up through the grassroots rallycross program, which is a type of cone racing on a grass field, to prep their Subaru Brat for stage rally. Egged on by enthusiastic Subaru fans including Travis Pastrana, they managed to finish their second stage rally in a row.

Seventy-two entries in five classes were on hand to take on some of the most scenic and technical stages in North America. Subaru Rally Team USA is the hot shoes right now with driver/navigator teams of David Higgins/Craig Drew and Travis Pastrana/Robbie Durant, behind them was a fiery batch of Ford Fiesta’s led by Barry McKenna/Leon Jordan.

Friday night the fans came out in great numbers to see the cars up close and meet the teams. Two super special stages were run, each at 3.2 miles long featuring a mixed surface of pavement on the circuit and the grass infield. Two front runners, Higgins/Drew and McKenna/Jordan hit embedded stones and damaged tires and suspension putting them behind first night leader Pastrana/Durant. Higgins lost only 13 seconds but McKenna lost a minute and 41 seconds.

Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan slide their Ford Fiesta all-wheel drive to a podium overall finish.

Day two dawned sunny and hot over The Dalles, Oregon, as teams made their way across the Columbia River to Washington and challenging stages around Goldendale including the famous paved Maryhill Loops Hillclimb. Teams were given a short stop to change to proper tarmac tires for this stage. Organizers put the tire change on the transit route so the driver and navigator had to do the four-tire change themselves. All the other stages were gravel.

The day would see a great battle between the Subaru teammates with Higgins/Drew, with nine previous Oregon Trail wins 5.5 seconds up on Pastrana/Durant going into day three. McKenna/Jordan did a masterful job climbing from 23rd to 4th through the day chasing that podium position held by Brandon Semenuk/John Hall and much-needed championship points.

 

Travis Pastrana and Robbie Durant (left) spray copious amounts of gravel as the Subaru sets off on the first stage on day two. Travis Pastrana is always a big draw at the events his busy schedule allows him to compete in. He is an excellent ambassador for the sport spending a lot of time with fans when rally duties do not demand his attention.

Day three, the final nine stages would be run south of the Columbia River in Oregon near the town of Dufur, Oregon. The temperature cooled only slightly making for another hot and dusty day on the Oregon Trail. David Higgins and Craig Drew were on a mission to seal their tenth victory and not even the mighty Travis Pastrana and Robbie Durant were going to stop them from doing just that. At the finish Higgins said on the podium, “Oregon Trail is special, we try and win this one for Mark and Roger.”

Mark Lovell and Roger Freeman were competitors killed in an accident at the 2003 event, former British Rally Champions and the 2001 champion here in America they made an impression on American rally teams that will never be forgotten. The final podium spot was a titanic battle between Brandon Semenuk/John Hall and McKenna/Jordan, both driving Fiesta’s. In an inspired drive McKenna picked up the third spot, extra points and the lead in the ARA Championship. Semenuk/Hall took fourth in class and overall.

David Higgins and Craig Drew are nearly unbeatable at the Oregon Trail scoring ten overall wins over the years. We are sure it won’t be his last either.

As you can see rally and off-road are very alike in many ways, both have passionate people running, organizing and volunteering at events. Both have seen gigantic leaps in technology to make their sports faster and safer due to manufacturer involvement and innovative people.

I have been lucky to have been involved in both sports over the last 39 years and there is a lot each offers the other. To use a political phrase, we should “cross the aisle” more often and experience the others benefits and challenges.

The overall podium for the 2019 Oregon Trail Rally.

About the author

John Elkin

In September of '72 I sat with my family and watch the first episode of The Waltons. I was captured by John Boy's passion for writing, I liked to write and I even shared the same name. Fresh out of high school I started photographing off-road races.
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