Rally teams licked their wounds from the Oregon Trail Rally and moved East about 400 miles to Boise, Idaho for the 11th Annual Idaho Rally International. Pre-rally events centered in Boise, but the dust would fly in and around Idaho City to the northeast.
This event is special for several reasons. First, it is a very tight, technical, and real challenge for rally teams. Second, it is one of the few west coast events that allow UTV vehicles to compete.
Idaho City couldn’t be more of a proper setting for this event. Founded in 1862 it quickly boomed due to a gold rush that rivals the one 13 years previous in California. Its population swelled to 7,000 making it the biggest western city by the population at the time.
By 1870 the gold rush fizzled out and the population plummeted to 900. What is left today is an authentic old west town that thrives on an economy based on fishing and hunting as well as tourism.
The UTV can trace its roots back to the 1980s Honda Odyssey, a single seat all-terrain vehicle that was neither long on suspension or power yet thousands bounced their way across deserts and forests with little control but big smiles. Later they added a second seat because what’s the fun of torturing yourself if there isn’t someone sharing the terror beside you?
As with most things, motorsport related the technology upswing was both fast and furious and before you knew it the suspension travel was longer, the horsepower higher, and the capability of these UTVs were nearing unlimited. Naturally, off-road racing embraced these in both desert and short course events leading to factories making these machines faster and safer.
Rally has been slower to include them because of some basic problems of street licensing and a lack of permitted areas they can run because of US Forest Service regulations. However, lately, some events have found ways to include them and rally people have had their eyes opened to the speed these vehicles can attain on a rally stage and the handling that allows them to finish very high in the overall ranking.
Things kicked off Friday with a public display of the rally cars and UTVs at local sponsor Larry H. Miller Subaru. The 47 vehicles drew a sizable crowd of people who enjoyed meeting the drivers, seeing the cars and helping themselves to burgers and drinks provided free by the dealership.
“Well, if there ain’t going to be any rules, let’s get the fight started.” — Butch Cassidy
Teams had been pre-running the roads since the day before. At rally events, you are allowed two passes on each stage to check the organizer supplied pace notes.
Saturday dawned cool in Idaho City under blue skies and the promise of mid-seventy-degree temps, good rally weather for running at 4,000 feet above sea level. Teams assembled to start two days of rally competition on the twisty, technical stages.
Key among the group were the two turbo UTV entries battling for the lead of Carl Marcum/Phouvanh Sichulailuck in a 2019 Yamaha YXV and Stephane Verdier/Erica Sacks in a 2017 Polaris RZR XPT. Marcum a local resident with Hillclimb and short course UTV racing experience was going up against Verdier, an accomplished rally driver, and off-road racer. It would be an old west shoot out to the end.
While the UTV classes tackled the stages it was looking like a pretty good event in the car classes with the factory Subaru team back with David Higgins and 17-year-old Oliver Solberg, son of World Rally Champion Petter Solberg, after a debut overall win in Washington state a few months back. Barry McKenna was back with his potent Ford Fiesta but his event only lasted until the fifth stage when he crashed while leading the event overall.
Solberg also came to grief early when throttle issues sidelined he and navigator Denis Giraudet in the fifth stage. However, they would come back to run day two under SuperRally rules which allows teams to return to the event with time penalties.
The fourth stage slowed David Higgins/Craig Drew with power steering loss that would plague them the rest of the day. Running a clean event early was Jeff Seehorn/Cody Crawford in the Amsoil Subaru who while running in a limited 4WD class found themselves leading overall at the end of the day.
Back in the UTV rally Verdier/Sacks found themselves off the road on stage two and gave up 25 seconds to Marcum/Sichulailuck right off the bat. Verdier clawed back 10 seconds in the next stage and by the fourth stage had a slim 1.5-second lead.
By the sixth and final stage of Saturday Verdier/Sacks had a 12-second lead. The battle was well and truly on knowing that both teams would leave it all out on the stages by the end of Sunday.
Sunday promised to be warmer with a little less wind making for a challenging final six stages of the event. Idaho City was awake early as teams rolled into town for the start and to make final changes based on Saturday’s adventures.
Solberg was back at full speed and Higgins had his power steering repaired, but his arms and shoulders were sore from flogging his Subaru without hydraulic help. Seehorn/Crawford had 53 seconds in hand over Higgins which isn’t a lot when you’re competing against all that talent and horsepower, but Seehorn wouldn’t just be backing down, Higgins will have to earn it.
“The Old West is not a certain place in a certain time, it’s a state of mind. It’s whatever you want it to be. ” – Tom Mix
The UTV battle didn’t take any time at all to heat up as Marcum took back four seconds after the opening ten-mile stage. Verdier only took a tenth of a second back in the next stage. In the third stage before the service break, Marcum/Sichulailuck turned up the wick and grabbed handfuls of seconds back to be tied with Verdier/Sacks to the tenth of a second!
It took Higgins/Drew three stages of hard driving to get the lead back from Seehorn/Crawford, coming back to the service break in Idaho City with a 32-second lead. It is a mechanical mismatch between the limited class Subaru and the factory Subaru, but don’t tell that to Jeff Seehorn, he knew it would only take one small error to be back in contention.
Higgins and his tired arms took another 45 seconds in the next stage, and 30 more after that before going into the final stage. Higgins/Drew started to overheat in that final few miles. While trying to change the engine mapping to get the Subaru to the end Higgins went wide in a tight corner and beached the Subaru for 25 minutes. By the time they dug the car out they took an eventual 8th overall.
Seehorn and Crawford, by driving a smart and nearly flawless rally and exercising some patience took home an overall win in a limited class car. Idaho continues to deliver a dramatic finish.
Coming out of service Marcum/Sichulailuck planned to lay it all on the line to take the win at home. That they did winning all three remaining stages with a 27-second margin of victory. The Yamaha ruled the weekend. Erica Sacks, the accomplished navigator in both rally and off-road racing replied when asked what happened, “He (Marcum) drove his butt off.”
Ken Stanick/Shayne Peterson took second overall and first in Open 4WD in their Subaru. Cam Steely/Preston Osborn took the final podium spot in third and second in Limited 4WD. Chris and Michelle Miller took the fastest 2WD victory in their Dirtfish Ford Focus 45 seconds over Brad Morris/Doug Nagy who survived a front end hit at the end of stage 3 for second place. Dave and Mike Brown took the overall regional rally win in their Subaru.
Next year teams will be back to seek redemption on the roads against their competition and the elements that make up this Idaho Rally International which is becoming a hidden jewel in the American Rally Association crown.