Sno*Drift Rally and ARA 2021
Welcome to my first blog here at craigdrew.com!
Traditionally I’m not much of a writer (at least when it comes to anything other than pacenotes!), but I thought I’d begin to share some of my thoughts and opinions on the upcoming Sno*Drift Rally, the 2021 ARA season and just rallying in general. All of the opinions stated here are solely mine!
To me it just feels right starting a full American Rally Championship with Sno*Drift Rally. It was my first-ever rally in America back in 2011 and was the traditional start of the National Championship for the first 6 years of my 9 years in America. The event used to be a huge favourite of mine and David’s, mainly because coming from the UK we rarely get chance to drive on snow, and with the added challenge of not being allowed to use studs it was one we relished. Doubled with the fact that no rallying is currently permitted in the UK due to the COVID pandemic, I’m particularly envious of all those who will compete in Michigan this weekend!
Sno*Drift was always a bit of a mixed bag for David and I. Our first ever rally with Subaru Rally Team USA in 2011, and in fact my first ever rally alongside David, ended with engine failure on the first night – particularly disappointing whilst holding a 3+ minute lead! We broke-down mid-stage, in the pitch black and with no phone signal, meaning we jogged on the spot to keep warm, discussed worryingly whether bears habituated the area, and moaned about our bad luck. 2012 was redemption, as we won the rally convincingly from our then arch-rival Antoine L’Estage, who a year later got revenge by snatching the rally win from us on the very last stage – that one stung! 2014 marked our second win at Sno*Drift, although not without incident – this was the rally that we famously forgot to put our hood pins back in after dealing with an overheating issue (David and I still swear to this day that the other was to blame!) and we drove a 7 mile stage with the hood on the windshield. I must admit, it was an awesome experience, particularly as we only dropped about 7 seconds to our rivals!
In 2015 SRTUSA switched to the sedan, and although it wasn’t a popular change with many fans, we instantly knew from the very first test that the car was vastly improved over the previous hatch. Running in a one-off livery and without a body-kit, we won every stage of the 2015 Sno*Drift Rally and amassed a 9 minute lead by the end. It was the first competitive victory for this-shape Subaru WRX in the world, and was the perfect start to what would go on to become the perfect season.
My final Sno*Drift Rally was in 2016 with Bucky Lasek, SRTUSA’s GRC driver attempting his first-ever stage rally – thrown in at the deep end on snow with no studs and listening to pacenotes for the first time! To his credit, Bucky was a great rookie to work with, always eager to learn and the pace he showed was very encouraging. History will show that we got stuck in a snow bank for over 20 minutes on Day 1 and eventually retried with mechanical damage on Day 2, but nonetheless it was a great debut in tricky conditions, with a few top-3 overall stage times!
Onto 2021, and a new (hopefully full) ARA season lies ahead, starting with Sno*Drift Rally. Reigning ARA Champion Barry McKenna won Sno*Drift in 2020 and so has great experience of the event, but I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that he faces a much tougher challenge in 2021 with Subaru Motorsports USA in attendance. In hindsight, Subaru made a mistake last year by not attending Sno*Drift, which put them on the back-foot for the rest of the season once the admittedly unforeseeable pandemic took hold and severely affected the championship. David and I always worked off the theory of “get as many points in the bag as soon as you can because you never know what is going to happen”, and that was certainly the case last year. Failing to win the ARA Championship in 2020 , the first time since 2010, will have hurt Subaru and they will be doing everything to put that right in 2021. When we joined the team in 2011, privateer Antoine L’Estage had just won the American National Championship, and it was made clear to us that our sole job was to get the title back for Subaru – a goal that remained for the next 8 years that we were with the team. We were never happy with anything other than a win, which is why the partnership between us and the team worked so well. And so I’m sure that will again be the message from Subaru, meaning Travis Pastrana and Brandon Semenuk will throw all they have at the title this year.
Driving on snow with no studs requires great skill, as well as confidence and particularly patience. Sometimes at Sno*Drift the best stage times are set on the stages where you felt that you were at your slowest, but the simple fact is that if a stage is particularly slippery or icy, it’s like that for everyone and nobody has a magic trick to give them more grip than you (at least not a legal one!). Being neat, tidy and patient whilst making no mistakes is the main thing. From a co-driver’s point of view, it’s one of the few events where you seem to have plenty of time on the notes. It’s crucial that you give the driver plenty of warning, particularly for braking areas because it takes much longer to slow the car on snow and ice, but often once a note is called, such as for a 90-degree junction, it often takes three or even four times longer to complete the corner than if you were on gravel. Often at Sno*Drift I found myself either watching David’s footwork with envy and confusion as he balanced the throttle and brake pedals, or waving to the hardy fans stood out in the Arctic temperatures cheering us on! This was especially true of Bonfire Alley – what a stage!
Subaru Motorsports USA have great knowledge of Sno*Drift and indeed of rallying on snow in general, and so I expect them to be difficult to beat. It’s always great to get off to a winning start in any championship but coming away from a tough event like this one with solid points is the most important thing. Its easy to DNF at Sno*Drift, so being sensible and thinking long-term is the key – points win championships, not necessarily event wins. David Higgins spent many years developing and improving the Subaru STI and it hasn’t changed too much since we left the team, so I’m fully aware how accomplished it is as an all-rounder, on any surface. I’m sure McKenna will tackle Sno*drift in his Fiesta R5 as opposed to his open-class Fiesta, which is a smart move on an event where pure power isn’t necessary, but usable power is. The R5 car is nimble with good brakes, both of which are needed at Sno*Drift. Barry has matured a lot as a driver over the past two years and now knows what it takes to win, so it will be a great battle to watch!
On the subject of R5 cars, it’s great to see more and more now appearing in American Rallying. The introduction of the R5 class has to go down as one of the most successful ever! The sheer number of R5 cars competing worldwide is incredible, and having tested in one a few times I can confirm they are a great fun car to compete in. Last weekend, at the Adria Rally Show in Italy, there were over 40 R5 cars competing in that event alone. For Sno*Drift, a more modest entry of 5 R5 cars are currently registered, but considering a couple of years ago America hadn’t even seen an R5 car, that is good going. It’s also nice to see a Hyundai R5 making it across the pond.
Finally, I’d like to wish all the competitors at the 2021 Sno*Drift Rally a safe and successful event, in particular the co-driver’s that are entered that I have worked closely with at www.craigdrew.com. Currently, 16 out of the 51 entered co-driver’s have either completed one of my online courses, received one-to-one virtual tuition or onboard footage analysis, including reigning ARA National Champion Leon Jordan. Travel restrictions due to COVID, resulting in co-drivers from outside America being unable to travel over to compete, means that there are more opportunities for American-based co-driver’s to step up into quicker cars, which is great for the sport asa a whole. It’s a shame for the likes of myself, Robbie Durant and others who had solid offers to compete in America before the pandemic hit, but others have certainly benefited greatly…!
Stay safe and sideways,