One of the things that makes forest rallying so interesting is that it takes place in a living environment. The characteristics of each stage are in a constant flux from the passage of time, weather, and vehicles, hence the rally driver has to (in my opinion at least) be much more responsive to unexpected changes in the surroundings than their circuit racing counterparts.
The flipside of this is that rally cars can encounter situations they were never designed to encounter in roadgoing form – with sometimes spectacular results. I’ve seen turbo cars down on power because the air intake has inhaled a plastic arrow from a chicane, an awkward landing so forceful it caused the dashboard to disintegrate into the driver’s footwell, and my own road rally car getting stuck in a ditch after swerving to avoid a trampoline on course.
Until now, though, I’ve never seen the rim and spokes of a wheel come completely apart mid-stage. Yet that’s exactly what happened to Futoshi Murase on last weekend’s Lake Superior Performance Rally, another weekend of learning for the 2009 Japanese two-wheel drive rally champion. From what I can gather, the Michigan-based rally was one of those events where, given all the circumstances, getting to the finish was in itself a mighty achievement. Having had minor trouble during the shakedown, broken his camera, forgotten his wallet, bust a wheel and had to come down a hillside using the handbrake, Murase-san could definitely class LSPR as a hard weekend’s rallying.
More about that broken wheel in a minute. The Lake Superior Performance Rally was the final round of the 2013 Rally America national championship and Futoshi’s second competitive excursion Stateside. As the name suggests, it was held all the way up near one of the bodies of water that separates the United States from Canada, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan state. A two-day event, the LSPR took in 93 gravel stage miles on the hills overlooking Keweenaw Bay – which leads into Lake Superior and ultimately Canada. The event could have ended up being an unlikely victim of the US Government shutdown, which rendered some of the federal land the rally originally planned to use off-limits – however superb work from the organisers meant the rally was able to go ahead at full capacity.
Speaking of hard work, the sheer size of the States meant some considerable distances were put in to get Futoshi and his crew to the rally start. The driver and car came from Indianapolis, and co-driver (Kieran Wright) and service crew (Simon – the car’s former owner – and Kenny) headed up from North Carolina. You could fit Britain in the distance between North Carolina and the Upper Peninsula. And just as he did earlier in the year, Racing Service Takeda team principal Hiromi Takeda flew over the Pacific from Nagoya to watch over proceedings.
Things got underway with a parc exposé (which I think translates loosely as an informal rally car show) in the rally HQ town of Houghton on the Friday lunchtime, before nine stages running through the afternoon and into the night. It was on one of those night stages that Futoshi and Kieran hit trouble, following a solid run through the first six tests. Part of the underbody protection on the Ford Focus ZX3, which had been as high as third in class earlier in the rally, came loose and started making noises as it banged off the road. The crew subsequently carried too much speed over the next crest, ran wide on the following bend and struck a large rock on the front right. Such was the force of impact that the rock broke the rim of the wheel clean away from the spokes. Unable to continue, the crippled Focus limped into retirement for the night.
One of the great things about the Rally America series is that it employs the super rally system -whereby if you retire but are able to fix the car, under certain conditions you can continue the next day with a sizeable time penalty for the stages you miss. This is something I have to admit I’m not a fan of at World Championship level, but at club or national level where people are traveling big distances and funding themselves I think it’s eminently sensible. And so it was that I came to see a video, shot by Takeda-san, of Simon and Kenny having a discussion in the pitch black under the shelter of the service car’s tailgate about how they were going to separate the broken wheel and brake assembly. With the Focus retrieved and the necessary spare parts to hand, the service crew set about returning the US/UK Rallying – RSTakeda Focus to drivable condition.
The next video I saw was of Futoshi at the next morning’s parc expose in the nearby town of L’Anse, standing in front of a clean and serviceable yellow vehicle. The service crew had been up until almost 4am fixing the Focus, but crucially the rally car now had four round, intact and working wheels. As reward for the service crew’s efforts, Futoshi and Kieran kept the car on the island for the second day’s eight stages, finishing fifth in two-wheel drive class and fourteenth overall. With the Ford fixed, Murase-san was able to demonstrate some of the pace that took him to a multitude of honours in Japan, consistently posting top-twenty times and managing the gap to the class leaders.
“My driving was better than on the 100 Acre Wood Rally, but still not perfect,” believes Futoshi, who hails from Gifu but is now based in Indianapolis. “I could not drive the Focus with 100% performance because I need more time to practice and to develop the car settings – I went into this event with basically zero practice!”
“I feel that I have to improve everything to restore my driving performance, so that I can reach my goal of succeeding in the Rally America series,” the engineer continues. “Anyway, this is all valuable experience for me to improve my skill as rally. I’m looking forward to enjoying my next rally next season.”
Looking at the various videos, pictures and web updates from the Lake Superior Performance Rally, it’s clear that rallying in America is continually improving, all the while debunking us Europeans’ myths about only needing to turn left when you race in the US. The well-attended parc exposés, night stages and spectator specials close to towns are all things that have been tried in the UK, but as with so many sports the USA just seems to be able to do the whole ‘spectator experience’ thing so much better than we can. And given that the battle to win LSPR – and the Rally America title – was a fiercely-fought contest between Britain’s David Higgins and US rally superstar Ken Block (Higgins won after Block crashed out), the quality and depth of field too could soon give many European events a run for their money.