Feature Article, Other Motorsports, Washington — March 15, 2005 at 4:47 pm

WRC Rally Cars return to Northwest (issue 63)

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By Craig Murphy

In recent years, Washington-based rally racing enthusiasts have been chasing a dream.

The dream has been to convince the FIA to bring the World Rally Championship (WRC) back to the U.S. The WRC last raced here in 1988 with the Olympus Rally based in the Tacoma area.

FIA stewards have watched and submitted reports from Northwest rallies such as the last two Wild West International Rallies in the Shelton area. During last September’s rally, there was a sense of hope the WRC could land here again versus the acknowledgement of the enormity of the task.

By and large, rally events in other countries attract a fanatical following. One needs only to watch a WRC event on Speed Channel to see that.

So, could such an event be held in the U.S.? And what obstacles need to be overcome?

“It could happen, but it’s going to take a lot of organization and money,” said Jamie Thomas, who drove her Subaru WRX wagon to a fourth-place overall finish. “It would take a lot of sponsorship. I have gone to three WRC events, and they’re just fantastic. It’s the most followed motorsport in the world.

“We’re talking about millions of people that come for it,” Thomas added of a typical WRC event. “It makes NASCAR look small.”

Thomas believes the marketing machine to go with a WRC event would bring in more American fans. “It would take rallying up with any other form of racing,” she said. “If rally had better awareness and advertising, it would have more people now.”

Rally organizers in the Northwest are pushing hard to make this area the top choice of the FIA. That suits Thomas just fine. “These roads are the best roads in the country by far, and I’ve raced all over the country,” she said.

New Hampshire’s Matthew Iorio paid his first visit to the Northwest for the Wild West Rally and tied for second. He said Northwest roads are tight but “good for anyone who likes a challenge,” and hopes to see the WRC back in the country.

“I would love to see one in America,” he said. “It’s a question of whether we can get enough Americans to agree on how to get it here. I wish it was closer to my home, but on the other hand I would be willing to go wherever it is.

“It would be great if the United States got the most exciting form of motorsports in its borders,” Iorio added. “I hope it happens.”

Paul Westwick, event steward last fall in Shelton, cautioned it could be quite some time before that happens. “I’d say it is still some distance off,” he said. “The FIA pushed for North America, and settled on Mexico. It really is a huge undertaking.

“You have to spend 10 years preparing for it,” Westwick added. “That’s the sort of time frame you tend to look at. They want to see a top flight event running several years in a row.”

Rich Olmstead, who started following rallying in the late 1970s, helped start an Oregon rally group in the early 1990s. “I’d love to see it happen,” Olmstead said of a WRC event in this area. “The commercial aspects and broad appeal of the WRC would make it a wonderful presentation here. It is a great circus.”

Having followed rallying for many years, Olmstead knows the challenges. “What’s demanded by the FIA is a tremendous amount of expertise and money especially,” he said. “I’ve heard figures of $20 million plus for the Mexico WRC event. I haven’t seen sponsor involvement in the U.S. to that level.”

While events like the Wild West Rally are a positive step towards a WRC event, Olmstead pointed out the lack of WRC-level machines in this country is a problem.

“The brutal truth is if there would be a WRC event, the top three to five percent WRC drivers would embellish what rallying is to the rallying enthusiast,” Olmstead said. “Those are the top drivers with the top teams. They had that in Mexico, but they didn’t have the next level down. We don’t have the cars in the U.S. to support a WRC event in the next year or two years.

“The rules in the U.S. and world are different enough that you have to build for one or the other,” he added. “The WRC would bring the top cars here as a circus, but we wouldn’t have the cars to support it. The elephant won’t be as big as we would like it to be. That’s the reality of the situation.

“In my heart I would love to see it happen, but we would have to see a lot of cars brought in from overseas.”

John Forespring, the Wild West organizer who helped put on the last WRC event in the U.S., still hopes to get the top rally racers back to the Northwest. “We’re getting closer and closer,” he said.

SCCA has withdrawn from the rally program, replaced by Rally America. Forespring feels the new group benefits efforts to bring the WRC here.

“It’s more favorable for us,” he said in January. “Rally America is much more in tune with FIA rules, and getting rallies into FIA status. It is a benefit for us.”

Forespring feels last fall’s rally was a step in the right direction. “We need to get it as close to a FIA rally as possible,” he said. “This last time it was 100 percent closer than it was the year before. It ran more smoothly. It ran like clockwork. With a bigger committee, it was as close to perfection as we could get.”

Despite the various hurdles, Forespring remains optimistic WRC will return to the Northwest. “We are still three to five years out,” he opined. “It’s going to take some time. The FIA keeps upgrading what they want done. We just have to reorganize and rearrange things so they’re happy with what we do.”

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