Though it may not have been the finale to this year's American Rally Association (ARA) racing season, the 2018 Muscatell Ojibwe Forests Rally was nevertheless hotly contested, with an estimated 700 people showing up to watch the final stage Saturday night at the Becker County Fairgrounds in Detroit Lakes.
"Overall it went really well," said Jonathan Atkins, chairman of the 2018 race. "We were able to stay on time throughout the event. It's always a big plus when everything runs when it's scheduled to run."
David Higgins and Craig Drew of Subaru Rally Team USA took home their sixth title in Detroit Lakes and third ARA win in a row, outlasting harsh weather and tough conditions to finish in first place, by just under two minutes over the second place team of Bryan Bouffier and Florian Barral.
"Travis Pastrana won the Ojibwe Forests Rally title in Detroit Lakes last year, but before that Higgins had won it the previous five years," Atkins said.
For 2018's race, a revised road layout saw the return of nearly 75 miles of stage roads unseen in nearly a decade, reducing the advantage of experience for the front runners. The Muscatell Ojibwe Forests Rally is never an easy event, but this year's proved especially difficult early on thanks to the weather.
Heavy rains blanketed the 10,000 Lakes region of Minnesota on Thursday night, soaking the clay soil of Friday's early stages. The surface turned to a slushy mess and grip levels on the rally's opening stages resembled early January snow more than late August summer. Fortunately, the rally dried as the weekend pressed on, but not before the conditions claimed several drivers.
Starting first on the road, Pastrana and his co-driver Robbie Durant of Subaru Rally Team USA launched hard off the line, but slid wide on the slushy first corner of the Becker County Fairgrounds Super Special, striking a concrete barricade and damaging several components in the car's rear suspension. Though Pastrana was able to limp to the stage's finish, he would not continue to the next stage.
Travis Nease and Melissa Sherowski, driving for Dirtfish, repeated the mishap a few minutes later, crashing into the same barricade and damaging their radiator. Both Travis's were out for the rest of Friday's competition while crews from their teams worked to repair the cars throughout the night and into Saturday morning.
"A rally enthusiast from Bismarck actually drove out to Detroit Lakes with the radiator and got in there at 2 a.m.," Atkins said. "The crew got it in the car and tested it and they were able to get back out on the road and resume competing that morning."
Though neither Pastrana nor Nease were credited with finishing the overall race, they did receive some Super Rally points for continuing on Saturday, allowing them to gain some ground in the national standings, Atkins said.
Also claimed on Friday were DirtFish drivers Sam Albert and Michelle Miller, who rolled on stage 4 after going off near the end of the stage. The roll, Albert's first in a decade of competition experience, happened after an issue in the brake bias adjuster caused the car to both lose brakes and open the throttle simultaneously. After a gentle roll that caused minimal damage thanks to soft underbrush, the car was deemed structurally sound and sufficiently repaired to resume racing on Saturday.
"It's a lot of work to take a car that rolled and get it repaired and back on the road the next day," Atkins said, adding that the team's feat was made all the more impressive by the fact that they were able to finish third in their class.
Atkins said he felt that moving the Detroit Lakes phase of the competition from downtown out to the Becker County Fairgrounds turned out to be a "win-win" despite two cars striking the barricades during Friday afternoon's opening stage at the fairgrounds.
"After our Park Expose on Washington Avenue, we did a fairgrounds stage, then went out into the woods on Friday night and Saturday, and finished back at the fairgrounds on Saturday night," Atkins said. "We felt Saturday night's exhibition stage at the fairgrounds was a big success... we estimate that there were somewhere over 700 people there in the stands watching, and it was well received, which tells me that the fairgrounds decision was a very good move."
Atkins said that the rally organizers work closely with local law enforcement and emergency services personnel to make sure there is always plenty of assistance on hand when the need arises.
"It's part of a multi-layered approach to safety that we take," he added, noting that the drivers have to adhere to a fairly strict set of racing rules. "Motor sports are inherently dangerous... but we manage that with proper planning and discipline for all our teams."
Atkins also noted that a huge part of the race's continued success is its sponsors and staging partners.
"We have a great partnership with the DNR (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources), the City of Detroit Lakes, Becker County... we owe a big thanks to all the road authorities who work with us," he said. "We couldn't do it without those partnerships, and our organizers. We're all volunteers, none of us get any pay for doing this. We do it for a love of the sport. For most of us, it's beyond a hobby... it's become a passion."