The 2015 NASA National Rally Championship was held in beautiful Prescott, Arizona, at The Prescott Rally, which has been a southwestern event for twenty eight years, and this year attracted teams from all over the country to challenge these very fast and flowing roads. Separated by twisty red rock canyons, these stages see elevations of over 5,000 feet. The "Original, Real, Tough" event made for a great place to determine the fastest all wheel drive (AWD) and two wheel drive (2WD) teams in the country. Qualification for the National Championship is designed to highlight the fastest drivers at events throughout the year and from all over the US. More like the Olympics, the NNRC takes the grassroots approach and acknowledges that most teams will only do 2-3 events a year, instead of a grueling tow schedule of events across the nation.
During the Parc Expose` at Lamb Nissan in town, the team of Eric Wages and Sara Montplaisir were working to fix a fueling issue that cropped up on the way over to registration. They started with a fuel pump swap on their Subaru Impreza STi, and then later discovered that one of their fuel injectors was clogged. Fearing serious engine damage should they choose to run it, Eric made the tough decision to not start the rally. Gutted after the tow from South Carolina, the team began work on restarting Saturday for the California Rally Series regional event.
With the top seeded AWD National Qualifier out, it was anyone's guess as to who would be leading the rally after the first two iconic stages. Stage 1 "First View" heads towards the sun and into "The Cut," a narrow opening in the mountain that's just wide enough for cars to sneak through. Stage 2 is "Witty Tom" which starts out with lots of twisty rights and lefts, but finishes smooth and very fast.
Starting 10th on the road and qualifying by winning last year's Power Stage here, Duncan Smith and Katherine Lindroth-Gendron shot out into first by winning SS1 and SS2 in their Subaru Impreza WRX. A reseed put them out first and in a fantastic position to attack the night stages with little to no dust. Absolutely taking full advantage of this, the team set a pace that was more than a minute ahead of the pack. The only two cars that were even close, were the 2WD RAV4 driven by Ryan Millen and Christina Fate, and an exhibition entry Mitsubishi EVO IX driven by Tingwu Song and Mustafa Samli
Josh Jacquot and Pete Pollard were "Shaking the cobwebs out," on the first two stages. Josh is getting back into rally this year after a long hiatus. Their Subaru Impreza was clean and undamaged going into the first service after setting third fastest AWD on stages 1 and 2. Fast and clean was a great starting point for a two day rally.
Brad Morris and Co-Driver Doug Nagy set a decent time on the opening stage in their Turbo FWD Mitsubishi Lancer. On stage two however, the suspension was a little too loose and the team caught a big rock in the front left with 2.5 miles to go. This also ended up doing some damage to the rear left, and the team was forced to do road side repairs with only one spare tire in the car. This dropped them way back, but they would press on.
John Coyne who interestingly qualified for the NNRC in a 2WD car was campaigning his new AWD Subaru Impreza. As the NNRC is only out to identify fast drivers, there is no rule that prevents a competitor from switching classes for the final, and one might argue that it makes it harder with the level of competition in AWD. Co-Driving with John for the first time was Ryan Scott. The team lost some time on SS2 with a bent rear control arm and a flat front tire after going off sideways, but got right back up to speed setting the fourth fastest time on SS4 after service.
Markus and Alicia Saarinen were having fun and driving without incident on the first day in their Mini Cooper. Markus realized that they were going a lot faster than in years previous when the Mini was flying big over small jumps on the course. Unfortunately, their shorter ratio gearbox was keeping them from top speed, but the Saarinen's continued to push and keep up with the 2WD leaders. One of those jumps took out the rear right suspension, but you wouldn't know it from the times they were setting.
Gary DeMasi was another driver that made the long trip to Prescott, and was working with local co-driver Marie Boyd who has many years of experience on these stages. Gary spoke to Anders Green during the service interview: "I have to be honest, I was frightened at the first stage. I tip-toed through it, and we got a little bit more confident as we went along," said DeMasi. This is Gary's very first time on these stages with his V8 Ford Ranger and the wide open crests and steep drop offs are a complete change from racing the narrow tree lined roads of the Northeast.
AWD Wildcard pick Hao Yuan and Hongyu Pan were right up to 2nd behind Smith in their Mitsubishi Lancer on the first stages. They suffered from the dust on SS3, but still managed a 4th fastest in AWD NNRC right behind Jacquot on SS4. On the transit, their oil pump failed and they were unable to make it back to service. As such an extensive repair would be necessary, the team opted to withdraw.
The 2WD wildcard pick Brent Lee and Northwest Co-Driver Billy Irvin started well, set fourth fastest on stage 2, and jumped into second fastest on stage 3 in their Ford Fiesta. Unfortunately on stage four, the pair was forced to pull over and work on an engine electrical issue that caused them to stop a few miles from the end of the stage. They would restart on Saturday morning for the regional event, but the problem caused issues again and was traced to a faulty engine water temp sensor. Brent was grateful for the wildcard pick, saying "We're really excited to be the wildcard pick, really excited to be racing out here in Arizona, and thanks NASA for inviting me." Watch for this fast team to be back out on the stages next season!
On Saturday the teams would tackle the stage called Perkinsville. This stage sees top speeds, hairpins, and a tricky downhill and uphill section where drivers must carry maximum speed to win. The brand new Chevrolet Sonic RS driven by Ray Piloto and Co-Driven by Brock Palmer attacked these stages after fixing a turbo problem on Friday. Even though this was their first outing, and not qualified to win the national, they still showed what it takes by finishing third in 2WD.
Second in 2WD after picking up the pace for the Saturday stages, Markus Saarinen and Alicia Saarinen were delighted to be on the podium again at their home rally. With fourteen competitors in the class and setting times faster than a number of AWD Turbo cars, the Mini Cooper in the hands of Markus is a tough package to beat! Competing this year in all four of the Pacific Rally Cup events earned Driver Markus Saarinen and Co-Driver Alicia Saarinen the 2015 Pacific Rally Cup in 2WD!
First in 2WD was a team that has been setting fast times all season. Ryan Millen and Christina Fate driving their new Toyota RAV4 would gain a huge advantage in the dusty night stages on Friday with Ryan experienced at racing flat out in those conditions. Saturday their job was to stay clean and maintain that lead. With no reported problems, and winning seven of the eleven stages, Driver Ryan Millen and Co-driver Christina Fate are the 2015 NASA National Rally Champions in 2WD!
Getting back up to speed at this event was Driver Doug Chernis with Co-Driver Piers O'Hanlon in an AWD Subaru WRX STi. Just off the podium in fourth, the team would secure enough points for Piers O'Hanlon to take the 2015 Pacific Rally Cup AWD Co-Driver award. Piers rode with Todd McAllister earlier in the season taking second at High Desert Trails.
John Coyne and his brand new co-driver Ryan Scott were more consistent on Saturday. After the first two stages, John told Anders: "Very quick - the first stage is very very fast, and I got through Witty Tom without putting it off the road this time! A major step forward from yesterday." John Coyne and Ryan Scott were third in AWD for the National Championship.
Josh Jacquot and Pete Pollard were smooth for the rest of the weekend to take second in AWD for the NNRC. With the Pacific Rally Cup also getting decided at Prescott, Josh Jacquot just edged out Driver Steven Benson with a scant four points for the 2015 PRC title. Those four points came, by the way, from starting, but not finishing the Gorman Rally earlier this year after the team got stuck on a pretty steep cliff. Does this make up for not challenging the last few stages at Gorman? Probably not, but Josh is pleased to be the 2015 Pacific Rally Cup AWD Driver Champion.
Duncan Smith and Katherine Lindroth-Gendron showed incredible speed last weekend at Prescott. Setting the fastest time on the first four stages on Friday was enough to keep them in the lead on Saturday. Josh Jacquot could only beat them on stage 12, but by then they had stored up minutes from taking the lead on Friday night getting ahead of the dust. Driver Duncan Smith and Co-Driver Katherine Lindroth-Gendron are the 2015 NASA National Rally Champions in AWD!
We would thank all of the teams who made it out to Prescott this year! We would also like to thank all of the volunteers who put a ton of effort into making this rally great every year, along with the support from the California Rally Series. The Prescott Organizers would like to thank Lamb Nissan, Prescottonian Best Western, NextCare, and Depot 89. This event should be on your must attend list for 2016!