Is there a real chance that WRC returns to the U.S.?

J.A.
By J.A. Ackley
Apr 11, 2023 | WRC, World Rally Championship, Chattanooga, Tennessee | Posted in News and Notes | Never miss an article

Photography by J.A. Ackley

Ronald Reagan was president. The Berlin Wall still stood. And the World Rally Championship last held an event on U.S. soil, the Olympus Rally, in June 1988.

Thirty-five years later, WRC is exploring the opportunity of returning to America with a rally in Chattanooga, Tennessee. What’s the likelihood of this becoming reality? Stronger than you might think.

Why the U.S.? Why Chattanooga?

This past weekend, Rally USA held a demonstration event, which included a block party on Friday next to the iconic Chattanooga Choo Choo. WRC Head of Business Development Marc de Jong observed the event and believes the stars are aligning for the series to return to the U.S.

“There are three things coming together,” de Jong says. “First, the Ford motorsports program transferred its main responsibility from its European office to Detroit. Mark Rushbrook [global director of Ford Performance Motorsports] asked the question, ‘Why not go to the U.S.?’

“Then, we started looking at the research provided by Nielsen Sports. We found there’s a high recognition of rallying in America that had been growing. That corroborated with our stats on social media, on our WRC+ subscriptions, on our website traffic. There is a growing number of people in the U.S. that like rally.

“Number three was the interest of Chattanooga to come talk with us. The guy at Chattanooga Sports who took our phone call said, ‘Oh yeah, WRC, I was actually playing the video game last night.’ That is an anecdotal confirmation on what I said before–awareness of WRC [in the U.S.] is remarkably high.”

Why Chattanooga, though? America offers plenty of fine roads where rallies can occur.

The answer: location, location, location.

“World-level events need a very unique combination of infrastructure,” says Stuart Woods, Rally USA manager and grassroots rally racer. “Chattanooga was a crossroads historically. There’s a large river, there were railroads and there are interstates that connect Chattanooga to the South, to the Northeast, to the Midwest and to the West. The airport is large enough to support some volume of traffic, but we’re also close to the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta. The Port of Savannah is vital … [It] is one of the largest shipping ports in the U.S., [and Chattanooga is] about 6 hours away from there.”

With a big event also comes a big influx of people who need to eat, sleep and maybe play, too.

“You have a city sizable enough to handle the volume of hotel rooms, restaurants and entertainment you need for a world-level rally,” Woods says of Chattanooga.

Then, of course, you need support from the locals. It has that from Chattanooga Tourism and Polk County, which is where the forest sections of the rally will take place within Cherokee National Forest.

“The willingness of Polk County to partner and help support the event is very important,” Woods says. “That’s really critical to see ways that we not interfere with the county too much and to provide them with some benefit.”

In addition to a city that can support a crowd, the area also must have some interest from those who support WRC.

“There’s an automotive belt of manufacturing around here,” notes de Jong of the Chattanooga area. “Companies like Toyota, Hyundai and Pirelli have factories not that far away. Ford is building a factory in the state of Tennessee.”

In addition to key manufacturers having facilities nearby, the area offers other things of interest to WRC.

“You’ve got to have a location that can tell a story, a story the whole world can be interested in,” de Jong explains. “We’ve got that here in Chattanooga. The history of car tuning and car culture here goes back to the moonshiners. And you’ve got tremendously good mountain roads … unique terrain … and a unique atmosphere.”

What Are the Hurdles?

Chattanooga hosting a WRC event isn’t guaranteed. Certainly, there seems to be a level of interest. That’s a start, but there’s more work to be done.

First off, there’s basic operations. Fortunately, the Rally USA effort works with a well-established rally organizer in Rally Mexico. Rally Mexico has held WRC events since 2004.

“There’s a partnership between Rally USA and Rally Mexico,” Woods says. “Rally Mexico came to the U.S. to do the initial scouting [of sites]. Once they established that, they started looking to build an organization here in the United States.”

Regardless of the connections that may have helped Rally USA get the attention of WRC, both WRC and the sanction, ACCUS, the National Sporting Authority (ASN) of FIA, will want to gauge if Rally USA can successfully and safely put on a world-level event.

“You have to demonstrate a few key things,” Woods explains. “Infrastructure, interest, core benefits of that city, the cultural aspects [are keys] for the fall [demonstration] event. The quality of roads, sporting side of the events, safety all need to be demonstrated in a variety of ways.”

Woods says Rally USA has a plan for that.

“We’re doing two steppingstone events, the first of which was in April,” Woods says. “That event was to show we can close a section of forest so that it will be used for a world-level event. It shown the durability of the road and how much repair, preparation and later repair that road would need, which is important for determining cost.

“It also introduced competitors in the United States back to those roads to see what interest there is in the competitor community,” he continues. “And it shown the the U.S. Forest Service we can do everything safely. [They’re] number one. They need to see we can execute safety, command and control, marshaling and road closure.”

But that’s only part one.

“The date in the fall will be one day, with three stages in the woods,” says Woods. “One [additional] stage will be a special gallery stage to get a better connection with an urban environment. At least a portion of that event will have medical at the exact standard that world events require. We will have a larger one-day footprint … and we will show some of the entertainment pieces of a world-level event, such as a gallery stage, music, cultural things.”

Woods recognizes the challenge of world-level rally operations. As a U.S. Navy commander, he worked in logistics and finance for projects of a similar size around the globe.

“There are an extraordinary number of moving parts,” Woods says. “If we can execute those two steppingstone-type events, then we’ll be in a position to essentially be graded.”

Some of those moving parts include sponsors to fund the project and volunteers to operate it.

“The footprint for this rally could need as many as 2000 volunteers,” says Woods. “So we’re doing volunteer-building work with an ARA event, the Bristol Forest Rally, in Tennessee. We’ll be training workers–on timing and scoring, marshaling, scrutineering–who would later work our event as well.”

Cars commonly found in WRC include the Ford Puma, Hyundai i20 N, Toyota GR Yaris and Škoda Fabia, all of which are not available in the U.S.

“Yes, of course it is,” de Jong says on whether it’s a challenge in the U.S. that these car models are used in WRC. “But it’s an opportunity, too. The manufacturers have performance brands they represent both in the WRC and over here [in the U.S.]. You may have seen at the New York Auto Show that Toyota launched the GR Corolla with a slogan, ‘Ready to Rally.’ The core of these performance brands stretches to WRC, and that’s something the manufacturers can work with.”

There’s a U.S. market with growing interest, but it also offers plenty of entertainment choices.

“It’s a very saturated market with sports,” de Jong says of the U.S. “Just turn the TV on and see how many sports are competing for people’s attention. But it’s a challenge worth having. It’s a big market [but] we’ve got to be realistic. It’ll take us a little time, and WRC’s popularity won’t be done with one event. We’ll have to work on that for a while.”

What Appeal Does WRC Have for Americans?

Indeed, there’s definitely a group of enthusiasts who love rally racing and WRC in the U.S. However, for those uninitiated in the motorsport discipline, what is its appeal?

“Rallying is a spectacle like no other in motorsport,” says Sean Johnston, an American rally driver competing in World Rally Championship-2. “It’s a motorsport without barriers. You can get right up to the car, the crews and drivers. Out on the stages, you can stand right next to the road. It’s something unique and special. Inside the car, you have not one person, but two. A mistake from either one of them means a crash for both of them. [There’s] a very low margin for error. There’s risk involved. It’s breathtaking.”

Johnston knows those risks firsthand, which is why he spectated in Chattanooga rather than take a car out.

“I had a crash in Monte Carlo [in January],” says Johnston. “I was too late on the brakes. I take full responsibility for the crash. I hit the wall and broke two ribs and had a concussion. I’m still rebuilding from that. That’s the thing: There are very fine margins we play with.”

Does that excitement carry over to the next generation? Patrick Gruszka, a 19-year-old who races primarily in ARA and participated in the Rally USA demonstration event, believes so.

“A bunch of my friends think it’s awesome,” Gruszka says. “A lot of them don’t hear about it. They hear about Formula 1, NASCAR, IMSA. We’re trying to put this on the map in the U.S. The only WRC event I’ve been to was in my home country of Poland.

“Rally racing is very much a fight for survival. Formula 1 is getting popular here in the States, which is awesome. Three Formula 1 races in the U.S. is incredible. A lot of Formula 1 drivers say WRC is the hardest form of motorsports in the world. You have to write down [the corners of the course in a notebook] the day before and study, and hopefully send [the car] down the road without making a mistake. It’s very challenging. It’s very cool.”

The appeal? It’s there.

The first demonstration for Rally USA went well, according to Woods. That’s saying something, as they conducted it under rainy, wet conditions.

“We could have hardly picked a worse time for an event, but we could have hardly had a better test of the roads,” Woods says. “I was confident in the quality of the roads … and it gave us a good idea of what repair conditions will be like.

“What we were really conducting was a safety exercise. We needed to test command and control, train crews not familiar with the area specifically, train other volunteers, and we did all of that.”

The location? It seems to be there as well.

But will it all come together? Woods says there’s a long road ahead, but he feels there’s a good shot for it becoming reality.

“This is a well-vetted organization with the talent behind it,” says Woods. “This is by far the most legitimate effort to get a world-level event into the United States in a long time.”

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Comments
Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
4/10/23 2:01 p.m.

This is getting me real excited.

I'd love nothing more than to experience at least one WRC event in my lifetime, and this might just make it even easier to cross that off my bucket list.

Lof8 - Andy
Lof8 - Andy GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
4/10/23 2:20 p.m.

I'll be there if it happens!

Aaron_King
Aaron_King GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
4/10/23 2:34 p.m.

Fingers crossed.

sir_mike
sir_mike Reader
4/10/23 4:57 p.m.

Would love to see it happen.Miss the old days of The STPR and HIS rallies.Loved the night stages watching out in the woods.

759NRNG
759NRNG PowerDork
4/10/23 6:28 p.m.

Chattanoga Tn. how soon? who are the subaru team/drivers?

RacerBoy75
RacerBoy75 Reader
4/10/23 7:40 p.m.

I was very fortunate to see a stage at the last (or maybe one of the lat) WRC rallies in Tacoma, WA. The cool thing was that it was the Group B cars! I remember hearing another spectator describing them as "funny car Jeeps".

trumant
trumant GRM+ Memberand Reader
4/10/23 8:20 p.m.

I would love to attend with my family. Here's hoping it really hits the schedule.

J.A. Ackley
J.A. Ackley Senior Editor
4/10/23 8:25 p.m.
759NRNG said:

Chattanoga Tn. how soon? who are the subaru team/drivers?

I'd say after the 2023 fall demonstration they'll have a good idea of if they're a go or no go for the WRC schedule. 2024 maybe? They announced the 2023 schedule in late November last year. 

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/10/23 8:58 p.m.
RacerBoy75 said:

I was very fortunate to see a stage at the last (or maybe one of the lat) WRC rallies in Tacoma, WA. The cool thing was that it was the Group B cars! I remember hearing another spectator describing them as "funny car Jeeps".

That would have been the last international Group B rally... in the world.

 

ToManyProjects
ToManyProjects New Reader
4/10/23 10:11 p.m.

My daughters fell asleep tonight sitting with me watching old Group B Rally videos. It was a happy Dad moment.

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