Could Rally America be kaput after January 1? That's what some rumblings around the Internet would have you think, although their release of a 2015 national championship schedule suggests otherwise. There's also the new United States Rally Association. How do they play into this? Let's take a look at the rumors.
Rally America isn't exactly owned by rally enthusiasts nowadays. While it was started in 2002 by former rally driver and team owner Doug Havir, it was sold in 2011 to Bill Fogg. In their article about the sale, Autoweek described Fogg as "an entrepreneur in distribution, manufacturing, software development, marketing and telecommunications."
Fogg had very little exposure to rally before making the deal, and some speculate that the series isn't delivering the return on investment that he had hoped for.
One sign of trouble lies in the television deal Rally America inked with the NBC Sports Network earlier this year. When it was originally announced, all eight rounds of the Rally America National Championship were to be broadcast in one-hour episodes on NBCSN. By the end of the year, the last three rallies of the season were dropped from the revised broadcast schedule, and competitors weren't sure if the film crew even showed up to the Ojibwe Forests Rally or the Lake Superior Performance Rally.
An announcement was made for the first revision to the schedule, but no explanation was given as to why it happened. Some point to low viewership and ratings as a possible culprit. For example, the broadcast of the Rally In The 100 Acre Wood had lower ratings than "Saltwater Experience." That's right: a fishing show, a sport best known for gripping moments of setting up and waiting.
This is why we can't have nice things.
On the other hand, no one seems to know much about the United States Rally Association, which will supposedly have some events in 2015, but hasn't released a schedule or any other competitor information yet due to agreements made by other groups.
Per the statement on the USRA FAQ:
USRA is a new organization. It takes time and effort to make something like this a viable entity. We recognize that there is some information that potential competitors and workers would like to know. Our limitation is due to agreements from other organizations that we had no part in, but are respecting. Those agreements expire on December 31 of this year and we will be able to announce some exciting information on Jan 1, 2015. After that date, we can discuss our plans for the future, including expansion into the FIA rules for the US. While that is several years off, the planning will start in 2015. USRA will not do this alone. Our partners fully support the direction we are headed and want to broaden the competition and safety programs. With their help, and especially that of people actively involved in the sport of stage rally, we will grow and provide exciting competition for years to come. See above for information on how to be involved.
What we do know about the United States Rally Association is that many of the names look familiar, backing up their claims of being an organization by rallyists, for rallyists.
Tim O'Neil of the Team O'Neil Rally School just signed on as the Regional Competition Director.
Matt Martelli of extreme motorsports video powerhouse Mad Media serves as Media Director.
Most interestingly, USRA Chairperson Denise McMahon was Series Director of the SouthWest RallyCup Series, which included the Arizona Extreme Shortcourse Rally for 2014. That rally had formerly been a Rally America regional event in 2013.
Could that be USRA's business model, then?
Here's what we know. The USRA FAQ says that they are only doing regional events:
The focus of USRA is regional events, specifically, but not limited to, stand-along [sic] events. We have seen a decrease in the number of these events in recent years and feel that while national events have the glitz and prestige with high profile national competitors, the regional competitors deserve events to run and a championship both in their region and nationally. We also feel that the future of the sport lies in a thriving regional program along with substantial competitor involvement in the rules and competition programs.
Regional events are smaller, geared towards amateur teams and most importantly in Rally America's case, less marketable than their national-level counterparts. However, they are a needed component in the rally community for competitors looking for seat time and experience. You don't hop into a national-level event overnight.
Zero standalone regional events are currently shown on Rally America's 2015 calendar, despite the fact that people are already starting to plan for events in February.
The Waste Management Winter Rally has traditionally been one of Rally America's standalone regional events, held in the same area as the Waste Management Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally held later in the year. It is set for February 21, 2015.
WMWR set up its own event website this year separate from STPR's website, with zero mention of any ties to Rally America whatsoever. STPR, of course, remains on Rally America's national schedule for 2015. No sanctioning body at all is mentioned on the WMWR website.
Like USRA, details for this year's WMWR aren't all published yet, but the event organizers are assuring interested parties that more details will be available after January 1. That sounds familiar. Per an announcement made on WMWR's Facebook page:
I know people are wondering what is going on, so I will tell you what I can. Registration will open ASAP after the first of the year. With all the teams that have expressed support, the entry fee will remain at $400. The schedule will be the same pretty much as last year. Supps and online entry are in the works. Please come here to see when things begin to happen, as it will be quick, once the ball starts rolling.
Meridith Croucher Event Chair, WMWR-15
Meredith Croucher is also listed as USRA's Competitor Liason.
Something tells me there's enough overlap here to bet a sixty-pack of delicious strawberry Timbits that WMWR will now be sanctioned by the USRA. I'd imagine that several other ex-Rally America regional events will follow that lead shortly.
There's one piece of this mystery that hasn't been answered, however: will Rally America continue to host its national events as well? The calendar would suggest so, but its last update was on August 12, 2014. USRA was incorporated as a non-profit in Arizona in September 2014.
The first national event of the Rally America season is Sno*Drift on January 30-31, and it looks like the Rally America event is going along as planned, complete with Rally America as the event's sanctioning body. However, according to posters on the SpecialStage forums, Sno*Drift's entry list is looking pretty light this year. If Rally America is shedding its regional events to focus on the national events, they need to do much better at attracting competitors to their national events in order to survive.
Another interesting piece that came out recently was the mention of "national teams" in USRA's recent announcement regarding its classing and championship structure:
There has been some interest in running regional events by national teams. This is certainly to be encouraged and USRA will have a National Divisional Championship in 4WD and 2WD for 2015. If a team runs more than one(1) national event (as a national competitor NOT as a regional competitor), they are defined as a National entry in the Divisional Championship. The classes will be National 4WD and National 2WD. So it's simple and easy toscore.
National entries will be able to win a regional event overall or place as their finish times would indicate. However, they will NOT take regional points away from other competitors since they have their own classes. We hope that this first year will be productive and encourage any national teams who would like to run USRA events. The championship is contingent on getting enough entries to make it a true competition. More information will be forthcoming.
Is USRA referring to national-level competitors from other series, or are they backtracking on their previous FAQ entry regarding their focus on regional rallies?
One thing's for certain: we'll know a lot more on January 1.
Photo credit: Subaru of America via AP Images