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The Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally (STPR) is the fifth round of the Rally America National Rally Championship and sanctioned by Rally America. It is one of America's best-known Rally events and often contested by the top rally teams from the United States, Canada and abroad. The course begins at The Green in Wellsboro and takes around 14 hours to complete, covering a total of 310 miles, including 125 competitive miles in 10 stages. The course traverses through the twisty Pennsylvania State Forest roads and through two counties, offering plenty of diversity in road conditions throughout the day.
This year was the 31st running of the event. The inaugural event took place in May of 1977, and was known as the Susquehannock Trail PRO Rally. Since that time it has grown, evolved, and continued to offer one of the greatest driving events on the circuit. It was awarded SCCA's 'Best ProRally' award an unprecedented seven times, in 1993, 1998, 1990, 1995, 1997, 2000 and most recently in 2003.
Under the Rally America banner, the drivers compete in street-legal vehicles that are modified for safety. There are six vehicle classes that range from 'stock' to 'highly modified.'
Eleven different automobile manufacturers are represented in Rally America events, led by Subaru, Mitsubishi, Dodge, Ford and Volkswagen.
The top three drivers in the 2007 Rally America standings were separated by a mere five points, as they began the STPR event. Ken Block and co-driver Alessandro Gelsomino were leading the standings after the first four, of nine, events. Tanner Foust and co-driver Christine Beavis were in second, followed by Andrew Pinker and co-driver Robbie Durant. Travis Pastrana and co-driver Christian Edstrom were in fourth.
There were fifty-two cars that crossed the start line, and only thirty-two made it across the finish. This proves how grueling road-rallying is on the drivers and on the vehicles. The first and second place drivers were separated by only twenty seconds, with Andrew Pinker taking the checkered flag with a time of 1:14:52.8. The victory was partly due to some clever decisions made earlier. 'We had the choice between running 1st or 5th in start order, so with the dust, we felt we would be better off running 1st - so far it has worked out' stated Car 5's team manager. Ramana Lagemann battled mechanical problems but was still able to secure a solid second place finish. Third place was captured by the 2006 US Rally Champion and legendary X-Game participant, Travis Pastrana. Fourth place went to Paul Choiniere, a seven-time STPR winner. His finish earned him an X-Games Rally bid and kept him in the lead for the rally championship points race.
A strong finish for many drivers was a top priority at STPR, as they battled to get a spot in the X Games Rally Competition. The first five races of the 2007 Rally America season serve as qualifying events. Pastrana won the inaugural X Games Rally in 2006. 'Rally Car Racing is a sport we have been watching for some time now,' explained Ron Semiao, senior vice president, ESPN Original Entertainment. 'We feel it matches our existing X Games audience while having the ability to attract new viewers, as well. Rally Car Racing is incredibly dynamic and exciting. ESPN is committed to motor sports as evidenced by our acquisition of NASCAR and its return to ESPN in 2007. Adding Rally Car Racing to the X Games furthers our goal of always looking to progress the event and the world of action sports.'
Sixth overall, and first in the Production GT class, went to Matt Johnson and Jeremy Wimpey in their Subaru WRX. Kyle Sarasin and co-driver Mikael Johansson drove their Ford Focus to a class victory in Group 5 competition. Sarasin had to fly home the following day to attend his high school graduation. The Volkswagen GTi driven by Christopher Duplessis and co-driver Martin Headland secured a Group 2 victory and the sole Group N finishers were Josh Chang and Donald DeRose in a Subaru WRX.
The 'Open Class' is usually reserved for the most powerful vehicles and top competitors. Though based on street cars and typically four wheel drive, they have been given many performance and safety modifications making them among the fastest on the circuit. Engine displacement is limited to 5100cc for normally aspirated engines, and 3000 cc for turbocharged models.
Group 5 is very similar to the Open group, but there is no displacement limit and it is reserved for two-wheel drive vehicles. Group 2 is for two-wheel drive vehicles with naturally aspirated engines. Rotary or forced-induction is prohibited. Engine size is limited to 2000c for four or more cylinder engines, and 3000cc for diesel engines.
Group N shares similarities to FIA's production touring car class. Typically, this group is seen in very few numbers in Rally America.
Production GT and Production classes are limited to safety modifications; no performance modifications allowed. The vehicles must be licensed for street use, and homologation rules do apply. At least 1000 examples must have been sold in the United States. The Production and Production GT classes are segregated by their engine displacement.
The final group is the Rally Truck class, reserved for trucks and sport utility vehicles.
Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place
The Rally America is a popular event for drivers and spectators; in recent years, its popularity has steadily increased. As the cars have become more powerful, safety guidelines improved, and publicity increased, the event has, for some, become a little less enjoyable. To attend a stage takes a lot more preparation and planning than in prior years. Access to certain stages is closed to spectators a few hours before the stage is run. This is due to the racing cars being driven on the access road. So the route is closed to spectator traffic to make sure it is clear and safe. If that route is not run, those spectators will have waited for hours and possibly eliminated their chance to see any part of the rally. Another reason for the eroding enjoyment is that viewing areas continue to be pushed farther back, away from the action in an effort to enforce safety and allow for better crowd control. For the spectators this means fewer viewing places and more obstacles, such as trees, to block their view.
To be fair, road rallying is not the only sport where safety has become an 'inconvenience.' Most major autosport events have added fencing to protect the crowd; some have even moved the bleachers and viewing areas farther back.
Organizers and stewards of these events are doing what they can to keep it safe for the drivers and the spectators, and we sympathize with their obligations. For the viewers, who sit in the woods for hours waiting to watch the cars race past, only to find out hours later that the route has been canceled, we also sympathize with you. It is becoming harder and harder to satisfy both sides - safety and spectating.
This year's STPR was shortened from 10 competition stages down to eight. Stage seven was closed due to reports of spectators being on the course. Stage 10, which is the same road as seven, but run in the opposite direction, was also canceled. 'We had delays, and due to the late hour, (Rallymaster) Alan Smith decided to cancel 10,' rally administrator Meredith Croucher said. 'We also weren't sure about the spectator situation there. It was his call, and it was the right call. I felt bad about it, because we had more than 1,000 spectators at Colton Point. But we had to do it.'
Photos by Kyle McMullen
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