What the Doctor Ordered
Last week, news broke of the creation of a new sanctioning body for rallying in the USA. Named the “American Rally Association”, this new organization announced its intentions to serve as the custodian of American stage rallying moving into the future. At first, this seemed like an amicable transition of leadership from the current organizer/promoter: Rally America to the newly formed ARA. However, after Rally America put out a press release clearly stating their intentions to continue in their current role as the sanctioning body for American stage rallying, the future has become a bit confusing. With that in mind, I am not going to comment on who will really have control of American rallying. As an outsider, I believe that doing so would result in mere speculation rather than producing useful and accurate information. Instead, I am going to use this space to write about only what we know… what the ARA has said about their plans and goals for the sport moving forward.
Before I go any further, I think that some background information is really helpful in understanding this issue. I could try to provide that myself, but there is already someone who has done this work with far more thoroughness and completion than I could hope to match. I would encourage you to check out the work that Mike Shaw over at openpaddock.net has already done to help elucidate this topic. If you are short on time, I’d recommend listening to his interview with Tony Simpson on the fantastic Absolute Rally Podcast. This is a good introduction to the basics of the current situation in US rallying. If you have a bit more time, I would HIGHLY recommend Mike’s interview with the leadership of the ARA. It is longer at about an hour and a half, but it is chock full of really good details on how the ARA plans to move American rallying forward into the future. Here are the links to both:
Absolute Rally Podcast (Mike starts at 83:00)
OK, now that we have your “required listening” out of the way, let’s dive into this topic a bit and talk about why the ARA could be exactly “what the doctor ordered” for American rallying.
Step #1: Admit there’s a problem:
There is a reason that at the beginning of any 12 step program, the very first action is to admit that there is in fact a problem that needs to be rectified. Albert Einstein famously said that insanity is, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This may sound harsh, but I can’t think of a better way to sum up Rally America’s approach to the sport over the last few years. While Rally America’s takeover of US rallying showed great potential in its early years, of late, it has led to stagnation, and that has driven both me and many other American rallying enthusiasts to abandon our domestic rallying scene for what’s going on overseas. I remember speaking with American co-driver Alex Kihurani over at this year’s Circuit of Ireland about this very issue and how he felt that the only way to progress his career was to move away from American rallying and pursue the sport over in the UK and Europe. The truth is that there are issues that have been ignored for years in the areas of safety, media, promotion, and competition that need to be addressed . The most impressive and encouraging thing I’ve heard from the ARA is their willingness to acknowledge and address these issues that have plagued American rallying and prevented it from growing like it should.
Don’t reinvent the wheel:
In addition to admitting the problems within American rallying and committing to addressing them, the ARA has made it clear that they are not trying to burn everything to the ground and start from scratch when it comes to leading the sport into the future. While America does have a fairly rich rallying heritage and tradition, there are parts of the world where rallying has existed and thrived for far longer than it has here. One thing that really encouraged me about the ARA, evidenced in their interview with openpaddock.net, was their willingness to look beyond the American borders when developing the plan for the ARA. He admitted that while American rallying does have some region-specific needs and challenges, much can be gleaned from the work that has already been done by various sanctioning bodies within Europe, the spiritual home of rallying. One of my greatest criticisms of Rally America and US rallying in general has been the failure to recognize and implement the best practices of various other rally sanctioning bodies that have already been proven over the years. Yes, America is very different from Europe, but at the end of the day, rallying is rallying, and there is no need for a sanctioning body to completely “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to the organization of stage rallying on American soil.
Emphasis on education:
Of all that I have heard and read from the ARA, their emphasis on education is by far the most interesting and exciting part of their plan for the future. In many ways, this initiative is a response to my first point, admitting that there is a problem. It may sound strange to our European readers, but there is a serious knowledge deficit regarding stage rallying, not only within the American public, but also within the spectators of American rallies and the automotive media and press who are actually covering the sport. There are photographers with media accreditation alongside American stages who have not the slightest idea of how to select a safe location to stand. There are spectators who consider themselves to be “rally fans” who know nothing more of the sport than what they saw of the Gymkhana competition in the X-games on TV. What makes the ARA’s perspective so encouraging and refreshing is that they want to embrace these individuals, but do it in a way that helps them gain a deeper understanding of the sport and allows them to enjoy it in a safe way.
Engaging the stakeholders:
Those of you who have read my past ramblings on World Rally Blog will know that I tend to complain about how various sanctioning bodies (no names here) have not made the time or effort to engage their stakeholders when making decisions about the future. One thing that is very clear from the interview on openpaddock.net is that the ARA will value and seek out the input of their constituency. What makes this even more encouraging is who they consider their stakeholders to be. In their plans for the future, the ARA is involving the insurance companies, the sponsors, the competitors, the events, the local and regional counsels, and the spectators. By doing this, they are recognizing that American stage rallying has many dimensions that must be considered when making decisions. The clearest and most significant way that the ARA is making these intentions clear is by registering as a non-profit organization. As a non-profit, the ARA has made their business and finances an “open book” for anyone who is interested in looking into them. It’s easy for an organization to say that they are transparent, but this decision to operate as a non-profit goes a long way in proving that the ARA really does have the best interests of stage rallying at heart.
Is there a downside?
If your attention span is long enough that you are still reading this piece, you might be wondering; what’s the downside to all of this? That’s a fair question that I think needs to be addressed since, so far, everything seems pretty positive when it comes to the ARA. Well, anytime there are two sanctioning bodies vying for control, there is the danger of causing long-term damage to the sport. Long before I was introduced to and fell in love with rallying, I was a fan of American open wheel racing, specifically Indy Cars. As an impressionable 8 year old in 1995, I fell in love with the fire-breathing, turbocharged monsters of the PPG IndyCar Series. However, just one year later, I was exposed to the devastating effects that ego, money, and politics can have in the world of motorsport. It was that year in 1996 that the “Great Split” of American open wheel racing occurred between CART and the IRL. For the next decade, the tussle between these two sanctioning bodies defined the sport and eroded the popularity of this fantastic form of racing in America causing damage that is still being felt 20 years later. Having grown up during this time, I do fear a case of “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it” when it comes to American rallying. The last thing that this sport needs is a long drawn-out struggle for control between two sanctioning bodies who are unwilling to give an inch. As much as I like what the ARA has to offer, I do fear the possibility of a turf war between the ARA and Rally America that leads to the further demise of stage rallying on US soil. While this is of course a worst-case scenario, it still is a danger that needs to be considered when discussing the future of American rallying.
Despite the risks of a new sanctioning body taking over the sport, I truly believe that with the ARA, we can enjoy some cautious optimism. Even with the “big names” of Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, and Dave Mirra, American stage rallying has failed to grow over the past decade. Rallying has always shown great potential in the USA, but we have never seen this come to fruition. For the first time in a long while, the ARA provides us with the hope that maybe this potential can be transformed into actual success. Yes, it is going to be a long road, but for those of you who doubt, I want to bring up the topic of professional soccer in the USA. For years, pro soccer existed as the “fifth sport” behind baseball, football, and hockey in the American sporting scene but never had the momentum required to bring it into the national spotlight. Ten years ago, no one would ever believe that America would embrace soccer, yet here we are in 2016 and now the English Premier League is trying to capitalize on American TV viewership and the MLS is bigger than it has ever been. By playing to its strengths and creating an authentic and meaningful experience for fans like soccer has done, I truly believe that stage rallying can enjoy success in America. At the moment, the ARA is the best shot that we have, so let’s see what they can do!