It’s time to bring the WRC back to the United States

Ken Block is in the camp of rally drivers who would love to see the WRC return to the United States.

Surely, in the U.S., with its more than 320 million people, there must be more rally fans than in Chile, a nation of just 18 million and the newest country to join the World Rally Championship, right?

America’s (and arguably the world’s) best-known rally driver, Ken Block, gets more views for his gymkhana car videos than there are Chileans. Add in Travis Pastrana’s popularity and the U.S. has two rally-driving internet megastars who could lead a potential WRC return to American roads.

But America is not even on a shortlist of countries knocking on the door to enter WRC. Kenya (home to the legendary Safari Rally), Japan (with pressure from WRC entrant Toyota) and Canada (as a snow rally to supplement or replace Rally Sweden, increasingly blighted by warmer winter weather) are in the mix for rallying’s top series — but not America, the world’s biggest economy and its largest car market.

Juna Kankkunen won the Olympus Rally in Washington when it was on the WRC calendar in 1987.

The Olympus Rally in Washington state was the U.S.’ last WRC event; still running, it last hosted the series in 1988 — soon after the Group B rally cars’ glory days (they were so fast WRC outlawed them after several deaths).

Italian Miki Biasion, two-time world champion in the Lancia Delta Integrale, won the ’88 Olympus, helping propel him to the first of his back-to-back world titles.

“The stages were very nice and very fast. I loved them because they were fast, had a lot of jumps and were narrow in the forest,” says Biasion, recalling a time when the WRC was more varied and more global. He and other drivers were excited to compete here but wished it had been more than three times.

In 1986, the first year WRC went to the Pacific Northwest, Biasion says there were almost more drivers than spectators. “We said we knew the spectators better than they knew us,” he says with a laugh. “Year by year, the interest grew … but mainly (with fans) in the city. Some came to the forests and fell in love to see rally cars jump and drive fast in the stages.”

Miki Biasion was the winner of the 1988 Olympus Rally in Washington. It marked the last time the WRC raced in the U.S.

For Biasion, now 61 and a brand ambassador for Dallara and Sparco who enjoys restoring classic Lancias, the Olympus was bittersweet. He pinpoints the 1987 running as a big reason he lost that year’s title to Lancia teammate Juha Kankkunen after a spark plug came loose.

Kankkunen and fellow Finn Markku Alén likened the logging roads to their Scandinavian homeland. People and wildlife were both a challenge. Alén remembers a forest encounter with a local hunter. Testing at night, drivers saw bears and deer.

“It was hard to practice during the day because the forest roads were used for lorries carrying wood,” says Biasion.

“So we practiced after 6 p.m., but then there were animals crossing the roads.”

Kankkunen, the ’87 champ, came back to Olympus in 1988 and was also on the Peugeot team entered into that year’s Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, running the outlawed Group B cars. He finished second to Ari Vatanen at Pikes Peak.

“The difference in events was quite big,” says Kankkunen, 60, who today runs an ice driving school in Finland and works with Bentley on drive events. “There were so many fans on Pikes Peak, so it showed that Americans do like rally sport — but maybe in a way that is more of a show.”

Kankkunen thinks WRC’s format, with a more centralized route based on one town, could make the sport more appealing to U.S. audiences. He also thinks WRC should consider returning to the States.

Biasion checks in at the 1988 Olympus Rally.

“America will never be like Italy or France or Finland, where you have so many hundreds of thousands of spectators,” Kankkunen says. “But you can organize a rally almost anywhere in America. There are great forest stages. You could then do something different, like have a special stage in Indianapolis. There are huge possibilities. I loved rallying in the States.’”

Unfortunately, there are multiple barriers for WRC’s re-entry. WRC and American rallying technical regulations differ, finding a location willing to fund an event with uncertain local appeal is a big challenge and no manufacturers in WRC (Toyota, Hyundai, Ford and Citroën) compete with a car on sale here. The WRC’s promoter also seems unwilling to prioritize America.

Certainly, Pastrana and Block offer hope. Block has been rolling out a series on his YouTube channel called Ken Block’s Cossie World Tour. It features him driving his classic Ford Escort Cosworth on WRC stages such as those in New Zealand. 

“I’d love to see (WRC) back in the U.S.,” Block tells Autoweek. He thinks basing an event somewhere like Los Angeles would play to the X Games-type audience and allow for stages in nearby hills. “It would be incredible.”

Block agrees it sucks that a country with two mega-famous rally stars has no WRC event. Block and Pastrana have nearly 10 million combined Instagram followers. The last decade’s two top rally drivers, Sébastien Loeb and Sébastien Ogier, have 250,000.

“Travis and I reach a much bigger audience because we’re tapping into something much broader, you know?” Block says. “I enjoy competing with Ogier or Loeb, who are, numbers-wise, the biggest thing in rallying. But they focus on just that. Travis and I have got different things going on all over the world.”

In some ways, America is more attuned to rallying’s show and spectacle now than it was three decades ago. Rallies like Olympus are unlikely to be returned to WRC status, but a bespoke event close to a major city mixing spectacle and stages might make a return viable. Hey, if Chile can do it …

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