FORD FIESTA MASTERS RALLY AMERICA

The speedy, versatile Ford Fiesta dominated the rally circuit in 2016—and brought families together.

By Fred Stafford

Steve and Alison LaRoza speed down the Oregon Trail Rally.

The trees rush past as Cameron Steely accelerates his Fiesta into the darkness on the first night of the 2016 Lake Superior Performance Rally. Bam! The car lurches to one side as he hits a rut, but acting on pure instinct, he keeps the vehicle hurtling down the road. The still night air is pierced by the roar of the Fiesta’s engine as Cameron snaps through the gears, his heart thumping a beat or two faster.

This is the most important race of Cameron’s career so far—his chance to finally win a championship after five years of grinding in the rally circuit. Winning today would mean the Colorado native would clinch the 2WD title in Rally America, the premier performance rally race championship series in the United States. But he has a formidable opponent: Ryan Millen of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Cameron has been locked in a dog fight with Ryan all year, and today, heading into the eighth and final race of the series, Cameron and Ryan are tied at 118 points each. It is set to be a two-day, winner-take-all battle in the forest.

From the forests of Maine to the rolling hills of the Pacific Northwest, the Rally America series tests drivers in all kinds of road and weather conditions.

It will be a long 48 hours for Cameron, as he tries to push the championship out of his mind and just concentrate on the road ahead.

 

The Thrill of Rally Racing

Rallying is a flat-out race over closed forest roads with all of the hazards real roads can throw at you. “It’s kind of a survival thing,” says Cameron later. “You have to be fast, but you also have to be smart and not break the car.”

Unlike track racing that can accommodate many vehicles at one time, rallying uses narrow roads lined by trees, so competitors start at one-minute intervals and race against the clock for fastest time. And anything can happen—spectators get to see the professionals alongside newbies, in street-car models they might actually own (with some modifications), drifting, jumping and throwing up dirt.

The Ford Fiesta is a favorite on the rally circuit. “I think it’s the best two-wheel drive platform out there for rally car racing,” says Cameron. “It’s lightweight, small and nimble.”

Another driver making an impressive showing today in a Ford Fiesta is rookie Keanna Erickson-Chang (seen tearing up the circuit in our video below), who is the only woman competing as a full-time driver in the entire 2016 Rally America series. “Keanna is quiet, serious and very fast,” says Tim O’Neil, owner of New Hampshire’s Team O’Neil Rally School, who helped train Keanna and has watched her progress every step of the way. Keanna and her co-driver, Ole Holter, will later go on to earn 2nd overall in the Rally America B-Spec Class Championship for 2016.

Keanna says she was pleasantly surprised at the large number of women co-drivers in the rally racing circuit. “Coming from road and ice racing, I was used to seeing just three or four other women competing,” she says.

Alison LaRoza, an advisor at Washington State University, is one of those women—she is competing today on a Fiesta team next to her father, Steve LaRoza, a high-performance driving instructor. The LaRozas and their Fiesta will go on to nab third place in the Rally America 2WD Championship. “It’s one thing to have a good father-daughter relationship,” says Alison. “But being teammates with your dad is completely different. There’s a unique bond that develops between a rally driver and co-driver.”

Rallying has also given Cameron Steely a closer relationship with his father. When Cameron was 11 years old, his only brother was killed in a jet-ski accident. After that, Cameron’s parents made every effort to be supportive of Cameron, but he and his dad, Rod, seemed to have different interests. “I loved my dad and thought he was great,” says Cameron, “but we just weren’t really close—until we found a common interest in rallying.”

Now Rod runs Cameron’s team and helps transport his car to events. “Rallying has made us really close,” says Cameron. “It’s awesome.”

Fiesta takes top prize

A Champagne shower was a regular occurrence for Cameron and Preston as they took three first-place finishes.

Cameron knows his father supports him today as he rounds another turn, intent on beating Ryan Millen’s time to try to nail down the championship. He’s totally focused, pushing hard and using every inch of the road as he powers through a turn and accelerates. Then: a shock!

Cameron sees Ryan’s car, stopped off to the side, in the trees. His fiercest competitor is out of the race. Cameron later says: “I came around a corner and saw that Ryan was off the road, and I thought, ‘Oh, no!’ It was actually sad to see him off. I wanted to keep going and have that battle.”

Now Cameron just has to finish the race himself—which is no easy feat. If he crashes or suffers mechanical failure, the championship could still go to Ryan in a tie-breaker. Finally, after two days of hard driving, Cameron finishes second in class to earn 17 points and clinch the title in his Fiesta.

Cameron is the fifth driver in five years to win the Rally America 2WD title behind the wheel of a Fiesta. And the exhilaration is apparent on his face. Still, he is a gracious winner. “Having Ryan there all season did add pressure on me,” says Cameron, “and sometimes it was nerve-racking. But I enjoyed it because he pushed me to be a better driver.”

Watch below to learn the basics of rallying from Keanna!

 

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