Prescott Forest Rally, the second to last stop on the National PRO Rally tour, and the third from last on the CRS Divisional PRO Rally circuit, turned out to be an emotional event for the organizers, workers and 37 teams involved. The weekend saw the sudden loss of one of PRO Rally’s great competitors and supporters. Under these less than desirable circumstances, a number of national championships were being decided.
Carl Merrill of the Maine coastal town of Ogunquit, campaigner of the stunning Ford Escort Cosworth, died of cardiac arrest on Saturday, October 3rd, at 8:30 a.m., at the age of 62. Carl was on the first stage of the rally when he appears to have had a heart attack and crashed the Cossie into a ponderosa pine with co-driver Lance Smith. Competitors arriving on the scene, including Dave White DDS, Tony Takaori (heart surgeon from Kyoto), and Joe Noyes, all took turns administering CPR until the EMTs were on site. Carl was helicoptered to Yavapai Regional Medical Center. Carl's wife, who was visiting family in Scottsdale, was summoned to Prescott that evening. Carl died the next morning. Lance was released after chest x-rays showed no injuries.
As a top-level driver, Carl always made it a point to take time and talk to the divisional entrants, fans, and especially children. He was a pillar of support for PRO Rally through some thin years, allowing the growth that we are all now enjoying. He made many friends within the sport. We will all miss him.
The battle for national and divisional season championships was gaining drama in all categories. The fastest category, National Open 4WD, was a three-way race with only two events left. The Buffum/Choiniere dynasty appears to be in jeopardy for the first time in memory. A string of driver substitutions and DNFs have left Paul Choiniere without a clear lead. Libra Racing has used both John Buffum and Noel Lawler to back up Paul this season and added points for Hyundai’s manufacturer championship bid. Strong performances by a number of others helped hold down Choiniere’s point total. The Jamaican team of David Summerbell/Michael Fennell, in the Sea Breezes Resorts/TAD Mitsubishi Lancer Evo IV, has emerged as a major threat. Carl Merrill and Lance Smith, in the Norseman Resorts Escort Cosworth Mk IV, also scored significant points, threatening to take the lead at several points this year. The Sprongl brothers, in their Castrol sponsored Audi Quattro, also scored a national win. Hyundai team boss John Buffum responded to the challengers by entering Paul Choiniere/Jeff Becker in this years Tiburon and Noel Lawler/Charles Bradley in last years championship Elantra.
The international entry list continued to grow as Hiroyuki Genta/Kazmasa Takata in the Subaru Legacy returned to Prescott. They gave a strong showing at Rim of the World earlier this year. Also from Kyoto, Japan, Tony Takaori was running his Mitsubishi Lancer with local co-driver Ken Cassidy. Another international entry, Jeffrey Panton and John de Mercado, in an ex-Sainz TTE Toyota Celica GT4, was pre-registered. This team was held up by hurricane Georges and they did not make the trip from Jamaica, making two no-shows in a row.
Closer to home, the Mike Whitman/Paula Gibeault Ford Sierra Cosworth has three fifth place finishes this season and they are just beginning to explore the true potential of the car. The Garen/Doc Shrader Sierra Cosworth is slightly behind in the preparations after an early season crash in Washington. It has proven to be extremely fast and is now being serviced by TAD Motorsports.
The national Group 5 title could be tied up with a strong showing by Ralph Kosmides/Joe Noyes in the Rubys Twin Turbo Supra. The loss of the Sam Bryan Saab factory entry, last years Group 5 championship car, due to a fire in Washington earlier this year, helped clear the way for their stated championship bid.
National Group 2 is being contested by two California entries. The front-wheel-drive car of David White/David Watts, a Guy Light Prepared VW Golf, sponsored by Redline Oil, was pitted against the rear-wheel-drive Coffee Fresh/Valencia Volvo campaigned by Bill Malik and Christian Edstrom. Both have run the complete national program.
The national Production GT title was being contested by the teams of Lee Shadbolt/ Paul Eklund in a Subaru Impreza and Steve Gingras/Eric Carlson in an Eagle Talon. Trevor Donison in his Plymouth Neon and Jay Kowalik, who did not make the trek to Arizona, are contesting Production class.
This event also consisted of two simultaneous divisional rallys: a coefficient two on Friday night, and a coefficient three on Saturday. The CRS categories are far from decided in most cases, with almost half the season points unawarded.
Leading the CRS Open 4WD class is Vartan Samuelian/Ara Manoukian in the EuroAsia/RoadRace Engineering Mitsubishi Eclipse, who won the class last year. They are followed by the SoPac Championship Audi Quattro of Ron Wood/Kelly Walsh, sponsored by VW Specialties and Turbonetics. The Rui Brasil/Carlos Tavares Audi Quattro is tied with the Paul Timmerman/Suzanne Martin 323 GTX running with King Dragon/Road Race Engineering colors. Only Ron and Kelly and Suzi and I were at this race and we each had a chance to take away the lead in season points before going into the Treeline Rally in Azusa, and the Ramada Express Casino International Rally in Laughlin. None of the local 4WD Mitsubishi entries made the trip as Tony cooked a motor in Ensenada and Ara and Vartan stayed home.
The highly competitive 2WD Open category has been narrowed down through the season. Dave White/Dave Watts, while often fastest on the road, have had a few problems that allowed others to keep him from running away. Carl Jardevall, in the Volvo 740 Turbo, and Bill Malik/Christian Edstrom in another Volvo were in Prescott to give chase. Accidents earlier in the year have removed both George Plsek and Lon Peterson from this class. Lon has switched to Stock class and George is building a Quattro. If Dave stays home the rest of the year, Bill or Carl could still stage a comeback.
Doug Robinson and wife Sue and various co-drivers have taken a commanding lead in Performance Stock in their RX-7. The car has proven to be almost as fast as the Open 4WD cars and preparation appears to be spot on. Sue may be back in the navvy seat as her foot heals, but Chrissy Beavis was subbing for her on this occasion. Mark Brown and his son in the Matco Tools Toyota FX-16 are continuing to contest the season.
Stock class season points showed Eric and Alfredo Oyague in the Corolla with a lead heading into this race, but Lon Peterson is back in a Stock class car, quickly racking up points with Jim Love co-driving on this occasion.
The rally consisted of a mixture of brand new roads and well used roads from previous years. The Friday night roads take the competitors south of Prescott to the historic mining town of Crown King. A triple hazard on the course was discussed at the driver's meeting as the organizers wanted to avoid damaging a building with national landmark status. These roads were much twistier than typical, running through a ponderosa pine forest, over roads with sharp embedded rocks. This mixture of new hazards was to be run mostly after dark and dust was expected to be a factor as well. We were cautioned that Friday night was a car breaker and that only those with restraint would still be racing Saturday.
As it turned out, the entire Friday night section was cancelled after Carl Merrill’s accident on stage one. The cancellation gave a reprieve to several national competitors. The Garen/Doc Shrader Sierra Cosworth was barely able to start the event, backing over the line Friday night, but never leaving the parking lot. They were eventually able to keep an axle in the car after adding some spacers. Steve Gingras, in the PGT Eclipse, had two flats and a broken CV joint on the first stage. Back in the Divisional ranks, I was blowing turbo hoses on the transits. The competitors retired for the evening, unsure of Carl’s prognosis and if Saturday would bring any racing.
The decision to press on regardless was made the next morning at a meeting with all the competitors and workers. Carl's wife announced that that is what Carl would have wanted. To allow the workers and competitors to regroup, having been rattled by the events of the last twelve hours, the start was delayed by one hour. After a ceremonial five minute delay for Carl as first on the road, we all pushed off, showing memorial #3 stickers on our windshields.
The Saturday course follows the familiar route from near Jerome, out across Chino Valley and out to Charcoal Canyon. The roads are much less twisty than other CRS events and allow racers to hit top speed for extended periods. The roads seemed to be in great shape this year, with the exception being some formidable rocks sprinkled around on the course. We took the small, unmaintained road called Railroad Grade at the end of the last stage. This is an old narrow-gauge mining railroad bed, cut into the hillside by hard rock miners, features fallen rocks, hidden on the inside of blind corners.
The Subaru Impreza of Hiroyuki Genta/Kazmasa Takata was the first car to go off Saturday, losing two minutes after going off course on the first stage, which includes stretches where 120 mph could be reached. The desert-prepared Ford Mustang of Randy Holland/Jack Whittington, down from Montana, running in divisional had a similar experience, going off-road at speed, getting two flats, breaking a tie rod, and then rolling the big tire'ed machine. Fred Ronn/John Dillon also went exploring with their Performance Stock Celica, ending their day. We could not see their car as we went past. Garen Shrader’s Sierra Cosworth took fastest time honors for the stage, but that was their only honor of the day, as they would drop out after only three stages.
The second stage is much like the first, with a few corners near the beginning and lots of open space in the later sections. Choiniere, Summerbell, Whitman and Lawler were all setting fast times in the national lineup.
On the third stage, out to the turn-around, the Choiniere/Becker Hyundai developed a rear suspension problem, losing almost 12 minutes to the field. This problem was fixed at the turn-around, but they were now hopelessly behind. This stage had to be halted for a brief period when the Roger Hull/Sean Gallagher Eagle Talon went off road and had to be found using the ESPN-2 helicopter. They were found in good condition and the rally continued without them. Bill Malik was having electric trouble and was in need of a battery at the turn-around. He did not find a spare, giving Dave White a clear shot at the championship.
Stage four was perhaps the trickiest of all of the stages. It was the first stage run in total darkness and contained some of the fastest stretches, with low chaparral providing limited visibility up the road. Add in the accidents, dead cars, rock and bridges, and you have an easy DNF. Accurate instructions were vital. We found it was something of a trick to call the turns quick enough as we came up to the double caution bridge crossing in fifth gear. In CRS events we typically use second and third gears. The drama on the stage increased when the Subaru Impreza of Hiro Genta came over a blind crest at 80 mph and found the road had moved over to the left during their short flight. They proceeded straight off the road, through the rocks, a cedar tree, and back onto the course where they parked next to the tree. White, Takaori and Gingras provided the muscle to help move the car enough to allow cars to pass.
As we passed the wreck, we found the road partially blocked and littered with rocks. Running 4WD Open as both a national and divisional competitor, Janice Damitio/Amity Trowbridge, in the Crazey Expresso Toyota Celica GT4, flatted, losing about four minutes on this stage. Ron Wood and Kelly Walsh came upon the scene two minutes after us, clipped a large rock with their rear corner, breaking a wheel and tearing the rear suspension away from it's mounting points, resulting in an uncharacteristic DNF. Doug Robinson and Chrissy Beavis were having a good run until they had to drive on a flat for seven miles to get off stage four, ruining a strut. The strut was fixed at service within the 20 minutes allowed. Carl Jardevall was having fuel pressure regulator problems from the start of the day. He and co-driver John Elkin called it quits after the fourth stage. Tom Bier/Ole Holter in the Saab 99 were stopped along the road on stage four with a car that would not run. They got it going again and ran the last two stages, but had to be towed in to the main time control as it died again with three miles to go, saving them from a DNF. They later pointed to the fuel pump as the cause which has been a problem this season. Cable Rhodes/Tyler Rhodes RX-7 also stopped running during this stage. After the scares we had on stage four, we decided to dial back the boost and slow down a bit. Inspection later showed large rock cuts in the front tires.
After the final service, Summerbell was just ahead of Lawler in the second Hyundai with locals Mike Whitman/Paula Gibeault third in the Sierra Cosworth. A battle in PGT was shaping up between Arthur Odero-Jowi/Farina O'Sullivan and Steve Gingras/Eric Carlson. Jowi was seen coming into the end of stages with his brakes glowing cherry-red. But it was the pivotal fourth stage that set back Gingras and opened the way for Arthur to go for his first national class win.
For the first time, we found ourselves first on the road for divisional only. We started to slow down, thinking we had our class wrapped up. We later found we had three national/divisional cars further up the road with lower times, two of them were national Production GT cars that were also in our Divisional 4WD Open class.
Cruising for the finish, I must have relaxed a bit too much, because we failed to communicate on the tricky turn onto the Railroad Grade. It was like exiting a main road into an alley. I came in using fifth and late braked, did a massive pendulum turn in front of the ESPN camera. I nearly stalled the car but found first and kept it going. Next time I will understand that video lights mean "Danger Ahead!"
Going up the railroad grade, a jack-rabbit ran out in front of us. Never having seen the rear end of a jack-rabbit at 25 mph, I slowed down and waited for him to exit. He did not. At last I got to a straight and tried to pass the blazing bunny but he swerved back and forth, as if trying to block my pass. When I had enough, I passed him. Careful inspection of the skid-plate after the event showed no fur or other bunny parts.
We had a long, smooth, gravel road transit back to Prescott, where we got to bed at a decent hour for two nights in row. Last year we suffered mightily from severe sleep deprivation, after suffering with radiator troubles, finished second from dead last. I swore I would not come back but I'm glad I did.
For the Divisional event, Arthur Odero-Jowi and Farina O'Sullivan took first overall and first in 4WD Open. Steve Gingras was second overall and in 4WD Open. Paul Timmerman/Suzanne Martin were third in Open 4WD class and fourth overall. Harris Done/Ray Hocker, in the Mazda RX-7, took first in 2wd Open and fifth overall. Dave White/Dave Watts were second in 2WD Open. Third in this class was the Bobby Whitman/Donna Mitchell entry in the Datsun 510. Donna stepped in for Bill Gutzmann at the last minute. Doug Robinson/Chrissy Beavis were first in Performance Stock followed by Mark Brown and son in the Toyota. Third in class went to Trevor Donison/John Allen in the national Production class Plymouth Neon. In Stock class, with a fine third place overall, Lon Peterson and Peter Workman showed how it is done. Steve Bender/Craig McHugh, in the Blue ex-Chizma Rabbit, took second in class. Eric Oyague/Alfredo Oyague, in the Corolla, took a third in class.
Noel Lawler/Charles Bradley turned up the heat in the final stages, taking the win for Hyundai, while Choiniere/Becker finished almost 14 minutes back. David Summerbell/Michael Fennell may have lost the win by only 0.23, but they were overwhelmed by emotions at the awards ceremony, after taking the lead in the points championship. The third place National finish for Mike Whitman/Paula Gibeault was their highest yet. Odero-Jowi/O’Sullivan took a fine fourth overall and their first PGT class win. Fifth overall were Kosmides/Noyes, cinching their championship. Bill Malik's Volvo's electrical problems allowed Dave White to win the U2 season championship in his VW Golf. Trevor Donison is in a dead heat with Lee Shadbolt for the Production class in the Neon, after Odero-Jowi took home first place points.
The Divisional event championships are still a bit less decided. Doug Robinson's RX7 seems a shoe-in for Performance Stock, as his runs have been fast and nearly flawless, but Mark Brown's FX-16 has a new motor and it seems quite fast as well. In Stock class, the Oyague brothers have to contend with Lon Peterson who is making up fast for a late start in this class. Open 2WD seems to be all Dave White but if Bill Malik or Carl Jardevall run more Divisional events through the end of the year, they could still take it back. In Open 4WD the competition between Suzi and I, Ara and Vartan, and Ron and Kelly is too close to call. It depends upon a ruling on CRS points awards to non-CRS national PGT competitors. Tony Chavez and Rui Brasil could still factor as well as both have shown plenty of speed if not great reliability. Like in the National O4, nothing is certain, and it is expected to come down to the wire.