Monday, March 4, 2024

INTERVIEW: Brandon Semenuk closes in on second ARA title

Brandon Semenuk is undoubtedly the top driver in the American Rally Association today. After scoring his first championship in 2022, he has stepped it up by winning all five races so far into 2023.

With his second title within reach, he spoke with The Checkered Flag on Wednesday about his season, the overlap between rally and his other passion of mountain biking, and the rally world following Ken Block‘s passing.

The Season So Far

“Typically, rally doesn’t go like that. There’s always some sort of drama and it’s easy to just get a flat tyre or something simple and ruin a rally. Definitely very fortunate that we’ve had a smooth drive up until now.”

Brandon Semenuk

When Semenuk sat down with TCF, he was four days removed from winning the Southern Ohio Forest Rally. Besides being his sixth consecutive ARA victory, it was the first at the event for Subaru Motorsports.

“We’ve done the event three times prior and this year was definitely a bit more tricky with the conditions,” said Semenuk. “It’s Southern Ohio in June so it’s usually hot, humid, but this year, we didn’t really get any rain before the event so the roads were extra dry, a lot of dust but also really loose on the roads. To profile the roads, they’re very crowned, and when they get dry like that, it’s like driving on ball bearings.

“The cars with the new rule change, there’s no aero, so it amplified this really loose feeling. Really tricky road to begin with but then made it even tougher, but we managed to have quite a good drive and found a good rhythm. Last year, we struggled a bit to really get like a good rhythm on every stage. There were some loops we feel good and then other loops that just didn’t go as well, and then we had a mechanical by the end of last year. The years before we’ve had good results but the win was never in our favour, so it was nice to actually make it happen this time around.”

After winning the 2022 ARA championship by just eight points over Block, becoming the first Canadian to win a United States-based rally title since Antoine L’Estage in 2010, Semenuk has been unstoppable in 2023. He crushed the Sno*Drift Rally to start the year as he was the lone driver to set a total time below two hours. While the margin of victory was not as large over the next four races, he continued his winning ways by going back-to-back in the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood and Olympus Rally, followed by a sweep of the Oregon Trail Rally in May.

It would have been a perfect run for him through five rallies, including stage victories, if not for Barry McKenna playing spoiler at the 100 Acre Wood by winning the fourth leg; the rally ended with the closest distance so far as Semenuk claimed the overall over McKenna by just seven seconds. Still, with three rounds remaining, he only needs one more point to mathematically clinch the title.

“Typically, rally doesn’t go like that. There’s always some sort of drama and it’s easy to just get a flat tyre or something simple and ruin a rally,” he explained. “Definitely very fortunate that we’ve had a smooth drive up until now. Looking at the next three events in the championship, it’s definitely obvious we need another point to essentially clinch the championship, so we know we can accomplish that. That’s obvious. Moving forward, it’s just not letting our guards down.

“It’s rally so anything can happen, and we still want to try and get some more good results throughout the rest of the season. We’ll see what competition comes in and some really tricky events up ahead, so hopefully we can stay on the same path. Obviously, that’d be nice. The mindset right now is, you know, the championship’s great but we still want to show our speed and win some more events. That’s what we’re going to try and do.”

Even with the championship all wrapped up, he knows not to get complacent especially entering the New England Forest Rally in July. Held in Maine, the rally serves as Subaru Motorsports’ home event.

“The roads are spectacular,” he described of New England. “They’re really exciting to drive, really exciting for fans to watch. It usually brings in a lot of competition and a lot of big crowds and spectators line up to come watch the stages, so it’s pretty rad for that. Just good energy all around the event. Definitely looking forward to New England Forest Rally. The next couple after that, Ojibwe (Forests Rally) and LSPR (Lake Superior Performance Rally), are good events as well, but there’s just something special about New England.”

Besides Subaru, Semenuk also has co-driver Keaton Williams to credit for his success. Williams joined the team in 2022 after working alongside Josh McErlean in WRC3 and the European Rally Championship.

“We met at a rally a few years back. He came over with another driver from Europe. We were just chatting,” recalled Semenuk. “It was just cool to see those guys show up and they did really well. We had a good fight with those guys that came over and then we kind of just stayed in touch into the next season and I was in a position where I was starting to look at a new co-driver. I knew I was going to be with Subaru again and I felt I needed to up the pace from the year prior.

“We offered him a test. It was an interesting test because it was basically a winter test the first time he was in the car on snow and we were using WRC studs, which was kind of unfamiliar to me because in North America typically, we don’t use studs on the events. We had a pretty fun car with lots of grip on a new icy snowy terrain, but we just kind of clicked right away. It was good. He’s obviously a pro. Really small changes from my end on what I asked from him and just in the car and in general, we got along really well. It was an easy decision to keep moving forward with him, and obviously, we’ve grown and learned what each other need in a race format and then also become really good friends in this whole process. Again, super fortunate. He’s been spectacular in the car. Really, really happy about the partnership there.”

Credit: Trevor Lyden

North American Rally in 2023

Semenuk’s ultra successful title defence was probably not what ARA expected after introducing a litany of regulation changes for 2023 to level the playing field. The most prominent modification came to the Open 4WD class—which Semenuk runs—to be closer to the Rally2 specs used in WRC2. For example, the O4WD cars’ aerodynamics have been simplified while the restrictor size was reduced by a millimeter to 33 mm.

While not a total adoption of the Rally2 blueprint, the new regulations mean cars like Subaru’s WRX STI are no longer legal for competition. As a result, the team has switched to a 2021 spec WRX for 2023.

“It’s interesting because we knew the changes were going to come to the championship, like all rally championships, as the equipment changes and eventually the rules do need to be adjusted,” Semenuk stated. “The rules had a lot of maybe grey areas, which allowed certain cars from Europe to come over and compete but it didn’t really align with a lot of the national spec cars you see. Subaru has designed this car for the American championship, which is a national championship, and so there is limitations with the car we had; although it’s an amazing car, we were up against some pretty tough equipment along with all the other drivers in the national spec cars.

“We saw this for a few years and the championship starts talking about how maybe we need to make a change and then they came up with some rules that align a little bit more with World Rally but still kind of fit the North American spec cars. Basically, just to kind of bunch the cars together, they wanted to slow the top of the field and then allow these newer Rally2 cars, which they’re called, from Europe come in which are a really quick spec and then try and bunch those to get categories together to be like the top spec cars. The restrictor size has changed, the weight limit’s changed, there’s no aero other than you’re allowed a rear wing at a certain height. Simply trying to not slow the cars down so much that they’re not exciting, but slow them down to bring some of these really fast national or World spec cars down to this Rally2-class level, which I think has worked.”

Although certainly a noticeable change for drivers, anticipating the new rules beforehand and seeing them play out as the season progresses have piqued Semenuk’s intrigue.

“It’s still something that they’ll probably fine-tune over the next couple years, but definitely I’ve noticed a big difference in the equipment we’re running and you see some of these Rally2 drivers getting up there in the times: good driver with that car is pretty much equal or can be very competitive in that setting,” he continued. “It’s been interesting to learn a new car. We’ve basically taken this car that’s been developed to be chasing Rally1 cars and now we’ve had to find the balance again with the lack of aero and the different power and some geometry changes to make it comfortable to drive but still quite competitive.”

Of course, Block’s death in a snowmobile accident in January means ARA has one fewer major name to also experience the new rulebook. As one of the biggest names in racing and sport in general, the news sent shockwaves throughout the world and particularly in rally.

ARA and Travis Pastrana‘s Nitrocross have since permanently retired #43 in his memory, while the WRC did the same for 2023.

“Losing Ken hit all of us really hard,” began Semenuk. “It’s been tragic and the impact that it’s had on rally and especially North American rallies has been really big. Obviously, he’s there with us in spirit at every event. Everyone still carries his mentality of the full send and trying to put on a show for the people that come out, so that is cool to see. The battle that we were having the year before and Travis included, it was spectacular and it was so good for the championship. For me personally, I was really excited to carry that into this season and continue that battle. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

“It’s definitely changed things up a little bit. He always was a competitor and he always brought excitement to the championship. We are losing that this year, which is unfortunate, so hopefully, like I said, he’ll be with us in spirit and hopefully we can get some more drivers out that embody that spirit and energy that Ken had because it’s an amazing championship and we want to continue these exciting battles.”

Block’s passing also meant the loss of one of rally’s greatest ambassadors whose portfolio has served as a gateway into motorsport for many. With Subaru team-mate Pastrana departing the championship as well to focus on Nitrocross, ARA is hoping to continue growing rally in North America through other means.

“The championship itself is looking at ways to expand access to other drivers from other countries and the rule changes to try and get people more involved to be able to come in and compete at the top level,” Semenuk commented. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way, but it’s a bit of experimenting as things have developed and changed a little bit. We’ve seen a bunch of drivers come over from the UK, from Mexico, Europe, and this and that, so I think it’s just finding a few of those drivers that are experienced, really quick, and just hopefully, them sticking around to do maybe full campaigns instead of just one or two events. That would be really important for the championship and I know ARA is looking at ways to getting those people over and getting their cars over and things like that.

“I don’t really have the answer how to grow it, but from my end, we’re there at every event, we’re trying to put a show on. Obviously, we’re having a blast and we want to portray that to the people involved or the way we show it in our content and things like that and show people why we love rally. Hopefully, that does transcend down to people that see it and they want to get involved, whether it’s just participating or volunteering or spectating or anything like that. It’s really just getting people out to the events and then naturally I think it’ll grow and progress if that happens.”

Credit: Subaru Motorsports

Mountain Biking and Rally

While atop the American rally world today, Semenuk is perhaps better known for literally being atop America as a freeride mountain biker. Having competed professionally since his teenage years, he has won the Red Bull Rampage freeride competition a record four times with his most recent coming in 2021. He also earned an X Games gold medal in Real MTB (Real Mountain Bike) that year.

Semenuk is among a sizeable group of action sports athletes who have gone on to compete in rally or adjacent motorsport. Pastrana, Brian Deegan, and Blake “Bilko” Williams were previously X Games motocross stars in before becoming rally drivers, while Block rode snowboards and BMX bikes. BMX competitor Dave Mirra and skateboarders Bucky Lasek and Danny Way also had rallycross careers of their own, as does Letícia Bufoni who currently races in Nitrocross’ support classes.

Reasons for becoming a racing driver varies, but Semenuk feels he stands out from the extreme sports stars who do so primarily for the thrill of it.

“Motorsports is always something I was interested in. It was something that I saw while mountain biking and it just seemed like another activity that kind of had the same feeling and effect, and it was terrain that I was really familiar with and comfortable around,” explained Semenuk. “That was one thing that stood out to me that wanted me to get involved. It wasn’t about this adrenaline rush aspect or anything like that. It was almost like another way of mountain biking but with like, the roads would almost be brand new trails to me. It was a different outlet that crossed over and once I’ve experienced it, I kind of got hooked and there’s so much to learn with it.

“Stage rally has the elements of pacenotes and you’re driving a lot of unique stage; you’re not going around a circuit and it’s the same thirty-second lap or anything like that. It’s like every little bit of that road is different and even if you do get back on it for a second pass, it develops and it changes. It’s almost like a mountain bike trail. Every time you drop in, it’s always a bit different and you have to use your intuition to adapt. I just really enjoyed the idea of that challenge and I really enjoy that challenge. It hasn’t been really about this adrenaline rush at all. It’s more just the challenge that it brings and it’s similar to what I’m comfortable in an environment I’m comfortable in.”

Similar terrain or not, it goes without saying that riding a mountain bike is a far different foray from piloting a rally car. While Semenuk described adapting to his new environment inside a car to reach where he is today as a “really big challenge”, it is also an “exciting experience and definitely worth every moment.”

“It’s similar in some ways, but it is very different, the equipment and the mechanics of it,” he remarked. “In mountain biking, you’re using your body and that’s how you create balance on the bike and control on this and that. Now, it’s this big machine that you’re trying to manipulate with a couple pedals in the steering wheel. It’s very different, but reading the terrain and the grip is similar, so it took a long time just to get comfortable with the equipment and understanding how a rally car works and how you’re properly supposed to drive it.

“Pacenotes has been the most challenging thing. It’s something that you can work on for a lifetime and never feel like you perfected, so pacenotes is another big one to kind of grow into where you’re comfortable enough in your pacenotes that you can push to 100%. It took a really long time and a lot of events and working with different co-drivers to figure out what works the best.”

Racing and action sports are both famously dangerous pastimes, but he never received any complaints from his biking sponsors about doing the former or vice versa. In fact, they have embraced his double duty while he opined rally is a much safer endeavour than what he has been doing for much of his life.

“I’ve been into motorsports since 2009, 2010, so at that point, I was professional but it wasn’t the peak of my career,” Semenuk said. “It’s just always something that I’ve been passionate about, and I’ve done whether a little bit or a lot depending on how my busy schedule was, but all my sponsors have been supportive and they think it’s cool and they know I’m passionate about it. Honestly, being in a rally car is probably a lot less dangerous than me riding on a motorcycle or going skiing all winter and this and that. Obviously, you can have a big crash, but for the most part, you’re pretty protected in the car and you don’t end up with these small injuries that you might end up with on a skateboard or just other sports that are very much action oriented.”

Semenuk has continued mountain biking in conjunction with pursuing the ARA title, making for a very eventful calendar. In May, he premiered a video project for X Games titled Fools Gold, filmed on a property owned by friend Taylor Sage within the Southern California mountains. October will expect to be a busy month as the ARA season comes to a close followed by the Red Bull Rampage.

The Red Bull Rampage’s date has not been confirmed but typically takes place in October. With such details still not yet confirmed, he did not disclose much about his gameplan but certainly hopes to be back if conditions are ideal.

“I don’t know too much about the event yet. Nothing’s been released. We’ll see what happens. Obviously I’ve done it almost the last twelve years now. If it looks like a good venue and it’s exciting, then I’ll be back and depending on what happens, but we got some other projects lined up as well. It’ll be definitely busy this year on the bike as much as we want to focus on the rally championship. It’s flat on the bike basically in between events and lots of content will come out. We’ll just kind of see how the rest of the year unfolds. It was a busy spring just working on a few things, but now I get to enjoy summer a little bit and we’ll start putting our head down and planning towards a strong fall.”

Beyond 2023

Once he has the 2023 ARA title locked up, Semenuk is not quite sure what he’ll do next. Many including Pastrana have regarded him as one of the top prospects to eventually compete in the World Rally Championship or WRC2, but as of now, it is “tough to know where rally will take me.

“To be honest, I’m really fortunate in the position I’m in. I started rallying as just a passion. There was no desire to do it professionally, not to say that that wouldn’t be something I would want to do, it didn’t seem like a reality. I just wanted to do it because I did love doing it. It’s developed now into what it is and winning the championship last year was kind of a dream scenario. It’s another thing that wasn’t even on the bucket list because I never really thought it would be a possibility. Having that wicked battle with Ken and Travis was awesome and Barry and those guys.

“Anything from this onwards is just a bonus. I would love to experience some other championships, even if it’s just a different national championship or if it’s World Rally or European championship, just go over there and do an event or two and experience it and meet other drivers and see other roads and grow as a driver, get those experiences in different competition formats. Definitely a desire of mine, but with Subaru right now and ARA, our focus is locking up this championship and moving forward and seeing if we can grow North American rally and keep that exciting. It’s hard to say what opportunities will present themselves, but I’m kind of open to everything, but I’m also really happy with where I am and the role I play with Subaru Motorsports, so I would like to keep that momentum.”

Nitrocross, whose 2023/24 season began this weekend at MidAmerica Outdoors, is also on his radar partly thanks to his friendship with Pastrana, and the two have talked “a bunch about Nitro Rally because it just looks so cool.” While rally and rallycross have their own quirks that might not always translate between disciplines, Semenuk saw some similarities in the latter to mountain biking.

“In a way, it almost kind of crosses over what I do on the bike. It’s a bunch of jumps and berms and it just looks like way too much fun,” he noted. “I’ve gone and spectated a few events now and it’s been wicked. Hopefully, I get the chance to at least try it, if not compete eventually, but again, it’s time and finding the funding and things like that, it’s tricky. I do the rally championship in that sort of, I would say those are my vacation weekends because obviously I want to stay busy with my bike endeavours and I’ve got lots of goals there too. It’s hard to break off too much time, don’t want it to affect our ARA championship and I don’t want it to affect some of the riding endeavours I have. When the time’s right, I’ll definitely try and make it happen. But yeah, rallycross would be a fun one and there’s even some off-road stuff or other desert kind of racing would be just a cool experience.”

Until then, he has ARA championship number two on his mind. The New England Forest Rally will take place on 14/15 July.

Interview on YouTube