Wednesday, April 17, 2024

TRANSCRIPT: TCF Interview with Brandon Semenuk

On 14 June, The Checkered Flag sat down with Brandon Semenuk as he enters the second half of the American Rally Association season on the verge of clinching his second straight championship.

The full transcript of the interview is available below. Some text has been altered from the actual dialogue to improve readability and remove verbal pauses.

An article summarising the interview can be read here.


TCF: You’re coming off winning the Southern Ohio Forest Rally this past week. How would you describe your race and scoring the first win there for Subaru?

BS: It was a good weekend. We’ve done the event three times prior and this year was definitely a bit more tricky with the conditions. 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. And the way the roads are, to profile the roads, they’re very crowned, and when they get dry like that, it’s like driving on ball bearings. So a little looser this year.

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.

TCF: You’re five-for-five in ARA so far this year and the title’s basically almost all but clinched at this point. What’s your mindset going into the rest of the season?

BS: It’s been a really good year. 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. So yeah, 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. But I guess 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. But yeah, that’s the mindset right now is, you know, the championship’s great but we still want to show our speed and win some more events. So that’s what we’re going to try and do.

TCF: Of the next three rounds left in the season, which one are you looking forward to the most?

BS: The next round is really exciting. It’s kind of the home event for Subaru Motorsports, not far from where the shop is. It’s in Maine, it’s called New England Forest Rally. It’s just, the roads are spectacular. 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.

And then the next couple after that, Ojibwe and LSPR, are good events as well, but there’s just something special about New England.

TCF: Obviously, having a good co-driver is important, but how much of an impact has Keaton Williams had for you so far, including this year?

BS: It’s been really good. I feel very fortunate that we were able to connect. We met at a rally a few years back. He came over with another driver from Europe. We were just chatting. 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.

TCF: You mentioned there were a couple of rule changes entering this year. What’s your take on those changes and how have you adjusted to them?

BS: 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. 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.

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. 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.

Credit: Trevor Lyden

TCF: On the topic of competition, of course Ken Block is sadly not one of those competing with you this year. In your opinion, what has his loss meant for the rally scene, especially here in America?

BS: Losing Ken hit all of us really hard. 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 (Pastrana) 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. But yeah, 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.

TCF: So even with such a big ambassador like Ken gone, how would you grow rallying here in America?

BS: How do you grow it?

TCF: Yeah, promote it.

BS: It’s tricky. 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. 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.

So yeah, I mean, 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.

TCF: Switching gears a bit, there’s been a lot of extreme sports stars who have got into rally or racing in general like you. Specific reasons will obviously vary for everyone, but for you, what is it about racing that makes it so appealing for extreme sports athletes?

BS: I don’t really know. I feel like I probably have a different mentality than, let’s say Travis or Ken was into motocross and things like that when he got into it and I know (Dave) Mirra was into it, but I feel like my approach is maybe a bit different.

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. 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. Again, 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. I’d say that’s basically what got me into it.

TCF: How much of a learning experience was it when you first started out in rally coming from a biking background?

BS: I say it’s similar in some ways, but it is very different, the equipment and the mechanics of it. 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. So yeah, I would say it’s been a really big challenge to get to the speed I’m at now, but exciting experience and definitely worth every moment.

TCF: Did you ever receive any complaints or concerns from Trek any of your biking sponsors about rallying or even vice versa?

BS: Nope, no. I’ve been into motorsports since 2009, 2010, so at that point, I was professional but it wasn’t the peak of my career. 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 yeah, 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.

TCF: Do you have anything special planned for this year’s Red Bull Rampage, or we’re just going to have to wait and see on that?

BS: Yeah, 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.

Credit: Paris Gore/Red Bull Content Pool

TCF: Getting back into rally, it might be too early to be certain, but what do you see yourself doing in rallying in the near-future? Do you plan on staying in ARA or moving to something like WRC2?

BS: Yeah, it’s 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 (McKenna) 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.

TCF: And I take it that probably also applies to like, have you ever thought about trying other disciplines like rallycross or even Nitrocross with Travis?

BS: Totally. I definitely talk to Travis a bunch about Nitro Rally because it just looks so cool, and 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. 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.

Interview on YouTube