The Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge is a 45,348-acre landmass in South Carolina. These sandhills got here I am reliably informed due to the eolian (wind-blown) arrival of Quaternary sands 6,000 years ago, and why do I give you this geological sermon? Because we went to this vast sandy patch of America without a bucket and spade but with a rally car of course!
Having just left the winter wonderland of the Sno*Drift rally where best to visit next in a rally car but the equally unusual surface of soft sandy stages instead. So Seamus Burke and our small team headed for South Carolina to the Sandblast Rally, an event on the NASA Rallysport calendar. This championship is a self-titled “Grassroots, Sustainable” series of events “where the priority is the competitor and epic adventure” The actuality of the NASA events is as different as the ethos suggests, events are competitor friendly and relaxed, even motorcycles are welcome to join the event in their own separate class that runs at 30-second intervals ahead of the field before the rally cars begin. That and the fact that certain buggies and pickups were among the entry list mingling in with the rally cars gave this sandy event a slight Dakar type feel in my imaginative analysis.
Respecting the backbone of the grassroots crews the NASA championship organisers in past years didn’t allow cars they deemed of too high a specification to score championship points, by this they specifically were seeking to ringfence Group B or WRC style cars and in fact, any car with a sequential transmission was deemed ineligible and these cars were all placed in an exhibition class. However for 2021, there was a need for change identified, the championship had a car that they called the Rocket Ship to find a place for and the Pro arena was created, in fact, it is best explained by quoting the championship rules directly:
“More and more R5 and similar vehicles are competing and these would normally run in Exhibition class. With the proliferation of these cars and to provide these rocket ships a meaningful battle against each other, PRO class was invented to provide that arena, while simultaneously preserving fair and affordable competition in other classes.“
The rules went further to stipulate that there was an increased price to be allowed enter the Pro ranks, a licence costing $800 but for that financial consideration you were allowed compete against your peers of similar equipment and you had a reserved single-digit door number which displayed your Pro status. Importantly that increased revenue from the new licence grade was to be split evenly with one third going to subsidise accommodation for event marshalls and volunteers and one third to the individual events costs and the final portion into the upkeep and purchasing of championship equipment such as the very unique and useful e-reader battery-powered arrival and start clocks. A solution which benefits all concerned.
With that, the Sandblast Rally began on Saturday 6th March and had 20 motorcycles enter the stages thirty minutes ahead of the first of the 31 rally entries that lthen left the start ramp. Out of that entry list four were Pro designated drivers. Martin Donelly and Leon Jordan were the first on the road in their R5 Fiesta, followed by yours truly partnering Seamus Burke in the open spec Mitsubishi Evo 9. Paul Rowley and Dominik Jozwiak followed at third in another Fiesta R5 making it an almost totally Irish origin top three crews except for Mr Jozwiak partnering Rowley who of course is as Polish as he sounds in every sense of the word. Klim Fedoff and Greg Rouminantsev were the fourth and fifth cars both in Mitsubishi Evo’s and teammates in the RKT team based in New York with Brad Morris in his 2WD Mitsubishi Lancer as the final entry in the Pro class and also the top 2WD seed.
The rally had some bite to it with nine stages and 87 competitive miles in total over the day, with the first loop before service over two substantial stages providing just shy of 25 miles against the clock and a brief 25-minute service in the quaint town park of Patrick South Carolina before tackling another 25 miles this time courtesy of three new stages. Certainly enough mileage and variation to keep everyone entertained and on their toes before the midday halt.
As is the necessary and responsible behaviour in the current times the rally was without spectators and all interactions with time cards and control check-ins were touchless, socially distant and behind masks and the rally ran like a well-tracked train. The surface of the sand-based roads was invariably fast where it was packed solid and big long straights meant we were flat in 6th gear for many an enjoyable section but then the rhythm changes as you get into the junctions where the surface ruts up in an instant and even four-wheel-drive rocket ships are fighting and scrambling not to become ships run aground! That is the most unusual thing about the sandy surface, you don’t see the rooster tails of sand that the car is throwing in its wake as it fights for grip but you definitely see the ripples and ruts and you feel how it sucks the speed instantly out of the car as tyres dig in and spin. Once you pull your way out of the sand and stay careful to avoid the real sandy berms and off line drifts of sand then there is a surprising amount of grip. The roads are tree-lined and the sensation of speed is exhilarating once you can keep moving forward and often the stages are broken up from triple wide motorway sections into the narrow technical parts that have the odd very hard water crossing to nose dive into.
On the timesheets Donnelly and Jordan to lead Burke by just over a minute with three stages and 23 miles left to go, it seemed like Donnelly was in control and cruising. Rowley was the only other remaining Pro class contestant and was battling back from early intercom problems which were alleviated by Irish assistance as the ever prepared Burke had a spare helmet perfectly proportioned to fit the Rowley teams needs. Brad Morris had retired his two-wheel-drive Pro-Class Mitsubishi with driveshaft problems and that left Mike Hooper and Claudia Barbera-Pullen to top the 2WD race all the way to a sixth-place overall finish. Rowley clinched fifth in his recovery drive and Klim Feddof with Matt James co-driving took fourth overall after a day-long battle with Evo teammates Gregory Roumiantsev and Andres Romero who got third podium step as their reward for a day-long race.
However, it was in the last three stages where the battle of the rally really happened. Donnelly dropped 26 seconds on stage seven with an overshoot and Burke catching dust on the stage began to realise that the battle was on, tying for fastest on the short four miles of stage eight it was set up for a last stage battle where it was for Donnelly to hold his nerve and manage the gap and for Burke to attack and hope Donnelly may falter, after one last push Burke was again fastest but just not fast enough and Donnelly & Jordan reached the end of SS9 with just seven seconds in hand but it was enough to capture the win and in the battle of the rocket ships they launched their way to the win of the 2021 Sandblast Rally. It was an enjoyable fun event that did live up to the NASA mission statement and an opportunity to experience another event of a different nature. If you have a wish to try a rally on sand then this is one to put on your list.