Set among the dappled orange and green forests of Michigan in the clutches of fall, Era Motorsport driver Kyle Tilley and co-driver Tim Whitteridge competed in the Lake Superior Performance Rally, deemed the “oldest, meanest, toughest rally on the circuit.” Originally entered in an Evo 8 in the Limited Class, some last minute engine problems had the teammates scrambling to find a solution. McKenna Motorsport provided just what the duo needed in the form of a Ford Fiesta R5 MK2 Rally Car.
“It was almost overwhelming,” Tilley admits. “Going from not having a car at 5 o’clock Tuesday morning to showing up on Wednesday at lunchtime and having a brand new R5 car to rally. It was a whirlwind.”
The seventh round of the ARA National Championship Series started in Marquette, Michigan with a practice stage Wednesday the 13th of October, 2021. Over the course of the event competitors participated in 15 stages, traversing 140 competition miles of winding dirt forest roads. Before the event, both drivers had reservations. For Whitteridge, his thoughts went to the car being fast and his own newness to the discipline and role of co-driver, raising the question of whether he would be able to keep up with the car. “I think this is the steepest learning curve of anything I’ve ever done,” Whitteridge commented following the event, which is only the second rally either athlete has competed in. “I’m really proud of how both of us did. We both knew we were out of our element. We went into the weekend knowing that the car was way better than we were and it was capable of second place behind Ken Block, but where are we going to put it? The last thing we wanted was to be slower than we would have been in the Evo. We had the pressure of everyone knowing what the car is capable of, so this was going to be a real measurement of our skill and we are still developing our skill by the minute. So there was that pressure of eyes on us and I’m really proud of how we handled it and how much we learned and how quickly we applied the things that we learned.”
Both Tilley and Whitteridge have proven to be quick studies. Going into the weekend, the pair hoped for a top 20 finish, and at the end of day one, they exceeded their own expectations, landing in 6th place. The night stages proved to be the real turning point for the #224. Tilley recalled, “There was a five right, so a fourth gear 80 mile per hour over a crest and I thought we were going off. And I pitched the car in and I touched the brake with my left foot to get it to rotate, and it did, just hung it out completely sideways and floored it and it pulled it back out of it and I thought, ‘Cool, so that’s what I can get away with.’ And I just drove to that and backed it off ten percent and that’s what we did for the rest of the rally. That’s when it all started to flow.”
“I feel like the car really came alive at that point,” related Whitteridge. Their new found flow gained them top three stage finishes in five of seven stages on the second day, with the other two stages seeing a fourth place time. As the weekend wrapped, the teammates found themselves first In the RC2 class and on the cusp of an overall podium finish, an impressive feat for the newcomers. Unfortunately, two penalties amounting to two minutes and thirty seconds dashed their overall hopes, bringing them in at a well-earned fourth place.
In addition to their natural talent, the team attributed their success in part to the R5. “The car flattered us. The short wheel base makes it so agile,” commented Tilley. “That’s why it turns in so quickly,” agreed Whitteridge. “It’s an absolute spaceship.” Tilley added. “It’s incredible to drive, and to have an opportunity to drive it this early into our rallying foray is pretty cool.” Whitteridge adds, “The way it deals with bumps, jumps, roughness, it makes everything that would normally be a focus point, something you really need to pay attention to a non-event.” “In the Fiesta, we are going so much faster (than the Evo) and it transfers weight so much easier that it became effortless. I didn’t have to put any thought into it. I just did it.” Later he mentioned that jumping into the Ford was like jumping into the LMP2 for the first time. He knew he could be fast as the car suited his driving style.
Both teammates knew going into the event that the notes would be a big part of their success. “Our notes got better as the weekend went on,” Whitteridge mentioned. “In the recce, our notes were better than Ojibwe right from the start and then we added a lot more detailed notes from our video. We also learned what Kyle needed to hear to be quicker through more technical corners. Some of these realizations stem from a fruitful weekend training with OZ Rally Pro with Alex and Rhianon Gelsamino. About the experience, Whitteridge notes “There is definitely a lot to improve on, “but I think we have a really good base.”
“Rallying is some of the most fun I’ve ever had in a competition car,” Tilley revealed. Whitteridge agreed. “It feels like you are out having fun, playing around in the woods with your friends instead of being at the track up against all these competitors.” It is, of course, still a competition, but the competition in Rally is against a clock, instead of wheel to wheel combat which turns a team's focus inward. Seeing how far the pair has come in such a short time span has been exceptionally rewarding.
The next event on the schedule is the Oregon Trail Rally November 5-7. For more information, visit https://oregontrailrally.com or follow their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/OregonTrailRally/.