GRINDING GEARS: Spittin’ gravel with a speedy two-sport star

Dropping backwards off the top of a five-metre platform, champion freeride mountain biker Brandon Semenuk whips a 180 to pull off a perfect half-cab, then segues into a flawlessly rhythmic run down the mountain.

Hitting huge vertical while he whips his bike around like a madman, the appreciative Whistler crowd roars their approval for the hometown hero – when the dust clears, he crosses the finish line for his fifth Red Bull Joyride victory.

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Three months earlier, Semenuk was en route to a podium of a different kind. Hammering his open-class turbocharged Subaru Crosstrek through big slides along the forest roads outside of Invermere, he was about to clinch his first Canadian Rally Championship victory at the Rocky Mountain Rally. On two wheels or four, this B.C. boy was clearly born to live on gravel.

Athletes that are able to translate human-powered speed into the highest level of competitive driving are not as rare as you’d think. Legendary World Rally champion Walter Röhrl started out shredding the Austrian alps as a skier. Similarly, our own Canadian rallying hero, Pat “Rocket” Richard, honed his skills on Whistler’s slopes, then took to the rally stage.

“As a skater and a snowboarder you often use your momentum just to keep moving, especially in snowboarding when your feet are locked in,” Richard says, speaking from his Squamish offices. “In the car this really translated as you want to keep your momentum up, especially when you start out, usually in under-powered vehicles.”

Richard has been able to turn his passion and success – four-time national rally champion, multiple North American overall titles – into a long-running and successful rally business. Based out of Squamish, Rocket Rally has been part of the Canadian rally scene for decades. Semenuk’s Crosstrek is their latest creation.

Based on the simple idea of creating a more accessible rallying machine to keep the sport alive, you can consider Rocket’s Competition Platform Crosstrek to be the equivalent of a Spec Miata for racing. It’s much less expensive to purchase and run than the halo STI of Subaru Canada’s Antoine L’Estage, but has the ability to run up at the top of the field. As Semenuk proved, winning the Rocky Mountain Rally in May when L’Estage’s STI suffered a suspension failure, sometimes to finish first, you must first finish. Rally racing can often be a battle of attrition.

“It’s been very reliable and durable for us,” says Semenuk, who we caught up with on the road down to California. “We’ve had it in five races now; there’s still fine-tuning to do, but all the bugs are sorted out. It’s certainly the best rally car I’ve ever driven.”

Rocket’s Crosstrek platform is seeing orders from as far away as Mexico and Europe, indicating that there’s a hole here in rallying that needed to be filled. The Crosstrek platform is dealer-friendly for advertising, and Subaru Canada was quick to partner with Semenuk, releasing a video that showed him pairing downhill mountain bike riding with flinging a standard Crosstrek around Squamish backroads.

“It’s 100 per cent about grip management,” he says of the crossover between riding trails and driving gravel. “On the bike, you can move your body around to manage grip; in the car you have to use the steering wheel and pedals to get the car to move. That’s been the biggest learning curve for me. It’s a skill you’re never going to perfect, even though you might master it.”

At this year’s Pacific Forest Rally, held in Merritt Oct. 13-14, Rocket will be supporting five entries, including four Subarus with sequential gearboxes. It’s a strong field, and the presence of both established and emerging talents means that the top of the podium isn’t a foregone conclusion.

Like all racing series, rallying struggles to maintain relevance and get the fans out there. The combination of a well-respected downhill mountain biker makes for some crossover fans to be introduced into a new sport, and Rocket’s work at leveling the playing field as far as machinery is concerned can only help.

There are thousands of kilometres of forest roads in this province, a huge playground for those who don’t mind getting their feet a bit muddy. As John Muir said, “Of all the roads you take in life, make sure some are dirt.” As WRC legend Colin McRae said, “When in doubt, flat out.”

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and automotive enthusiast. If you have a suggestion for a column, or would be interested in having your car club featured, please contact him at mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com. Follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendan_mcaleer.

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