Rally America Season Preview Part 2: The Newcomers

 Verena Mei & Leanne Junnila of the TrueCar Rally Team races a Ford Fiesta in Rally America

Verena Mei & Leanne Junnila of the TrueCar Rally Team races a Ford Fiesta in Rally America

FORD RACING Dearborn, Michigan -- Last year the only Fiesta on the entry list for Sno*Drift was Dillon Van Way. This year, four Fiestas will are in the field in the 2WD class along with two 2002 Focuses.

Records are falling this season before the first event has even officially started. The growth of the Ford presence in the 2WD class has fueled an overall growth of the 2WD class, leading to a record number of 70 entries for Sno*Drift.

Tim O’Neil, of the Team O’Neil Driving School and Team O’Neil Motorsports, has been around the North American rally scene for over 25 years, twice winning the SCCA ProRally championship. He attributes the growth in the field to the introduction of affordable, dependable entry-level rally options like the Ford Fiesta.

“I have been rallying production cars for years because of economic necessity,” O’Neil said. “I have always felt that people need to try rally and they need to first experience it in a relatively inexpensive, dependable, lower-power car until they get experience with the  things you need like navigation and car prep and the experience of driving.

“Everybody should start off like this and that is how the rest of the world does it. I had been looking for replacement cars for the rally school and it was hard to find a light weight, reliable, easy-to-work on FWD car. As we did our research we kept coming back to the Ford Fiesta as the car that matched those criteria.

“Ford’s introduction of the Fiesta into the US market came at the right time for rally as a generation of Volkswagen Golf had run its course. I pegged early on that the Fiesta was the car that could serve as the logical entry point to rally as affordable and reliable vehicle and in turn that will help spur a growth of the sport.”

The growth didn’t happen overnight, but as used Fiesta’s come on the market and parts are readily available, the cost for entry has fallen.

“In rally you want a plain vehicle, no frills, preferably white because it is easier to see cracks as they develop. A white Fiesta S, standard transmission with an ignition key is the way to go,” said O’Neil. “Depending on what you want to do in rally you will make a few modifications. If you are running rally cross, the real beginner club, you just need a helmet. The great thing about the Fiesta is for a low price you can start your program and add to the car as you have the funds.  Certainly once you begin hill climbs or performance rallying you will need a roll cage, seats, fire extinguishers and so on. Eventually you can upgrade to the M-Sport R2 package.”

Team O’Neil Motorsports will field thee Fiestas this week at Sno*Drift.  Chris Duplessis, who is starting his own team, will drive one of the Team O’Neil R2 Fiestas while he finishes building his own R2.

The second R2 will be driven by Team O’Neil Rally School lead mechanic Edward McNelly, who has worked on the Duplessis program building engines and helping build the R2. McNelly dabbled in regional events and made his Rally America debut at New England Forest Rally last July. Last fall, McNelly had a stellar run in the Tall Pines Rally in Ontario finishing third in class with a stage 1 car (stock Fiesta). He will now embark on his first Rally America season

“Ed has always been a mechanic behind the scenes,” O’Neil said. “He has been involved in the Duplessis program, Wyatt Knox program and he has built a lot of cars at the rally school.  He started off doing club events and regional events and hill climbs.  Ed is a master technician, so he can fix anything on the car. I have seen him co-drive and now I have seen him drive and honestly I don’t know where the man’s limitations are and I don’t think he does either. Nobody knows about Edward McNelly but the grassroots people in the sport, but that is about to change.”

“It kind of came a shock when Tim asked me to drive the car,” McNelly said. “If Tim and Team O’Neil believe in me then I must be good enough to do this. I feel like I have a lot of weight on my shoulders, but it will be a fun experience in the Ford Fiesta.  TheR2 Fiesta itself is unbelievable so if I let the car do the work we can be successful.

“The third Team O’Neil entry is Verena Mei, who came out of drifting and as a graduate of the Team O’Neil Rally School is making the transition to rallying. She made her Fiesta debut at NEFR last season and is now poised for a full year campaign in Rally America.

“When Verena first came to me and said she wanted to rally I told her to start with the school, then co-drive then finally drive and she has done everything I asked of her,” O’Neil said. “The way she went about putting her program together is text book. She is extremely intelligent and her marketing background has served her well. She won a class in Formula D so she has the ability and she has gone about things every methodically and building her confidence in the car. She is fast and she is tough and I am excited to see how her season unfolds.”

O’Neil expects Ford presence and the numbers of the Fiesta to continue grow.

“Frugality is back in style,” said O’Neil.  “Not everyone can have an AWD high horsepower turbocharged open-class car like Ken Block. The growth of the sport will come in the 2WD class and eventually you will see more of the turbo and AWD versions of the car.”