Brandon Semenuk made his rally racing debut last season for Subaru Motorsports Rally Team USA after establishing himself as arguably the most talented freestyle mountain biker on the planet. Transitioning to a new sport required a bit of an adjustment period but Semenuk nonetheless managed to notch his first win at the very final race of the 2021 season behind the wheel of a true rally-ready STI.
This year, the prospect of more full-spec World Rally Championship cars in the field put Subaru on notice—notably, a Hyundai driven by Hoonigan head honcho Ken Block that looked ready to dust all competition. But this past weekend, Semenuk already managed to tally a second first-place for his career books at the season's first points race, the 100 Acre Wood Rally in Missouri, where he managed a dramatic late-stage turnaround to finish ahead of both Block and fellow Subaru superstar Travis Pastrana.
After the weekend's festivities subsided, I spoke with Semenuk about making the switch to rally racing and what an early win means for Subaru's strategy this season.
Recovering From A Winning Weekend
I first asked Semenuk how rally racing in a purpose-built Subie compares to riding a mountain bike.
"I've been a professional mountain biker for more than half my life," he replied. "That's a very, very physical sport, most days I feel beat from riding but then I get in the rally car and it's almost like the polar opposite. I get out of the car and physically, I feel totally fine, but my brain is just annihilated. You're so drained mentally, it's just very different than what I'm used to on my day-to-day."
Semenuk revealed a bit of excitement about winning the first race of the season, but clearly cautioned himself to keep a broader view on the whole year.
"To start off with basically coming in and winning the first really key event is awesome," he said. "I am stoked and I was really stoked after the event, obviously. It's a tricky year cus we've got some more competitive cars and obviously the field's getting deeper and deeper."
World Rally Cars In America
That expanding field of competition deepened in new fashion this year after the American Rally Association decided to allow WRC cars into the national series beginning at last year's 100 Acre Woods Rally. Then, Barry McKenna nearly took home first in his WRC Fiesta. And now, in advance of the new season, Block went out and found himself a 2019 Hyundai i20 WRC (while his wife, Lucy, entered an M-Sport built Fiesta Rally3 alongside his daughter, Lia, in an M-Sport built Fiesta R2T). I asked Semenuk how those world-spec cars look in comparison to the rest of the ARA builds.
"It's just a different level," he admitted. "We have a national-spec car that, that has been kind of evolved to compete with these world cars instead of this world car that's been engineered for five, six years with millions or even a billion dollars, potentially... We don't know. So yeah, it's just a different level, but it's really cool that we can go out there and be racing these cars."
Despite the advantages that WRC cars bring to the table, Semenuk managed to win the first points race of the season in dramatic fashion—more on that later—but I wanted to know how he and Subaru planned to make the rest of the races competitive.
" I think this year," he explained, "You look at some of Ken's times, me and Travis are 10 seconds off on the stage. There are some times in there that we know we're not gonna be able to catch. It's unrealistic, but there'll be some improvements. And I think it's a big team effort this year to find some more speed outta the car—and us as drivers, as well."
A Little Bit Of Luck
Semenuk took first place after Block led for most of this past weekend's 100 Acre Wood Rally, a common and somewhat expected sight after the tire-shredder extraordinaire won seven of the past eight outings in Missouri. But this year, a bit of luck factored into the final standings.
"Ken clipped a deer on the last stage," Semenuk revealed, "He drove through the rest of the stage but obviously, he lost a bit of time because I think the windscreen fogged a bit and I think the car was driving fine, but he had lost a few gears."
Nobody can plan for a deer to appear in the middle of a rally race, but Semenuk explained how much his own strategy throughout the race, specifically trying to put extra pressure on Block over the final few stages, ended up paying dividends when an opportunity, quite literally, jumped out at him.
"We had a decent gap where we could have maybe let off a little bit and conceded a bit of time over the last few stages," he said, "But then Ken had the same gap in front of me, where I could keep pushing and kind of keep the pressure on him, so if he makes a mistake, then I can capitalize. We just pushed on every stage and he kind of eased off on maybe the second-to-last stage and we got 10 seconds back. Then he hit the deer and then all of a sudden, you know, we're right ahead of him."
Fans of Formula 1 will certainly understand how the minutiae of strategy might play out in unexpected ways, to the extent that pitting during a last-minute safety caution might change the course of an entire season. But the unpredictable nature of racing through wilderness at top speed factors into why Semenuk loves the sport.
"That's rally, right?" he laughed, "Like, anything happens and it's always the very last loop of the rally where these kinds of things come about."
Finding A Second Career In Rally Racing
Formula 1 drivers might spend years working their way up from shifter karts to F4, F3, F2, and finally the big show, but Semenuk and his teammate Pastrana made significant career shifts before they ended up behind the wheels of rally-prepped Subarus. And Block, too, can point to a later-life entrance into rally racing. I asked Semenuk if he ever wonders why three of the best drivers on the planet all came to rallying outside what might be considered a more typical career path (thinking about my own potential as a Subaru driver, of course).
"I just was always interested in motorsport," Semenuk said. "When I was able to do something fun with my money, it wasn't fancy clothes or fancy street cars, it was go-karts and rally cars. That was just what was cool to me."
"I grew up in Whistler, so tons of logging roads in forestry. There are all these gravel roads that are really awesome. Then there was also the rally team Subaru Canada, which was a half-hour from where I lived, so I'd see the cars running on the gravel roads we would ride up to get on the bike trails. We'd see the cars all the time and when I got my license, that's what I wanted to go do."
Luckily, a friend also happened to live near Martin Rowe, a British former rally driver and coach who ended up providing some key lessons after Semenuk traded his own roadgoing Subaru in for a fully built rally STI around 2010.
"I wasn't starting this kind of hobby learning bad habits," he said, "I was fortunate to have really, really good direction right off the start. It's been kind of a long road of just being involved, but the last few years have been full-on with Subaru and Travis and a big, big learning curve for me to get up to speed because those dudes aren't joking."
Lamenting The Lost STI
Semenuk also told me he still daily drives a 2006 STI, so I had to ask his feelings about the recent news that Subaru put the brand's most iconic model on the chopping block.
"The STI is just my fun go-rip-around. Like it was my recce car for years so it's seen lots of gravel roads and I'm not trying to baby it. I just pound on it and it just keeps going."
"It's actually pretty sad," he admitted about the STI's demise, before hedging a bit. "I think the WX is still a great car and I don't know what the plans are over at Subaru, but I feel like that's such an iconic part of their brand that at some point I'm sure there'll be something new. It's my personal opinion, but it's a bit of a bummer."
Looking Forward To A Long Season
Whether Subaru revives the STI moniker for an electric racecar—a la Hyundai's Veloster N ETCR—remains a question that only time can answer. In the meanwhile, Semenuk and Subaru Motorsports fully acknowledge the battle ahead if they want to keep logging wins at upcoming races in the Northwest and Northeast. I asked how much Block and his WRC Hyundai entering each race with a better car affects strategy for the rest of the season.
"In a way, it takes the guesswork out," Semenuk said. "We're gonna have to really work hard, just be super dialed-in coming into the events and hopefully don't make any mistakes. It just takes a lot more risk this year than years past."
"Every rally is gonna be the same for me and Travis. It's gonna be absolutely flat-out, we can't give them an inch."
Sources: subaru.com, hooniganracing.com, americanrallyassociation.org, dirtfish.com, and martinrowe.com.