Q&A: Jeremiah Johnson, Chairman, Southern Ohio Forest Rally
In the ever-evolving world of motorsport, the inaugural Southern Ohio Forest Rally was one of 2017’s most exciting success stories. Debuting on the Rally America National Championship calendar last May, the inaugural event attracted over 60 competitors who were excited to bring rally back to some of the most exciting stage roads in the country. In the end, it was eventual 2017 series champion Arkadiusz Gruszka who drove to victory in the inaugural race, with three different class winners represented on the overall podium.
The driving force in putting SOFR on the map has been co-chairman Jeremiah Johnson. Leading a talented team of experienced rally“Without our immediate team and a few select crew, we would not be where we are today,” Johnson stated. “This is definitely a group effort, and without all the volunteers, we could not pull off such a large event.". While preparing for the second annual event, he took the time to answer some questions about what makes this round so special, and how fans can expect a next-level experience next weekend:
2017 was the first year of SOFR, and almost immediately it became one of the most important events on the Rally America schedule. What makes this event so important to the National Championship, and so different from any other event?
I think it's because SOFR has such a rich history of rally to build on here in Southern Ohio. Before 2017 the RA schedule was full, so when we saw an opportunity to fit in the schedule we jumped on it. We had an almost fully staffed team, so we hit the ground running!
Last year’s rally had an impressive 25 stages, wrapping up with the Super Special at the Ross County Fairgrounds. What stages are returning from the inaugural event, and what new stages can we expect to see?
Thanks to our Rally Master, Justin Pritchard, and the support of the Ohio Forestry Department, we have been able to add an entirely new forest. The new stage is aptly named Outdoor Drama. This year we will also see changes and extensions to the stages that were run last year. Thanks to the local Madison Township trustees, we were able to secure some township roads, extending three stages.
One of the most exciting changes is Stage 1 and 6, the Ohio Forestry Sawmill stage. Spectators will be able to see the cars launching off the start line, making a few turns before jetting into the forest. Don't worry though: Irish Ridge, also known as one of the best rally stages in the USA—as quoted by many including rally legend John Buffum—has returned and will be the final stage of Friday. Can we say “night stage”?
Arek Gruszka took the overall victory last year, but he’s just one of the top names on the massive 68-driver entry list for 2018. Who are some of the top competitors from 2017 that will be returning, and who are the new names and faces to look out for?
2018 is up for grabs, but the teams returning have an slight advantage because they've seen some of the roads last year. This year we have quite a few teams from Open, SP, OL, and 2WD that could end up on the top. Last year Dave Wallingford pulled off third place overall in his 2WD, although due to an accident at Rally Mexico earlier this year, we won't see him in his new car at SOFR. With the inclusion of Open Light into the National Championship we've opened up the top spots to an even larger group of talent. Gruszka, Rooney, Usher, Brown, Fetela or Burke—I won't be taking bets, it's anyone's rally to win!
The local community has really been supportive of SOFR in a number of ways, and it’s enabled the event to grow very quickly. After last year’s debut, how have local businesses and fans stepped up to support the event even more in 2018? What kinds of things can fans expect from Parc Exposé on each day?
We contribute some of our success to the local community. From the Ohio Division Forestry team to the hotels, visitors bureau, businesses, and people, we've received many thank yous and praise for the direct impact we made. SOFR was just awarded one of the 2018 Ross-Chillicothe Convention & Visitors Bureau Awards. Each year, the RCCVB honors those showing exceptional hospitality in the local tourism industry. They also award grant money for special projects bringing tourists to the area, so it's safe to say the local community has noticed what we are doing, and we can't do it without all the support of the rally teams and fans showing up.
Parc Exposé has changed for Friday. We’re still in the village of McArthur but, due to the success of the event and major growth, we've transitioned to US RT 50. That's right: the state is allowing use to block off the road, only done one other time through the year!
Saturday will remain the same, in beautiful downtown Chillicothe. Both locations will have food and refreshments, so stop down for some Krispy Kreme donuts on Saturday morning.
Rally in Ohio has a rich history, with top names like John Buffum and Rod Millen having driven some of these same stages decades ago. What have the legends of the sport had to say about SOFR, and will we see any surprise visitors this weekend?
I for one am shocked John has not come out of retirement to run the SOFR roads again. We reached out to John when we initially launched and he was very excited to hear we were going to be a national event. John told us, "The roads in the Ohio forest, dating back to the 1980s, were some of the best in America. Smooth and twisty, they were awesome for a driver!”
If we look through the history of drivers and codrivers, we have a lot of them still involved in the event. Heck some of them are on the SOFR crew. We've heard nothing but positive feedback from past competitors. We would love to see Rod, Ryan and Rhys Millen on stage together! Surprise visitors, that would ruin the surprise!
If you had to pick one spectator area out of all the options available—and excluding the Super Special, that’s a given—which one is your favorite?
Well, that's a tough call. For Friday, I think we have to go with the Ohio Forestry Sawmill Stage. I think that is going to be very enjoyable and different from other events. However a night stage NEVER gets old. Luckily our stages are close and once Stage 1 and 6 is over, spectators will have a short drive to make it to the Irish Ridge spectator spot.
Saturday, is tough as well. Outdoor Drama will be high speed and Scioto Trails more technical.. I'm torn!
Finally, if there was one thing you want every fan to be able to say after this year’s edition of SOFR is over, what would it be?
We will be back next year! Which, to me, translates to “SOFR rocked and we will make plans to be back.” From the fans to the teams, we know going to events can be expensive, and SOFR is very appreciative of everyone who makes the choice to come to our event. We truly hope all of our efforts and hard work are noticed. We stepped it up this year and expect even more in 2019!