By Sean Moriarty

Photos: Scott Rain

The Super Production (SP) category looks to be keenly fought in this season’s Rally America National Championship and the class to watch throughout the season.

After two rounds, defending 2011 SP titleholder Travis Hansen and former National 2WD champion Lauchlin O’Sullivan are equal in points.

Woodsville, NH driver Hansen, co-driven by his dad, Terry, took the class laurels at Sno*Drift in January, while San Francisco-based O’Sullivan and his co-driver Scott Putnam placed second. The roles were reversed at the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood a month later.

Sharing the class championship lead after the opening brace of rallies gives the two rivals plenty to think about over the spring break. Sullivan believes that rally fans have a lot to get excited about when the battle resumes at the Oregon Trail Rally on May 4-6, the next round in the Rally America National Championship.

The privateer Mitsubishi Lancer driver has solved the issues that blighted his 2011 title run. His formidable finishing record was severely dented after he retired on three consecutive occasions last season. But he came from behind to win the class in Missouri after brake and engine woes early in the event. That is the kind of progress he wants to bring to Portland, OR for the Oregon Trail Rally.

“I am still learning to drive this car,” says the former factory Mitsubishi factory driver. “Each event is a new adventure but it is a good car and I appreciate my friend George Plefk letting me use it. He bought it last year and has not raced it yet because I always get to drive. But we hope to get him out in a regional event before Oregon Trail.

“It is hard to stay with the big names like David Higgins and Antoine L’Estage in their Open Class cars,” O’Sullivan continued, “But there is no reason why Super Production cars can’t be fighting for a podium every race. And if we keep close and they have issues on an event why can’t we fight for an outright win?”

O’Sullivan’s statement is not as far-fetched as it might originally seem. His SP rival, Hansen, drove his Subaru Impreza into the record books last year by taking victory at Sno*Drift. It was the first-ever outright win for a SP driver at a national round.

“I would say there are three of us in America that are capable of winning a rally in a SP car, and that is not to put down anyone else in the class,” adds O’Sullivan. "Ramana Lagemann is not running this year but he is up there with Travis. The Belgian, David Sterckx, was quick in Sno*Drift but crashed at 100 Acre Woods.”

The SP cars might lack the sheer brute force of the Open Class machines upfront and will never match them for outright pace, but O’Sullivan wants fans to play closer attention to the second-tier competition.

“The SP cars are probably more spectacular to watch because we have to be more aggressive to drive them at speed,” adds O’Sullivan. “There is nothing better than the sight of an EVO or an STI being driven down a stage. They are mean-looking cars and it is a real good show.”

Hansen shares O’Sullivan’s belief that it is possible for the SP drivers to upstage the Open Class machinery but it will take maximum effort. It is clear that Hanson is not going down without a fight.

He explains: “An overall win in an SP car is possible but this year there are so many Open Class drivers that an SP driver has to stay in front of. The class is growing and so are the drivers. Everyone gets a little faster at every event and the Open Class guys keep getting harder and harder to take down in SP.”

“The big accomplishment for me has been to beat as many Open Class cars as possible and putting the SP car on the overall podium in any spot.”

Hansen says that O’Sullivan is his biggest fear when it comes to retaining his crown but he has earmarked other rivals too.

“I think Lauchlin is a great driver. Last year he had a tough time with reliability issues on his car but this year he is giving us a run for our money. He and Scott have a wealth of experience in rally racing and they will be there at each race ready to fight for the win.”

“Other competitors in SP are unknowns. Every year there seems to be a new driver that comes through the ranks to give the top guys a new challenge. Sterycx is definitely one of these unknowns. He comes from a significant rally background. He has a brand new competitive car. I don’t think we have seen his full potential. Time will tell but I think he is great addition to this class.”

As Hansen has pointed out the arrival of former Belgian Division Two Group N champion Stercyx to the series has added a new dimension to the class battle. The Impreza driver is finding his feet but says this year is a learning year and he hopes to be in a better position to challenge O’Sullivan and Hansen next season.

His stage times are pretty good but engine problems on the opening two rounds, plus a crash on the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, means he now holds fourth place in the class standings. The high-speed, closed public asphalt roads of Belgium are a very different prospect to the gravel forest tracks of North America.

Stercyx, now based in Santa Ana, CA says, “There is a huge difference between the tarmac and gravel. It's hard for me to find the right braking points and also the right traction. We were not that far behind Lauchlin and Travis considering that we had engine trouble in each stage that we did.”

As further evidence that the SP class is far from a poor first cousin of the Open Class just take a look at the overall national standings. Privateer Hansen occupies second spot behind defending 2011 National Champion Higgins and the might of Subaru USA and ahead of Ken Block.

O’Sullivan is listed in fifth place but shares the same points haul as last year’s runner up Antoine L’Estage.

Other SP drivers to look out for during the season include Evan Cline and Mason Moyle. Both campaign Imprezas of varying vintage. It is going to be a hard fought battle and a class promising more entertaining stories throughout the season.

The 2012 Rally America National Championship is proudly supported by VP Racing Fuels - the Official Fuel of Rally America, Exedy Racing Clutches, Hawk Performance Brakes, ParkNBlend and RECARO seats.