by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images via Stephan Verdier

If you’ve been watching action motorsports over the past decade, there’s no way you haven’t seen the name Stephan Verdier flash across your screen. He’s taken home hardware in everything from Global Rallycross to the Baja 1000, and succeeded in everything from drifting to stage rally—even running the full Rally America National Championship season as a Production GT driver and taking numerous class victories in past years.

Next month, Verdier will make his triumphant return to Rally America as the first driver signed up in the UTV Turbo class for Rally Colorado. It’ll mark the first opportunity to see how side-by-sides compete against the cars and stars of the Rally America National Championship, and he’s as excited as it gets to be a part of the action. In an exclusive interview, Verdier discusses the (surprisingly) little work it takes to prepare a UTV for rallying, the advantages to the new class, and his hopes for its future:

Rally America may be bringing in UTVs for the first time this year, but you’ve got tons of experience with them already. How long have you been racing and working with them, and what are some of the events you’ve been a part of with them in other racing disciplines? 

It’s really exciting to have side-by-sides be a part of Rally America. As soon as I drove my first SXS, I wanted to rally it. I have been playing with them for three years now. I was lucky to do and win the Baja 1000 in 2016 with Rhys Millen and raced my RZR in two rallies in 2017.

In your opinion, what makes UTVs the right fit for an additional class in Rally America? 

A few reasons: first, it’s an affordable way to race competitively in rally. Second, the fact that they are the biggest class now in off-road racing shows you that they are reliable, safe and competitive. Third, it’s the biggest market in the off-road industry, they sell more SS than dirt bikes and quads put together. Finally, because of their popularity it will be a great way to introduce new drivers to rally racing. 

You've already filed your entry for Rally Colorado. What can you tell us about your ride in particular, and what sorts of modifications have you had to make to get it rally ready? 

Yes, I’m really excited about Rally Colorado! My car is actually the same as it was last year when I rallied it last. From the stock SXS I did all the safety requirement needed to rally: the cage, seat, belts, that kind of stuff. On the suspension side I got a wide kit, making the car 72” wide from 64” stock. The reason behind it was to give it more stability in corners, the Polaris is a pretty tall machine with a high center of gravity.

I have an aftermarket clutch, but my engine, transmission, differential are stock. Aside from the safety equipment, none of the modifications I made are needed to actually race and be competitive. They’re just personal preferences.

Obviously you’re very passionate about UTVs—what’s your favorite aspect about driving (or racing) them, and how do you expect that to apply to rally to make things competitive and exciting?

I’ve raced a lot of cars in multiple disciplines, and my favorites have always been rallycross cars. Well, the SXS brought me close to the same feeling as a 600HP rallycross car, and they’re not $500k. I think it’s the closest thing to a Open class car that you will get if you can’t afford one. 

But one of the big advantages of a SXS is that I can race it one weekend and go out for leisure riding with my girlfriend the next weekend. You can’t do that with a rally car. They are fast enough to be competitive in a rally and easy enough to have your family play with them safely. I did two rallies with mine already, and after each rally the only thing I did was to power wash it. That’s it. No reprep, welding, fixing, et cetera. Wash it and park it. How cool is that?

Finally, what are your long term hopes and/or expectations for UTVs in rally? 

I really hope that the class takes off and brings an all new group of drivers to the sport of rally, and that we see SXS manufacturers invest some money in the sport. I think the series has to be patient, but I would expect to see around 15 to 20 SXS at rallies in a year or two and hopefully more after that.