HOUGHTON - A return to Rally America's national championship was big enough, but this weekend's Lake Superior Performance Rally has even more to offer: High drama.
The roads of Houghton and Baraga County will decide a duel for the championship between a pair of former LSPR winners in David Higgins and Ken Block.
Each driver must finish (not always a given at a rally once known as 'Press On Regardless'). If either wins LSPR, they'll win the national championship, which for Block would require a tiebreaker he would earn in his favor.
"When you're a small boy, you dream about going into the last round of the championship battling for the win. That's exactly what we've got this weekend and I'm looking forward to it," Higgins said Wednesday in a media teleconference.
Higgins' co-driver is Craig Drew of Bristol, England, while Block's is Alex Gelsomino, an Italian now living in Los Angeles.
LSPR, now in its 19th edition, is back on the national schedule after three years as a regional event.
Entries have surged from 35 in 2012 to 56 this time and include not only Higgins and Block, but defending champs Henry and Cynthia Krolikowski from downstate Wyandotte, 2011 champs Adam Yeoman (Hancock) and Jordan Schulze (Lake Linden) of local team FY Racing and several other local entries.
Higgins, a British driver born on the Isle of Man and now living in Wales, won two of the first three races to take a commanding lead in the standings, but has watched Block, now of Park City, Utah, storm back to win the last three rounds.
They're separated by only five points under the LSPR system, which includes dropping the worst result of the season.
"Finding that edge of speed and safety is going to be paramount, and to find it quickly," Block said.
The federal government shutdown ended too late for Rally America officials to prepare portions of the Ottawa National Forest scheduled for today's stages, so the event will take place using Saturday's stages on both days, which will shorten the overall mileage.
Yeoman and Schulze enter this weekend's finale in seventh place in the national standings, though after a run of three 'did not finishes' got back on the board with a fourth at the Ojibwe Forests Rally in Minnesota in late August.
Mason Moyle of Houghton has an outside chance at the Super Production title after a season in which he finished second in class three times in just his second season running Super Production. However, he'd need leader David Sterckx of Los Angeles to DNF.
The event begins today with a Parc Expose at 12:30 p.m. at Country Inn and Suites in Houghton before beginning with a pair of afternoon stages at the Moyle Sand and Gravel pit on Green Acres Road in Portage Township.
From there, action will shift to Baraga County for the remainder, which includes six stages, several at night. An 8:30 a.m. parc expose begins Saturday's action on Front and Broad streets in L'Anse, culminating in a victory celebration Saturday night back in Houghton.
Block expressed concern that the roads could develop damaging ruts, seeing as many of the stages will now be run twice in both directions.
"It's going to be much more of a sprint. It's definitely going to be a tight one, I think," Block said.
But for Higgins, who cruised to last year's championship by a wide margin, the thrill of a championship chase raises the skills of the entire field.
"When you're battling for 10 seconds, it makes you drive harder, and the harder you drive, the more reward you get from it," Higgins said.
Weather conditions are expected to be sketchy all weekend, but that's just part of what rally has to offer, Higgins said.
"That's what makes rally what it is, and I'm looking forward to whatever is thrown at us," he said.