For the first time in 36 years, a World Rally Championship could return to the United States at a rally event next year in Southeast Tennessee that would be the biggest sporting event ever in Chattanooga.
The winding gravel roads of the Cherokee National Forest are slated to be the staging grounds for the motorsport competition of rallying, which typically consists of three to four days of races driven on surfaces from gravel to tarmac to snow and ice.
Based on the success of a U.S. competition at the National Forest Service park in Polk County more than two decades ago, the Chattanooga Tourism Co. has been pursuing for more than a year the potential of a rally racing event in the region to draw teams from all over the world.
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Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., told the Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday that Chattanooga is in line to bring a World Rally Championship event to Hamilton, Bradley and Polk counties in 2024 if a couple of test runs are successful this year. A demonstration rally is planned for April 7-8, followed by an official test race in September.
"We want to reintroduce international rally racing ... and we need to get the U.S. back in this competition," White told the Hamilton County Commission.
The event would be headquartered in Chattanooga, but most of the races would be on the gravel back roads in the Cherokee National Forest around the Ocoee River region in Polk County. The short-wheelbase racing vehicles have both a driver and a navigator who race a series of different stages or courses during time trials to get the fastest overall time.
"The demonstration rally will introduce to this region again what a rally race is, and then we would hold a test event in September to show the WRC and the FIA (Federation of International Automotive) racing authority," White said. "The WRC has been looking to get back to the U.S., and we've been working with them for the past year and a half."
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Tim Morgan, the chief sports officer for the Chattanooga Tourism Co., has visited several of the rally races and even got hit by a rock thrown out by one racing car during a Missouri race sponsored by the American Rally Association.
"There is a lot pent-up for an international rally event in the United States, and we know these events draw people from all over the globe," Morgan said in an interview, noting that a recent World Rally Championship race in Portugal drew more than 30,000 people. "There is a significant interest and demand for this type of adventure race that I never knew about until we started looking into this. It's amazing."
The tourism promotion agency is spending $200,000 this year and working with the same event operator conducting another rally race in Mexico this year to put on the test runs this spring and fall to help demonstrate the race potential and safety here. If successful, a World Rally Championship race could be headquartered in Chattanooga next year, which White estimates could pump $34 million into the local economy as driving teams and their supporters come to Chattanooga to participate or witness the motorsport racing.
The televised event also would bring global media attention to Southeast Tennessee, White said.
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"I'm glad that we can share what we have with the rest of the world, and I like that you are thinking outside of the box," Commissioner Joe Graham, R-Lookout Valley, said during Wednesday's meeting. "The ripple effect of what tourism does affects many people."
In 2023, the World Rally Championship is conducting races in 13 countries, including Sweden, Spain, Croatia, Chile, Kenya, Estonia, Japan and Mexico, among others.
"These races offer an incredible experience for the drivers and spectators, and this fits in with many of the adventure sports like hang gliding, rock climbing, caving, biking and whitewater rafting that this region is known for," Morgan said. "In places where we saw World Rally Championship races in Portugal and Finland, rally racing there is really like NASCAR racing in our country."
The idea of bringing a rally race back to the Cherokee National Forest was first pitched to the Chattanooga Tourism Company nearly two years ago by Knoxville developer John K. Shirley, a principal at JKS Retail Development LLC and a member of WRC USA Rally Project Organizing Team, White said.
The World Rally Championship is the highest level of global competition in the motorsport discipline of rallying. It is owned and governed by the Federation of International Automotive. There are separate championships for drivers, co-drivers, manufacturers and teams.
Each rally is usually split into 15–25 special stages, which are run against the clock on up to 200 miles of closed roads.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.