That’s all that stood between the Toyota RAV4 piloted by Ryan Millen and co-driver Rhianon Gelsomino and the 2WD Class championship in the 2017 American Rally Association (ARA) season. All the RAV4 had to do was cross the start line on Day 1 of the 2017 New England Forest Rally, and the class title was theirs. Seems easy enough, right?
That was the preamble provided by Toyota’s communications team before a small group of journalists, amped up from a day of driving at the Team O’Neil Rally School, rendezvoused with Millen and Gelsomino for a chance to ride shotgun in their rally-prepped RAV4 on the eve of the two-day race. Despite a long day of reconnaissance that saw the pair run the course in preparation for the weekend’s work, they graciously answered questions before Gelsomino retreated to their team RV to finish the all-important pace notes that would come in handy on Maine’s rural roads.
With Gelsomino gone, her seat was up for grabs for a quick blast along a gravel course at a local ski resort that was shuttered for the season. And so one by one, we geared up before crawling inside the caged crossover. Millen remained as good-natured as ever despite the Groundhog Day-like task of running the rutted course back and forth over and over again.
Despite possessing features that may not seem like they lend themselves well to rallying — the crossover, with its high center of gravity, features a front-wheel-drive configuration and an untouched four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission found in every other RAV4 this side of the hybrid model — Millen tossed the RAV4 around with ease, inducing plenty of smiles along the way.
The ruts grew deeper with each fast-paced pass, exposing football-sized rocks buried in the dirt, and, aside from some bits of underbody protection that periodically popped off, the RAV4 remained unshakeable with Millen behind the wheel. That is, until we left. Because it was sometime after sunset that the toll of our fun and games was realized: We killed the rally-ready RAV4 on the eve of its championship-clinching race.
It simply wouldn’t start, the result of a beat and battered main engine control unit (ECU) finally throwing up the white flag. So members of the RAV4 rally team found a sacrificial lamb nearby in one of the production RAV4s we arrived in. While we were out eating lobster rolls, the shiny new RAV4, with barely a few thousand miles on its odometer, was acting as organ donor for the greater good of Toyota’s motorsports effort.
Except the story doesn’t end there. As it turns out, there are some nuances involved with swapping the ECU from a four-wheel drive RAV4 into a front-wheel drive version; that it doesn’t, for example, like to communicate with the dozens of other control modules that make the whole thing go when switching from driving all four wheels to just two of them.
Hours of troubleshooting and a couple of fried wiring harnesses later, and the RAV4 rose from the dead to start the race — and in doing so, it clinched the 2WD Class championship with three races in the season to spare. I told you it was easy.