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As the post-event glow of Kennards Hire Rally Australia dissipates, and the echoes of ‘Estonia, Estonia, Estonia – Ott, Ott, Ott!” no longer fill the forests of Coffs Harbour, we celebrate the performances of the incredible international field this year. The WRC field included competitors from France, Finland, Great Britain, New Zealand, Estonia, Italy, Japan and Chile, but Australia also recognised a wide variety of international spectators who made the effort to spend a weekend on the Coffs Coast. As this event also celebrates a 30-year period since the first qualifying event in Western Australia in 1988, other anniversaries appear relevant, and RallySport Magazine caught up with legendary American driver, John Buffum, who competed in Telecom Rally Australia 25 years ago. In the 1993 event, John Buffum competed in an unlikely Honda Civic and attracted little major attention here in Australia. JB is well-known for his many successes in a number of world class cars, including the legendary Audi Quattro Group B car. He won the U.S. National PRO Rally Championship 11 times, and is a nine-time winner of the U.S./Canada North American Rally Cup Championship. He has recorded an incredible total of 117 national championship event victories. Behind the wheel of the Audi Quattro, Buffum also took honours twice as the fastest car up the Pikes Peak Hillclimb, in 1982 and 1983. Buffum also contested a number of rallies in Europe, where he became the first (and still the only) American to win a European Rally Championship event, taking the 1983 Sachs Rally in West Germany, and the 1984 Cyprus Rally. In both rallies he drove the Audi Quattro and was supported by long-time sponsor BF Goodrich. He also placed fifth at the Greek round of the World Rally Championship, the Acropolis Rally. Buffum also ran the 1969 Monte Carlo Rally in a Porsche 911, and is one of very few drivers in the world to compete in at least one World Rally Championship event in four continuous decades (1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s). The official World Rally Championship did not start until 1973, and so the ’69 Monte pre-dated WRC status. For four years starting in 1977, Buffum drove factory Triumph TR-7s and TR-8s, teaming with Doug Shepherd as his co-driver. The pair dominated both the SCCA PRO Rally series and the North America Rally Championship, until British Leyland dropped out of racing in the U.S. In 1981 they tried running Audi 80 and Peugeot 504 racers, but could not keep up with Rod Millen's factory Mazda RX-7 rally entries. In 1982, however, when Audi supplied Buffum and Shepherd with its new Audi Quattro racer, they were unstoppable. Millen would get a faster RX-7, and Buffum would counter with a Quattro A2, then a Sport Quattro to up the ante even further. John retired from regular top-level competition at the end of his undefeated 1987 U.S. year. After his competition career was over, he managed the SCCA Pro Rally Series for five years, while at the same time building his Libra Racing team to include his step-son Paul Choiniere. Choiniere won the SCCA PRO Rally series in an Audi Quattro S-2 for four of the five years, between 1990 and 1994. For the next eight years Hyundai was the Libra team’s main sponsor and the Elantra and Tiburon coupe rewarded Paul and Hyundai with five championship titles between 1995 and 2002. The mid 2000s saw Buffum help Vermont SportsCar get the rally careers of Ken Block and Travis Pastrana started, and then refined, to include several World Rally Championship events in a Group N Subaru, in addition to a string of US rally titles. In 2009, he built the first open class Mitsubishi Evolution X to campaign in the Rally America national series and the Canadian Rally series for Antoine L’Estage, from St-Jean, Quebec. Buffum was offered the chance to build and maintain a new Mitsubishi EVO X rally car for him, and a great relationship was built between Antoine, John and Libra. Results included five Canadian National Championships, one Rally America Championship and six consecutive North American Rally Championships in the years 2009-2014. Finally, in mid-2014, John returned to Vermont SportsCar to become Rally Team Manager and guide their US rally effort for Subaru USA. With David Higgins being the primary driver and Travis Pastrana providing a second car (when his Nitro Circus duties didn’t interfere), victories came on most events, as the sophistication of the cars and expertise of the drivers propelled them to the top of the podiums.

The ‘chat’…..

RallySport Mag: So here we are in 2018 – now you are a spritely 75 year old, what has kept John Buffum busy in recent years? John Buffum: Since 2014 I have been the Rally Manager at Vermont SportsCar. VSC has been employed by Subaru of America to build and compete in Rally and RallyCross. RSM: While Australia is half a world away from the rally scene in the US and Canada, we still observe from a distance. What’s your take on the sport of rallying in North America at the moment? JB: I have said for many years now that rallying will never be a huge sport in USA. Various factors – size of country, number of other sporting events all competing for an audience, NASCAR being a huge draw in motorsports, etc. So, rallying is a ‘niche’ sport – we all know how great it is and we keep trying to educate the public. RSM: There have been some very talented drivers coming out of the USA and Canada in recent years – Travis Pastrana and Ken Block to name but two. Is there anyone else out of Canada or the US scene that you’ve identified as being the ‘next big thing’? JB: No. Antoine L;’Estage from Canada is the best of the lot over in North America, but he has no ride right now, so I don’t know what will happen. RSM: Going back to the glory years of world championship rallying, how did your relationship with both Triumph and Audi evolve? These manufacturers obviously wanted a presence in North America. Did your rallying success help sales? JB: Basically they were interested and I was the best driver around at the time. Many times we are just fortunate to be at the right place at the right time. RSM: What was your favourite event in the Quattro and why? JB: Cyprus. I love the twisty roads and they suited the Quattro’s 4WD perfectly. It didn’t hurt that I won the rally 😊 RSM: In 1993, you visited Australia for the Telecom Rally Australia and competed in a Honda Civic. How did that come about? Was Australia on your ‘bucket list”? JB: The motorsport head for Honda in Taiwan was David Yein. He had rallied in USA and invited me. No, I enjoyed Australia to see the other part of the world, but it wasn’t on my bucket list (The Great Wall in China is though!!) RSM: What was the last rally in which you competed and how did it go? JB: I won with the Hyundai 4WD in the snow in Canada in November 2005. I also did the McRae Stages when the ‘old guys’ came back in 2007 to celebrate Colin. Historic cars – I finished fourth – behind three world champions. RSM: With experience in rallying at the highest levels in the 80s and with success at Pike’s Peak, what impresses you about the current crop of WRC cars? What was your take on the recent record-shattering run by the VW electric vehicle which now holds the Pike’s Peak outright record? JB: The speed and commitment with WRC guys now is unbelievable. Back in the day our cars just weren’t developed enough to go at the pace they do now. We were driving corner to corner more with the Group B cars and scrambling around the corners. I have no comment really on an electric car at Pike’s Peak. RSM: Finally, what does the future hold for John Buffum? No-one ever fully retires from rallying! JB: I’ll continue to work for Lance Smith at Vermont SportsCar. My knowledge of rallying in the USA really helps me plan and execute events behind the scenes. I also am going to the Monte Carlo Historique Rally next February. It will be 50 years ago that I finished 12th overall in 1969 – and there probably won’t be many who can say that!!

John Buffum is one of the USA's most successful rally driver. Photo: GravityBureau.com

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n5AenqU2M9A

Related news:

https://rallysportmag.com/interview-alex-gelsomino-ken-blocks-right-hand-man/
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