The Oregon Trail Rally, hosted by the American Rally Association, is an annual stage rally competition held in the grassy and forested hills outside Portland along the Columbia River Gorge and ending in Dufur, OR.
For Agatino Fortunato, driver and owner of All Fours Rally Team, Oregon Trail Rally had started out normal. That is, until it wasn’t.
“That day we were running up against our good friend and fast competitor Corey Salsbery,” Fortunato said. “We had pulled a few seconds here and there that morning, [and] the car felt great. We aired the jump smooth. The next stage it was so fast it was not funny.”
Fortunato’s rally-prepped 2016 Subaru STI had been in storage since the 2017 Olympus Rally in Washington. Fortunato and Glen Ray, his co-driver, dusted off the vehicle and did a re-prep of the car in anticipation of Oregon Trail Rally. The team replaced underbody protection and control arms, and gave it new brakes, filters, and fluids. The day of the race, the STI worked phenomenally… until it didn’t.
“We were on a good pace, especially taking over a year off with only one event,” Fortunato said. “All of a sudden, I feel hot. And I mean hot. I look over and behind me is engulfed in fire, and my arm and seat are burning.”
Rally drivers, like other race car drivers, are required to wear fire-retardant nomex suit. Though nothing is better than a well-prepared team.
“I screamed at my co-driver that we needed to get the “F” out,” Fortunato said. “Before the car came to a stop, I pulled our fire suppression system.”
The fire suppressant system sprays fire-fighting chemicals into the vehicle and is likely what gave the All Fours crew enough time to exit the vehicle safely.
“As I bailed from the car, I was able to grab my phone, my co-driver grabbed my wallet,” Fortunato said. They tried to also take the rear fire extinguisher, but it was out of reach from the “large scale fuel fire” burning in the rear. “Had it not been for proper gear and suppression system, we may not have gotten out so lucky.”
According to Doug Heredos, Chariman of the Oregon Trail Rally, Agatino was 6.5 miles into the third stage when the fire occurred. Competitor Clauda Barbera-Pullen exited the gate after Fortunato and made called Heredos directly around noon that the car was on fire. As soon as the call came out, all competition on the stage stopped. Fire teams with extra extinguishers and specialty gear were sent out to the stage, but 6.5 miles on unpaved, uneven roads that have been abused by race cars isn’t easy.
“I’m just so happy that Tino and Glen weren’t hurt,” Heredos said. He praised the work of Christopher Riches and the SWEEP team for the cleanup, and Chris Hale’s radio operation and response resource leadership. “I’m very happy to know our competitors and teams all followed procedure and made good decisions during the incident. We have a great team!”
The first cars on scene are asked to render assistance while the second car on scene radios in. During this fire, the competitor behind Fortunato called Heredos directly. Luckily, Fortunato and Ray were able to exit the vehicle safely and other teams were quick to help out as the Fire Team drove to the scene.
“The competitors on scene used their in-car fire extinguishers to begin fighting the fire,” Hederos said. It took another ten minutes for fire crews to come onto the scene, but by then the car was a raging inferno. “At some point, it became evident that the car could not be saved and so the teams focused on preventing a brush fire.”
While the fire stopped All Fours Rally Team’s competitive edge at Oregon Trial Rally, it won’t stop them completely. Fortunato still plans to get back behind the wheel.
“[Its] heartbreaking, not so much fear but a hole,” Fortunato said. “There were good and bad times in the car, mostly good.
He had put the vehicle together with his father, as one of their last projects together. His father was what got Fortunato into rally, and his dad thought he was crazy for building a new car for stage.
“To sit back and watch all you have go up in smoke, there really is no words, but “helpless” is one,” Fortunato said. “This is the sport I love and put time, energy, funds, love, blood, and sweat into. So to see it disappear in 5 minutes was something else.”
More below gallery.
He’s gotten offers to use other people’s cars but doesn’t want to beat-up a car he doesn’t own. Yet, its hard to start from the ground up… again. No matter what car he ends up building, it’ll be getting a new fire suppressant system.
“It’s what got us out safely,” Fortunato said. “Even from our tragedy comes good because now we have made other teams safer.”
Since the fire, Fortunato has been contacted by many rally reams about their fire-suppressant systems. Other teams are seeing the need, now that it’s happened in their community, to their friends, to their competitors.
“I got to see my kids Monday, and you cannot put any price on that,” Fortunato said.
Complete photo gallery after video. All photos and video courtesy of Fortunato and All Fours Racing Team.