I’ve loved rally racing for as long as I’ve known about it. But since I’m from a place called America, that hasn’t been very long. Rally isn’t very well publicized here in the States, and despite a national championship and a solid handful of regional sanctioning bodies, the WRC skips us entirely.
Still, it has more variables than most motorsports, and each of those variables makes rally another type of awesome. This weekend I grabbed a couple of friends and headed to a tiny spot on the map about four hours southeast of the StreetsideAuto HQ here in Kansas City for Rally America’s Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, a weekend of zig-zagging, high-revving, navigational madness. It was 113.73 miles of greatness, complete with blizzards of new-churned dust, reams of careful planning, and some of the best driving roads in the Midwest; and it was the first rally I’d ever witnessed live. Here are a few lessons I learned:
#1: Rally folks are good folks.
Just hanging with the fans in the spectator stages was fairly great. They were all so laid back and easy going, good for a no-names-exchanged conversation about Subaru tuning, previous years’ experiences, and great driving roads in the area.
But I especially loved chatting up the drivers and crews themselves, because they’re so enthusiastic about their cars, their friends on the team, and their sport. I caught up with Tag Rally Sport crew members Steven Harrell and Cody Beyer at the Saturday night service area in Viburnum. They eagerly and patiently answered my shivering, rabid questions, gave me a general introduction to the world of Rally America, and even let me sit in the co-driver bucket in the team’s naturally aspirated 2.5 RS Impreza. Driver Tracey Gardiner leaned in and told me not to play the “Well, I can’t squeeze back out, so I’d better stay,” card. It was a rather tight fit, as co-driver Maureen McCabe Hascher is petite enough to pass for a runway model (she’s married, though, fellas), and my 6’3” frame was anything but comfortable. “When you can fit in her racing suit,” said Tracey, “You can stay in her seat.” They’re not only talented and approachable, they’re funny, too.
#2: Rally involves audience participation.
A quick glance at the schedule told us that we wouldn’t be able to make it to the spectator areas for every stage. To even get to half of them would be a challenge, despite their zig-zagging routes. Spectating meant skipping across four counties, but we didn’t mind. Ray LaHood himself could have fun driving a Toyota Avalon over these magnificent Ozark roads. During one connecting stage, we were even trailing Viorel Dobasu’s Open class Mitsubishi Evo X.
My favorite travel moment was probably our trip to Pitosi for the Super Special Stage. We spent much of the twisting, carving flight up highway 32, chasing a bright red Ford Focus, passing semis, and having a blast. Yes, driving the actual rally would have been more fun, but I’ll never shun an afternoon lost cutting through the Missouri foothills.
#3: Lawsuits ruin everything.
“Why doesn’t WRC race in America?” asked my friend Jon as we headed east. I was no expert, but I speculated that it had to do with the American obsession with oval tracks, and that it’s not easy to televise. But I was wrong. It has much more to do with our obsession with frivolous lawsuits. Everywhere we went we were herded into tiny, tame spectator zones, set back into the trees for twenty feet or so, just for safety.
I can understand keeping your fans safe, but the legal department became our worst enemy this weekend. The course covers over 100 miles, but we somehow always ended up peering over shoulders and between trees. “There was an accident in 2003 in Pennsylvania that killed two spectators,” said Steven Harrell. “And that’s when the SCCA stopped rallying.” Liability just became too much to deal with. Now, with triggerman lawyers multiplying like mold spores, the only way Rally America can keep functioning is to shelter their fans almost beyond enjoyment. I determined that the best way to watch a rally would be from the cockpit, which is where lesson #4 comes in.
#4: Whatever car you rally, it will be awesome.
“I would drive that in a heartbeat,” I said, watching the gravel settle. My fellow spectators agreed with me. I referred to a 1992 Ford Festiva, piloted by brothers Zach and Kyle Williams. They’d grown up in Salem, the rally’s base city, and had been watching the event for years. So, when they were able to get the money together for the car and (relatively small) entry fee, they signed up. They spent 11 months working on their little hatchback wonder, and we all loved the result. It wasn’t particularly fast, beautiful, or musical, but it was absolutely brilliant.
Seeing Ken Block precisely hoon his special built Fiesta supercar was great. David Higgins was a genius in his state-of-the-art STi, too. But the top guns weren’t my favorite. I mostly enjoyed the inexpensive, beat-up, 2WDers from Group 2. It was James Haas’ ’92 Mazda MX-3 (which may or may not have been a rotary swap), Micah Nickelson’s ’87 VW GTI, and Bill Caswell’s ’89 BMW E30, which he bought for $500 on Craigslist. My very favorite was probably Bradley Fast’s 1971 Datsun 510, its rear tires kicking dirt and tossing the light little econobox around the hills.
Because they weren’t about sponsors or stage times. Those cars were all about having fun. They made us believe Joe Schmoes like us actually had a chance at doing this someday.
There were many more lessons to learn at the 100 Acre Wood Rally. For example, Ken Block’s crew could have taught me how to change a gearbox in six minutes. Or Finnish driver Jari Hamalainen could have given me a pointer or two on how to keep a 1996 RWD BMW nipping at Block’s heels, even as a paraplegic.
Hopefully next year I’ll be able to learn some lessons about more than watching.