I’d just left Garland Resort outside the quiet Northern Michigan town of Lewiston. It was the end of January 2010, about 8.30pm, and the car’s climate control was telling me the outside temperature was negative 23 degrees… Fahrenheit. I went to high school not far from Lewiston so I knew it was probably at least that cold, if not colder. Considering the night stages in the forthcoming Rally America Sno-Drift could run that late, this was shaping up to be the coldest event I’d ever attended.
That’s not the trials and tribulations part. Braving the elements is just part of what makes rally fans the best motorsport fans in the world.
I was at Garland for an awkward media-only dinner with Ken Block and his new Ford Fiesta rally team. By awkward I mean there were only a few other journalists there, and they knew Block primarily through his Gymkhana YouTube videos, of which two had been produced at that point. Here’s where the trials and tribulations come in, because I’m sitting at a table with an accomplished rally driver, his team, and fellow journalists I thought would be my comrades in arms. But when Block talked about the Mk2 Escort he’d recently bought, they all had terribly confused looks on their faces. You bought a pitiful 70bhp front-wheel drive Escort? They assumed he meant an American Escort. They didn’t know the first thing about rally.
Such is the life of a rally fan in America.
The World Rally Championship doesn’t visit the United States. From what I understand, the traffic laws and a general lack of fan support are the reasons, and frankly, they’re good reasons. What we do have is Rally America, which bought the series from the Sports Car Club of America in 2004. It’s not quite the same calibre as WRC, but considering rally racing in this country is virtually unheard of, the people who are racing are in it solely for the thrill and passion. And they’re damn good; too good to be risking their lives for absolutely no glory.
Not even motocross/Nitro Circus star Travis Pastrana, or Gymkhana connoisseur Ken Block get the rally glory, and they’re arguably the most popular drivers to race in the series. There’s certainly been no glory in this country for the current Rally America champion David Higgins, who’s actually won the series for the last five years and recently drove an STi adorned with Colin McRae’s former racing scheme at Wales Rally GB last month.
And there was no glory in this country for British rally driver Mark Lovell, who mastered a Group B RS200 to take the British Rally Championship in 1986 and ultimately came to America for the SCCA Rally Series. I saw him at the Sno-Drift in 2001, the year he took the championship. He won Pikes Peak in 2003, then tragically died a couple of weeks later with his co-driver Roger Freeman at the Oregon Trail Rally. American news outlets talked about NASCAR drivers getting into arguments in the pits, but Lovell’s tragedy went unnoticed. Perhaps this article will help redress that sin.
And those were the “big” names. I’ve talked to countless other drivers in the 12 Sno-Drift rallys I’ve attended since that first experience in 2000, and nobody outside the small but tight-knit American rally circle will ever know their names. That’s terrifically unfortunate, because even the “amateur” drivers are pretty freaking amazing behind the wheel. That’s especially true for the Sno-Drift in Michigan, because that state doesn’t allow studded tyres for road use, and rally cars must comply with local laws.
That means competitors at the Sno-Drift have to race through dense forests on snow and ice-covered seasonal roads with normal snow tyres. Now, consider that Open-class Rally America cars make 330bhp, with Super Production making just a bit less. Even cars in the 2WD categories making half that power require incredible skill to control in such circumstances.
Just prior to my media dinner with Block back in 2010, he did a shakedown stage in his Open-Class AWD Fiesta. At 110mph. On ice. Without studded tyres. Surrounded by trees. Meanwhile, the obnoxious snowmobilers waiting for the night stages to clear so they could keep riding were bragging about hitting 90mph on a frozen lake… with carbide ski runners and studded tracks. Yeah, so not impressed.
I love America, I really do. But if I could make one motorsports wish, it would be to generate a huge rally fanbase so the people in this sport can have more opportunity to do what they love. Aside from a fortunate few with factory sponsorship, the rest are footing much of the costs themselves, right down to the rental trucks they use as support vehicles. They race through blind roads and trails on the edge of control, doing their best to set a good time without wrecking the car. Then they head to service in a dark parking lot to make repairs with a skeleton crew so they can do it all over again. The rest of the world understands the intense skill, concentration, and sheer passion involved to be part of a rally team. I wish the rest of America knew this as well.
Barring just two years, I’ve been to every Sno-Drift rally since 2000, and 2010 was the most popular event I’d attended. Block was there. Pastrana was there, and they brought new fans into the world of rally. But it was only a small victory, because after the night stages had finished and I returned to my hotel 25 miles away, nobody had even the slightest clue such skilled drivers were putting on a hell of a show just down the road, never mind that it was all free to watch. Same for the restaurants, the shops, and the petrol stations in town.
”You mean you’ve been standing outside in this freezing cold weather to watch cars drive through the woods? Are you crazy?” Nope. We’re just misunderstood rally fans in America.