The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

I’m American, and I love rally. There are others like me, but we’re strangers in a strange land watching superhuman drivers that never get the glory
The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

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.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

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 Trials And Tribulations Of Being 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.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

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.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

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.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

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.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

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.

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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.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

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.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Being A Rally Fan In America

”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.



I have been raising awareness for rally sports in Canada. People lose interest unless they can actually participate… Unless they can experience it.

You put anyone in the passenger seat of Crazy Leo’s rally car, they’ll never forget the experience. You put anyone in the driver’s seat of a well-prepped Subaru on a tight, twisty gravel road which is covered by snow, they’ll never forget the experience.

But, you ask them to watch some cars slide around on snow and ice at 50 km/h because that’s the average speed of unstudded snow tires on snow and ice… No one will care. Doesn’t matter if the spectators can only manage 20 km/h on that same road, it still feels slow.

I’m sorry to say this, but the world just needs more excitement, and the excitement of rally does not come from watching, but rather doing.

Get out there and get involved.

01/01/2016 - 10:02 |
8 | 2
Calvin 1

In reply to by Melons

I crew for a Boston based Rally Team and I’ve had a very similar experience to what @melons was describing. A road racer myself I agreed to crew the rally just to see what it was like. I was absolutely hooked from watching the very first stage and now I drive obserd distances for rally.

However, the problem I see for rally is that it takes place in the middle of the woods. Up here in Boston all we talk about is the New England Forest Rally. Its an incredible event and a true spectacle of motorsports. However it’s far away from civilization and so only enthusiasts bother to make the drive. Those who do stand around one corner and then hoof it to another corner. Contrast that with road racing where the tracks may be an hour away form your house, they have bleachers, you can watch the whole race, and there is a snack truck. Pretty easy to see what the masses will chose.

If you want to make rally popular you need to make it more accessible. My ancestral homeland is that of the Azores. (for those of you who don’t know they are a chain of islands in the middle of the Atlantic) Every year the ERC has a rally on the islands and I can’t begin to tell you how into it the locals are! This is largely due to the fact that the stages go through their towns; through the backyards. If we could rally through more populated areas then I think it would take of in North America.

PS. I realize most hate noise and would gather the pitchforks if this was ever attempted.

PPS. @Melons I don’t know where you are in Canada but if you can make it to NEFR you’re welcome to hang with my team.

01/01/2016 - 14:17 |
6 | 0
Christopher Smith

In reply to by Melons

Actually, I find the slow speed strategy at the corners to be very interesting and exciting. You can watch 50 different cars take an icy corner with regular tires 50 different ways. And there are always a few who end up doing a 360 before the corner, then just laying right back on the throttle as if they meant it. Absolute fun to watch. But you are correct in getting involved. I can’t think of another Motorsport in America where the fans can get as involved as easily as just signing up. Teams are always looking for help, and working a stage gets you the best racing view by far.

01/01/2016 - 18:17 |
4 | 0

Rally? Like NASCAR? F*ck off.

NASCAR: Drive around an Oval circuit as fast as you can while attempting to not hit other cars. (I know it’s harder than it looks)
Rally: Drive through a tight and twisty section of road, often gravel and occasionally covered in snow or ice as fast as you can, while getting airborne and listening to your co-driver so you don’t get a corner wrong.

I’ll be honest, I know which one i would prefer to watch.

01/01/2016 - 10:08 |
2 | 0

Unpopular opinion: If I am not allowed to partake in the racing, and must be forced to watch, I’ll normally stay home. NASCAR doesn’t interest me at all, watching rally barely interests me now. I’m out there doing, learning, finding out how to drive better…

This is an important realization… Sometimes participation is more fun than spectating. Many times, participation forms respect.

01/01/2016 - 10:53 |
4 | 4

And I’m the guy who goes onto Facebook and sees Facebook friend suggestion after Facebook friend suggestion of “hey, I know that name. Hey, his profile picture is a rally car! Hey, it’s Simon Dubé or Simon Vincent or Antoine L’Estage or Andrew Comrie-Picard!” and I get super excited that these people willingly accept my friend request. I’m really a someone I guess, that they at least know who I am.

Me. Having never competed in a rally. Having only attended a few schools and events here and there…

But I know a guy named Crazy Leo and am lucky enough to get frequent phone calls, texts and Facebook messages from him - this time it was an offer to attend Quebec City with him and his friends. And I know a couple of people who organize Rally of the Tall Pines, and I have chatted with the teams and drivers…

To claim that it’s a small, closely knit community is a vast understatement. There are about 3000 rally enthusiasts in all of Canada, I dare say… And by that, I mean, someone who is genuinely interested enough to drive around Canada for - sometimes up to 16 hours a day to spectate the rally.

There is no easy solution to making rally more popular, except to get more discussion about it. We need to get the word out.

01/01/2016 - 10:16 |
6 | 2
Kevin B

Well, what a strange choice to rally a Fit???!! No wonder it’s not more popular. More seriously, it may be cultural too, I imagine in most part of the USA the roads are not good for rallying. There was in the video game Collin Mcrae Rallye 3 a USA rally, was it made after a real event? I think IRC went to the USA. In Europe in the 60’s, there were Ford Mustang at the Monte Carlo Rally, so the manufacturer had the will to try to succeed in rallye and Ford as a long history in Rallying, Cortina Lotus, Escorts, the RS200, the focuses, etc. It may be up to Ford to push for more Rally in the USA too?

01/01/2016 - 11:41 |
0 | 0

The Fit is rallied all over the world (though the rest of the world calls it the Jazz). Here’s one from Australia. As for the roads, the U.S. has some incredible rally roads. Look up “Oregon Trail Rally Gilhouley” or “NEFR Concord Pond” on YouTube. Or just about anything from Ojibwe Rally, Susquehannock Trail Rally, or Lake Superior Performance Rally (that’s the one from the DiRT 3 game, and the real thing feels just like the game, but without the tarmac sections).

01/02/2016 - 02:15 |
0 | 0

I completely understand when you said 25 miles away nobody even knew about it. I went to Sno Drift for the first time last year after just finding out about it. I live 20 minutes from where we watched. I’ve lived here my entire life. I’ve never seen one bit of advertising. It was the coolest event of any kind I’ve seen. I can’t wait to go this year.

01/01/2016 - 11:56 |
4 | 0

Well, i understand you very well, im a rally driver and i struggle a lot to get a sponsor and i hate that here in mexico rallies are not famous at all, but even the wrc has the same problem, i think rally is thw most intense and enjoyable motorsport but, i just cant understand why just few people follows rallies or even wrc…

01/01/2016 - 12:03 |
0 | 0

This needs way more points

01/01/2016 - 13:41 |
0 | 0
Eric Delaney

Too bad the last couple years of Sno Drift, and mostly Rally America, have gone downhill.

01/01/2016 - 14:15 |
0 | 0

What I don’t get is how is horse racing bigger than rally racing in America

01/01/2016 - 14:45 |
4 | 0

I went to my first Sno*Drift in 2013 with the Ferris Motorsports Club, and it was amazing; we froze to death, I almost got taken out by a car, and we drank fireball and peppermint schnapps while huddled around a campfire(yes, they allow you to make campfires). But I was watching the pinnacle of driving ability and I loved every minute of it.

01/01/2016 - 15:43 |
2 | 0


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