Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland

Jerry Heinonen, of the Finnish Car Guys, wakes me up at 5:30 AM. It takes a moment to sink in that I’m in Jyväskylä, the rallying capital of Finland (and therefore the world). And I’m here on the morning of the rally of all rallies: Rally Finland.

(This past winter, I stumbled upon a Finnish Car Guys video on the weird, wonderful history of Saab in Finland. It inspired me to email Jerry and his partner-in-crime, Joona Holma, and say, basically: “Hi, I’m Misha. I like cars, too. Let’s work together.” So, in February, Jerry took me to a Finnish National Rally event—my first ever rally experience not on Xbox or YouTube. And as we stood there, spectating in the nipple-deep snow, I trembled not from the cold but from childlike excitement. Yet Jerry kept telling me: “Dude, this is nothing compared to the Rally Finland. Come back for that event” So I did.) 

Jerry’s mother, Päivi Kuikka—who once co-drove with Jerry’s father, Timo Heinonen, the 1986 Finnish Rally Champion in the notorious Group B—greets us in the yard with a thermos of fresh coffee and some open-faced sandwiches on rye. She’s flanked by a loving Chow-Chow, Boris (named after former Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, for reasons I will not describe).

Here’s Boris, just cooling out on a different day.
Here’s Boris, just cooling out on a different day.
Photo: Jerry Heinonen

The temperature this morning, August 2nd, is 47 degrees Fahrenheit. And our chariot for the weekend—a shamelessly diesel, egg-shaped thing called the Citroen C4 Picasso—clackles in the crisp air, like a bunch of coins in a coffee can.

In spite of the ungodly hour, we’re already running late. So we hurl the lanky Picasso down Jerry’s street—a rally stage of its own—and set out for the forest. Like so many others that morning, we’re on a hunt for crashes.

We arrive at the first stage of the day, Oittila, at 7AM—about an hour before Rally Finland begins in earnest. For twenty minutes, we trek through the mossy forest, stumbling over logs, as prickly evergreen branches bend and ricochet off our bags. Eventually, we reach an interesting scene.

Scores of people are taking cover between trees. Many are smoking. The sound of radio chatter and boots treading gravel fills the air—only to be drowned by the wail of low-flying helicopters. Out of context, it’d seem like some strange, Scandinavian rendition of Rambo.

That is, until you see all the families in lawn chairs, up to three generations at a time. Many are sipping lonkero (think Smirnoff Ice but Finnish and actually drinkable). Rally Radio—an annual, government-sponsored broadcast on all things Rally Finland—beams from old-fashioned receivers with telescopic antennas. At one point, ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” lights up the forest.

We’re shadowing an elite crew of what Jerry calls “professional rally spectators.” They’d spent months driving and studying the stages. And they draw from personal experience, as rally drivers themselves (I’d soon learn that I’m probably the only non-rally driver in the group, which includes a six, maybe seven-year-old boy). Their goal: locate the best vantage points at the most treacherous sections, where there could be action (or, in other words, a crash).

For the rally teams, on the other hand, there’s obviously nothing worse than crashing. But they still want to go as fast as possible—even if it means braking late (if at all), hitting apexes dangerously close to boulders, flying flat-out over blind crests, all while trusting whatever numbers and directions the co-driver happens to be screaming. This calls for a sort of brinkmanship that is, possibly, unmatched in motorsport.

It’s a strange conflict of interest. As the rally teams teeter on the brink, you’ll find the spectators just over the precipice—ready to take in the ensuing action.

Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland

Against this backdrop, we gather directly across from where someone crashed last year. The torn-up hay bale that absorbed the impact is still on display. As far as rally spectating goes, this is prime real estate.

A Swedish gentleman, Erik Löfström, sits near us. He’s been spectating Rally Finland since 1983, missing “only three WRC Finland events since 1999.” Just like the Finns, Erik drives over from Sweden in advance of the rally and scopes out the stages for the promising corners. The rally is due to begin in minutes, and Erik makes final adjustments to his wristwatch.

Here’s Erik. He’s a very nice guy from Sweden.
Here’s Erik. He’s a very nice guy from Sweden.
Photo: Misha Lanin

To my right, I see a group of Estonians hoisting a fourteen-foot flagpole over the stage. I approach them, and one of the more sober ones tell me: “We’re here for Tänak!” That is, Ott Tänak, the LeBron James of Estonia, as I like to call him, and the favorite to win Rally Finland.

Estonian rally fans listen for updates on their favorite driver.
Estonian rally fans listen for updates on their favorite driver.
Photo: Misha Lanin

Soon enough, a wave of noise floods the forest. It sounds like an approaching swarm of angry, mechanical hornets. Before I can see anything, I know that it’s a rally car. And it’s at full throttle—leaking decibels all over the forest like a severely overstuffed calzone. Spectators lean into the stage: phones drawn, national flags hoisted. The first car appears. It’s Tänak, and he’s flying—mostly sideways—down the gravel stage at a preposterous rate of speed, coating everything in a film of dust. A low-flying helicopter trails, shaking the ground as it passes.

This kind of thing continues for a while at three-minute intervals, and it settles into a cacophonous routine.

Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Photo: Misha Lanin

To me, it’s all a blur, frankly. But the Finns and the Swede seem to make sense of it all. One sideways-moving orb of dust and noise after another barrels past, and in a matter-of-fact tone they say:

“Eh, I guess that was fast.”

Or “better than the last one.”

Or, flatly, “that was slow.”

But the worst judgment of all is “they hit the brakes.” “The Finns never hit the brakes,” one of them adds, pridefully.

Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Photo: Misha Lanin

Just as my ears begin to adjust to the intensity, the routine comes to an unsettling halt.

Erik stares at his wristwatch. He says “It’s been 30 seconds” since a car was due. Spectators adjust their radio antennas. Those streaming Rally Radio press smartphones up to their faces. Something is up.

“45 seconds,” Erik says, now staring at the sky, as another helicopter circles our general vicinity.

Then, the fateful words ring out. In various languages, they spread like wildfire through the unseasonably dry forest.

“Someone went off.”

Children stumble between the pines. Adults scale the moss. I am completely involved. I trip and fall on my ass. The adrenalin is infectious and, within a split-second, I’m back on my feet.

All this is aimed in the direction of that circling helicopter—the only remote clue as to where someone, somehow, supposedly “went off.”

Perhaps this is what it was like in the stands of the Roman Colosseum when everybody scrambled to catch a glimpse of who got a piece of who: an angry lion, or some poor bastard with a wooden shield? In this case, it’s a Skoda rally car versus a Finnish forest. And the forest won.

Fortunately, driver Eerik Pietarinen and co-driver Juhana Raitanen, both Finns, are totally fine, though the Finnish forest did rip off a large segment of the Skoda’s front end.

I eventually return to our group, out of breath—bearing a very wide and stupid grin. Like a small dog with a large tree branch, I was eager to share my freshly plucked content—all those hard-earned photos and videos of, you know, the big crash. I get some “ahs” and “uhmms” from the group, but perhaps they’re out of politeness. Clearly, this crash isn’t a keeper. And the rally is only getting started.

Next, we head up to Äänekoski.

This time, our vantage point is in a field, at the edge of a long left-hand corner that opens into a straight-away. There are no trees present to shield us from projectiles. The group seems to disagree over something. I can’t understand whether it’s over the viewing angle, the potential lethality of where we stand, or a little bit of both. It’s all in Finnish—Europe’s most indecipherable language.

They agree to move a bit farther away from the stage, giving us hopefully enough distance to get out of the way of something flying at us.

The entire time, I bask in the peace that is being in the company of Finns. Until now, I’d never been with a group of men drinking that wasn’t ridden with continuous, stream-of-consciousness banter. I have to remind myself not to constantly say stuff just for the sake of saying stuff. But that’s how we Americans react sometimes. When something happens, we say things like “Wow! Look at that!” or “Did you see that?” or, plainly, “Holy shit.” The Finns don’t really do that. And it takes some getting used to.

The first to fly by is, again, Ott Tänak—who proceeds to launch a barrage of small-to-medium-sized rocks at my face. I watch the rest of the cars with an elbow covering most of my face, while the Finns lounge in lawn chairs, sipping lonkero and chewing salty licorice.

There’s a sense of theatre, and the stage is set by a steep ditch. We wait for the ditch to swallow an understeering car but to no avail. This spot is a bust.

Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Photo: Misha Lanin

Again, the rally pauses. To the right of us, people are sprinting toward something. Rumors spread, spectator-to-spectator and marshal-to-marshal, all along the stage—whispers of someone, somewhere, somehow going off. We follow the exodus.

At the top of a blind left-hand crest about a quarter-mile from where we stood, another Skoda is in pieces, bleeding hydraulic fluid. A full quarter of the chassis is sprawled out behind the rest of the car—like a hacked-off chunk of mechanical flesh. A crowd gathers around the Skoda’s remains. Both drivers are safe, taking pictures of the wreck. They seem to be in good spirits given the circumstances.

Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Photo: Misha Lanin
Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Photo: Misha Lanin

I’m hit with a sense of FOMO. Yeah, we’re here for the aftermath, but we missed the action (by only a quarter-mile). I almost feel sort of guilty for harboring these feelings. But Jerry tells me that it’s ok; “You’re starting to get into it,” he tells me.

A gang of Swedes had already pulled the dead Skoda off the stage using a tow-strap. And shortly after, the rally resumes, with cars flying over the fateful crest at full speed—just a few feet away from the growing crowd.

A few WRC2 Fiestas barrel past, one veering dangerously close to the boulder-ridden, right-hand shoulder. Jerry suggests that this corner has potential.

Then, this:

Top video credit: Tuomo Hannonen; Bottom video credit: anonymous

Romanian Gabriel Lazar and co-driver Raul Badiu go over the same fateful crest at 119 kilometers an hour (73mph) which, turns out, is too fast. The rear end slips into the right-hand ditch, and the car starts rolling at a high rate of speed. Mid-roll, the car hits a tree stump, corkscrews through the air, and lands among few small pine trees just to the right of the stage.

The crowd’s response is immediate, effective, and methodical. Over a dozen spectators instinctually sprint toward the steaming wreck, including most of the guys in our group.

They make contact with the drivers. Both are in deep shock. According to witnesses, one of them is having trouble breathing—a helmet strap is lodged into his nasal cavity from the impact.

The tree stump that took the initial impact. Somewhere, in the distance, you’ll find the rest of the car.
The tree stump that took the initial impact. Somewhere, in the distance, you’ll find the rest of the car.
Photo: Misha Lanin

Another rally car is unknowingly barreling towards the scene at full speed. Jerry’s response is to rush down the stage, arms raised, doing all that he can to get the next car to slow down. That car turns out to be piloted by the only Americans at the rally, Sean Johnston and Alex Kihurani, who safely slow down. Tuomo, a highly experienced co-driver in our group, knows that there’s an SOS button in Johnston and Kiruhani’s car that informs the organizers of a serious incident.

(We had a brief dinner with Johnston and Kiruhani a few nights prior, and one of their team advisors, Max Vatanen, told me that Rally Finland was “at the top of the pyramid.” And I was beginning to see why.)

Within a few terrifying minutes, a medical helicopter arrives—followed by a small convoy of ambulances and police on motorbikes. Spectators remain at the side of Badiu and Lazar, maintaining contact until first-responders arrive and take control of the scene. Soon, firefighters begin sawing through what remains of the car. They’re extracting Lazar and Badiu who, thankfully, turned out okay.

Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Photo: Misha Lanin

We’d set out to see action that day—and here it is, in its most raw and disturbing form. I keep asking myself, why did I want to see this?

But, then again, what was I expecting? For the better part of a day, I watch cars go sideways at three-digit speeds around trees, rocks, crowds of drunk people, and other wrecks. It all seems supernatural—as if the drivers possess some otherworldly ability to avoid collisions. Yes, there are some crashes preceding this one, but they’re, sort of, reasonable crashes.

This one is different. This is the most violent collision I’ve seen. It’s sobering. The fuzzy romance of Rally Radio and families picnicking is, for a time, suspended. I am, for some reason, racked with guilt. But Jerry is quick to remind me that this is the “harsh reality of rally.”

See, these guys have been in these situations before. Jerry once went over a crest at over 85mph and collided with a rock—rolling over five times as a result (an incident he discusses here). Another member of our group, Harri, crashed so hard in the late ‘90s that he had to undergo three surgeries on his back. Bearing these battle scars, they knew exactly what to do: 1) establish contact with the drivers; 2) make sure they’re okay; 3) if not, stop the next car and push the SOS button; 4) standby and await emergency services.

Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Photo: Misha Lanin

It’s actions like these that make rally spectating so much more than merely watching—especially in Finland.

I ask Harri if this is the worst crash he’s witnessed. He pulls out his phone and shows me this:

It’s one—among very many—of the wrecks from the notoriously vicious Group B era (back then, Rally Finland was called the 1000 Lakes Rally). A Vauxhall Chevette loses control after a jump (Rally Finland is well-known for jumps, by the way) and rolls into a dense crowd of spectators. Miraculously, nobody dies. Harri points somewhere on the screen where there’s a dense, panicked crowd.

There. I was there as a young boy.”

Later that day, we venture to a different stage called Ässämäki. And, at this point, I decide to start drinking. Jerry happens upon a familiar face in the crowd—a very high-level R5 Class driver in the Finnish Rally Championship. Turns out, he’s out for the season, recovering from serious injuries sustained in a crash of his own. And as we perch behind a row of Evergreen trees along the stage, he says to Jerry:

“I can’t wait to see a huge wreck today.”

Illustration for article titled Hunting For Crashes With The 'Professional Spectators' Of Rally Finland
Photo: Misha Lanin

You can probably find me in Brooklyn or Saint Petersburg, most likely in a semi-broken car. @mishalanin (insta) or


Santiago of Escuderia Boricua

Fuck. Yes. Love this article!

I’ve been pretty lucky personally, although my very first rally crash was as a passenger at the Team O’Neil school. This is my only serious crash so far.

Most recently was a small off at the Lake Superior Performance Rally. Normally a gravel rally, we got 6" of snow overnight and I slid off the side of a muddy crest. Scratched up the side of the car, but we eventually got pulled out and were able to finish.