Rally is the toughest racing in the world

Illustration for article titled Rally is the toughest racing in the world

Many of us are already fans of rally racing, but driver Jeff Zurschmeide says if you're interested in motorsports at all, rallying should be at the top of your must-see list. Here's why. — Ed.

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At the beginning of the automotive era, all auto races were rallies –- dedicated race tracks simply didn't exist, and paved roads were rare outside of cities. So the only way to race cars was to start at Point A and race to Point B. That's what they did in 1894 –- the challenge was to get yourself and your car from Paris to Rouen, a distance of some 79 miles. The winning car made it in 6 hours and 48 minutes -– 3 hours and 30 minutes ahead of second place. That made the average speed about 11 miles per hour.

But there it was –- an auto race that used unpaved roads to get from one place to another. Almost 117 years later, the Oregon Trail Rally happened May 13-15 weekend at Portland International Raceway and on roads up in the Columbia Gorge near The Dalles. The cars are a little bit faster, but the fundamentals of the race are the same: Get your car, driver, and navigator from one place to another as fast as you can.

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Illustration for article titled Rally is the toughest racing in the world

I was entered in the rally as the co-driver (navigator) of car #33 – a 1982 Alfa-Romeo GTV6 owned and driven by Austen Angell of Portland. While the Alfa is an unusual choice in the modern era of all wheel drive Subaru and Mitsubishi sport compacts, the Alfa GTV6 has a tremendous history in the World Rally Championship and was a leading rally car in its day.

Rally Racing Today

The field at the Oregon Trail Rally was a good mix of the national factory-supported rally teams and local talent. Traveling teams like David Higgins and Dave Mirra of Subaru Rally Team USA, Andrew Comrie-Picard of Canada racing on Scion sponsorship, and Dillon Van Way in the new Ford Fiesta lead the rally and turn out the fans. The local talent fills out the grid and offers the fans a more attainable aspiration.

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Illustration for article titled Rally is the toughest racing in the world

The appeal of Rally is easy to understand -– the cars are familiar street-legal models, popular in the youth market. The field is filled with the Subaru Impreza WRX and STI, Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and popular low-budget rally cars such as the Volkswagen Golf. There are no exotic winged open wheel vehicles here, just pumped-up versions of the models the fans drive every day. On top of that, the Rally driving style is full of sideways slides, air-catching jumps, and the whine and chirp of turbochargers at full boost. Rally is tailor made for spectators, except that most of the action takes place out in the woods somewhere.

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What You Really Need To Know

But hot-dogging in front of spectators isn't what draws most competitors into Rally. The fact of the matter is that Rally racing is the toughest auto racing there is, and the challenge and exhilaration of tough speed draws people into the sport. Here's the down-low:

Illustration for article titled Rally is the toughest racing in the world
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Rally racing is expensive. At the top end, teams are spending $250,000 or more on a car, and even at the cheap end of the sport, the cost in tires, repairs, and damage far exceeds the purchase price of the car. Plus, a rally car is good for maybe 20 races before it's hopelessly worn out –- and I'm talking about the chassis here. Seams pop, welds rip, and suspension mounts get pounded out of shape in just a few races. Tires are good for an event or two.

Up to half of competitors fail to finish each event. Cars don't like to be beaten up, but that's the name of the game in Rally. Broken suspension arms, shattered wheels, and exploded engines are a common occurrence in Rally – and that doesn't even count the cars that crash.

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You're not racing on some safety-engineered race course. The slogan they use in Rally is "Real cars, real roads, real fast." You're racing on a dirt or gravel road out in the middle of nowhere. The trees come right to the roadside and that dropoff on the outside of the corner is steep and rocky. You don't get to spin safely off into the grass and drive back on to the race track in Rally.

Rallies happen all over the continent. If you want to follow the Rally America series, you'll be making trips to Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington, Maine, Missouri, and to southern California if you qualify for the X Games. If you choose the NASA series you can opt for the southeast or the southwest, and if you include the Canadian series (CARS) and shoot for the international North American title, you'll be spending time up north from British Columbia to Quebec.

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Rally drivers have to be the best. Your average Rally driver has to be comfortable in a full four-wheel drift, pitching the car sideways to bleed off speed, jumping, dodging, and generally driving at top speed in an environment with extremely limited traction and no room for error. Additionally, the driver and co-driver have to be able to fix the car in the field beside the road, and keep track of all their timing and scoring materials. The co-driver must read and the driver must understand a complex code that accurately describes the road coming up ahead. Rally drivers need to know if there's a sharp corner just over that crest they're approaching at 100 miles per hour.

So if you've been complaining about the costs in drag racing, vintage auto racing, or keeping your circle track car in the game, count your blessings.

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Oh, and my weekend in the Alfa at Oregon Trail? We soldiered through a flat tire, overheating, and torrential rains, but when we ran over a boulder and whacked the underside of the car hard enough to break the skid plate, pull the rear shocks clean out of their sockets, and drop the transmission onto the ground at 80 MPH, our weekend was done. How's that for tough racing?


This story originally appeared on MyRideIsMe.com on June 2, 2011, and was republished with permission.

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DISCUSSION

Desu-San-Desu

I was a late bloomer into everything cars. Before I happened to have the ‘fortune’ of procuring an absolutely demonically unreliable 1997 Saturn SC2 during college, I barely knew more than how to change a tire and check my fluids. I enjoyed driving, sure. What young man doesn’t? I especially enjoyed driving manuals because I was a teenager and 'The Fast and the Furious' was still fresh in my mind.

However, that Saturn...that damnable Saturn that cost me a two jobs, three homes, and two states of residence and a fortune in repairs...

…was worth every penny.

You see, just like time, people, weather and shoes, money comes and goes. I lost very nearly everything I owned because of that Saturn. But you know what? I've rebuilt. I now own better versions of nearly everything material that I lost when that car left me stranded and homeless in New Hampshire and I now live a richer, fuller life because of the experience. I live in a better home, with a better collection of friends, and live a happier, more content life than I probably ever would have had that car never come into my life. Not to mention the life experience and collection of stories that I gained from the ordeal. I hit rock bottom and I've climbed back up to a new peak on the mountain.

Tyler Durden would be proud.

But the thing that I’m most glad toward the Saturn for is the fact that through the tempest of misfortune and the trials and tribulations of owning a divine Lemon Among Lemons, I have gained both knowledge and appreciation of all things automotive. Through that, I have also gained direction on my life; goals to strive for. Having rebuilt the motor that that Saturn from the oil pan all the way back up to the valve cover, I discovered a fascination with the inner workings of cars and a profound appreciation of just what it takes to create a reliable performance machine. Through all of the roadside head scratching sessions and emergency repairs I also gained an equal appreciation for the hallowed responsibility of what it means to own and maintain a vehicle.

I entered the storm driving a Lemon without even knowing the meaning of the word and in the end I walked out of that same storm, destitute and yet all the more wise. Through weathering the bad times and keeping an open mind and a strong work ethic, I gained a new love, a new passion. Such an acquisition is absolutely priceless and no matter how much I bitch about that car and bemoan what it cost me, I will always be grateful for what it taught me about the love of all things automotive.

Oddly enough, it was during the time when I was left with nothing but my newfound passion that I was exposed to the sport of Rally. Imagine my surprise when I found out that all those times I’d bombed down some back road in my Saturn or nearly killed myself in my old beat up Hyundai Excel five-speed, traveling highway speeds and then some over muddy ruts and slinging sideways past sandy apexes, that I’d been unknowingly celebrating the purest form of automotive contest that had ever been.

All of the best times I had every had in a car and possibly in my life…is a sport?

This surpassed passion. It became obsession; a thirst. I read everything I could about Rally racing. I searched for pictures and histories. I watched video documentaries about the roots of rally, the old Saabs and Citroens slogging through ice and mud as fast as their beetled bodies could carry them. I marveled at the spectacle of Group-B and fell madly in love with the Audi UR-Quattro and Quattro Sports. I felt abject loss and disappointment at seeing the fall or dissolution of that same great class of mad Rally machines. I caught up to the nineties and Group-N and the Rise of Subaru (as I like to call it) and the onslaught of the Mitsubishi Lancer. I felt honest admiration as I discovered, too late, the awesome skill of the late Colin Mcrae and true sadness as I learned I would never personally be able to see him race outside of the video archives.

As I continued my conquest of knowledge about the sport, I worked my way to modern-day Rally just as Subaru pulled out of WRC due to the changed regulations. Realizing that my favorite modern manufacturer was no longer competing in the international Rally scene in any official manner, I searched to see what other venues they would be competing in. This was how I discovered that there is, in fact, a Rally scene in North America and that, much like ‘soccer’, we’re once again largely ignorant of one of the largest sports in the world.

I began looking into the schedules for Rally America and NASA. It was about this time that I had begun getting back on my feet thanks to some timely exposure through Jalopnik and some wondrously generous donations from other Jalops. I was still living in New Hampshire, currently in an apartment with my then-girlfriend, when I discovered that the 2010 New England Forest Rally would be taking place a mere 2 hours from where we were living!

Much begging, pleading, and video-showing followed.

She, my girlfriend at the time, that is, was not all that interested. She did, however, see just how zealously I wished to attend and conceded that we could go to the Saturday stage on Fish Pond Road. I spent the next few weeks pouring over who would be competing and watching videos of their previous performances at other Rallies. I began to study the most common types of stage notes that the co-drivers used. I familiarized myself with the Fish Pond Road stage and used the satellite view of Google Maps to pick out specifically which corner I wanted to watch from, not knowing at the time that there were only so many designated Spectator Zones.

When the day arrived, we left at the break of dawn, heading north to the point where we began seeing "This way to Canada" signs. As we were nearing Errol, I began noticing a sudden increased in the number of Subaru Impreza WRX’s and Sti’s traveling in the same direction as us (and by ‘noticing’ I mean freaking out like a school girl and point out the windows "Oh my god, look! I want one so baaad!"), and began realizing just how close I was to attending my first actual Rally. It really began to sink in when we passed a gas station and saw a Dakar truck with banners plastered all over it and a Mitsubishi Lancer driven by Lars Wolfe.

About 5 miles from the entrance to the spectator parking zone, we fell in behind a line of WRX’s and Lancers who were all having a good time apexing through the winding roads of northern New Hampshire. Thankfully, I had just switched with the girlfriend, who was tired of driving, and I was able to fully enjoy myself as I fell in line with the rest of the drivers obviously on their way to the race. I had a big goofy grin on my face whilst the girlfriend texted away on her smartphone, oblivious to the camaraderie I was experiencing as I matched the other drivers line-for-line.

Sadly, it all slowed to a stop as we got the entrance of the Rally as traffic backed up to a crawl as we were all admitted one-by-one into the parking area. As we were waved in, the girlfriend finally put away her phone and noticed my slack jawed expression as I drove past lines of the very car I’d lusted after for the past six months. Every generation of turbocharged Subaru Impreza was present and accounted for; some stock, some modified, but all wonderful and beautiful in my eye. I admit, I’m a fanboy for turbocharged Subarus and old Audis and always will be.

As we began walking to the shuttle pickup, I began asking the other people present if this was there first Rally as well. While there were a few first-timers like myself, most had been attending for years and as such were able to offer me excellent advice as well as commending us on bringing common camping equipment with us. I began inquiring as to where we could spectate and incidentally learned that it wasn’t as open and available as I’d originally thought and that we were confined to designated spectating areas.

Thankfully, I discovered, to my delight, that the very corner I’d researched and planned on was in fact already one of the designated areas and less tightly packed than most of the other areas. I’d lucked out. The rest of the day was spent chatting and bonding with other Rally fans, both old and new, as we cheered with all of our might as the cars screamed past and we recognized our heroes. You cannot imagine how loud and visceral the entire experience was. To have a massively powerful racecar slide past you, bouncing off the rev limiter, close enough that you can nearly touch it, close enough that you can see the co-driver’s lips moving and the concentration etched into the driver’s sweating, strained face and then see it disappear into a cloud of smoke and dust like a howling, mechanized wraith as you are left standing there, eyes closed and coughing your lungs out, all the while smiling like a dope fiend getting his fix. As the dust clears, off in the distance you can hear the wail of another turbocharged maniac of a car echoing through the trees and you look over at the stranger next to you and just smile, knowing that you get to experience it all over again.

I still have the videos of that day. I captured nearly every single car that slung itself around that L4 on that dusty gravel road as we cheered and hollered, desperately trying to be heard over the roars of the engines. You can hear it all and see it all in the videos, but it’s still a poor substitute for the amazing assault on the senses and the rush you feel from being there in person. As the sun went down and we decided to walk back to the car instead of taking the shuttle, I let it all sink in and realized, with each step we took in those very tire tracks that were put there by names like L’Estage, Block, Caswell, Duplessis, Wolfe, and Pastrana, that I’d entered the stage that day as a fan, but I was now leaving an addict.

While that experience alone would have been enough for me and I would’ve been content just attending different events as often as I’d be able to, something else happened after the dust had settled that has gone beyond giving me a passion and a love for the sport and those who do it. As my girlfriend and I were walking back down that gravel road in the woods of northern New Hampshire, dreamily recounting everything we’d experienced that day, occasionally being passed by competitors in their cars or having their cars towed behind them, I happened to glance off into a clearing off to the right as we rounded a bend. While we weren’t yet to the entrance of the clearing, through the trees I spotted a small contingent of people and the grey-black glint of an old, be-stickered BMW E30.

I’m sure it must have looked odd, to see a stocky 20-something year in cargo pants and a t-shirt bound through the trees and into the clearing, proclaiming "No way! Bill? Bill Caswell? What the hell happened?"

Embarrassingly enough, that’s exactly what I did. I never even bothered walking to the entrance of the clearing. Nope. I plowed through the tree line like it was the waiting line at Best Buy on Black Friday. And as I approached, I realized I was seeing Bill Caswell, the Jalopnik Legend, in person, standing beside his car, shooting the shit with other fans who’d had the fortune of passing by and spotting him. I nearly wondered why in the world he was parked in some random clearing off of the stage, but then I glanced at his car and audibly winced. "What happened, man?"

Bill told us about how he’d cut wide to the left into the overgrowth and plowed into a large rock-small boulder-whatever you want to call it. All I know is, it was evident that the car was totaled. He even pulled out his iPhone and showed us the in-car video of the crash. As we sat there and talked with him, I mentioned how much I loved reading about his WRC Mexico exploits on Jalopnik and he was like "Oh hey, you’re on there too?" and myself and about 8 others responded that of course we were Jalops. He laughed and asked me who I was on the site. I told him.

"I’m on there as Desu-San-Desu. I’m the Saturn guy."

What happened next is one of those memories that I couldn’t forget if I tried. It will always stick in my mind as one of the best moments in my life. Bill looked at me and a look of giddy shock rolled over his face as he yelled "Wait, you’re THAT guy!? Oh man! That story was awesome! Man, it’s so awesome to meet you!"

Bill Caswell, an honest-to-God homegrown celebrity in the American grassroots motorsports community, just recognized me and acted like I was the celebrity in the room. It was mind-blowing.

The next five minutes were just spent talking. I can’t remember exactly what we talked about; it was all kind of a blur. I do remember, though, that at one point I mentioned how amazing it would be if I could one day learn to be a rally driver myself. He looked at me and said, with complete sincerity, that I could. He personally recommended that I look into the Tim O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire. He told me that they would teach me everything I would ever need to know in order to get started on my career as a Rally driver.

My career.

Me. A Rally driver. Not only that, but I was told by one of my very own heroes that I could do exactly what he does for a living; that it isn’t a pipe dream or fantasy, that’s it’s something real that I can actually accomplish with my life. Suddenly Rally wasn’t just a passion for me anymore.

It was a goal.

Ever since that day, I’ve been doing everything I can to prepare to one day go to the Tim O’Neil Rally School and do just what Bill said I could: become a Rally driver. And I’ve made strides in that direction. While I’m no longer living in New Hampshire (I’ve moved to South Carolina to be closer to my father), I’m currently living with a new girlfriend who not only encourages my goals to compete in Rallying, but actively shares my interest and wants to go to school with me to become my co-driver. We’ve looked into the NASA and Rally America schedules and plan on attending every rally within 3 hours of us, we watch videos, keep up with the scene and even play the Dirt games on our Xbox 360 (Yes, with the wheel) to get just a small virtual taste of what awaits us.

As for myself, I used to know nothing about cars. In just a couple of years, I’ve gone from driving a crappy Saturn that ‘ruined’ my life and not knowing how to change my own spark plugs to now owning my very own Audi Quattro (a B3 80 10V. Not exactly a Sport, but hey, it’s a start) which is currently waiting for me to finish typing this so I can go install the new heavy-duty competition CV axles that are sitting in my living room floor right now.

I may be a late bloomer when it comes to cars, and it may take me a few years to save up the money to attend Tim O’Neil’s school, but that’s okay. It’s okay because it’s never too late to discover a new passion and use that passion to motivate yourself and give yourself a direction in life. It’s never too late to start living your dream, one gear change at a time. And I’m confident that one day, it’ll be me behind that roll cage, sliding past that sandy apex at speeds that would make the Autobahn blanch.

And I have that crappy Saturn to thank for it all.