It was only a few years ago that I started actually spectating, volunteering at, then competing in actual rallies rather than just watching clips on YouTube. It has been a joyous experience (including the times I crashed and was on fire) but I fear that joy is to be replaced by jealousy, jealousy of how good they have it in Europe.
Hyundai flew me out to the far western side of Germany, among all the big hills they call mountains over there, the trees, the wine-supporting rivers, and the central point for all performance car testing in the world, the Nürburgring.
Hyundai set up a test center there and wanted to show off its new cars (they’re good), which is why I got flown out there. Not why I was flown out there: to go watch a bunch of rally cars, but I did that anyway.
As it turned out, the weekend that Hyundai had brought a bunch of journalists out to drive some of its cars coincided with the weekend of the Eifel Rallye Festival. I didn’t even know it was happening. Another car writer present, Dan Trent (a Brit), heard about it and managed to extract a loaner car from Hyundai’s PR people for us to drive to the event.
I halfway figured this would be something of an affair. I imagined that we’d have to drive several hours into the woods, that we’d end up mudding across some cow path to get a spot where we would see a slow Opel buzz by for half a second and then wander home in the dark.
As it turned out, the rally was based only a few towns away. Since in rural Germany, every collection of a handful of houses is referred to as a distinct town (they’re as big as subdevelopments over here), this meant we only had to drive a few miles to get to the rally center. I prepared to dart over to get an official program and spectator’s guide.
The moment we turned towards the center square of the town of Daun, I realized this was not like other rallies. The Eifel Rallye Festival is a vintage event, and every conceivable legendary rally car of the past half century was there. I lost count of Lancia 037s, the oddball last rear-drive car to win the World Rally Championship. Ford RS200s just looked like ordinary cars. I looked over someone’s shoulder and a Renault R5 Turbo just appeared into my visage.
I paid for my program (a strong 10 euro) and turned around to see something I’d never imagine I’d see in real life.
“Is it the original engine?” I asked of the driver and co-driver, hanging out by the car before the next stage.
“Yes. You know there are only five of these in the world?” the driver said with a smile.
I did. This was one of Toyota’s factory Group B race cars, the last rear-drive Celica, powered up front by the elusive Toyota 4T-GTE. It was a kind of halfway engine, a turbocharged evolution of Toyota’s 1970s twin cams, not quite yet in line with the rest of the more technically advanced, modern engines that were already taking over motorsports. For those of us who geek out on old tech, this is as new as the old stuff got, as weird and rare and aspirational.
Soon Gerd, the driver, and I were talking, him showing me pictures of when he worked on the Toyota factory team when this car was new, how he has become the leading authority on these strange, tough, underdog Group B coupes.
I had to run. Dan Trent was double-parked. Off we went to the stage, which was only another town or two away. We had to pay to park in a lot on the edge of town and walk in.
Everywhere you’d see vintage rally cars and modern equivalents.
In we walked. it was only about half a mile, first past the surrounding farms, then right into the middle of the village. The rally wound directly through the place. People could watch from their balconies, but most filed out onto the grass where you could go to a food tent serving sausages, a roll of pork, and a couple fresh cakes. Beside that was a temporary bar working with military precision, doling out beer after beer to the awaiting German hands.
It was like the whole town, the whole area came out. It was, I guess, just what there was to do in the area that warm night.
We bumped into some other English-speaking expats we knew from around the ‘Ring and watched above one of the hairpins for a while, watching Alpine A110s chase each other to the next corner. Then we spent the rest of the time critiquing how hard everyone was driving.
Either you were squealing tires into the turn, ripping the handbrake to go in backwards, throttling on with a puff of dirt as you slid away, or you were doing your rally car a disservice. Only one of the Metro 6R4s lived up to our standards. The rest we talked about stealing for the greater good, so that they might be driven properly.
Car after car went by as the locals swayed drunker and drunker. Audi Quattro Group B cars. Audi Quattro Pikes Peak hillclimb cars. A Peugeot 205 T16 that shot fire half as long as the car itself. A Trabant louder than the rest, furiously driving, like all the little Skodas also in attendance.
The cars were so close. The rally was so close. The atmosphere was so casual. There was no great cost to going like there is in big, spread out America. Here you drive four hours to get to the closest rally to you, then six for the next closest, then ten for the next after that. Seeing rally in America is work. In Europe it is an easy joy.
For this, there is a cost. America keeps people back for a reason, and that reason is liability and the presence of death.
It didn’t feel like that was possible that night. It was just an evening in town, one that happened to be full of wild, howling Group B cars, like they had always been there, like the castles or the hills or the rivers.