Not knowing whether the man you shook hands with three hours ago broke down in-transit from stage to stage or rolled into a ditch is a frightening situation. When you’re out on a stage with no cell service and no other informative resource, all you’re left to do is guess and assume the worst.
As each car flew down the gravel road, we found ourselves closer to some of the most well-known and competitive loose-surface drivers and cars in America. We finally got a taste of what real rally spectating should be, what it’s all about. One by one they passed by, with only a dust cloud and an echo of the boxer-four under the hood resonating as they continued through the tight forestial logging trails of Central Maine.
This was the New England Forest Rally. And you should have been there.
Situated at the Sunday River Resort located in Newry, Maine, the Rally America event was no run-of-the-mill weekend trip for my spectating companion, Brian Silvestro, nor myself. For us, this journey meant over seven hours in each direction in a car with some rather major mechanical issues and probably some other unknown issues. Unless my car had left us stranded, there was no chance that we would miss this race.
This year New England Forest Rally was a two day event with over 60 registered competitors in the lineup, with experience levels ranging from complete novice to four year consecutive national champions. With big names like Ken Block, Travis Pastrana, David Higgins and the sorts listed, we had no doubt this would be one of the most competitive and spectator-worthy events of the year.
Once we arrived and got into the action, we quickly realized that spectating at NEFR would be like no other event that we had yet experienced. Though we enjoyed ourselves at Rally America’s last event, the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally, we left that event wanting to get closer to the action as spectators. At NEFR, we had gotten our wish.
At a cost of only $15 per person, the rally organizers had arranged for school buses to transport spectators to and from some of the best spectator stages on both days of the rally. This eliminated many of the detractors that Brian and I had come across when spectating at Susquehannock Trail.
At that event, we spent more time walking back and forth to our car than actually watching racing. But at the New England rally, the spectator transport bus was probably less than 30 feet from us at all times. Also, after arriving at 5 a.m. on day two of the rally, our bus made for a fantastic resting spot in between stages.
On stage, things were different from last time. Instead of small clumps of spectators at a single spectating spot off the side of the stage, we were allowed to line the trails up and down to watch the cars go by. It felt like what a European might consider “real rally” rally to be. As each car went by we were being sprayed with dirt and gravel, and it felt oh so good.
At each stage, whether we were watching the #75 Subaru Rally Team USA car, a Porsche 964 rally car in Martini livery or a very familiar Nissan 240SX, the sensation of excitement inside of us and the surrounding crowd left us riled up until the next car came to follow the trail.
Though the race-watching was much more friendly at New England than Susquehannock Trail, we still faced the same issues we’ve come to live with. We had no idea on who was on top (later we learned it was David Higgins, obviously), no idea who was broken down or wrecked and no idea why the stage masters were taking an extra three minutes between sending each car down the stage. As spectators, we were lost in the dark.
At Fish Pond, the fourth stage of day two, a large majority of the crowd that we were spectating with was concerned about the status of Block and his co-driver Alex Gelsomino. All of the front runners came by, but with no sign of Block or Gelsomino, assumptions began to fly. Not knowing what happened to your favorite is not a great feeling.
It’s true, we may have spent more time getting to the event and back in my 944 than we did actually on the side of the stages, but we returned home with no regrets. The appearances of the North American rally superstars, the assortment of British M-Sport Fiestas and tons of other unique rally cars combined with the unmatchable traditional rally culture made it an exceptional experience.
On the ride back to Sunday River where my car was waiting for us, the event-leading open-class rally cars passed us in our spectating bus. I had never seen top-level race vehicles being driven on public roads in between stages.
This might not sound like a big deal, but think about it for a moment. Could you imagine the IMSA Tudor GTD race car, that you just watched do 50 or so laps around Circuit of the Americas, passing you on the street between races? Or how about any NASCAR stock car or Formula One car? That’s how it felt from our bus.
After waving to David Higgins and Craig Drew as they continued on toward the final stages of the event, the feeling of excitement began to fade as we settled back into the school bus seats and rode back to rally headquarters.
There’s a reason why we do this. Why we stuff ourselves into our project cars and travel across multiple state borders just to watch some cars splash through puddles and kick up dirt. We do it to get closer to the action, to learn more about the sport, experience the grassroot culture firsthand and to not just hear stories, but live them firsthand and be able to tell them ourselves.
I just wish we could’ve stayed for the party.