Spectating a rally requires a lot more commitment than spectating a circuit race. To enjoy a race at your favorite road course or oval track, all you need to do is show up at the venue, buy a ticket, and find your seat or patch of grass. Then for the rest of the day, you sit back, enjoy your tasty beverage and watch the racing. Rally fans have to be a bit more involved. On the up-side, there are no tickets, spectating is free, but getting from one spectator area to the next is as much of a rally for the fans as it is the competitors. So maps in hand, timing planned out, and GPS waypoints entered into the sat-nav (my co-driver had to work the weekend of the rally, so I was flying solo), I ventured down into the depths of the Ozark Mountains for the event that always marks the beginning of my motorsports year as it’s the weekend of second round of the Rally America National Championship, Rally in the 100 Acre Wood.
This year, the National Championship aspect of the series has been topic of discussion in the rally community with the only open-class factory-backed team being Subaru Rally Team USA’s #75 2015 WRX STi driven by David Higgins and guided by co-driver Craig Drew. There were a total of six open-class entries with all but SRT USA being privateers. That means that provided Higgins keeps the car away from the trees, the championship is his. What sometimes gets lost in this discussion is the rest of the field who have put together some incredible, and incredibly sketchy, rally machines in their garages, barns, or back yards. Rally is fundamentally a grassroots motorsport, in fact, it’s about as grassroots as it gets. Although no form of motorsport is cheap, rally is a very accessible form open to a wide variety of platforms. Basically, find a car, put in a cage, race seats, and a fire extinguisher and you’re ready to rally! That accessibility drew a total of 60 entries to the Mark Twain National Forest in Southeastern Missouri bringing a wide diversity of cars.
Certainly, there was an abundance of Subarus, but there were also people rallying Ford Fiestas, MINI Coopers, and VW Golfs. A couple of the most amazing machines, for different reasons, was the 1991 Porsche 944 entry of Robert Pepper and Mical Davis, and the perinnial 100AW competitors Ian Topping and Jimmy Brandt in their 1980 Volvo 242. …well, it’s mostly a Volvo. The motor is a Volvo slant-4, but it feeds power through a GM transmission to a Toyota rear end. Talking with Ian at the Friday Parc Exposé, the drivetrain components were chosen for their reliability and availability. Robert Pepper’s Guards Red 944 is no stranger to motorsports competition, having done service as a road racer, autocrosser, and rallycrosser. Now he brings his car to the world of stage rally! Perhaps a 944 isn’t the first choice of cars to rally, but for many of the rally competitors, it’s not about running the best equipment, it’s about taking the equipment you have and making it work.
Friday – Sloppy roads and brown ice
This year’s rally was especially challenging as weather caused the stage conditions to be extremely variable on Friday, and downright treacherous on Saturday. Although the primary roads were clear and dry on Friday, the gravel roads tucked away among the hills and forest were still partially snow-packed. The traffic on the roads converted that snow into a layer of ice. The parts of the stages that were bare gravel gripped almost like tarmac, given how hard-packed they’d become, but the portions that were ice-covered offered minimal grip. This made tire choice extremely challenging. The often quoted saying that was flying around the service park on Friday was “What tires do you bring to 100AW? All of them.”
Getting to the stages wasn’t a concern for the rally teams, of course, but it certainly was for those of us working the event and those who were spectating. Many who had come to Dent County with naught but all-season tires, found themselves in a bit of a fix as they ended up stuck on the ice or just off road. Even a 4×4 truck is no good if your tires aren’t suited to the conditions. I found myself with exactly the right setup for the rally running, as it turned out, the exact same car and tire as the 2WD favorite, Andrew Comrie-Picard, a Ford Fiesta ST with Hankook i*Pikes. The little hot hatch ran like a snowmobile, only with bluetooth, satnav, and heat!
The upside of the wintry weather was that the dust, which can often be an issue at the rally, was not a problem. From a photography standpoint, it meant that I didn’t get the wonderful billowing clouds behind the cars lending texture and a sense of speed. The spray of snow, ice, and mud as the cars charged slideways (yes, that’s a word) through the corners made up for that, though. The Super Special at the Lions Club Park in Potosi, MO ended up being a great place to see the mud and snow fly. Being the first stage of the rally, it also meant that I had the opportunity to see every one of the entered competitors drive their machines in anger. That didn’t last, though, as the conditions began to take their toll on the machines. One of the odd issues that everyone was having, including myself, was the mud made partially liquid by the traffic accumulating on the suspension bits and refreezing. The service park was littered with brown ice that had been chiseled from the cars.
Saturday – Unexpected snow and don’t mess with the mail lady
Earlier in the week, the forecast for Salem, MO was for snow to begin late Saturday evening which might have affected the final stage or two, but the rest of the day was supposed to be above freezing and dry. Yeah, well, that changed dramatically. The snows began to fly during the morning Parc Exposé there on Main St. in downtown Salem. Ken Block’s withdrawal from the rally meant that attendance would be diminished at this year’s rally, but the sudden and early appearance of snow and below normal temps kept more people away than expected. Last year, with Ken Block and Travis Pastrana in attendance and temperatures in the 70s, Main St. on Saturday morning was so packed with fans that it was difficult to move. This year, I think the competitors and media outnumbered the fans. Fortunately, the weather didn’t have as large of an impact on the fan presence on stage as many of the spectator areas were still filled with fans doing what they could to keep warm.
The initial snows were light and didn’t produce any significant hindrance to travel, throughout the day, the snow continued to accumulate and intensify. The worsening conditions obviously posed a challenge on the competition stages, but the biggest challenge was simply transiting from one stage to the next. Oddly enough, the first delay was on SS12 due to the United States Postal Service. The rally competes on public roads that have been swept of traffic and closed for the duration of the stage, and since Saturday is a mail delivery day still, there are bound to be conflicts with the mail trucks. Most places, the expectation is that all traffic, including the mail, would simply hold tight for a bit until the stage is complete and the road is re-opened. That wasn’t going to fly with the lady responsible for delivering the mail to the rural residents southeast of Salem. Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, not even a rally race, was going to stop her from making her appointed rounds. Nothing stops the USPS, apparently.
The mail-induced delay simply allowed for conditions on the transit roads to continue to get worse, and SS13 was the first casualty. Numerous traffic incidents, not necessarily related to the rally, caused sudden demand on ambulance services, and one cannot run a competitive stage unless medical and ambulance service is on site. This made for a significant delay for those of us positioned at the famous Cattle Guard Jump on SS14. In order to arrive and drive into the stage to the site of the jump, most of us photographers and spectators arrived just after 12:00. The first car off (FCO) time was originally scheduled for 14:20, but that time came and went without any sign of the competitors, or even the final sweep cars. Word finally came through that SS13 was being scrapped and that the competitors would transit the stage and proceed directly to SS14. Great! Things were looking up for us as the snow collected on us and on our cameras, but then some spectators got bored and decided to start driving on the stage after the initial sweep car, the 000, had gone through. …delay as marshals tracked down the stray traffic. Finally, the 00 sweep comes by and we’re getting excited, until more spectators decide to venture out on stage. We wait some more while marshals went in search of the offenders with pitchforks and blunt instruments. The 00 came through again and then finally the 0, clearing the stage for competition.
Hurray! We get to see and photograph rally cars flying through the air! Well, we did for a while anyway. After some confusion between the published stage notes and how the stage was constructed at one particular marshal station, a safety truck went to the location with some yellow tape to more clearly indicate the proper direction for the stage. Some of the spectators saw an official’s truck on stage and mistook it for the green-light vehicle, the vehicle that indicates the stage is reopened for public use. So, we had more people running around on a hot stage in their pick-up trucks. Finally, the decision was made to scrap the rest of the stage and have the remaining competitors simply transit to SS15 which became the final stage of the weekend.
With the snow still falling and accumulating the remaining three stages were cancelled and so was the podium celebration in front of the Dent County Courthouse in Downtown Salem. Yet more chaos was had as many spectators got stuck trying to make their way out of the stage and blocked the road for those behind. Fortunately, I was out in front of most of that chaos and made it back to the service park where the banquet and awards celebration was being held. With everything being done inside, there was no champagne spray, which was fine with me. Champagne and cameras don’t mix well. Nevertheless, my goals for the weekend were accomplished. I didn’t get stuck, watched rally cars fly through the air, got the photos I needed to for the folks that sent me, and most importantly, I got to reconnect with many of my photog friends and meet many of the drivers and crew that make the sport of rally the amazing thing that it is.
Seeing the big names compete at the highest levels is exciting, but so much of rally is about the privateers bringing the car they rescued from the junk yard with a crew of mates they bribed with beer blasting through the same stages, fixing their machines on the fly often with liberal applications of duct tape and zip ties (I do not exaggerate here). The whole weekend reminded me of something I saw earlier in the week:
“Somewhere in America, a racer will load his car into a double-decker trailer, grab a beer from the refrigerator in his motorcoach, settle onto a leather couch, and complain about the high cost of racing. Somewhere ELSE in America, a racer will load his car onto a battered open trailer, grab some cold ones from the cooler from the back of an old truck, and talk about what a blast he just had!”
The latter description fits most rally racers, and it’s why I love the sport. What a great way to start the year’s work of motorsport photography!