2014 marks the beginning of another season of the Rally America Championship. Held in northern Michigan during the last weekend of January, the date ensures the roads will have a nice covering of snow to always mix things up. The big news going into this year’s SnoDrift Rally was the return of Travis Pastrana and the absence of Ken Block, Crazy Leo, and a few other teams. But Pastrana’s car wasn’t ready in time, so it was looking like it would be a showdown between Higgins and L’Estage, with the doors for third place wide open the whole slew of teams who are always waiting just off the podium.
Alex flew in to shoot the rally too, and he had no idea what he was in for. He picked me up on his way out of Detroit and we headed north. On the way up, the car thermometer recorded the air temperature as -24°C. Thanks to the second polar vortex we’ve had in the past few months, this Sno*Drift was panning out to be more of a frozen drift than anything.
To make it worse, the rental company gave Alex a car with a Florida plate. While Florida isn’t exactly free from the polar vortex, their weather was a world apart from what we had.
At points, it almost seemed like we left Michigan and somehow ended up in Alaska [Alaska was warmer -Bohan]. During most of the rally the temperatures hovered around the negative teens, and at some points got up to around -10°! But thanks to the windchill factor the numbers pushed to below -20°, into the polar vortex again.
At parc exposé this Mini pulled up with a noticeable lift added to its stance. Not only did it give a totally different look, but at certain angles it almost looked like an X-Raid Mini from Dakar.
The uncertainty of rally racing made itself known right at the first stage. To shoot rally, there’s usually a well thought out plan that needs to be followed to the T. One mistake will throw off an entire day.
Stage 1 was delayed for around half an hour, with Adam Yeoman spinning and a restart called for some reason or another. Not only that, something threw off the spacing order, with some cars separated by their usual two minute gaps, and some separated by up to three or four minutes. And some drivers were even catching up to the cars in front of them.
ACP left Scion Racing and the RallyXD and debuted in his new Team O’Neil Fiesta R2.
Did I mention it was cold? Even with the arctic temperatures, the hardy fans still bundled up to watch the rally. I couldn’t even tell the difference in the numbers from other years with somewhat warmer temperatures. Rally fans will come out no matter what the weather.
The snow falling throughout the day added to the atmosphere of a cold, northern rally.
The roads of Sno*Drift are usually a little icy, that’s nothing new for the drivers. But this year seemed to be extra slick, some drivers seems to be comfortable with the ice, and others took a more cautious approach making for plenty of close car action.
Alex and I couldn’t seem to get back into the scheduling groove. We usually would get to our next stage a few cars in so we just ended up dealing with what we got. After trudging through knee deep snow at points, we ran into Brenten Kelly and his co driver walking along the side of the road. They told us just up the road they went off and hit a tree, knocking them out of the rally. Although their car was out, they were still in good spirits.
Before the night stages, there was a service which let us catch back up for the last few stages. That was almost useless though, because trying to shoot cars in pitch black conditions in the middle of the forest is one of the most challenging things to do.
Aside from that, I’m sure that night stages are one of the coolest things in motorsports.
The cars are one thing, but the fans are the life of the party. Try to imagine any other time when there would be a couple hundred people standing in the middle of a forest at 9 o’clock at night in frigid cold and driving snow, just to see a few headlights go by. It’s honestly unlike any other event I’ve ever experienced and it never gets old.
The next day downtown Lewiston was the base for the second parc exposé. Bill Caswell made his Rally America comeback this year, but day two he was out. On Facebook he said the heat didn’t work and it was too cold to continue. I was looking forward to seeing Bill out there in a BMW again, but rally is a cruel sport that favors no one.
Day two started a lot better than day one. Higgins already had with a decent lead.
With Block not participating, it was up to L’Estage to try to take the win from Higgins and try to repeat his win from last year.
Yeoman managed to keep the car out of serious trouble on day one, and on day two he still looked strong. Managing ninth place overall at the end of the rally meant they didn’t need to rebuild their car again before 100 Acre Wood.
With Yeoman so far down in the standings, Lauchlin O’Sullivan was looking like a podium contender. All that stood between him and a bottle of champagne was a day of rallying.
We were set up at a 90 degree turn from a downhill short straight. From the start, the ice affected everyone from Higgins to the the very last car. Most understeered into the snow bank to shave off some speed and then would manage their way around the corner.
This Plymouth Firearrow, however, had another way of doing it. They started off coming in with understeer, but caught the bank and managed to kick the tail out enough to slide around the corner.
And slide they did. Just about every other car missed the apex because of the snow and ice, but these guys nailed it perfectly. It seems like a right of passage in rally to get a wide angle photo of a car and still not be able to get the whole car in the frame. 17mm and the nose still didn’t all fit. I will forever look back at this photo with a little bit of a smile.
We stayed for the second run of the stage, as the conditions were perfect. Clear skies, a good corner and some dubstep played by the crowd. Higgins again was showing his car control and used the bank for a bit of extra braking.
Nick Roberts in his new plaid wrapped STi also used the bank, and in doing so gave me a good shower of snow chunks.
Matt Johnson took over in the xD, which was sporting a vintage Toyota livery.
After a few more cars we headed off to the Super Special held in a little quarry just outside of town. I trekked across the pit to where the jumps were last year, but a little course change meant the jumps were gone. So I was stuck in the knee to waist deep snow at the start.
The super special was more an endurance test to see how committed we were. Now it seemed we’d left Alaska and went straight to Siberia. I can’t even begin to guess how fast some of the wind gusts were, but I’d say a solid 60 km/h. Add that onto a day with a high of -15° and it was quite the experience.
The Super Special is our chance to get a lot of different shots of the cars.
In the forest we can usually only get one shot per location, but out in the open quarry we can sometimes get four!
It seemed like we were shooting on the moon or something. As cold and as windy as it was, it makes you realize how rally is so different from anything else. Come November here in the northern hemisphere, most racing stops during the cold weather. A few races take place in the west and south, but not too many other major series have their season opener in sub zero temperatures. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.
They ran the Super Special, then the cars would go to a stage run and come back for one more run at the Super Special. To try to eliminate any possible snow drifts and ruts, a couple of plows came through after the two cars that were stuck got pulled out. Another fine feature of rallying, a snow plow on track.
After the Super Special it was time for the final service of the rally. Higgins managed to tame the ice and snow and only lost a little chunk from his front bumper. In contrast, some other cars had very large chunks missing. Thanks to the ice and snow chunks piled up in the apex of corners and everybody trying to shave off as much time as possible, there were plenty of cars with broken front bumpers.
Everybody was lined up and ready to go which served as a last chance to see all the cars before the victory celebration. This also put into perspective just how popular the Subaru platform is for the top teams. Out of the top six cars, one was not a Subaru. Thanks Antoine! That might be my Evo fanboy coming through.
While the top teams were already heading out, the smaller teams were still getting ready for the final push. I still think it’s cool how Rally America is the premier rally series in the US, and still has privateer teams competing in cars built in their garages. The days of privateer cars in major series is almost all but gone, but thanks to series like Rally America and Formula D, the homebuilt, driver-owned cars are still going strong.
You’d think that in a snow rally the cars wouldn’t get completely filthy the way they do on dirt and gravel. That is just simply not the case. There’s plenty of dirt under the snow and the warm, sooty exhausts make sure all kinds of bad stuff get caked onto the cars.
The day grew dim on the final loop, and we braved the cold one last time. L’Estage was first on the road but we suspected Higgins was still in the actual lead.
The only thing we knew for sure, though, was that he was still in the running.
O’Sullivan was not far behind, with Dillon van Way coming up fast.
David Sterckx wasn’t going to let up, ready to take any advantage O’Sullivan or van Way might give him.
Yeoman made up some time, but his spin on Stage 1 really did squash his chances at the podium.
The final stage of the rally was easily the best stage. Called Bonfire Alley, the fans took that to heart and had 11 bonfires in about a 100 meter stretch of road. I still can’t describe the feeling you get at a stage at night, but if there’s anything I look forward to every year, it’s the night stages.
So instead of describing it, here’s a quick video try to pass on the feeling. 11 bonfires, a couple hundred people, rock and dubstep in the middle of the woods, just another day in stage rally.
I’m sure the drivers love coming out of the dark forest to a barrage of flashes and flashlights for a 90 degree turn after a day of racing.
I know the fans love it, and that’s what it’s all about, right?
By the end of the rally, Davis Higgins managed to hang onto the lead and win the first rally of the season.
L’Estage came in second two minutes behind, and Lauchlin O’Sullivan came up in third over all and won the Super Production class. Rally America is off to a great start for it’s 2014 season, and later rallies look to be really exciting too. 100 Acre Woods will host the return of Travis Pastrana, which should be all kinds of awesome.
Photos by Delaney & Wong
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