Rally America Round 1: The Sno*Drift Rally
The 2013 Rally America season kicked off last week in Michigan, with 40+ teams and a myriad fans descending on the sleepy little towns of Atlanta, Lewiston, and Hillman in rural northern Michigan, turning them into bustling centers of activity. Alex Wong and I flew over to check it out.
After a hellish drive through up from Detroit and some much needed sleep, we met up with Guestblaster Eric Delaney and headed over to tech. There we got a preview of the cars and the cold. 30 below freezing at 3pm? Sure, why not?
Alex had never been this cold before. Luckily I have Viking ancestors to protect me. Kinda.
I was actually looking forward to hanging out in the snow. Most of the snow here was lake effect. It’s a different consistency from what I’m used to in the mountains in the West.
FY Racing’s Adam Yeoman and Jordan Schulze always do fairly well when they can stay out of the trees. They earned a podium finish at Oregon Trail last season, amid an unusual amount of fifth place finishes.
Ken Block wasn’t even on the driver list when I checked it on Tuesday night. Then on Wednesday morning on my way to the airport I saw his press release with the new livery and stating that he was running the whole season.
Considering that he won both rounds he competed in last season, he’s a serious contender for the championship. Higgins would have to watch out if he wanted to defend his title.
After a brief stop at Parc Expose on Friday morning, we headed out to Stage 1. The start order sheet I had said it would go Block-Higgins-L’Estage, but Crazy Leo was the first one out. Ahh I had missed rally racing, and this was a great way to start 2013.
L’Estage was next. It seemed like the French Canadian had driven on snow before. Go figure.
Block came next. I must say, the new livery looks pretty dang good.
Higgins was looking solid of course, and also with a new livery. It looks the part but I still prefer last year’s.
I had my fingers crossed for Yeoman. It would be good to see these guys get on the podium again, as they are one of the fastest teams without huge corporate sponsorship.
ACP’s new car sounded like a chainsaw so you always knew who it was way before he came around the corner.
Alex was pretty sure the extreme cold was making us into legitimate tough-guy photographers. Formula D’s sweltering events would be nothing compared to the misery of this rally. Hiking out to your shooting spot isn’t so bad, but if you’re standing around waiting for the cars, you’ll get really cold really fast.
He also found a perk to being surrounded by snow: camera/lens/monopod combos can stand up by themselves.
It’s pretty spectacular when cars overshoot a turn and ride up on a snowbank. This fit and its Civic teammate make up Honda Racing’s two car team for 2013.
Ford is trying hard to win the new-for-2013 constructors’ championship. There were Fiestas everywhere.
It’s impossible to shoot consecutive stages, so we went straight to Stage 3. We were just in time to see Crazy Leo come by again.
L’Estage wasn’t far behind. Actually he was whittling away at the lead.
Higgins moved into the second slot while Block was conspicuously missing. I overheard one of the marshals saying he had an electrical problem and was done for the day. Higgins must have been happy to hear that. He was in the lead anyway, but anything can happen. With Block out he just had to stay ahead of L’Estage and Crazy Leo.
I hadn’t seen Ugo Desgreniers drive before, but he was hanging in there with the big dogs.
15mph advised? Not for Yeoman. Not even on snow and ice.
ACP had gotten on the 2WD podium in the last four Sno*Drifts and he was well on his way to his fifth.
Mason Moyle is always someone to watch out for in SP.
Dillon Van Way was starting to make a small dent in ACP’s lead.
There are plenty of nice scenes out on the stages. I kept humming “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” to myself.
Alex and Eric were both following Noble Star Rally’s Amanda Skelly and Derrick Rudisel. Running in Open Light, they are the quintessential grassroots team.
It turns out Block’s alternator was possibly hit by a rock and stopped working. Either way the car spent the rest of Friday in service.
We were too late for Stage 7 so we headed out to Stage 8, which was the last one of the day. It’s kind of spooky to be out in the dark, frozen woods at night.
In Stage 4, L’Estage took over the lead, but Higgins barely got it back in 8, by just half a second.
I didn’t even know DVW was making flames until night. Cool!
Art Gruszka’s car is always an easy one to spot, and it looks great kicking up snow too.
I forget which car this was but it ran wide and almost hit my tripod! Hanging out in an impact zone has never been more fun.
After 8, we rushed back to the cabin for a hot dinner and some much needed sleep. Saturday would be an early day.
The Super Rally rules allowed Block to restart on Saturday. Under Super Rally, the driver is given the same time as the fastest driver for each missed stage, plus a five minute penalty for the first missed stage and a three minute penalty for each additional missed stage. Since Block missed six stages, he racked up 20 minutes in penalties. Still, that’s a lot better than going home with nothing.
FY Racing was giving out posters with one of my photos from the Olympus Rally on it. Awesome!
Higgins had to be all business. With only half a second separating him and L’Estage, there would be no room for error.
Crazy Leo had time to check his phone. The Internet service in northern Michigan is not very good so he might have just been frustrating himself.
Sunrise through frozen trees was pretty cool. Actually it was about 10º.
Alex wandered down the street to shoot the cars as they left Parc Expose to head out on stage.
All the rally cars have to be street legal so they can drive to and from the stages. That’s probably the main reason there’s no Rally America stop in California.
By far the biggest difference between shooting rally and other kinds of racing is the sheer amount of driving involved. Not counting going to and from the cabin, we drove about 135 miles to get to the different shooting spots. Of course the rally cars just go to the start, run the stage, and go to the next start. We would go to the starts sometimes, but usually we’d find another road that took us to the middle of a stage, which is miles and miles through the woods. All of that extra driving really adds up.
At stage 11 I felt like I was in a Bev Doolittle painting. I had to make sure I wasn’t being watched.
We were only a little bit early but there was no one at the start. We decided to head to the next stage just in case, but then Higgins was in our way, followed by L’Estage, Block, Crazy Leo, and everyone else. Alex had to drive backwards to a spot where we could get out of the way again. He definitely deserved his cigarette after that one!
It turned out our map was a bit off and the stage start was another quarter mile or so further in. Being in an Expedition we didn’t really feel like risking driving up a snowy single lane road and not being able to find a spot to turn around so we just hiked in.
Luckily we didn’t miss too much.
The starters all have their own way of starting the cars. Many use a finger countdown. Others use fingers and their voice. Some go nuts with a green flag.
It warmed up quite a bit on Saturday. 15º felt like summer.
Verena Mei was back in 2013. She won the B-Spec championship last year and finished 4th in 2WD.
There are no fast food chains in Atlanta. Gas station pizza would be our lunch. It was actually pretty good!
The cars were in service so we had a little time to plan the remainder of the day and get out to the Super Special.
Special Stage 14 was in a gravel pit. I climbed up on a gravel hill to get a better look at the place.
Some other media guys followed suit.
There were big enough open areas covered in virgin snow to make it seem like we were on our way to the South Pole sometimes.
The 0 cars were’t taking the jumps, so I didn’t even know they were there until Higgins did it. Then I knew why Eric was standing where he was. By the time I knew all these things I didn’t have time to walk down there to get my own jump shots. Bummer.
It was still a pretty good show from the top of my hill though.
It was shaping up to be a pretty epic battle between Higgins and L’Estage. They were neck-and-neck throughout the day.
And Block was making up a ton of time. It was unlikely he’d win, but he was still driving as if he could do it.
There weren’t many cars taking the jump outside the Open class, but Skelly got in on that action anyway.
Alex was getting pretty confident driving the Expedition on snow, but then he drove us into a ditch like a boss.
Luckily the guys in front of us saw us go off and called their WRX friend to come back and help us out.
We are forever grateful to the helpful rally fans of northern Michigan.
After an incredibly long wait at Stage 19, someone in the distance yelled “car!!” and Higgins came screaming around the corner. He had extended his lead to more than 20 seconds by this point.
L’Estage wasn’t going to give up just yet though, and he cut Higgins’s lead down to under 2 seconds.
Crazy Leo was more than 10 minutes behind at this point, so it looked like he’d take third if nothing catastrophic happened.
ACP was still leading in 2WD…
…though DVW was less than a minute behind him and still had a chance to win it.
After Alex nearly got kiled by Skelly, we rushed all the way over to Hillman for the podium. We got there just in time to miss the Open class champagne spray, but the cars were still there. L’Estage took the win by a hair over 6 seconds, which I think is the smallest margin of victory in Rally America history. Crazy Leo finished comfortably in third. Desgreniers finished a respectable fourth and Yeoman, as if cursed, got yet another fifth place finish. Block finished sixth, which pretty damn impressive considering he started Day 2 with 20 minutes in penalties. He actually won 6 out of the 12 stages on Saturday! In 2WD, ACP ended up staying ahead of DVW by five seconds, while Edward McNelly coming in third.
Just as we were getting used to the cold, it was time to go home. I was worried that California would feel like the inside of a volcano compared to northern Michigan. And you know what? It did.
Photos by Delaney and Bohan