Paris. Dakar. Maine? Rally racing hits US
Can the high-speed sport, known for its exotic locales, catch on in America?
| MEXICO, MAINE
First comes the sound – the wail of a redlined engine – from beyond the trees. And then, the fury: a Subaru WRX slashes into view, going airborne off a low jump as it passes by on the narrow dirt track.
It scatters stones when it lands, then slides into a hard turn. Brake lights flash even as the driver accelerates, using left-foot braking as he goes "flat to the mat" with the gas.
A cloud of dust. A one- minute wait. Repeat. This time it's a Mitsubishi Evo. The crowd at the recreation area responds as it might to a particularly pleasing burst of fireworks.
Mention rally racing and most Americans summon up an aerial image of a roll-caged Mad Max monstrosity coursing through the dunes between Paris and Dakar, Senegal. But this is Mexico – Mexico, Maine – and a special exhibition stage of the Maine Forest Rally, one of some 20 marquee rally events sanctioned each year by Rally America, one of the sport's two governing bodies.
This year, the 12-year-old rally is also a qualifying event for ESPN's X Games – held in Los Angeles Aug. 3–6. For the first time, auto rally is a featured sport as promoters court a broadening demographic: the young and extreme, raised on dirtbikes and trick skateboarding – as both live-action participants and via PlayStation2.
American driver Travis Pastrana – an X Games star in motocross and set to drive a Subaru Impreza for the rally at the Games – has already attained hero status among young fans, who track him down here for autographs.
The sport has other giants: Scotsman Colin McRae is an international legend. (Many of rally's older, more affluent US fans follow European racers.) Rhys Millen has become a specialist in "drifting," a controlled oversteer technique that sends cars sliding sideways. (He did some of the driving in the latest "Fast and the Furious" sequel.)
New stars are emerging. "Americans have a huge interest in motor sports across the board," says Tim Penasack, president of Wazoo Motor Sports Marketing in Nashua, N.H.; consultant to Rally- America; and a longtime rally driver. "We're tying in to the extreme side, and we have high expectations."
But it's unclear whether rally can become a mainstream spectator sport in a country that loves its oval tracks. Rallying is complex. Co-drivers read "stage notes" with hieroglyph-like annotations (called "tulips") and bark coded messages to their drivers. Scoring involves arriving neither too late nor too early during "transit" stages between timed runs – which are stop-for-nothing affairs (unless you need to crawl out and right your car). A rally can run hundreds of miles and cross national borders; this one in Maine included about 95 miles of speed stages with nearly 200 miles of timed transits between them.
And the sport can also be difficult to spectate. It can mean camping out in snow to watch single cars fly past at intervals, then driving half an hour for another glimpse, in the dark.
"I don't think we can snatch the NASCAR crowd," says J.B. Niday, managing director of Rally America and its liaison to the X Games. "I think we've got to build our own fan base, [although] there are going to be some people who are going to be fans of [both]."
Rally "is really for car guys, not for sports fans," says Chris Economaki, editor and publisher emeritus of National Speed Sport News and a renowned expert on American motor sports. He traces rallying back to wealthy car clubs that formed after World War II and led to the formation of the Sports Car Club of America in the 1940s.
The SCCA, in fact, handled rallying in the US until Rally America stepped in just two years ago and began pouring more money into publicizing the sport.
One of its big current pitches to fans – "real cars, real roads" – might ring true in a culture that tends to elevate the automotive. "Car guys" increasingly turn out to be women, studies indicate, when it comes time to buy. And many rally vehicles are close cousins to cars that are popular in showrooms today. Manufacturers often boast that their designs are rally-tested.
Some of the cars represent feats of personal, aftermarket engineering. In a staging area, Tim O'Neil, a well-known racer and founder of Team O'Neil Rally School, points to a turbocharged Hyundai Tiburon. It has a Subaru suspension, he notes, and a Mitsubishi drivetrain.
But the sport's most extreme components are often the drivers. In the 1970s, Jean-Claude Andruet finished a stage on a rim after popping a rear tire. "[The sport's] not as blown out here as in the rest of the world," says Mr. O'Neal. "But there's a lot of talent."
There are also some cowboys. On his way to finishing third overall for the weekend, Matt Iorio from Millis, Mass., hits the dirt jump at Mexico too fast. His 1995 Impreza lifts, then dives dangerously, rolling right, and he and co-driver Ole Holter land with a crunch that delights the fans, though probably has their crew cringing.
And there is quieter drama here, too. Italian Alfredo DeDominicus, the race leader, checks into the Parc Expose – where the cars are displayed for viewing – two minutes late. The infraction costs him a 12-second penalty per minute – and that 24-second penalty will drop him to fifth place. Tenths of seconds separate finishers. Final winner Ramana Lagemann – a late entry in his 1997 Ford Escort Cosworth – is a sleeper who creeps up the scoreboard unnoticed.
Of course, getting noticed is an imperative at the X Games, where snowboarding morphed from a skiing alternative into head-to-head "boardercross." For rallying, that might mean more scoring weight being given to "super specials," including jumps, but it won't push rally proponents to reach for gimmicks that supercharge the sport's inherent risks, insists Mr. Niday, who says he was "floored" when asked early this year by ESPN about bringing auto rally to the X Games. "They want to talk about trying all kinds of different things" to win over fans, he says. "But it's, 'Let's find out if these are things you guys can really do, or if it will damage the reputation of the sport.' They've been very respectful of that."
Joao Ferreira, among the slowest Forest Rally qualifiers in his 1991 Volkswagen GTI, leans against his car during a technical inspection. "Since I was 8 years old I wanted to do this," says Mr. Ferreira, a Portuguese-born driver now living in New Bedford, Mass. "It's man and machine vs. nature," he says. "It's stones, mud."
After probing the extremes, the forces behind rallying seem simply to want a place in America's sports spectrum. "We want to build a great national championship that people will want to follow," says Niday, "to build up athletes, people will want to relate to."