After 25 years of dreaming, I finally found myself behind the wheel of my own rally car – even though I had to borrow the actual wheel.
Way back in high school, in the heady days of the late 1980s, I sat on my couch one fine summer morning and saw a 30-second TV clip of a rally in Europe. What the H is rally, I said. Was that an Audi with truck tires on it bombing through the woods at ludicrous speeds? That Lancia just crashed and the fans are rolling it back over, and the car is taking off again down the narrow lanes of Finland? Or cliff side in Monte Carlo? More of this, please. More… of… this.
When you crash in rally, or have an “off” or a “big moment,” you are expected to keep going at all costs, whenever, whereever possible. Press on regardless.
This certainly wasn’t NASCAR, where the fans were trapped in bleachers, drinking cheap beer and cheering for their favorite moonshine runner. No sir, this was rally. Fans lined the course, which was on a regular road. Like, a real road. And were those license plates on those race cars, that looked like they literally rolled off the showroom lot? Yes and yes.
Euro sports were always sort of my favorite, cycling, soccer, etc., and when I discovered rally, that sealed the deal.
But, I was in high school, on the wrong side of the tracks, and could barely afford my $500 first car, never mind a race car.
Back to the Future
Fast forward 20+ years. It’s 2001, my birthday, and in my hands, my wife had placed a gift certificate for a track racing experience in Connecticut called Racing Reality. All my life, she had been hearing about my desire to race and she made it happen. “You’re going racing!” she said. I think, too, this may have been her solution for me to get this racing thing out of my system.
It didn’t take.
She was a dealer, and I was a brand-new junkie wacked out on speed.
Following my racing adventure, I discovered Skip Barber Racing School, a road-course based school in Limerock, Connecticut, where Paul Newman used to race.
Still not out of my system, I found the ultimate school in all of the known Universe: Team O’Neil Rally School. Located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, snow-laden photos of rally cars flying through the woods jumped of the web page at me and might has well have been in Sweden.
Before I knew it, I was sitting in a real rally car (I had never even seen a real rally car before) in the middle of the mountains. If I wasn’t a rally junkie yet, I was totally ready for rehab after the week-long class.
We learned the finer points of driving on gravel surfaces, using left-foot braking and something called the pendulum turn, or The Scandinavian Flick. This particular maneuver goes against every natural driving instinct normal humans have and flicks it around a corner using – you guessed it – a pendulum momentum to swing a car around a corner at butt puckering speeds.
Back to the Future II
That was 2004. In 2007, I was able to cover the Maine Forest Rally for my newspaper. After seeing a real, live event, where the cars, drivers and co-drivers, were immediately accessible in something called Parc Exposé, I was so hooked I would have dumped my 401k (if I had one) to be able to do this.
On the five-hour drive home, I dreamed, but the dream had turned into scheming, prioritizing and otherwise turning my world on its ear to get into racing – somehow. I learned about something called autocross, a high-performance event where a driver pilots any car (racing or street) through a course of cones on a closed off parking lot. I hit craigslist hard looking for an inexpensive, but solid car and came up with a list of VW Golfs and Jettas, liked they used at Team O’Neil and showed them to my wife. “No,” she said. “You need something more intimidating. How about a BMW?”
I almost renewed my vows on the spot.
So the search began anew and by late September, of that year, a 1988 BMW 325is sat in my driveway. The following April, I participated in my first-ever competitive automotive event, an SCCA-sanctioned autocross at Horseneck Beach, in Westport, Massachusetts.
The next day, a friend of mine came over, we had a few hundred beers, and started taking the car apart. Then, after an exhaustive search for roll cage builders, I landed on Cage This, in Lynn, Massachusetts. Cage This owner Bill Doyle and I became fast friends, in part due to our both having the same car. Eventually, he agreed to sponsor me and my efforts with Slapdash Racing. Bill was thoroughly influential in getting me to my first-ever stage rally, the New England Forest Rally.
Slow down Raisin Bran
Most people – and I would recommend this actually – take several years to build up their chops in autocross and rallycross before attempting a stage event. I went from autocross to full-on stage rally in two years, including the time it took to build the car. I had three autocrosses under my belt before I went to Maine. Somehow I had it in my head that I was going to get hit by a bus before I ever made it to stage rally. So I accelerated my plans.
Before I knew it, I was panic-stricken sitting in line for scrutineering (tech inspection) at the Sno-Cat shed at the Sunday River Ski Resort, the base camp for the New England Forest Rally. I passed tech with flying colors – a testament to all the hard work by all my team members, sponsor and myself – and ultimately found myself sitting at the start control, then gunning it through the Maine woods.
Off the couch, into the garage...
I had materialized a dream. Cloudy visions during sleepless nights finally descended from the ether and formed into the shape of a vintage BMW loaded up with go-fast bits.
I did it.
I made it happen.
Big dreams, little budget
The Slapdash Racing rally E30 waits to get beaten up on the stages. This is a spectacular view for a service park. This is the upper parking lot at Sunday River Resort. The Tag Rally Sport team was our gracious service host for the 2013 event.
This is our first set of brand-spankin'-new DMack rally tires, mounted only hours before Black River Stages in 2012.
The borrowed steering wheel...
Ahh, it looks so new. This shot was taken back at Slapdash Garage, straight from Bill Doyle's shop at Cage This. Fresh cage, fresh paint, all put back together. Next stop was Rally America's Chief Scrutineer and Logbookist Don Taylor's shop in Vermont for sign off and official rally car status.