A Long, Vibrant History
Some call it recklessness, but we call it unparalleled skill. Rally car racing is considered by many the most challenging form of motorsports. Its vibrant grassroots history dates back more than 100 years to a classic era, a time when the sport was a means of vehicle reliability testing.
Today, rally car racers are considered the best all-round motorsports competitors in the world. Drivers and co-drivers are eager to challenge opponents at maximum speeds on public or private roads with modified production or specially built road-legal cars. Rallying pits the
competitor and the machine against mother nature and the clock.
No oval speedways with accompanying pace vehicles or wheel-to-wheel, door-scraping competition. No traditional stadium-style seating for spectators. And absolutely no weather delays, for the unpredictable impact of natural elements makes the competition that much more fierce and exhilarating.
Pedal to the Metal
Teams navigate brutal road conditions in timed stages that require them to leave at regular intervals from one or more starting points. Competitors are expected to be nimble and handle each stage with acute precision, remarkable control and athletic stamina. The goal is to tackle the stages quickly and efficiently to ensure the fastest time possible.
“It’s about going really fast in real cars on real roads,” said renowned Canadian-born rally competitor Andrew Comrie-Picard, once a successful entertainment lawyer in NYC and now a North American Rally Champion, ESPN X-Game medalist, Baja champion, stunt driver and TV personality among many other professional achievements.
In addition to overcoming treacherous outdoor elements at high speeds, the drivers and co-drivers are responsible for completing their own road-side maintenance. And they do so with nothing more than the tools and spare parts tucked away in the rally car. While all competing teams have allocated vehicle-servicing sessions, call in the crew during the rally stage and get whacked with an additional time penalty. Yep, meet the superheroes of motorsports.
But rally car racers need a purpose-built machine in order to give mother nature a proper dose of those super powers. Drivers may be well-prepared for the terrain but struggle in maximizing the clock if the car isn’t mechanically sound. “There’s nothing worse than when you’re doing really, really well in a rally but the car just can’t keep up. It’s not just about the conditions; the car needs to be set up for those conditions,” said Crazy Leo Urlichich, a Russian-born Canadian rally car driver sponsored by a Toronto-based team called Can-Jam Motorsports and founder of the driving school Race Lab.
Types of Rally Car Racing
The vehicle specs required to compete at the highest level in any rally depends on the course and its conditions. While there are some niches that simulate the sport, such as rallycross, there are two main types of traditional rallying: road rallies and stage rallies. Road rallies are considered the original platform and are primarily amateur events today. Held on highways or roads open to normal traffic, rally drivers often endure challenging conditions over extremely long distances. The emphasis is not necessarily outright speed, rather accurate timekeeping, navigational accuracy and vehicle reliability.
Since the 1960’s, stage rallies have evolved to become the professional branch of the sport. They are determined by straight speed over stretches of punishing roads within competitive sections closed to other traffic to ensure bystander safety. The terrain varies from deep snow, slick ice and rugged mountain passes to tarmac, loose gravel, thick forest brush and desert sand. Each path is chosen to provide an invigorating challenge for competitors and test the overall reliability and performance of the vehicle. Not to mention, it’s a testament to the driver’s personal speed and ability behind the wheel.
“Gravel is the most fun and allows for much more force dimension around the car’s axis, which is just the greatest sensation. There are deep ruts, big rocks and other surface changes (that increase the level of difficulty and fun). Gravel adds excitement and craziness,” said Urlichich, a fearless competitor with a devout social media following and some impressive accolades to match. He’s a Rally of the Pines
and President’s Cup winner, two-time Canadian Rally Championship runner up and North American Rally Championship runner up.
Although the sport has evolved since the Monte Carlo Rally events during the early 1900’s, rallying is still rallying. And it’s remained true to
its roots by putting real production vehicles to the ultimate test in real-world conditions. Look no further than the FIA World Rally Championship (WRC) as a mecca of competition, pitting drivers and production-based cars against some of the toughest and most varied road conditions in the world. It’s the Wimbledon of rallying and it’s pedal to the metal from start to finish, just the way racers like it.
Advancement of Purpose-Built Rally Car Machines
Perhaps the largest evolution within the sport is the automobile itself. Consider the Austin Mini Cooper, Stratos, Peugeot 205 T16, Renault Alpine A110, Fiat 131 Abarth, Lancia models, Mitsubishi Lancer/Evolution, Subaru Impreza, Ford Focus/Fiesta, Toyota Yaris and Volkswagen Polo. All are production based, heavily-modified supercars and historically iconic in their own right. But they’re also highly diverse vehicle platforms that have presented competitors and spectators alike with very different rally experiences throughout the decades.
“It really doesn’t matter the model; a great rally car is one that is set up well. You wear your car like a glove, so you have to know exactly how
it’s going to handle,” said Urlichich. “My favorite rally car is our 2007 Subaru Impreza STI 4WD that I race in open class. It’s a serious purpose-built racing machine. Totally solid, feels like a tank and very reliable. Features a sequential gearbox that makes over 400 hp and 500 lb-ft of torque,” he added.
The competitive experience for man and machine can span hundreds of miles, day or night, and always involves unforgiving terrain to
overcome. Urlichich’s longest rally trek? 1,560 km over the course of three days. “And it wasn’t long enough!” he said.
Battered and Bruised, But Brave
Modern-day rally professionals live by a code of no limits with little to lose and everything to gain on the open road. For them, rallying exceeds the competitive goal of reaching a specific destination and includes the stimulating journey along the way.
“We’re challenge junkies and yes we are nominally battling each other, but we’re really battling mother nature,” said Comrie-Picard. “Great driving is a great art. (It’s not just about being competitive) I’m a perfectionist and I drive methodically, not wild. I look at every corner as a puzzle to unlock,” he continued.
But no matter how skilled, how prepared or how careful, sometimes the natural elements prove too harsh and competitors either crash or break down. “I flipped at the X-Games and sailed off the mountain at Pikes Peak, thankfully was caught by some treetops. It’s part of the game; if you don’t crash once in awhile then you’re not pushing hard enough. Par for the course, we have great safety equipment,” said Comrie-Picard, who is known for his mantra “You never say die. Never turn it over to the crew to fix. It’s 100% in your arms all the time.”
That is, until you’re kaput on the side of the road with a blown engine like Urlichich. One of his most disappointing finishes turned memorable at Rally of Tall Pines in 2013 where the race became less about overall standings and more about an opportunity for the student to school the teacher.
“I was up against two of my strongest competitors, one of them a very big mentor to me. And I was beating them fair and square in the stages,” said Urlichich. Even though a stroke of bad luck caused him to break down, “I felt the best ever just to keep pace with those guys; two established rally drivers. It gave me a real sense of accomplishment.”
Two Rally Drivers, a Tow Strap and No Fear
Then, of course, there are those circumstances that require extreme measures. Like during one of Urlichich’s first rally car events where, due to technical issues at the starting point, he was out of the race as soon as it began. Of course, he decided to complete the stages anyway. Urlichich noticed Comrie-Picard and his rally Porsche stranded on the side of the road and offered to tow him back. Strapped up, Urlichich asked him, “How fast do you wanna go?” to which only a racer of his caliber could reply, “As fast as you’d like.”
And so they took off through the course clinging together on a tow rope, encountering rocks and various brush during the expedition that caused additional damage to Comrie-Picard’s ride. Ya know, just a severely cracked windshield and broken headlights with parts of the exterior in serious need of a good paint job. But Comrie-Picard and Urlichich zipped through the stage at more than 140 km per hour completely open to the elements. Together, they cruised air borne over the final jump for an unqualified, yet epic rally finish.
King of Motorsports
It’s not hard to understand why rallying still reigns king of motorsports more than a century later and links enthusiasts from across the globe. Rallying is a well-respected sport in numerous pockets of the US, especially the Pacific Northwest and Northeast regions where drivers are accustomed to extreme weather and tough road conditions. But it still lacks the reverent following of its international counterparts.
“There’s a rally race going on in a different part of the world every single weekend, especially in areas like England, Scandinavia and France where the topography and motoring is rooted in an era where (historically) there were less restrictions and challenging the elements was a part of the culture,” said Comrie-Picard. “In the US, there are a lot of straight, wide and smooth roads that lend themselves to drag racing, which (eventually) led to high speed, circular racing,” he continued.
Why the Mainstream Struggle?
Many highly desired international rally vehicle platforms such as the Citroen, Peugeot, Renault and Skoda aren’t even available in the US because of a cyclical situation. The US wasn’t an early adopter of rally car racing due to its fascination with circuit racing; therefore, some automakers never expanded to the US.
Also, there is less media coverage to assist in the hype of a sport with a lower volume of rally competitors and enthusiasts in comparison to international markets. Such challenges make it a difficult scene to break into after the fact and an ongoing cycle equally difficult to break.
A third major factor cannot be overlooked when discussing competitive execution in the US. “Half of the rally success is made in the mechanic shop and the other half during recce,” said Urlichich. Recce, military slang for reconnaissance, is a professional term that refers to pre-running the stages at legal public speeds in a non-competition car.
Mother nature is unpredictable so copious pace notes are taken to detail the road ahead, including warnings for hazards such as cliffs, trees and junctions. Co-drivers, the unsung heroes of rallying, use a computerized odometer along with a supplied route book to communicate the pace notes from recce during competition. Rally drivers determine what speed and angle to enter each turn or crest in the road by following their co-drivers’ steadfast instructions.
The fundamental value of recce seems undeniable, yet there is a lack of consistency and standardization among American sanctioning bodies. Some allow traditional three or two-pass recces while others one pass or even none. Without proper recce, there aren’t proper pace notes and that makes an already dangerous sport simply reckless. “Recce is an internationally-accepted practice. Any serious, professional driver would tell you how important recce is in order to properly commit,” said Urlichich.
New Blood in an Old Sport
One thing is for sure: Despite a relatively young rally movement in the US compared to the history on the international stage, mega icons
like Ken Block, Tanner Foust and Travis Pastrana continue to do their part to garner support and excitement for the cause. Block, co-founder of DC Shoes and professional rally car driver with the Hoonigan Racing Division, formerly known as the Monster World Rally Team, “has done more for the sport of rallying than possibly anyone else,” said Urlichich. And with Ken Block building the rally momentum, new blood is certain to rise through the ranks.
Michael Webster of Walnut Cove, North Carolina aspires to be a professional rally competitor. And he’s taken a leaf out of Block’s book to establish his own business ventures to help support a rally car dream. Webster isn’t a stranger to the speed and performance scene. He worked with NASCAR for 10 years and picked up valuable tricks of the trade from legends like Richard Petty, Ward Burton and Mike Wallace. Then he joined decorated driver Juan Pablo Montoyo in 2013, transferring with the team to Indy car the following season.
A strong professional relationship with Montoya led to a few stints with Sergio Perez’s F1 team for events in Austin, Texas and Mexico City,
Mexico. But fascination with rallying precedes all else. His grandfather was in the car business his entire life and always had a few extra laying around, just begging to get banged up. By 11 he mastered the concept of a clutch and graduated to gravel.
“We had a single lane dirt road that stretched for 1/8 of a mile. I practiced and practiced. The more seat time I got, the more comfortable I was behind the wheel,” said Webster. “By the time I was 16 and got my license, I could rip down that road (and roads like it) in excess of 60 mph. It used to scare the hell outta my family and friends. And my grandfather would be so mad that he’d have to drag out the shovel to scrape the gravel and fill the ruts,” he laughed.
Both Comrie-Picard and Urlichich can share in the sentiment. “(Driving) was the thing I was most natural at from the time I could see over
the dashboard,” said Comrie-Picard. It’s the kind of sport that feels like a mere mortal can’t get into alone, commented Urlichich. “But I started my career in motorsports believing that the impossible takes a little longer. The fact that I went from no (professional) racing experience whatsoever in 2006 to a WRC class seat in 2014 proves the impossible is indeed possible,” he said.
Impossibility remains the attraction. And racers will continue to thrive for as long as mother nature carves new challenges in her earth. Get your stopwatches out; it’s time to rally on.