Thursday, July 08, 2010

In Praise of Rally

In a recent interview on Swedish television, Saab-Spyker CEO Victor Muller indicated a desire to reclaim more of Saab’s past by getting Saab involved with rally racing, expressing a desire to see Saab in the World Rally Championship as early as 2014. Those familiar with Saab’s history of course know of the legend of Erik “on the roof” Carlsson, who piloted Saab 96’s to three victories in the RAC Rally and two wins at Monte Carlo, among others. Those cars were severely underpowered compared to their peers. Yet, with his breathless driving style, Carlsson was able to best the competition. Later Saab rally champions included Stig Blomqvist and Per Eklund.

I’m not much a fan of motor sport. I ought to be. I’ve worked in the car business my entire adult life, and have been teaching crash prevention training for several years with a cohort that is comprised almost completely of active automobile racers. I’ve done track days (written about elsewhere in this blog) which I find thoroughly enjoyable, and have had silly fun participating in autocross and rally cross events. Wheel to wheel racing, though, just hasn’t appealed much to me as a participant. Even my sons are more in tuned with racing. Son Pascal started racing rally cross when he was sixteen and placed second in the front wheel drive class in New England. He’s moved on to hill-climb racing, which he finds more thrilling, and gives me more gray hairs. All three sons have invested in building a heavily modified 1985 SPG that will see some sort of racing, at least once a proper roll cage is installed. Marcel, only fourteen, is slated to be co-driver for Pascal as they take on some TSD rallies later this year, including the Winter Challenge Rally in Vermont.

Yet here I am, somewhat uninterested in all of it as both participant and spectator. With one exception: WRC. World Rally Championship came to my attention when summary broadcasts were aired weekly on one of the new HD television stations. I watched once. I was hooked. No monstrous cars endlessly turning left. No shrieking, darting formula cars that look like alien insects. No, these were cars, driven by fearless pilots in breathtaking and fearsome places, all around the globe, at the most ridiculous speeds. It didn’t hurt that the perennial champion was a compatriot, Sebastien Loeb.

It was sad to see that so few manufacturers are involved in WRC. Only Citroen and Ford remain. Long gone are Mitsubishi, Subaru, Hyundai, Peugeot, Audi and a host of others. Hopefully, Saab returns to this world stage soon.

I would urge anyone to take a look at WRC. It’s entertaining, the drivers are full of character, and the scenery is beautiful. There’s a wonderful clip of Sebastien Loeb racing in Finland in 2008. His co-driver, Spaniard Daniel Elena, has the most adorable lilting counter-tenor (sounding more French than most Frenchmen) as he guides the champion through the forest. Can you imagine keeping your eyes on a clipboard while traveling along like this. Yikes! Enjoy!

If you enjoyed this, consider heading north later this month to be one of the crazy rally spectators at the New England Forest Rally. Big name drivers like Ken Block and Travis Pastrana will be participating. See for details.

Update: After writing this post yesterday, by the purest of coincidences, son Pascal got a call from Kevin Hans of Team O'Neil Rally School inviting Pascal to replace his co-driver at the aforementioned NE Forest Rally! Pascal is racing at Okemo mountain this weekend, but heads up to Maine on Thursday with his helmet and fire-suit ready to dictate the rally notes to Kevin. Alas, they'll be piloting an Audi...

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