Monday, July 19, 2010

New England Forest Rally Newbie

In an earlier post I had carried on about rally racing, then had to come back to that post because my son, Pascal, had “gotten the call” to step in at the last moment as a replacement co-driver/navigator for rally driver Kevin Hans of Team O’Neil Rally School for the vaunted New England Forest Rally in the Western Mountains of Maine. Such a coincidence that was!

Pascal got together a fire-suit, head restraint system, helmet, etcetera and headed north last Wednesday to start preparing the car with Kevin. They showed me a picture of the work shop at Team O’Neil. Kevin and Pascal were working on the Audi Quattro in one bay. In the next bay was the Ford Fiesta of Ken Block being serviced. You may not know Ken Block, but I bet your kids do. Block is an absolute rock-star. Understand, this whole scenario would be like having a ticket to a Red Sox game, then getting a call from the Red Sox asking if you could play right field that day (since you were already going to be there anyway) and then going into the locker room and seeing your locker next to David Ortiz’. With the car prepared, Kevin drove it across New Hampshire to Bethel, Maine; no trailer-queen, that Quattro. On Thursday, the teams were permitted to drive all the stages. These stages are spread throughout that corner of Maine and New Hampshire, and bring to mind all the books of Louise Rich, with her vivid descriptions of C-Pond this and Middle Dam that. While driving the stages, an all day affair, Pascal had to familiarize himself with all the course “notes” which are written in hieroglyphs for his narration to driver Kevin. The book was an inch and a half thick!

Friday was the first day of racing. My wife, youngest son Marcel (aspiring rally racer) and I headed to Bethel. We found Kevin and Pascal with their car in the parking lot of Sunday River Ski Resort, which in rally-speak had been designated the “Parc Exposé.” All the teams had converged, cars were inspected by the race organizers and tensions mounted. World renowned Travis Pastrana was there, along with Ken Block, and they mingled freely with all the other drivers and the hoard of rally fans. Right next to team Hans-Belperron was one of the two Saabs entered in the event, a 1975 Saab 99 with a 900 turbo engine. I noted that the car, which hailed from Pennsylvania, garnered lots of fan attention. A great majority of the cars were Subarus and Mitsubishi Evo’s. But there were plenty of curiosities, too: a Volvo 240, a Datsun 280Z, a BMW 3-series and a vegetable oil burning VW Golf diesel. The “sweep” vehicle, which checked each stage prior to the racers, was also a Saab—a 9-7X.

The first few stages were short sprints, and were designed with spectators in mind. One of the beauties of the event was that there was no expense, and spectators could freely mingle with participants. Though some might deem the exuberance of some of the spectators as unruly, it was truly an egalitarian crowd just out for fun, with fun defined in many ways. What you didn’t see was spectators becoming a danger to themselves or drivers. Rally America, the sanctioning body, did an excellent job in designating spectator areas which were close enough to be exhilarating while still maintaining order and safety. That said, my wife did get pelted with stones on one corner, including a good sized rock to the throat. Not to worry, she’s sturdy and shrugged it off.

By the end of the first day, the red Audi of Hans-Belperron was in 21st position out of 65 cars, and given that it was one of the least powerful cars there, this was quite a feat. Things didn’t go well on day two, however. During the fourth stage of the day, near Richardson Pond, the red Audi started losing its punch. It seemed the fuel pump was delivering less and less pressure, and Kevin eventually pulled the car off and dropped out of the race. An ignominious end to be sure. But not as impressive as the ending to Ken Block’s, as his suspension failed at full speed and his car cart-wheeled into the woods, coming to rest on its side.

The Block connections abounded this weekend. Ken Block’s wife also ran a car in this rally, a Mazda Speed-3, which she rented from Team O’Neil; she also finished, unlike her famous husband. The Mazda she piloted was originally going to be the ride for team Hans-Belperron. Very much a different animal, being front-wheel drive and very powerful, it would have been interesting to see how they might have faired in that car. Most likely they would have finished. As it was, they were with plenty of company, as a total of twenty-four cars did not.

In the end, it was a very satisfying experience. Even if I divorce myself from being the father of a participant, I can attest that this was about as much fun as you can have for almost no money. The festival atmosphere, the goodwill of the spectators, and the bringing together of friends and strangers to cheer EVERYBODY was wonderful. Who won? Who cares!

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