Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The View from Mount Washington

Last weekend saw the culmination of months of extraordinary work as my sons, Marcel and Pascal, put forth their 1985 900 SPG hill-climb car at the 2011 Mount Washington Climb to the Clouds. Pascal drove the car admirably on a circuit that, frankly, terrified me even at the posted speed limit. If you’ve ever driven up Mount Washington, you understand. Pascal completed the 7.6 miles in 8:20, averaging just under 55 mph, and kept the “shiny side up.” Just as impressive, the Saab, which was completely rebuilt by these young men, experienced no breakdown, which is even more impressive when you consider that the car was driven 100 miles each way to the event: I believe it was the only car of 70 not to arrive and depart on a trailer. How Saab.

Being the only Saab at the Climb, in a sea of Subaru Imprezas, Mitsubishi Evo’s and tube frame specialty contraptions, the car garnered lots of attention. Many fans and participants in the paddock area stopped by for a look and a chat. Some were current Saab owners; some former Saab owners who looked longingly at the four Saabs we had parked (besides the race car, there was my 1992 900T, AndrĂ©’s 2001 9-3 and the Charles River Saab 9-3X shuttle vehicle). There was one other Saab in the paddock. Parked next to the Team Libra service area and their Hyundai Tiburon rally monster was a new 9-3 Sport Combi Aero 6-speed. How odd, I thought. Later that day I would learn the story behind that car.

One of the joys of participating, even vicariously, in such an event is all the people one meets. After the Saturday practice, we happened upon Paul Choiniere, one of the most storied and credentialed American rally drivers from the 1980s and 1990s. He saw the Saab shirt I was wearing and that got the conversation started. Only a few minutes into the conversation I realized who he was—not for his rally exploits, but because he is the dealer principal of PJ’s Auto Village of South Burlington, Vermont, which is a Mazda and Saab dealership—the Sport Combi Aero was Paul’s daily driver. He was gracious, charming and self effacing. My wife, Susan, also noted he has great eyes. This self-effacement and general humility is something I’ve noted in lots of rally types. They don’t have the obnoxious swagger or condescending attitude I might have expected, and most seem very pleased to chat with us mere mortals. I first noted this at the New England Forest Rally last summer, when even such luminaries as Travis Pastrana and Ken Block were accessible and very much “regular guys.”

Another chance encounter was had with New England rally legend and instructor Tim O’Neil (who opines that now what he drives is a desk) of Team O’Neil and the O’Neil Rally School. Susan and I were looking at the cars in the paddock at the end of the day, and were scrutinizing the Ford Fiesta FWD rally car being raced by Chris Duplessis, whose brother, Forest (who is also a rally champion and head instructor at Dirt Fish Rally School), we met in one of the viewing areas. We were approached by Tim, who again saw the Saab shirt and that got him talking. Turns out that in his earlier days he was a Saab technician, his early rally car of choice was a Saab 99 (with lots of 900 pieces applied, he said). Again, he was completely friendly, chatted at length with us, and perhaps coincidentally, one of his employees phoned Pascal last night to see if Pascal would co-drive a Team O’Neil car in the NE Forest Rally in two weeks.

One of the headliners for this event was Mike Ryan and his 2000 hp Freightliner truck. Clearly a ringer and attention getter, I didn’t necessarily expect him to be a nice friendly guy. I expected a conceited prima-donna who hid from people except when he was putting on his very impressive show. Wrong. While he looked a bit like a vain over-the-hill Nascar driver, with poofy hair all nice and dyed, Pascal states that he was very friendly and talked to whomever came by. Nice surprise!

There were a number of others there who were completely gracious and just plain nice. Some more interesting than others, to be sure. Susan even got Warren Elliott, New England Region Rally Cross champion, who was a spectator, to help us understand the leader board, and then got him excited enough that when Pascal was staying atop the leader board for a time he was giving her high-fives. What a marvelous time….

At the end of it all, I came away from the event much as I have other rally type events, that is that I find these drivers to be friendlier and much more collegial than I would expect from a group which is by nature competitive. I can’t say I’ve hung around a race track much, but I’ve hung around lots of racers, and you hear things…stories….complaints. This guy cheated…that one ran someone off the track…they’re running illegal this and that. Not so with the rally guys and gals. They seem much more apt to root for one another, help each other and be appreciative of those who come out to cheer them on. Good for the rally drivers!

If you haven't yet seen it, here is the link to a onboard view of the Saab dashing up the mountain.

No comments: