The 43rd running of the Sno Drift rally Jan. 30-31 in northern Michigan kicked off Rally America's 2009 season. This is the only snow rally on the nine-race schedule, and for once, Mother Nature did her part. There was plenty of snow everywhere, with the roads banked high with piles of the white stuff, all the better to bounce rally cars off.
Granted, besides Travis Pastrana, few Rally America drivers would get recognition beyond their own families. Pastrana's teammate, Ken Block, who started skateboard shoe/clothing brand DC, is the star of a viral internet video that has garnered, to this point, some 16 million hits, and Tanner Foust has won a couple of Formula Drift titles and has done quite a bit of stunt driving for Hollywood films. Dave Mirra, who is just getting started in rallying, has won everything one can win in BMX riding, but if you're older than say, 15, chances are you've never heard of him. So beyond that, the Rally America folks are pretty much anonymous.
But that doesn't mean they're without talent. Just a few minutes standing in the woods and that becomes perfectly clear.
Rally spectating combines a love of motorsports with orienteering. Rally organizers provide detailed maps as to where the rally stages are being run--in this case, on closed-to-the-public public highways. Some rallies are run on logging trails or off-road highways, but Sno Drift, for the most part (one stage was run on private land and a special spectator stage was set up in a gravel pit) is on public, mapped roads. The stages are run close enough together that you can't really watch consecutive stages. Even if you stayed to watch only the first dozen cars or so, by the time you got out of the stage and to your vehicle, chances are the next stage is under way.
So with a little bit of planning, a good map and a decent sense of direction, rally spectating can be a lot of fun--and exhilarating. If you're dedicated, you could get to see maybe half of the stages. A third of the stages would be a good goal.
And then there are the service stops where you can talk to the drivers and crews, plus see some fast and furious action. I watched the crew from Vermont Sports Cars change the transmission in Mirra's car in less than 20 minutes. That might not sound like breakneck speed, but considering it was done in 20-degree temps, on a tarp beneath a tent set up in the Atlanta, Mich., high school parking lot, it was a feat worthy of admiration.