What Is Rally?
This is the first in a three-part series about rally competition and the internationally renowned drivers and organizations right here in Vermont.
Part II: Rally Redux with rally great John Buffum
Part III: Vermont's Rally Royalty with Lance Smith of Vermont SportsCar.
Rally is a motor sport in which drivers navigate from point to point. It is different from NASCAR or Formula 1 racing, in which drivers lap the same course over and over. The unmatched variability in rally provides a constant challenge, with hills, dips and turns coming often at breakneck speed and with little advance notice. A common saying sums up the sport: “Oval track racers see the same two corners 500 times, while rally racers see 1000 corners just once.”
Rally, the first form of auto racing, started in the late 1800s. At that time it was primarily a competition between auto manufacturers as they tested their new machines. Courses were thousands of miles long, often running from city to city, such as Paris to Madrid or New York to Seattle.
As you can imagine, having vehicles racing through small towns and city streets was dangerous — injuries and deaths were not uncommon. As the 20th century wore on, most top-level rally races were moved to either remote corners of the world or closed courses. The primitive nature of the courses resulted in the “standard” road surface being anything but. Furthermore, rallies are at the mercy of weather conditions, as races are run in all seasons, in snow and rain, and on pavement, dirt and ice.
Sport seems to inspire human innovation, and rally is no exception. Cars that are now popular for normal transportation, such as the Mini Cooper and the Audi Quattro, were originally designed specifically for rallying.
Rally teams are composed of a driver and co-driver, or navigator. The latter shouts out directions about fast-approaching corners and hills just in time to enable the driver to take on the terrain at the fastest possible speeds. It is a unique relationship with both participants sharing responsibilities that can make or break their outcomes.
Rally comes in several types, including stage, road and rallycross.
Stage rallies are where you’ll likely find the pros. A race will usually include a number of “special stages” that take place on very fast, closed courses, and a series of “transit stages” in which the vehicles navigate between the special stages on public roads. The cars used for stage rallies are full-on racing vehicles with roll cages and safety equipment, but, like all rally cars, they must be registered for travel on public roads.
This type of rally, somewhat modified for television, was added to the Summer X Games in 2006. Well-known X Games competitors such as Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra are helping to grow the popularity of rally in the U.S. The ultimate race in this country is the Rally America National Championship.
Road rallies, also known as Time-Speed-Distance, or TSD, rallies, take place on public roads and focus on navigation and maintaining a set speed rather than attempting to drive as fast as possible. Anyone can enter, and you don’t need a special vehicle. A recent example was the Covered Bridge Rally at Sugarbush on November 1, in which participants navigated some 150 miles back and forth across gap roads in the Green Mountains. These events provide opportunities to build the skills and teamwork a rally group needs to be competitive in more challenging events.
Rallycross is the amateur version of a stage rally, except there are no stages, and takes place at a single location. Anyone can enter but must have a helmet. Events are generally organized by local branches of groups like the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). Similar to autocross, drivers race around a course outlined by cones or snow banks, but, rather than driving on pavement, they’re on a limited-traction surface such as grass, dirt or snow. Courses are short — it usually takes about a minute to get from start to finish. Drivers run the course over and over throughout the day, and the fastest or best-accumulated time for the series determines the winner. While road rallies challenge navigation and teamwork skills, rallycross more directly challenges individual driving skills.
I checked out my first rallycross in Huntington a couple of weeks ago, and am hoping to debut as a driver on December 6 at the SCCA Wolf Cross Rallycross in Proctorsville. This is a great way to practice driving skills and have fun in a safe and supportive environment.
Speaking of learning driving skills, Team O’Neil Rally School & Car Control Center in New Hampshire is another great place to start. It runs multi-day classes almost every month throughout the year. I’ll be heading over there in January to report on what the school is all about.
One of the most successful and popular rally teams in the U.S. is Subaru Rally Team USA, winners of the Rally America National Championship for the past three years. It may come as a surprise to some readers that the Subaru team is based in Colchester, led by Lance Smith and Vermont SportsCar. There must be something in Colchester’s water, because John Buffum, the most successful rally driver in American history, also lives there.