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Seven Days: Vermont Car Blog

December 03, 2008

Rally Redux

Af120308buffum2 John Buffum is the best rally driver the U.S. has ever produced. He holds the U.S. record for rally wins with 11 national titles and 117 national championship event victories. He is also the only American to ever win a European Championship event. John came to Vermont in the early ’60s to attend Middlebury College and has lived here just about ever since. He continues to prepare winning rally cars from his company Libra Racing in Colchester, and is also an advisor to Vermont SportsCar and Subaru Rally Team USA.

BOB KILPATRICK: How were you first introduced to Rally?
JOHN BUFFUM: By a fraternity brother of mine, in ’64 in Middlebury. He said, “Let’s go to a rally,” and I said, “What’s a rally?” I had no idea. We borrowed another fraternity brother’s MGA. We went on this little local rally that a guy named Frank Churchill put on. We loved it — it was great, good competition; good trying to find our way around and also stay on the time.

BK: What was your first big race?
JB: I was stationed in the army in Germany and I’d always read about the Monte Carlo Rally. We bought an ex-factory training car (Porsche 911) and went and did the ’69 rally, which was as big a rally as you could get in the world. Talk about a minnow in the ocean: I was totally out of my realm, over my head, but it came out fine. Things just sort of flowed along and, after five days, we were really tired, but we ended up finishing 12th. It was an unbelievable achievement.

Af120308buffum1 BK: When you look back on all the years, are there any particular events or moments that really stand out in your memory as personal highlights?
JB: In ’84 we did a program in Europe. Joe Hoppen was the boss of Porsche, Audi & Volkswagen motorsports in America. He got me an Audi Quattro to race in ’82. Because of its four-wheel drive and turbo-charged power, it was head-and-shoulders above everything else at the time. In ’84, BF Goodrich had also been involved with Audi in the U.S. rally program. They said, “We want to sell tires in Europe, so why don’t you do this program in Europe with your Audi?” We did a five-event program. That was the World Championship level. We were fifth at the Acropolis rally, behind two factory (race-prepared) Lancias and two factory Audis. And then we won the Cyprus Rally, which was the European Rally Championship. That was as good a season as I could have.

BK: I’m getting ready to try my hand at rallying at the local level and I’d like to ask for your advice.
JB: If you’re interested in road rallies and some rallycrosses, that’s a great place to start. It’s exactly how I started. It gives you an idea of what you are getting into. It gives you some car control. You start to see tree lines.
BK: They start to have meaning.
JB: Yeah, and you start to put all these things together.

BK: Do you have any driving tips? How can someone learn to be a successful rally driver?
JB: Go to Tim O’Neil’s [rally school]. You need somebody to tell you all of these things. If you’re in the shade, if you’re coming down into trees, it’s apt to be more slippery, so leave yourself a little more buffer. You can use the tree line or the telephone pole line to guide you where the road may go. You want to look up. You don’t want to look two car lengths in front of you; look down the road. I did a German championship rally with the Quattro. I remember part way through the rally I started to try to drive fast. When you try to drive fast, a lot of times you get sloppy and you end up driving slower. And my co-driver said, “Easy, use the advantage of the car.” Don’t come barreling into the corner and do asshole over elbows around the corner. Make sure you get a nice acceleration and fast speed out of the corner. Carry the speed out of the corner.

BK: Do you see anything going on now with rally that gives you hope for its future?
JB: In the last two or three years Subaru has become heavily involved and (also) with Travis Pastrana and Ken Block. Travis’ name has been fantastic because people, especially younger people, know who Travis is. You’ve got the X Games — you’ve got a different segment of the population. Now you’ve got energy drinks coming in — Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster. And this is perfect to go along with rally. Yeah, there is some hope there.

BK: You’ve heard the saying, “If I knew then what I know now.” Is there anything you’d go back and do differently?
JB: I have a poem on my desk that my daughter gave me, by Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood . . .” which is a similar type of thing. There’s this guy walking along in the woods and there are two paths, a fork in the road, and he doesn’t know which one to take. It’s so true about life. Were there things I’d do differently? Sure, there would have been smaller things. I look back at what I’ve done and the people I’ve met and known with great fondness. You have what you have and live what you live.

This is part two of a three part series.
Part I: What is Rally?
Part III: Vermont's Rally Royalty with Lance Smith of Vermont SportsCar

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