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Seven Days: Vermont Car Blog

December 10, 2008

Vermont’s Rally Royalty

This is the third in a series of Rally articles. See also "What is Rally?" and Rally Redux with Rally great John Buffum.

Af121008lance Lance Smith is the president of Vermont SportsCar in Colchester. He translated a love of rallying into a hugely successful business venture that keeps him right where he wants to be: in the heart of rally racing in America. Vermont SportsCar runs Subaru Rally Team USA, which has won the last three Rally America National Championships. Last week, Smith slowed down enough to share the ride.

BOB KILPATRICK: How long has Vermont SportsCar been around, and when did the focus turn to rally?
LANCE SMITH: We started in 1988 and our focus was restoring exotic sports cars. Though my background and education was with exotic sports cars, my passion was with rally. I always had a rally car and did my first rally school in ’79. I was 18.

BK: So, it’s been a lifelong passion?
LS: Yep . . . The collector car market slowed in 1990. I purchased what was left of the original company and carried on. Each of my former partners wanted to try rally. They said, “Jeez, we’d like to give that a go.” And I got to build their rally cars. I slowly changed the focus to be more rally oriented. We still do restorations now, but we do about one a year. It used to be 95 percent restorations and 5 percent rally, and now it’s totally the other way.

BK: Your specialty on the course is as a co-driver. Tell me about that experience.
LS: I used to be upset that I was born on the wrong side of the water [Atlantic Ocean]. There was no real rallying in the United States. You couldn’t get any funding. So I spent years frustrated with that. Then I went for a ride with John Buffum in his Audi Quattro when it was first delivered. Cutting-edge, state-of-the-art stuff, and here’s a guy in Vermont who had one! As soon as that happened, I could never change my focus again. I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life: I wanted to be a rally driver.
But I loved the sport of rallying even more than my desire to be a rally driver. So building the cars and co-driving was a really good way for me to stay involved. I was onboard for any issues. I co-drove for Dick Corley in town here for three or four years, and we were running at a high level in the national championship. That was really good. We were fighting with the big boys from a team that started with nothing. Then, riding with Carl Merrill, we actually won the North American Rally Cup. That was my highest achievement as a co-driver.

Block BK: What makes Vermont SportsCar unique?
LS: When I started looking at rally, I thought I could make a name for us there. I tried to bring the fit and finish of a restoration project into the world of rally in the United States. At the time, the fit and finish of rally vehicles was not very high. Our cars presented very well and performed well. Our attention to detail was different than everybody else’s. I found a little niche for myself there.

BK: How did you get involved with Subaru Rally Team USA?
LS: We collaborated with Prodrive in 2001, providing half of the people and the infrastructure for the team, and that was our first factory contract. In 2003 Subaru contacted us about running a program of just parts delivery, and since then we’ve grown the project. Two thousand-six was our first year as a full factory team for Subaru. Since then we’ve won the championship every year. We’ve also put a new emphasis on marketing the sport. We have different drivers now that have a big fan base, and that’s why we have this explosion of interest in rally. These drivers, Travis Pastrana, Ken Block and Dave Mirra — when they talk, people listen. We didn’t have that before.

BK: How big was getting rally into the X Games?
LS: A huge move, monumental. The story goes that when Travis was leaving the X Games in 2005, after he won a Gold Medal in Freestyle, he said, “Well, it’s too bad I’m not going to be back next year. You guys don’t have rally in the X Games and I’m going rallying next year.” The guys running the X Games stopped and took the time to find out “what is rally?” And because of that, it opened a whole bunch of eyes. ESPN was looking for some form of motorsport to transition the X Games, to get to a slightly older audience and get more eyeballs, and Travis gave it to them on a plate. They took a big chance with rally and it worked.
Our team of drivers is unbelievable. We’ve been given a real gift. Between [sponsors] Subaru of America, BFGoodrich Tires, Red Bull, Monster Energy Drink . . . and then we get three spokesmen [Pastrana, Block, Mirra] who are all enthusiastic. Each one of them is different. They’re all experts in their own field and they’ve decided to converge on rally at one time? And with us? It’s crazy.


See also "What is Rally?" and Rally Redux with Rally great John Buffum.


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