Triple Caution! Flying Finish! Loose Surface!

Rally racers in super-modded street cars follow their own Cliffs Notes to navigate rocky dirt roads full of gullies and blind curves. The rawest form of racing is finally gaining traction in the U.S.
A Mini Cooper in the amateur division sports extra lights for night stages-and a license plate, unheard of in any other kind of racing. Photograph by Angela Wyant

With its 13O miles of twisty mountain trails, the Hungry Valley State Vehicular Recreation Area is the promised land for southern California’s off-roaders. On a crisp but cloudless spring morning, it is crawling with stumpy four-wheelers and spindly motocross bikes; the angry, annoying buzz of two-stroke engines — think amplified mosquitoes — fills the park. A ratty pickup truck with gigantic wheels and two audibly flat tires trundles to a stop in front of a service area that’s been fashioned from a fleet of big rigs, a couple of E-Z UP portable shelters and some heavy-duty tarps. Here, a team of mechanics swarms over a pair of be-winged red-and-silver rally cars that pack enough electronics to put a man on the Moon.

“Hey,” the pickup’s driver calls out his window, “can you guys spare some air?”

The question hangs there incongruously. Picture a duffer trying to borrow a five-iron from Tiger Woods or a kid asking Chuck Yeager to fly a remote-control model airplane. Primitive environs notwithstanding, the mechanics are part of a full-on, factory-supported race team. Each of the Mitsubishis they’re wrenching on cost $240,000 to build. Nearly two dozen people have been flown in from Vermont and the U.K. for a test session two weeks before the Rim of the World Rally in nearby Palmdale. The only reason Subaru, which plays Godzilla to Mitsubishi’s Mothra, isn’t testing today is that its own team of British mercenaries is still building two brand-new cars, both of them even more exotic than the Mitsubishis.

Rallying — racing flat-out on rural roads in modified production cars — is America’s fastest-growing motor sport. It’s also the country’s most inclusive form of racing. Fans can get close enough to touch the cars as they rush by, and amateurs compete in the same events as pros. (Imagine entering your beater in the Indianapolis 500.) But the A number 1 reason for rallying’s grassroots appeal is the contrast between its cutting-edge tech and untamed locales like Hungry Valley. Not for nothing is the sport known to aficionados as “real cars on real roads, going real fast.”

Granted, you won’t find any quarter-million-dollar sedans in Mitsubishi showrooms. But the cars that race in Sports Car Club of America rallies share most of their genetic material with the new Evolution, a hot-rodded version of Mitsubishi’s Lancer econobox. And Subaru’s entry in the ProRally series — the top tier of SCCA’s rally program — is a close relative of its Impreza WRX STi road rocket, which recently went on sale to compete with the Evo. Compare this with Nascar’s so-called stock cars, which are purpose-built around tube-frame chassis, or the even more otherworldly Formula 1 machines, which are engineered around tubs made of carbon fiber and unobtanium.

All American rally cars, no matter how sophisticated, are street legal. They have to be: The rules require that they be driven on public roads between the competition legs, or stages, of a rally. The competitive stages, meanwhile, take place on byways that are about as far removed as you can get from the ones people normally drive on — roads so rugged and daunting that you half expect to see a “Danger! Do Not Enter!” sign posted. Blind crests, wicked hairpins, cliffs, trees, water crossings, dirt, gravel, snow, sleet — this is what rally drivers have to deal with at speeds that sometimes exceed 120 mph. “I think this can be the next (big) extreme sport,” says Lauchlin O’Sullivan, a Mitsubishi team driver. “I think it can go all the way.”

O’Sullivan, who lives in San Francisco, drives the second of Mitsubishi’s two team cars. This is his second year as a professional driver, and his enthusiasm for the job — even the drudgery of testing — is so far undiminished. But his jet-lagged colleague David Higgins, the Brit who won last year’s ProRally championship, seems more blas about this practice stint. Higgins, Mitsubishi’s lead driver, and O’Sullivan have been summoned here to Hungry Valley because the roads are similar to those they will face at Rim of the World two weeks hence.

O’Sullivan and co-driver Christian Edstrom — who serves as O’Sullivan’s navigator, communicating with him through an aircraft-style intercom — climb into their Evo. Belted within the belly of their 400-horsepower beast, they attack a dizzying series of tight corners. Even on the short connecting straights, the Evo’s tail slews sideways on the dirt. O’Sullivan makes lightning applications of opposite lock, or what driver’s ed instructors call “steering into the skid,” so that the front wheels never seem pointed in the direction the car is heading. The Evo soars over a crest, whistling like the world’s loudest teakettle as air whooshes through the intercooled turbocharger, then backfiring — POP! — as the ignition is automatically retarded by the onboard computer to keep the turbo spooled up.

“Rallying is more of a challenge than circuit racing,” says Chris Mellors as he watches O’Sullivan slide out of sight. (Rallyists refer, somewhat disparagingly, to all racing that takes place on racetracks as circuit racing.) Mellors, a former rally champion, is a key member of Mitsubishi’s team. The Evos were built in the Mellors Elliot Motorsport shop in Bakewell,
England, and an Anglo-American crew supplied by Mellors and Vermont SportsCar is racing the cars in the States. “Circuit
racing is the same lap after lap,” he adds. “In rallying, the weather is constantly changing, and you never know what’s over the next brow. In the rest of the world, the sport is already huge, and I think that day is coming to the United States.”

The first official automobile race was the city-to-city trial from Paris to Rouen in 1894. It wasn’t long before purpose-built racecars were competing on purpose-built racetracks. But even as motor sports were leaving their roots behind, a handful of throwback point-to-point events continued to thrive — the Monte Carlo Rally, the East African Safari Rally, the Acropolis Rally. In 1973 these races were stitched into the World Rally Championship. Today the WRC is second only to F1 in global popularity, with half a dozen automakers — Subaru and Mitsubishi prominent among them — funding major programs and top drivers commanding multimillion-dollar salaries.

Here in the States, though, rallying has followed a different road map. “We started out as a clandestine type of racing,” says Mitsubishi team consultant John Buffum, an 11-time national rally champion and the only American ever to win a major European event. “We’d go out into the backwoods and race at night, and in the morning we’d find out who won. It was a lot of fun. But from a spectator standpoint, obviously, there were several strikes against rallying.” Concerned about liability, organizers staged events in the middle of nowhere, usually in the dead of night. Spectators accustomed to grandstand seats, hot dogs and cold beer weren’t gung ho about trudging for miles into the boonies to watch a bunch of funny-looking foreign cars whiz past on a dirt road. The fan base wasn’t large enough to constitute a cult; extended family was more like it.

But rallying has taken an unexpected turn in recent years. In 1997 the Speed Channel started airing edited rally broadcasts, which showcase the sport in the best possible light (in highlight form, rallying is an endless series of death-defying accidents waiting to happen). Around the same time, rallying began to be featured in computer games. Besides heightening the sport’s profile, this brought rallying to a younger generation. “A lot of the new guys don’t even think of this as a motor sport,” says Kurt Spitzner, the director of the SCCA’s performance rally program. “They consider it an extension of snowboarding or BMX biking.”

In the past five years, SCCA’s rally membership has grown tenfold, Spitzner says, and the number of amateur rallies quadrupled. There are 125 RallyCrosses — entry-level events held in gravel or dirt lots — on the schedule; there used to be five. On the professional level, the U.S. arms of Subaru and Mitsubishi are duking it out with multimillion-dollar rally programs. “All I can say,” says Lance Smith, president of Vermont SportsCar and the Mitsubishi team’s director, “is, — Thank God for videogames.'”

Two weeks after the Hungry Valley test session, a biting wind born of an unseasonable cold front blows through the parking lot that serves as the open-air paddock for the Rim of the World Rally in Palmdale, about 60 miles north of L.A. It’s early May and the skies are leaden; still, 80 cars are entered in the event, which includes a ProRally race and two amateur races. The mix of entrants is easily accommodated, since cars begin each stage at
1-minute intervals, with drivers ranked by speed to minimize passing. As a result, entries range from a vintage BMW 2002 to a hulking Chevy Blazer to an Audi TT that looks like it just drove out of a showroom.

Prices, as they say, may vary according to owners’ goals and resources. Aftermarket springs and shocks are a must. So are upgraded wheels, tires and brakes. Figure up to a $10,000 investment at the low end, about $50,000 and up to compete at the national level. But technically, all you need to run a rally is the requisite safety gear, most notably a roll cage. Charles Buren of Aloha, Oregon, races a 17-year-old Toyota MR2 he bought for $1,000 with 167,000 miles on the odometer. “We spent more on the drive down here than on the car,” he says cheerfully as he torques his lug nuts.

Vehicles are classed by engine capacity, drivetrain (two-wheel versus four-wheel drive) and level of modification. The big dogs, often sponsored by manufacturers or wealthy privateers, run in the Open Class. Of these, the Subaru and Mitsubishi factory teams have the slickest cars, the biggest crews, the best drivers. Mark Lovell, Subaru’s lead driver, won the 2001 ProRally championship; Higgins, his Mitsubishi counterpart, took the crown last year. Both teams have supplemented their British No. 1 drivers with up-and-coming Americans — O’Sullivan in the second Evo and Ramana Lagemann in a second WRX.

At first glance, the cars, with their flashy wings and off-the-charts carbon-fiber quotients, look like The Fast and the Furious knockoffs. Don’t be deceived: Rally cars aren’t built for styling or straight-line speed; they’re the world’s most agile armored vehicles. Look closely and you’ll see a veritable spiderweb of steel tubing stretched across the cockpit. This roll cage creates a cocoon for driver and navigator — a good thing, because crashes are endemic to rallying. But roll cages also dramatically increase torsional rigidity. Suspension components are attached directly to the tubing, which doesn’t flex as much as a stock unibody, thereby allowing handling to be dialed in with great precision.

Both the Evos and the WRXs are fitted with turbocharged 2.0-liter four-bangers. Because rallies rarely feature ultra-high-speed runs, the engines are tuned to achieve prodigious midrange grunt (about 500 lb.-ft. of torque), not peak horsepower. This translates into awesome acceleration. But because rally cars spend most of their time clawing for grip on loose surfaces, special attention is paid to routing power from the engine and gearbox to the wheels through a fiendishly complicated interface known as the differential. “Rallying is all about traction,” says team manager David Campion of Prodrive, the British firm that runs the Subaru program.

When a car turns, the outside wheel travels farther than the inner one. A differential accommodates this disparity by allowing the wheels to rotate at different speeds. Four-wheel-drive rally cars are equipped with no fewer than three diffs — one for each set of wheels and a center diff to apportion power between them. In the most exotic ProRally machines, the center diff is active rather than passive; that is, a computer continually adjusts the torque split based on parameters such as wheel speed, throttle position, hand- and foot-brake pressure, and engine and gearbox inputs.

WRC cars are even more high-tech: Most feature not one but three active diffs and quick-shifting sequential gearboxes that
are prohibited in the States. WRC teams often spend more on engine, transmission and diffs than it would cost to build a
championship-quality ProRally car. Following a whipping from Mitsubishi in the season opener, Subaru commissioned a pair of cars that are closer to WRC specs but still meet the letter of the SCCA rule book. After sneaking a peek at the new electric-blue WRXs, Higgins concedes, “They may be overkill for this series.”

Rim will be contested in 13 stages run on Friday night and Saturday afternoon, with results based on cumulative time. As daylight fades on Friday evening, fine rain starts falling. In the Mitsubishi compound, Buffum agonizes over which tires to fit to the Evos, while Edstrom, who’s filling in for O’Sullivan’s regular co-driver, pores over his course notes.

In the WRC, competitors prerun each stage and generate notes that co-drivers use to coach drivers during the rally. In the United States, rallies are blind: Competitors don’t get to preview the stages. At Rim, organizers provide a set of course notes written in standard rally notation. Thus, “4L/Crest 250 !!! 1R” means “medium-speed left over a crest, then 250 yards straight before a dangerous superslow right-hander.”

Early on, in miserable conditions, the new Subarus perform as advertised: Lovell and Lagemann run 1-2, with Higgins and O’Sullivan 3-4. But as the rain continues, it becomes clear the Mitsubishi team has made a better tire choice. At Stage 4, Higgins takes the lead and Lagemann skates off the road, losing 9 minutes. He’s not the only one having problems.

Doug Shepherd and Pete Gladysz, Chrysler engineers who race a Dodge SRT-4 with some factory support, put their car on its side. They’re able to right it with the help of a photographer. “But first,” Shepherd complains, “he had to take a picture.” Overworked defrosters lead to fogged windshields, which cause several co-drivers to suffer motion sickness.
“I was driving blind while (co-driver Mike Paulin) was vomiting into (the intercom in) my ear,” says Chris Whiteman,
another Chrysler engineer driving a privately entered Dodge Neon SXT. “It was ugly out there. Basically, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.” Conditions are so bad that the amateur portion of the rally is cut short in the middle of the fourth stage so a course worker can be treated for hypothermia.

Everybody’s hoping for better weather Saturday. They don’t get it. Not only does rain continue intermittently, but the ground is so soaked that the dirt roads have deteriorated into mud bogs, and that’s before they’re chewed up by a parade of tire-spinning racecars. Several stages are canceled even before the day begins. What else can go wrong? “We’ve heard reports of lightning strikes,” a course worker says.

Higgins, driving masterfully, extends his lead during Saturday’s first stage, the sixth overall. It’s easy to see how when his Evo emerges from the gloom and splashes down the mountain. Hurtling toward a right-hand hairpin, he deploys the signature rally technique known alternatively as the pendulum turn, the Scandinavian flick or the rally feint — jerking the car to the left, then flicking it back to the right so that the rear end kicks out a giant rooster tail and swings through the turn in a glorious power slide. (This technique is effective on low-grip surfaces because it slows down the car without heavy braking, which can cause the wheels to lock. Also, kicking the tail out increases the driver’s margin for error.)

After slogging through Stage 6, even the normally unflappable Higgins seems almost shell-shocked. “You remember the roads we tested on (in Hungry Valley)? The ones we said were too bad to really use? Well, this is three times worse,” he says during a break in the action. “How they intend to run this stage again (in the opposite direction) is beyond me.”

Meanwhile, 25 miles away, support crews congregate in the service area, where cars will stop in a few hours for mid-rally maintenance and repairs. The Subaru and Mitsubishi factory teams have tents and big rigs that double as machine shops. But the have-nots make do without any shelter — some don’t have any support crew, period — and they’ll work on their cars in the open, lying in the mud as rain streams down. If, that is, they get to do any work at all.

The roads have fallen to pieces, and cars — especially those with two-wheel drive — are dropping out. While prerunning the last stage, the organizers’ own scout vehicle gets mired in the mud. Not good, and conditions show no signs of improving. With 26 cars already out of the rally, the final stages are canceled. Higgins is declared the winner by 3 minutes over Lovell, with O’Sullivan coming in third and Lagemann sixth. Subaru’s Campion is sanguine about the results. “I don’t like losing,” he says. “But they
didn’t have any choice, did they? It just would have ended in tears.” (Campion’s words resonated eerily two months later: In July, Lovell and a different co-driver, Roger Freeman, died in a high-speed crash during a race in Oregon. The deaths were the first racing fatalities in 20 years on the ProRally circuit.)

Hours after the finish, club racers continue to straggle in, loading their battered cars on open trailers for the long pull home. But in the paddock, the Mitsubishi team parties in a lavish weatherproof tent. Although this sort of hospitality is de rigueur in F1 and Winston Cup, it’s new to ProRally, and Mitsubishi is determined to get its money’s worth out of the amenities. Champagne is drunk, speeches are made, photographs taken, autographs signed. “I love driving this car,” O’Sullivan enthuses. “It is so strong.” Higgins even cracks a smile. “It’s satisfying to survive everything Mother Nature throws at you,” he says.

Real cars on real roads. Not going real fast this weekend, but starting to gain a real following. That’s rally racing.

Preston Lerner, a contributing writer for Automobile_, lives in Burbank, California._