Rally racing is unique in the world of motorsport. You race on roads that are normally open to the public but now closed for car racing. What was an intersection with a stop sign last weekend is now a massive jump that lets you clear the whole intersection. You race up mountains and through the woods. You race in the rain, snow, on ice, sand, gravel and tarmac. You race during the day, the night, and in the fog. You race with a co-driver in cars that are street legal. There is nothing else like it.
(Welcome to Your Guide To Racing Subcultures, a new Jalopnik series where we tell you how to understand and get involved in the different ways to make cars go fast for competition. While not as popular in the United States, rally is still a very big deal. The top series is the World Rally Championship, which tours the world much like Formula One. It’s difficult to find current numbers, but 581 million people watched the WRC in 2014, making it one of the largest motorsports in the world.
One look at a car sideways on snow or 10 feet in the air over a jump at 120 mph and you realize why rally is so popular. It’s even more fun to drive. This is myself and Elliot Sherwood at the Sno*Drift rally in my $500 318i.
What Is It?
Modified production cars on closed public roads with a co-driver reading “pace notes” to the driver describing the road ahead. Teams leave the start line one at a time, separated usually by a minute. They race for the fastest time on tha particular road section which is called a “stage” and then they transit on public roads to the next stage. The times from each stage are added up and the fastest aggregate time wins.
So if passing is your thing, rally is probably not for you. Occasionally cars will catch each other on stage you’ll see passes on single lane roads, but otherwise its one car at a time.
Rally is best known for gravel roads but the events take place on tarmac and snow as well. Most rallies are run during the day, but many run at night or include night stages where giant lights are fitted to the front of the cars.
Who Does It?
You’ll find rally almost anywhere there are roads that can be closed, but the Scandinavians are generally the fastest. It’s a much larger sport in Europe where the word “rally” is generally attributed to racing, not politics like it is in America.
No matter where they’re from, rally drivers are a special breed. You have to be slightly insane to pilot a car down a single lane road through the forest at triple digit speeds. Confidence, perseverance, and the car control skills on the planet are the traits of rally drivers.
Confidence because you only see each corner once and you must attack it as fast as possible without practice. Confidence that “Flat over crest” and the rest of your co-driver’s notes are accurate. Confidence that your car will take the punishment and confidence that your car control skills will be enough to recover from a mistake.
Perseverance because rallies can be grueling. You race in rain, snow, mud, and ice. In the cold. In the dark. And this can go on for days.