“Do you smell burning oil?”
It was a rhetorical question, really. But because I was in a rally car, on a rally stage, and still filled with adrenaline and hopeless optimism, I asked anyway. The answer, delivered bluntly by co-driver Pete Pollard, confirmed that his nose worked as well as mine. In truth, the moments preceding this occurrence, during which the engine chortled out a medley of indelicate sounds before losing boost and then deployed an epic and unrelenting smoke show from its exhaust, told me all I needed to know. This was a turbo failure. And the months of prep, the hours of lost sleep, and countless dollars spent to get here were culminating in this fetid, fumy anticlimax. Our rally was over on Stage 18. And we both knew it.
The weekend at the Southern Ohio Forest Rally, headquartered in Chillicothe, Ohio, had started the previous day, as rallies almost always do, with stoic optimism. This, despite the obstacles rallying always presents. We had removed the car’s too-noisy transmission, reinstalled it, removed it again, and reinstalled it a second time in the months leading up to today. The rear wheel bearings and knuckles had been swapped the day before in a thankless last-minute thrash by a selfless unpaid crew of loyal C/D wrenches-the third bearing swap in as many weeks. Worn-out first-gen Impreza knuckles, it turns out, reveal themselves by effortlessly annihilating wheel bearings in 100 miles or less. Who knew? Not this guy.
It was all wholly familiar in a sport in which effort, money, and talent guarantee nothing-even when they converge on the same team. Our effort was modest: a 1997 Subaru Impreza coupe fitted with a 2007 WRX engine and an STI six-speed. Stock ECU, no anti-lag. Just a little E85 to up the power and torque. This time around, the car had a new livery, new tires-there’s a novel idea-new lights, and more energy invested in it than any machine this modest deserves. Being a humble car, I’m convinced, is key to its effectiveness. It had not chalked up a mechanical DNF in its previous 12-race history.
Here’s something you should know about Ohio, a tedious, cop-filled state that occupies the space between Kentucky and Lake Erie. Its southern half, mercifully, overlaps western Appalachia: It’s a place where the elevation gain is modest, but the road rhythm is exceptional. As if laid down by the God of Gravel himself, these byways climb and descend with a smoothness and cadence not found anywhere we’ve ever been. And they unravel through dense greenery made up of car-stopping old growth. It’s not like rallying in the Southwest, where a 70-mph off results in a tumble through the desert that bleeds energy relatively slowly with every roll. No, here that old growth stops you at the edge of the road, bringing all your momentum, your rally, and possibly more important things to a halt in milliseconds. It’s something I thought about often leading up to Stage 1, where nerves, a long absence from the car, and some big trees combined to produce only the 22nd-best time, five lousy slots up from our 27th-on-the-road start position. And evidently the brakes noticed, too, since we finished the stage with smoke rolling from both front wheels.
But then it came around, sorta. Stage 2, Wills Tract South, resulted in a 12th-fastest time, followed by a 15th, a 14th, and a 16th on the subsequent stages, affirming our pre-race speculation that running between tenth and 15th position overall would be both our best hope and a genuine achievement in this race, which started 65 cars, the largest field in any North American rally so far this year. Among those stages was Irish Ridge, which we would run three times in both directions. This piece of flowing gravel was once called America’s Best, a title it still deserves. Wider than many of the other roads, it’s both faster and offers a bigger margin for error, which increases the likelihood that there will be some. There are straight blind crests daring us to hold it flat and spectator zones at junctions tempting even stupider things. Still, we stayed on the road, and fate continued to smile on our rally.
Stage 6 brought a ninth-place overall finish, the best of our event. But then on Stage 7, a rerun of Wills Tract, fate made its first appearance. Braking too late for a corner, I dropped one gear too far, then rushed the upshift at its exit. I rushed it a lot, in fact, pulling the shift lever free from the socket that locates it in the linkage. It’s held in place by a too-small circlip and a little bit of luck, so it shouldn’t have surprised me when the whole assembly came free in my hand. Nonetheless, the chaos of reassembling the shifter to a drivable state cost minutes, dropping us to 53rd on the stage and damaging our 12th-overall position sufficiently that we never bothered to look it up again. The shifter was as permanently repaired as it could be on the next transit, and the eruption of chaos and confusion in the cockpit during those few minutes of repair remains my favorite memory from the event.
Rallying is like that. If I hadn’t watched the best in the world descend into similarly unrecoverable mental states when it all goes wrong, I would not have a full appreciation for the sport’s difficulty. In the Turkish round of the 2004 World Rally Championship, two-time world champion Marcus Grönholm was similarly befuddled upon running over a piece of debris that punctured the floor of his Citroën, his co-driver Timo Rautiainen’s seat, and then Rautiainen’s backside. When the camera was turned on him at the stage’s end, all the Finn could come up with to summarize the situation were the now-infamous words “up into the ass of Timo,” which he accompanied with a priceless closed-fist puncture gesture. No one is immune to the insanity rallying sows.
And we reaped just that on Stage 8, the last before the day’s only timed service stop, where we’d refuel the car and ourselves before installing lights for the night stages to come. Despite excruciating worst-case-scenario calculations ensuring our Impreza’s fuel tank would hold enough E85 to get us through leg one, the rally’s longest, the car began to fuel starve with two miles remaining. I’d calculated that even at a lousy 3.5 mpg on stage we’d make it, but my optimistic math was overwhelmed by my enthusiastic right foot. Of course, it would all have been avoidable if I’d chosen to run pump gas, which yields more miles per gallon. But the draw of another 30 horsepower, the cooling effects of E85, and the safety margin it adds to a turbo engine were collectively irresistible. We drove smoothly to the end of the stage, trying to keep the fuel at the bottom of the tank, and hoped rallying would smile on us as we soft-pedaled and coasted the 5.5 miles back to service. Somehow, it did.
I don’t like rallying at night. Never have. The already massive invitation for a fiasco only increases when you’re sliding blind. So when Satan himself tried to claw his way through the firewall on Stage 15, it made us even slower. The sound, like a gearbox eating itself, turned out to be a piece of high-density plastic-underbody protection-that had ripped free and bent down such that its leading edge was scooping gravel into the floor of the car during braking or other suspension-compressing events. It was as infuriatingly distracting as it was inconsistent. Pollard, more experienced than I and less invested in the car, yawned and insisted I keep my foot down. The errant piece of polyethylene, torn free by dropping the inside tires into the ditch on corners-also known as “ditch hooking”-was trimmed off later that night, along with any confidence I had in my onstage troubleshooting ability. Our trip down the scoreboard continued, but after a few hours of cleaning and re-prepping, we closed the day reasonably proud of having endured it.
The Beginning of the End
Day two dawned with wet roads but a renewed sense of confidence. We had survived the bulk of the total mileage, pressed on through Satan’s own darkness, and overcome some genuinely stupid self-imposed failures. Our overall position was too low to matter, but our starting position, thanks to several respectable stage times, was bumped up to 18th. With the hope of a respectable finish removed, my state of full-stupid throttle smashing should have been renewed. But, well, I’m old now, and having little to gain imposed a more prudent strategy. Translated into carefully considered post-rally language, that means we went slowly, which, of course, sucks. Sucking in this case worked out to 16th on both Stages 16 and 17. And on Stage 18, well, you’ve heard that story.
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Looking back now, it was a curious event. The roads of southern Ohio are special. Unique in their uniform surfaces and sinuous, flowing perfection, they are a place where rallying belongs. And, as it always does, rallying proved again that it owes you nothing. No amount of prep, money, experience, or force of will translates to success in a sport so fraught with the opportunity for havoc. It is this brute fact that makes it at once so alluring and so demanding. Stringing corners together sideways fits in there somewhere, too. And despite all the suffering, we covered 95 or so glorious miles at race speed. We will be back. Because rallying, if nothing else, guarantees unpredictable adventure. Sigh.