I’ve been a rally fan for a few years now. I had always heard of the rally racing heritage of the Subaru WRX, and I even bought a Subaru Outback back in 2005 with the same 2.5 Liter turbo engine. At the time I still thought it was something done in far away reaches of the world that I would never be able to experience. A couple years later I tried my hands at Dirt 2 and realized there was so much more to the sport. The multiple surfaces, conditions, and locations made circuit racing seem boring by comparison. That led to internet searches of rally racing, following some of the events online, and eventually finding that the Rally America championship makes a stop right in my backyard here in Oregon. This year is my 3rd consecutive year attending the Oregon Trail Rally, but my first year attending all 3 days of the event. Here is a recap of what a fan can expect if they attend an event like the Oregon Trail Rally.
Oregon is has to be one of the most picturesque and yet challenging events on the Rally America calendar. It starts out with a fan friendly set of Super Special style short stages at Portland International Raceway on day 1, and then moves 50 miles to the east to the twisty forest roads in the foothills of the Cascade mountains on day 2, and finally finishes day 3 on super fast rolling hills and farm roads outside of the small town of Dufur.
Day 1 – Weather is always a factor in Oregon, especially in May. I had heard that the competitors had their second day of Recce cancelled earlier in the week due to the rain. The forecast was looking like it was improving for the weekend, but as I drove to Portland International Raceway Friday afternoon I was caught in a downpour that turned to hail. Thankfully I packed some rain gear just in case. When I got to PIR, the dark and ominous clouds had passed and it looked like the rest of the evening just might be dry, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I walked across the sky bridge to the infield paddock to a familiar sight of trailers, cars, mechanics, and drivers getting ready. I headed straight for the information booth to get a start list. The start list is essential as with 60+ entries it is hard to keep track of who is who, especially when 1/3rd of the entries are Subaru Imprezas. A quick scan through the list shows a very diverse range of vehicles in 2WD class, which is always hotly contested and fun to watch. There was a 1972 Lancia Scropion, 3 classic Saab 96s, an ’82 Alfa Romeo, and a number of late ‘80s Honda CRXs and finally the newest vehicles being the Ford Fiestas and the Scion XD. And as you might expect, the 4WD cars were all Subarus and Mitsubishis. Right after I grabbed the list I heard engines begin to fire up and the sweet smell of racing fuel exhaust began to fill the air. An announcement came over the PA stating that the parade lap was about to begin and the drivers and cars quickly disappeared from the service park. I wasn’t going to find anyone to chat with so I headed out to get the best seat I could in the stands.
The best seat in the house at PIR is the top of the stands in the festival curves. The way they have the stages set, you can see cars finishing one stage in front of you on the tarmac part of the racing circuit and then others just starting the next stage behind you at the same time. Once things get going it is almost like a 3 ring circus trying to keep track of everything going on. The long line of 60+ cars slowly traversed a drive through the stages for the parade lap. At the very end of what would be Stage 4, a number of 2WD cars got stuck trying to go up a small hill of wet grass that quickly turned to mud after just a few cars passed. Stage 4 was going to definitely be a challenge for the competitors when the run it later in the evening. The cars then returned to the pits and lined up for a park expose’ where fans can meet the drivers and co-drivers and get an up close look at the cars. I chose to skip the park expose’ at PIR as there is quite the crowd and I’d have a tough time getting a chance to talk to anyone. Besides, I knew I’d have another chance later in the weekend to meet the drivers and co-drivers. The stands began to fill up with fans and I asked where the people around me are from. There were quite a few from Seattle, a soccer mom with her teenage son and his friends from the Portland, an older couple that were relatives to one of drivers that came all the way from Ohio to cheer them on, and a middle aged gear head that liked to tune cars. It was great to see people of all ages interested in watching the action.
The rally got underway at 7PM in reverse order with the slowest rated cars first on the stage and each car separated by one minute intervals finishing with the top open class cars separated by 2 minutes. From my vantage point we could see the cars flying down a short shoot from the S turns and then slam on their brakes to navigate the tight hairpin that makes up the festival curves and finally accelerating onto the front straight through the stop line.
Even though rally doesn’t have the side-by-side action of circuit racing, it was easy to see who was faster and who was slower as they approached the hairpin. Those with the cleanest lines really got through quick, and there was plenty of fun watching a few drifters out there as they came in hot and powered through the corner billowing out tire smoke. Unfortunately for the less skilled, the fast approach in a gravel spec car resulted in the car spinning out.
A few minutes after the first cars finished Stage 1 they were already starting up behind us on Stage 2. A number of us were watching Stage 2 just in time to see a confused driver turn onto the grass then try and correct and get back onto the tarmac, but the wet grass meant there was no turning back. In what seemed like slow motion the Audi went straight down an embankment and disappeared from view where there was a pond below. That was the “first out” of the rally. After that incident we focused on the circuit where the faster super production and soon the open class cars would be running. The faster drivers really stood out by watching their different braking points and lines into the corners. The top cars were spitting fire with anti-lag systems chirping and popping. It filled the senses with speed, danger, and excitement.
There was a short service break before they ran through the stages again, and this time it was getting darker and cars were putting on light pods. The only change in the course was Stage 4 behind us. This was going to be tricky because the cars would be driving down short tarmac service road, turning 90 right then looping to the left around a caution taped area on the wet grass and back onto the same tarmac service road they came in on. At this point if the timing was right (or wrong) they would be driving head-on towards the next car in the stage and the only thing separating them from the same piece of tarmac real estate is a diagonal piece of caution tape strung between a couple of stakes! From there they make a 90 right down a short stretch of road before peeling off and climbing a muddy hill. Definitely something to watch in the waning hours of daylight.
First up was SS3 though, and that was similar to earlier but the cars are always at least 10% faster the second time through as they have more confidence from the fist pass. The glowing brake discs proved that a lot of left-foot braking was taking place. Back on SS4 total mayhem ensued. The first few cars, those that were the slowest and most inexperienced, turned off course into unmarked areas of grass circling around aimlessly before they got their bearings and back on course again. I think once the lead car did it the others thought they should follow. Thankfully later drivers ignored what they saw and stuck to the notes. Watching them slide through the wet grass and back onto the pavement was very entertaining. The grass onto tarmac area was literally right below the stands we were in. As the tarmac got more mud on it as the cars went through, it got exponentially slipperier. Many of the cars did end up going head-on towards another car as predicted earlier. It must have been blinding down there in the driver’s seat, but everyone appeared to make it through without running into each other. The climb up the mud hill was much easier at speed vs. the parade lap, so nobody got stuck this time. Leo, L’Estage, and Higgins made it look effortless…the 2WD cars, not so much…but they all seemed to make it through regardless.