Up close and personal: Experiencing my first rally

Having been a rally fan for some time, I always felt a slight sense of inauthenticity when I told people rally is my favorite motorsport. Although I’d followed Rally America, WRC and other series from the comfort of home, and attended and photographed rallycross events (GRC and SCCA), I had never been to a stage rally.

We happened to be staying in the same hotel as David Sterckx and his crew. This is something you won’t see in NASCAR!
Photo by Stephen Cook.

Last year, I was planning on going to the 2013 Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, but got snowed in, here in Kansas City. I had been looking forward to the event for months and months, excitement building each day.

I was devastated, to say the least.

So, this year, we (my family and I; they also profess to enjoy rallying) left a day early in order to avoid any freak snowstorms.

We arrived at our hotel in Rolla, MO Thursday night (Feb. 20) to find David Sterckx’s trailer and car in the parking lot; his team was busy at work. I thought to myself, “You won’t see a racecar in a Holiday Inn Express parking lot in NASCAR!”

This 1963 Saab 96, shown here at the Super Special (stage 3), was the oldest car at the 100 Acre Wood Rally. Photo by Stephen Cook.

The next day, Friday, I attended the Parc Expose, visited the Steelville service area and spectated stages 1, 3 (the Potosi Super Special) and 6 (the night stage).

One of my first rally lessons was learned early — plan ahead. I quickly realized it isn’t possible to make it to every stage.

We left the Parc Expose for the first stage, only to reach the area and find parked cars were already lining the road leading to the spectator point. Once we found a spot to park amongst the bountiful number of Subarus, I speedily headed toward the sound of high-revving engines.

When your best vantage point is behind a crowd, trees and some shrubbery, you have to get creative. Photo by Stephen Cook.

However, once I reached the stage, I had already missed the Open class and most of Super Production. And since I was attending the event as a spectator, not media, I had to get creative in finding ways to shoot photos around and in-between people, trees and shrubbery. I actually enjoyed this though; after all I always like a good challenge.

Later that day, I made it to stage 6, the night stage. Standing in the dark with strangers in the middle of the pitch-black forest may sound odd to some, but for the rally fan it is certainly a memorable occasion. Seeing the woods become illuminated in front of the high-powered rally light pods, mounted to the front of a speeding racecar, is not easily forgotten. Neither is being hit by flying rocks and gravel — standing on the outside of a turn is risky!

The stages were well attended; this is the crown returning to their vehicles after stage 13 ended. Photo by Stephen Cook.
The stages were well attended; this is the crowd returning to their vehicles after stage 13 ended. Photo by Stephen Cook.

Saturday was a lot of fun as well. Having planned out what stages we would spectate, as well as having made plans to stop by the Parc Expose, service area and awards ceremony, we definitely had our fix of rallying.

In the end, I had over 900 photos and great memories of small towns overflowing with rally cars, the smell of race fuel and the glorious sound of hundreds of horses galloping through the woods.

Although some may argue rally racing is not spectator-friendly, the truth is actually quite the opposite. From service areas, to parc exposes to being able to stand a couple of feet away from a speeding car; rally racing provides many opportunities for the spectator that most other forms of racing do not. You’re able to get up close and personal with the cars AND drivers — all without media or VIP credentials.

The face of a monster: Ken Block’s rally-ready Ford Fiesta. Photo by Stephen Cook.

As with any new experience, you have a mental estimate of what to expect going in. Although it was different in many ways of what I expected, I can say that the 2014 Rally in the 100 Acre Wood lived up to, and exceeded, those expectations. It was a fantastic time that I will remember for the rest of my life.

For more photos from the weekend, visit my Facebook page, Stephen Cook Photography.

Main image: David Sterckx and Karen Jankowski accelerate out of a corner during stage 10 on Feb. 22. Photo by Stephen Cook.

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