The End of the Lake Superior Pro Rally
Real cars. Real roads. This has been the premise of rally racing, and the two main reasons I feel that this genre of motorsports eclipses all others. Nascar is definitely the most popular form of racing here in America, but it just doesn’t appeal to me at all. The idea of watch a tube-framed 500hp V8 RWD version of some boring domestic sedan (that in production form is actually FWD, has a 200hp V6, and drives without any connection to the road) go around in endless circles just numbs my brain, and makes me ponder about the intelligence of the average American and our nation’s future. F1 has always been interesting, but the unbelievable engineering, mind-numbing skill, and ludicrous amount of money poured into it also make it incredibly distant. I’m never going to be an F1 driver; I’m never going to have an engine that redlines at 20k rpm; I’m never going to spend 8 million dollars on a car. It’s a spectacle to be sure, but completely unattainable and alien from my daily life.
With rally racing, all of the cars start as basic production cars that you see on the road everyday, and the drivetrains are also required to resemble what’s available in the dealership. This distinction really grounds this series in actual reality. Unlike F1, the cars, roads, and competition are attainable, with technology I can understand and relate to. Unlike Nascar, rallying requires steering both directions as well as a skillful use of the brake pedal, throttle, gear selection, and the handbrake.
Starting in 2003, I’ve been driving up to the upper peninsula of Michigan in late October to spectate the Lake Superior Pro Rally (after it’s more recent name change, the Lake Superior Performance Rally). This is the final rally in the Rally America series, and also one of the toughest. Weather conditions can range from the low 60s and sunny, to below freezing complete with snow and sleet. The roads can range from clean tarmac and granite gravel, to sand, mud and water. This extremely wide range of conditions through stages that have cliffs, boulders, watefalls, and walls of rock really push drivers to their limits. And since it’s the final rally in the series, the competition is beyond fierce.
Since 2003 though, a lot has changed. Spectator areas are now much more crowded since the word is spreading. At the same time the safety marshals are growing more cautious, making the spectator areas smaller, while at the same time moving them further away from the action, and behind brush and shrubs. This makes viewing the actual competition fairly difficult, so plan to get there early. The directions to the various stages have dramatically improved; the first year I went there I wound up getting lost, following a group of other Audi S-cars down a logging trail, eventually getting stranded in the middle of the woods due to a jumped timing belt. Fun times!
For 2009, I ventured up to Houghton one last time, as it seems that Rally America has removed this historic rally from its list of national events. From this point forward, LSPR will only be a regional event which basically makes it optional for the big names, big teams, and best cars. I’m sure it will still be exciting to watch in the future, but I can’t help but feel Rally America really screwed up, big time. The upper-peninsula’s economy was struggling even when the rest of the country was doing well, so you can imagine what it’s been like recently. With LSPR, almost every hotel is booked, and all the local restaurants are packed to the gills with enthusiasts and competitors. Without this national competition, I can’t imagine what this is going to do to small business up there. Shame on you, Rally America.
However, 2009 was a fantastic last stand. The spectator areas were better than the previous year, and the weather was mild. I attended the Friday night stages, and was surprised to be surrounded by Polish, Russian, and other European fans, drinking, cheering, and singing about their favorite drivers, favorite teams, and even national anthems! Awesome. On Saturday, I wound up getting to the Copper Harbor stage late, and all of the good spectator areas were taken. However, I had planned ahead. I found an area with small trees and brush, but roped off, and reached into my backpack to extract a Milwaukee Tool Hackzall. For this rally, this was the ultimate spectator weapon. Everyone else watched in disbelief as I took down small trees, shrubbery, and bushes to carve out a fantastic viewing area of what was previously dense brush.
There was a lot of interesting iron competing in this rally, there was a Datsun 510, a whole lot of STis, some older Evos that were never imported to the states, and my favorite, a metallic copper Mercury Capri, with full rally gear. Just parking near the stages was a blast, as you walked past row after row of “enthusiast” cars. I saw TWO ur-quattros, one outfitted with full period-correct Groub B rally gear; it even had a metal roof rack holding another complete set of wheels outfitted with rally tires! There were a few UrS4s, UrS6s, and tons of WRXs, Evos, and lots of VWs and Subaru Imprezas. I even snapped a photo of a civic hatchback, just for Mochi! If you're interested in rally, I strongly urge you to spectate an event. Seeing the cars perform in person will make you a fan for life. It is absolutely amazing to be surrounded by friends in the tranquilty of nature, only to hear the distant roar of an approaching rally car, suddenly see it fly around the corner sideways, rocket past you shooting gravel everywhere, then disappearing around the next corner, leaving you with nothing but the smell of high octane and a huge smile on your face. Here's to hoping Rally America brings LSPR back to it's former glory.
--Rob the S6 Guy