How To Be A Rally Enthusiast On The Cheap

Ford Escort rally
Photo credit: Jordan Apgar

It’s one thing to watch the World Rally Championship on TV or Group B videos on the internet, but it’s another thing entirely to stand on the side of a dirt road when Ken Block zooms by at triple digit speeds. If you’re handy with a wrench, someone would probably love to have your help putting their rally car back together after they break it on stage. As with any motorsport requiring a fully prepped, caged race car, the cost of competing is beyond what many would-be Colin McRaes can afford. But there are many other ways get involved with rally, and be close to or part of the action, for not a lot of money.

(As Will wrote, being an enthusiast is free. If you’re interested in something – cars, motorcycles, traditional archery, basket weaving – then you’re an enthusiast, and no one can tell you any differently. But you don’t need a Ferrari 458, Ducati Monster, Black Widow recurve bow, or… OK, I can’t think of any high end woven baskets to complete this analogy, but my point is, no matter what you’re interested in, there are probably ways to involve yourself in that interest without spending a lot of money. This is the first in a series of articles about how you can get off the sidelines and get involved in various auto enthusiast activities without breaking the bank – in other words, On The Cheap.)


Parc Expose, Black River Stages 2015

The two biggest sanctioning bodies of rally in the US are Rally America and NASA Rally Sport. Check the event schedules on their web sites to find events local to you, or that you might be willing to travel to see. The two organizations are a bit different. Rally America focuses more on the glitz, glamour, and big name stars like David Higgins, Travis Pastrana, Ken Block (though not this year as he’s committed to a full season of World Rallycross), and the late Dave Mirra. NASA Rally Sport focuses more on grassroots rally for the everyman, and while still not as cheap as an autocross or track day, it’s still more affordable than Rally America. The specifics vary between organizations, but the general format of their rallies is the same. And believe me, there’s just as much action in the amateur ranks as the few who do this professionally.

Before the start of a rally, and often during, there are Parc Expose events. These are literally car shows that all competitors are required to attend, and that are open to the public. This is where you can get an up close look at the rally cars before they go ripping down the back roads and logging trails, and before some of them get damaged. Drivers and co-drivers are there as well, and most are quite happy to talk about what they do, how they’ve modified their cars, what it’s like to compete in rally, and such. Some of them may even let you try on the driver’s seat for size, but definitely ask before jumping in a car. This is the best way to start your spectating experience. Best of all, it’s free.

At the designated time, each rally car will check in at the first timing control and begin the rally, driving at legal speeds along public roads to the first stage. Here, too, is a good chance to get a look at the cars before they go screaming down stages. You’ll be wanting to get out to a spectator area yourself at this point. If you look online or ask around, you can generally find a spectator guide, or at least a map of the local area with the stages and spectator areas clearly marked. Keep in mind that once the course opening cars begin making their way through each stage that you will probably not be able to use the stage road to get to the spectator area. Sometimes you can find a back way in that doesn’t require you to use the road that’s closed for the stage. Other times you just have to show up early, before the course opening cars shut it down, and wait until sweep goes by to reopen the road so that you can leave. Be sure to bring provisions, such as food, water, sunscreen, rain gear (bring both no matter what the forecast says), and bug repellent. At the New England Forest Rally I learned that the north woods of Maine have black flies the size of Cessnas.

Be a good spectator. Please. Stay off the road and out of harm’s way. If you’re outside of an official spectator area, be smart about where you watch. Don’t stand on the outside of a turn, or anywhere that an out of control car could go off. It’s even better to stand on top of a rock, a hill, or behind some trees, so that an errant car will hit those instead of you. This is something the course opening cars look for when they make sure the stage is ready for competition. If the spectators are out of control the stage is unsafe and will be canceled, requiring competitors to transit the stage slowly instead of racing through it and giving you the show you came out to see. Trust me – as course opening, I’ve canceled a stage myself for that very reason. But as long as everyone stays out of harm’s way and behaves themselves, you’re in for an awesome show, seeing and hearing those rally cars doing their thing for real.


Volunteering at NEFR 2010

Spectating already gets you pretty close to the action, but you can get even closer. In fact, you can become part of the action by volunteering. Rallies can’t run without the help of numerous workers, from stage marshals to rally officials and everything in between. Volunteering to help work the event makes it possible to run, and gets you even closer to the action than the spectators. You get to see what happens behind the scenes at a rally, because you’re a part of it. You also become a rock star in the eyes of the competitors. They know full well that they can’t have their fun without your work, and appreciate what you do a great deal.

With no experience except maybe a few too many hours playing DiRT Rally, you will most likely be assigned to be a marshal on a stage crew. A stage crew is a team of marshals, start and finish controls, amateur radio operators, and a captain, who are responsible for running one particular rally stage. As a marshal, your captain will assign you to a particular location, such as an intersection with the road being used for the rally stage. You’ll park your car in a safe location to block the cross street so that no one can get onto the stage, and make sure the required caution tape is in place. You’ll also talk with anyone who might come up that road to spectate and make sure they remain safe behind the caution tape. You may be stationed alone, but more than likely there will be a few of you together, including a ham radio operator who keep you in touch with the “net” and let you know of announcements like when competitors will be starting the stage. If you happen to have a ham radio license like I do (you may have noticed that my BRZ’s license plate, KJ1H, is my callsign), your skills as a communicator and your radio equipment are particularly valuable to rally operations. Though the amateur radio hobby has a great deal to offer in and of itself, many rally volunteers get their license solely to assist with rally communications.

It’s an all day assignment, but this is the best seat in the house. Often competitors will run the same stage multiple times and/or in opposite directions, in which case you’ll get to see everyone go by more than once. Unless you’re specifically assigned to work at a spectator area, you’ll be stationed someplace where spectators don’t get to go, and have a unique view of the action. You may have disabled competitors stop at your location to change a flat tire or bail out of the event. You may even end up assisting with a nearby crash. Crashes rarely result in injuries, but they can happen, and part of the reason we’re there is to get them help if necessary.

[brid video=”28752″ player=”4063″ title=”Big crash at New England Forest Rally”]

I learned this first hand at the New England Forest Rally in 2011. I was the radio guy for a few marshals on a stage, and cars were going by as normal. As we heard one car approach it made some different noises – the sounds of crashing. We all ran down the road to find the car facing the wrong direction without a single undented body panel. The driver and co-driver were fortunately unhurt. The other guys helped them set up the caution triangles and warn approaching competitors, while I ran back to my car, got on the radio, and reported the car off and its occupants OK.

Aside from some twisted metal and the end of their rally, all’s well that ends well. If there had been injuries in the crash, I could’ve had the stage stopped and the ambulance sent in to take care of them. That’s why we’re there.

Joining A Service Crew

Eric Wages' rally service crew, Black River Stages 2011

If you’re a rally fan, no doubt you’re familiar with the stories of crazy Hail Mary repairs made during the timed service stops to keep a car flying – or sometimes just limping – to the end of a rally. As they say, “Press On Regardless.” If you’re handy with a wrench, chances are there’s a rally team seeking your services to do that for their car.

The vast majority of competitors, even in Rally America events, are not professional teams, but amateurs looking for whatever help they can get. Often they’ll have at least some regular crew who go with them from event to event, but they may be looking for extra help if their regular crew can’t make it. In 2011, none of Eric Wages’ usual crew could make it to Black River Stages, so he put out a call online asking for help. I’d never met him before, but a few other guys – who I’d also never met – and I went out to New York to give him a hand. Eric was great at teaching us exactly what we needed to do. What’s that, exactly? Have a look.

[brid video=”28548″ player=”4063″ title=”Rally service Benny Hill style”]

This was the first service of the first day of the rally. We jacked up the car, pulled all the wheels, scraped off the dirt caked inside the wheels and around the brakes, fixed a small leak in the intercooler coupling (we replaced it earlier in the day and didn’t get it quite perfect), adjusted tire pressures, and refueled the car. In non-Benny Hill time, all this took about 20 minutes. This was definitely a routine service, with no problem and no hurry – in other words, the best case scenario.

Late that night we started packing up, since the service area would be in a different location the next day, when Eric called me on the ham radio. He said he’d gotten a bit too sideways on the last stage, hit a rock, and bent a control arm. Another team had already agreed to give him a replacement, and we’d need to install it when he got back. It was the end of day 1, and since this particular rally does not lock cars away for the night as some do, we were allowed to work on it freely with no time limit other than the start of the rally on day 2.

When Eric returned we jacked up the car, had a “well THERE’S your problem” moment when we saw that the control arm was curved instead of straight, and set to replacing it. Then Jesse said “Uh-oh…” He’d just noticed that the impact that bent the control arm also busted open the weld holding the the shock tower together, splitting it in half. Zach and I started asking around the shrinking service area to see if any other teams could loan us welding equipment at midnight. No one expected us to be successful – in fact, the other guys were almost disappointed when we returned with a borrowed welder, because that meant we actually had to get to work.

Hard at work on Eric Wages' rally car
Photo credit: Zach Nason

We worked for hours trying to pinch the shock tower closed again so we could weld it shut. Each attempt was more desperate and Rube Goldberg-like than the last. Finally, at 3am, Eric issued the Do Not Resuscitate order, fearing that a desperate repair now might make it difficult or impossible to repair properly later. After a few beers to counteract the ongoing adrenaline rush, we slept, then spectated on day two.

Though it was not the ending any of us had hoped for, it was a valiant effort, and a lot of fun regardless. Aside from the unexpected spectating when we were supposed to be racing we didn’t get to see much of the event. But we were an active, important part of it for Eric and Dirty Rallysport. We were part of the team. We weren’t just watching rally cars, we were wrenching on one. Jesse and Zach are actually professional auto techs, but even though I’m just a dabbler, there were still plenty of less technical jobs for me to do, and another brain and set of eyes is always useful when troubleshooting any problem. The more skills you have, the better, but don’t let your inability to take apart and rebuild an engine on the side of the road with nothing but a Leatherman stop you from offering your services.

I was underemployed and short on cash at the time, but the rally still didn’t cost me very much. Jesse, Zach, and I all split the cost of gas to get to upstate New York and back. Eric was kind enough to to reserve enough space at the campground we stayed at for all of us to pitch a tent, and he also fed us. Many teams provide food and lodging for their crews as a courtesy. Presumably you already have your own tools, but if you don’t, they can often be provided.


NER SCCA RallyCross

Here’s where many people start, and some never leave. RallyCross is essentially autocross on a non-paved surface. Because there’s nothing to hit except cones, and speeds are significantly slower, RallyCross is open to any car that isn’t likely to tip over (no lifted bro trucks). Yes, you actually get to DRIVE at a relatively affordable price! Like autocross, the only safety equipment required is a helmet, and there are often loaners available.

Assuming you’re familiar with autocross, I’ll focus on what’s different. All of your runs are cumulative, rather than your best single run. So when you hit that cone on your second run, that two second penalty stays with you for the rest of the day. RallyCross rewards consistency more than a single blazing fast hero run. Also, the course will likely change throughout the day. This is to avoid creating deep ruts that the property owners won’t appreciate, and to provide the extra challenge of reacting to changing conditions similar to a rally. You may get to see the course between changes, but often you’ll have to look ahead and pick them up on the fly.

Even if the course configuration doesn’t change, conditions almost certainly will after each run. Much of the challenge of RallyCross is reading such changes and reacting to them appropriately. Because you’re on dirt, rather than a paved parking lot or runway, there is a greater potential for damaging your car, but not nearly as much as when you’re sliding around trees instead of cones. Plus you can drive your own car, with a few limitations. Any car with a solid roof can compete. Convertibles must have a hardtop, but a roll bar or cage is not necessary. Trucks and SUVs may be allowed, but only if there’s a low rollover risk. Project MJ is on its stock suspension, not lifted at all, and will be staying that way for many reasons – RallyCross being one of them.

As long as your car meets these requirements and passes a simple tech inspection (similar to autocross), you can go play in the dirt. I ran my RT4WD Civic wagon on the all-season tires it came with, and was the “best of the rest” after the top three drivers in my class, far ahead of me. Snow tires are better, regardless what time of year, as they dig into the dirt better. I had a blast the time I took my ex-cop Ford Crown Victoria to an event. I felt like Roscoe P. Coltraine in hot pursuit of them Duke boys. I even won my class that day, which is far better a result than I could ever hope to achieve autocrossing that car!

You can even run the same gravel tires that stage rally competitors use. Stage rally folks will often give up their old gravel tires when they’re half used, since they have no use for used tires in what they do. They’ll often sell off their old tires for cheap. While they won’t last for too many more rally stages, they can last for an entire season or more of rallycross. Just keep in mind that rally tires, alone, will bump you out of stock class, if you care about such things. Personally, I don’t.


Team O'Neil Rallysprint
Photo credit: Wyatt Knox

There are alternatives to full on stage rally. One of them is RallySprint, an idea that the SCCA brought back last year and that NASA Rally Sport supports as well. As the name implies, this is a scaled down version of rally. Events are typically just one day, which means you can take away the cost of lodging if you don’t mind getting an early start. They typically take place at private facilities rather than closed public roads. Stages are no more than 2.5 miles long, and typically only use a single road, repeated several times. There are exceptions, like the Team O’Neil RallySprints, which use minor variations of their rally school’s network of roads to spice things up a bit. Top speeds are typically lower than full on stage rally as well.

Still, fully prepared competition cars and all of the safety equipment is still required, which means it’s still not the cheapest thing to get into. There’s little provision for spectators, but marshals are still required. In fact, RallySprints are an excellent place to start volunteering. The ones I’ve attended are a bit more laid back than stage rallies. I’ve seen the start and finish volunteers switch places during the lunch break, for no reason other than to give them experience in both positions. If you have a newly minted ham radio license, you can learn the ropes of the radio net. Experienced operators will run the start and finish, giving you the chance to participate in the net and hear how the old pros do it. You can even listen to the net on a scanner if you want. No license is required to listen, only to transmit.

If wrenching is more your thing, you can do that here, too. Since the stages are shorter there’s generally less potential for damage, but never say never – things can happen. If repairs are necessary, your team will be happy to have you there. It’s still a good place to practice for routine service, and to see how the process will work in a rally service area. There are no timed service stops and it’s legal to work on the car at any time, but you will want to make the best repairs you can before the car is due up for its next run.


Rally car co-driver seat

Rally is unique in that there is a second person in the car – the co-driver. This is the person who reads the stage notes, navigates the transits, runs the rally computer, handles time cards, and helps keep the driver focused. It’s not the same as steering and gassing through the woods yourself, but the co-driver’s job is just as important as the driver’s (that’s why they’re no longer simply called “navigators”). Co-driving is a way to get a seat in a rally car without actually having to buy and maintain one yourself, which can save you a lot of money on your rally dreams.

The one thing you can NOT skimp on is safety equipment. That means a fireproof racing suit, helmet, and HANS device that meets or exceeds sanctioning body standards. This stuff isn’t cheap, but it will save your hide when – not if – you crash. I know people who have asked around and borrowed this equipment from people roughly their size to avoid this expense for their first rally. As long as it fits and is safe, that’s fine. But if you’re going to do this regularly, you’re going to want to get your own.

You’ll also need to be the organized one. Clipboards, pencils, pens, Post-It notes – there are all kinds of tools to help keep yourself, and therefore the team, organized during the rally. Different teams handle the exact division of labor and investment different ways. Some drivers may have you pay your own entry fee and handle everything else themselves. Others may want to have the co-driver work out all of the logistics, including getting all of the people and equipment to, around, and from the rally. Some may want a more significant monetary contribution from a co-driver as well. Because of that, I can’t tell you exactly how much being a co-driver will cost. It depends on who you team up with and what their expectations are. Settle this early so that you don’t find yourself in over your head and owing more than you expected.

But don’t let this scare you off from co-driving, either. It’s far less expensive than owning and operating your own car. Some people are really good at all the tricky, techy fiddly bits that go along with co-driving, while others are better at living Team O’Neil’s mantra of “blah, blah, blah, ACCELERATE!” Quite a few people actually prefer co-driving to driving a rally car themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.


Wanna-be rally driver
Photo credit: Jesse Lewis

The closest I’ve ever come to driving a rally car is a few slow loops around a parking lot. Building a rally car, maintaining it, and entering rallies is not cheap. But it’s cheaper than you may think, and you certainly don’t need to buy Ken Block’s old car for $250,000 to do it.

Everything I said about safety equipment for the co-driver applies to the driver as well. And I’ll say it again – don’t cheap out on your safety!

A rally car, on the other hand, can actually be somewhat affordable. While it can be fun to take your daily driver, cage it, and convert it into a rally car, it’s far more cost effective to buy an existing rally car. Subarus are quite common, of course, but if you’re not too picky you can find some deals on unusual cars – for instance, this 1997 Ford Aspire for $4,500 including 12 wheels and tires that sold very quickly. If you’d prefer something a little more common, how about a 1997 Dodge Neon ACR for $6,500? I see a few Subarus available in the $6,000-$10,000 range. Some of these deals include spare parts and even trailers at times. Make sure it already has a logbook, which means it’s already approved for competition by either Rally America or NASA Rally Sport. Both organizations accept each other’s logbooks, so you can run with either or both of them regardless of who issued the logbook. And this way, you don’t have to go through the potential hassle of fixing a roll cage that somebody else built wrong.

Another option is to rent a rally car. Some teams and organizations are willing to let you use their cars for a fraction of what buying one would cost. This won’t be cost effective in the long term, but to give rally a try for the first time, or for a one time “bucket list” shot, renting might be the way to go to get on stage more quickly. Again, make sure you understand what the deal is and what you’re expected to pay for before you commit. It’s common, and fair, to be expected to pay for any tires you use up, as well as any damage the car takes while you’re behind the wheel.

As with any event, there are entry fees to think about. Specifics vary from one event to another, but expect around $600-800 for a NASA Rally Sport event, and $800-1,500 for a national Rally America event. Rally America gives you the option of saving a few bucks by entering a regional one day event that usually piggybacks one day of the national event, but the costs of transporting and housing the car and crew are pretty much the same whether you do one day or two, so it isn’t really much of a savings in the end.

You can also start with events like RallySprint, which keep the costs down to a single day and significantly less expense than a full rally event. RallyCross can also be a good shakedown for a fully prepped rally car, and gives you a chance to push the limits and get a feel for it in a consequence free environment. You can also give your co-driver a chance behind the wheel if you’re so inclined.

Now How Much Would You Pay?

Beginning of a rally stage

There are some universal expenses, no matter how you participate. There’s always the expense of getting yourself to or from the rally. I’m fortunate enough to have three events (the New England Forest Rally, Black River Stages, and the Empire State Performance Rally) within five hours of me, as well as an active RallyCross and RallySprint program in the New England Region SCCA. For events longer than one day, lodging can cost some money, but some NASA Rally Sport events offer free camping or cabins for volunteers. If you do have to pay for your own lodging and are willing to camp, that’ll save a good chunk of change for other important expenses like gas and beer. (If you don’t drink, you’ll save even more money, but your car is a gas addict who can’t quit.) In theory I could park Project MJ anywhere and sleep in the back, thanks to the cap and the seven foot bed. If you have a truck, SUV, or minivan, you might do the same. Bringing your own food and drink is cheaper than eating out, plus you’re going to want such provisions anyway if you’re out on a stage or a remote RallyCross site all day.

People talk about the “rally family,” and although it may sound a little cheesy, it’s really true. It doesn’t matter if you’re the reigning national champion, a member of a service crew, or a stage marshal – you’re in the family. We look out for each other, and help each other out where needed. As a volunteer, I’ve even had free lodging provided for me by teams (thanks, USUK Racing and DoublePlus Racing) who just wanted to help out. As the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a beneficiary way.

Really, if you’re a rally fan, the only reason not to go out to a rally yourself in some capacity is if there simply isn’t an event near you.

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