2006 Rally Catalunya: Put on Your Rally Cap

Assigned seating was made for Europeans. This is what I'm thinking as I try to find a sightline to the hairpin turn high in the hills of Catalunya, somewhere west of Barcelona. While I'm seemingly in Bin Laden hideout country, large numbers of people have decided that this corner of this road is the destination of the year. They've camped out near it in tents and gotten up early and scouted out positions hard against a flimsy orange plastic fence bordering the road. Vendors line the access road, selling souvenirs, food, and beer. Latecomers are parked halfway down the mountain but compensate for their tardiness with finely honed sidling skills, which allow them to ooze in front of you before you even notice you've been line-cut. The cause of all this commotion is the World Rally Championship--specifically, the twenty or so race cars that are about to begin screaming through this turn, one by one, in pursuit of victory in the Catalunya-Costa Daurada rally.

All I know about the World Rally Championship is that I think the cars are cool--production-based compacts with 300-hp turbo fours, sequential gearboxes, and all-wheel drive--and that the drivers are borderline insane. Also, I love the concept of driving on real roads as fast as humanly possible. I might be more of a fan, but following the WRC isn't exactly easy for an American. The United States is conspicuously absent from the WRC's race schedule, and the NASCAR-owned Speed Channel tends to run its stingy WRC coverage in the wee hours of the morning. Only a few of the cars that race in the series are sold in the States. The addition of rallying to the 2006 Summer X-Games is great for U.S. exposure to the sport, but there are still many more people in America who could tell you the names of Brad and Angelina's children than can tell you what WRC stands for.

In Europe, however, the WRC is huge--as evidenced by the number of people vying to stand between me and the race. I'm here with a crew from Subaru, and even with the assistance of an experienced rally sherpa named Trevor (a sometime rally navigator), finding a clear sightline is a Sisyphean task. As soon as I angle into a spot, someone squeezes in front of me and I'm forced into a new position, where the same thing happens again.

The phrase "family tree" gains new meaning at a rally, where you may very well find an entire family occupying a tree, having a picnic on high. I scope out a small tree with a split in the trunk high enough that I can peer over the chain-smoking cretins in front of me, who have themselves erected a crude and dangerous-looking sawhorse viewing platform.

After a half hour spent hopping in and out of my tree, the chatter of the crowd is drowned out by a blaring siren. This is the pace car, of sorts, a yellow Seat with a bullhorn on the roof. It precedes the first rally car by about ten minutes and clips the apex with tires squealing--a little appetizer before the main course.

A few minutes later, I finally hear a fast-approaching sequential transmission banging down through the gears, and then a red Citron flashes into view, takes a road-racing line through the corner, and is gone. Immediately, I realize that I'm in the wrong spot for maximum excitement, as the people on the opposite side of the corner get a closer view of the action. On the other hand, I'm in a good spot for not getting run over by a rally car. After watching successive cars slide through the turn, it becomes evident that if a driver hits a seriously early apex here, his trajectory will take him off not at the end of the straightaway but at the corner exit. Which happens to be occupied by grandstands. Unlike in America, where you'd have to sign a stack of liability forms to place yourself in this type of peril, here there's an unwritten, tacit understanding between the drivers and the fans: We're going to give you a good show and take that corner as fast as we can. We might get a little sideways. We might also totally lose it and turn you into a hood ornament. We hope you're okay with that.

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