If you were the proud owner of a luxury convertible and you lived in the snowy Midwest, late January might seem like the perfect time to drive your droptop to Miami, Palm Springs, or some other sun-baked locale.
We gathered three all-wheel-drive ragtops -- one of the first 2013 Bentley Continental GTCs, an equally fresh 2012 BMW 650i xDrive convertible, and a gracefully aging 2012 Audi A5 Quattro cabriolet -- so we could drive them four hours north (yes, north) of Ann Arbor to Montmorency County, Michigan, site of Rally America's popular season-opening Sno*Drift race.
Winter tires? Check.
Winter attire? Check.
Heated leather seats? Check.
Crock-Pot full o' chili? Check.
On Friday morning, we pull our three convertibles out of the garage of our rented log home near Mio, Michigan, and lower their tops. If there's such a thing as a perfect winter day for driving a convertible with the top down, this is it. Barely a breeze wisps through the air, the temperature is 34 degrees, and the sun is already brightening the sky. Our many layers of winter gear and the convertibles' supercomfortable heated leather seats, permafrost-solid driving demeanors, and excellent top-down wind management mean that we can fully revel in the curvy, tree-lined country roads on the forty-five-minute drive northwest to Lewiston, where the Sno*Drift Rally will commence.
We pass the shores of East Twin Lake and drive into Lewiston, where sticker-covered rally cars are already noisily blatting through town. Rally America racers must drive on public roads, at posted speeds, to get from one competition stage to another, so they're all street-legal and plated. The Sno*Drift course, which includes 241 transit miles, is made up of twenty-four competition stages encompassing 132 miles and is conducted on gravel roads temporarily closed to regular traffic. The race cars we see are heading to or from the morning's practice stage, which is also where we're going. Fittingly, this stage is a public street called Winding Road.
We've arranged to get a ride in the co-driver's seat of rally veteran Henry Krolikowski's 2000 Subaru Impreza. Krolikowski's Impreza will compete in the top class, known as Open, reserved for highly modified cars that are usually all-wheel drive and turbocharged. (Several other classes pit stock-tuned, two-wheel-drive, and/or normally aspirated cars against one another.) According to the "speed factor," which predetermines cars' starting order in the rally, this is the seventeenth-quickest car in the field. The faster cars must be completely insane, because the 2900-pound, 300-hp Subaru surges away from the starting line with almost as much authority as the 567-hp Bentley would. Then Krolikowski tosses the Subaru sideways into a slippery curve at 65 mph, and I find myself looking over my right shoulder at the road ahead. Awesome. A very tight corner comes up quickly, allowing Krolikowski to show off his car's surprising braking ability, immediately followed by an impressive display of the Impreza's ultrashort gearing (the tachometer reads 3000 rpm at 55 mph in top -- fifth -- gear, and the car maxes out at about 105 mph). At this pace, unfortunately, it doesn't take long for the practice stage's three miles to disappear behind us, but my heart is still racing when I unbuckle my five-point harness and climb out of the tight Recaro racing seat.
While I was crammed into Krolikowski's noisy, gutted race car, rally organizers and drivers were chuckling at the sight of our convertibles sitting on the side of a snow-covered road with their tops down. The threesome of topless foreign exotics attracts even more attention in "downtown" Lewiston, where the Parc Expose car show, which doubles as the opening ceremony of the Sno*Drift race, is held on the main drag. A steady stream of rally cars turns onto the street and parks in formation. Their drivers hop out and amicably chat with anyone who approaches. Formula 1 fans would be amazed by the level of accessibility to both the drivers and the cars. Top seed (and eventual winner) David Higgins signs autographs and facetiously flexes his muscles for our photographer, while other drivers and co-drivers let children sit in their cars for photos that'll be framed for a lifetime.
Some kids get even better souvenirs. Deon Rice, who hasn't missed a Sno*Drift since the inaugural event in 1973, is at Parc Expose with his four young sons and his dad, Jerry. They don't watch from designated spectator areas, instead setting up their own stations along the course. Rally America asks fans to view the event from six designated spectator areas -- five of which have no admission fee -- but with 132 miles of competition roads, it's impossible for rally marshals to stop devoted fans from finding their own spots. "We hide behind trees and stand four feet away from cars going 80 mph," Deon reveals. "While we wait for the cars to come by, we target-shoot BB guns and twenty-twos." He recounts their experience in 2008, when racing superstar Travis Pastrana drilled a deer with just eleven miles remaining in the race, abruptly halting his chance for certain victory:
"When Pastrana hit the deer, we were on the stage waiting for him. We knew something was going on because he hadn't come through. After the wrecker went by with his car, we walked down the stage, found the deer, dragged it back to our campfire. I had a pocketknife, so I processed it right there."
"So, you took the deer home?" I ask.
"No, we ate it right then and there," Deon responds, clearly annoyed to hear such an ignorant question from a downstater. "Cooked it over the fire and went back to shootin' guns and watchin' race cars."
The Rice family also found Pastrana's carbon-fiber light bar -- basically four stadium lights mounted to his Subaru's hood to supplement the headlamps. "Later, we saw Pastrana's team in town," Deon says. "They really wanted that light bar, but we wanted to keep it as a souvenir. I finally ended up trading it for the front bumper of the car. Took it back to Sno*Drift the next year and Travis signed it for my sons. It's hanging on our living-room wall."