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.

After watching a few cars come through, I begin to get a sense of who’s fast and who’s not. Essentially, if a driver looks like he’s in control, he’s probably not going fast enough. If he looks like he’s about to spin his car off the road on every single corner, he’s probably contending for the lead.

For anyone used to the constant sensory bombardment of the IRL, Formula 1, or NASCAR, climbing a mountain to see one car whiz past every two minutes might sound hardly worth the effort. But with rallying, race fatigue never sets in. Your attention is focused only for a few seconds at a time, and whenever you hear a car approaching, it’s cause for excitement and anticipation. Over the course of the next few days, I see cars take a 100-mph corner with two wheels on the pavement, two wheels on the dirt, and skid plates showering sparks the whole way through. I see Subaru’s Petter Solberg hit a midcorner bump so hard that he almost goes airborne, requiring a big correction and eliciting a collective gasp–followed by a huge cheer–from the crowd. From my perch in the tree, I see Ford driver Antony Warmbold hit a patch of gravel scattered onto the inside of the corner by the previous car, sending his Focus RS into an opposite-lock oversteer slide toward those vulnerable grandstands. He gathers it up with a mad dose of throttle and powers out of the turn with all four tires putting down skid marks on the pavement. That sort of thing just doesn’t get old.

And even if it did, the actual racing is only a fraction of the total rally experience. When the WRC descends upon a town, you’re ever aware of its presence. You see the drivers out at restaurants at night. Throughout the weekend, you can wander the pits, sometimes catching mechanics frantically straightening crinkled bodywork and replacing broken parts. And my favorite random aspect of rallying is the transit stages–rally cars are not trailered to and from the race routes, they’re driven, in traffic. All of the cars wear license plates, and it’s not uncommon to be returning from a stage and see, say, Sbastien Loeb roll up next to you at a stoplight in his Citron. In every other form of racing, the drivers are Down There, on a track, racing alien machines in an alien environment. In rallying, you might literally run into your favorite driver on your way back to the hotel. Accessibility doesn’t get much better than that.

And maybe I’m a little bit sick, but I’m fascinated by the abuse inflicted on rally cars over the course of an event. Walking around the pits, you see crews fixing cars that appear unfixable. Even on a tarmac race like this one, a rally car can be expected to endure regular trips to its bump stops, tire-smoking e-brake turns, and the most diabolical high-speed cornering technique yet devised: dropping the inside wheels off the shoulder of the road and hooking the sidewalls on the edge of the tarmac. (For this reason, I’m told, rally tires are bead-locked on the inside of the rim to keep the rubber from peeling straight off during this maneuver.) And the damage to the cars . . . oh, the damage.

In most forms of motorsport, getting into a fender bender and continuing the race is considered a bold act of perseverance. Oh, your F1 car bwoke its wittle wingy-wingy and you kept wacing? You’re so tough! In rallies, you’re expected to keep driving even if you don’t have the correct number of wheels remaining on your car. On day two, for instance, Solberg overcooked a corner and smacked the passenger-side rear wheel on a rock, snapping his brake rotor and locking the wheel. Undaunted, he kept driving, his three active wheels dragging the crippled corner along in a cloud of blue smoke. Back in the Subaru pits, I ask a mechanic how long Solberg drove in this condition, and he casually replies, “About five kilometers.” The magnesium BBS wheel in question sits nearby–or at least, about 75 percent of it does. The rest has been converted into a three-mile skid mark on a Spanish B road. Do I even need to say how awesome that is?

Solberg’s teammate, former F1 driver Stephane Sarrazin, one-ups him by going off into a field, which is promptly ignited by the hot exhaust, creating a special Impreza WRC Cajun Style. As Solberg later dryly observed, “He did a burnout properly–there was nothing left.”

I’ve always considered the World Rally Championship a quintessentially European pursuit, like soccer or not showering, but now I’m of a different mind. Think about it: Be-neath the veneer of foreignness (What’s a Citron Xsara? Who the hell is Sven Smeet?) lie qualities that are near and dear to the American heart. Rallying involves camping, drinking beer in the woods, and watching four-wheel-drive vehicles rip past wicked fast. As sophisticated as a rally car is, the rally experience is brilliantly basic. At the end of the last stage of the Catalunya rally, someone asked me what I did that day, and I replied, truthfully, “I sat on a rock and watched cars drive past at high speed.”

I’ll be keenly interested in how rallying is received at the X-Games, because I’d love to see this work here, with a Yankee twist. Imagine muscle cars set up for rallying–Ford Mustangs, Pontiac GTOs, and Dodge Chargers, looking mostly stock, pitching sideways on dirt roads while the roar of barely muffled V-8s echoes throughout the forest, twin cascades of gravel shooting from beneath locked differentials, gloriously executed power oversteer ratcheting the crowd into a frenzy. I’d like to thank Maya Angelou for writing that last sentence. And I’d like to thank the Dukes of Hazzard franchise for proving the business case for rear-wheel-drive V-8 dirt-road hooliganism.

Even if you’re really wearing a Thomas Pink shirt underneath your Carhartt jacket, the au courant thing to be is a hick. Every Bubba wants to be a more gooder old boy than the next, and what’s more down-home than driving real fast on public dirt roads? Not only that, but rally cars clearly are related to ones you can buy at the actual dealership. NASCAR, with its fancy-pants tube-frame racing cars and insistence on “pavement” and “tracks,” looks like a bourgeois sport for the liberal elite by comparison. I dream of a United States where, instead of packing into grandstands and parking lots, fans of America’s most popular motorsport pack their tents in their pickups and drive out to their favorite hollers to watch the real best drivers in the world do their thing.