Andrew Comrie-Picard is helping his crew top off the tank of his race car, a 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer painted in bold diagonals of red and white and splattered with sponsorship decals. "Canadians are often experts at rallying," he shouts over his shoulder, and I don't have time to question his statement because the Alberta-born race car driver can only offer a friendly handshake full of steering wheel calluses and engine grease before heading off to respond to a crew member's frantic query. It's a brutally cold Friday in late January, but Comrie-Picard has a tan.
I'm in Lewiston, about four hours north of Detroit via I-75 and M-32. And, like Comrie-Picard and his support team, I'm gearing up for the 2007 Sno*Drift Performance Rally. Each year it features production-line cars racing on closed county roads in Lewiston and the neighboring towns of Atlanta and Hillman, competing for the best overall time through a series of timed stages. I look at my boots and decide that, if the roads these guys are racing on look anything like the crusted white snowpack beneath my feet, it's going to be a long couple of days. Welcome to the Sno*Drift rally. It's about the competition, sure. But in conditions like these, it's a victory just to finish.
The Lancer isn't much different from what sits between the lines in your average supermarket parking lot. Well, except for the paint job, the expanse of a spoiler across the back and a light rig bulging from the center of its hood. Oh, yeah, and the roll cage that muscles its way around an interior compartment featuring little more than bucket seats and bare steel. The Lancer's street legit, but it's been refitted to withstand a treacherous beating.
Comrie-Picard's crew, mostly young men dressed like snowboarders, call him "ACP," and it's an appropriately cool nickname for a guy who does everything with the rakish confidence unique to those in cocky professions fighter pilot, lead guitar player, pro surfer, race car driver. The car's pre-race prep session continues as ACP takes me inside his team's mobile HQ. It's a glorified RV with an equipment and vehicle trailer that matches its enormous length; the quaint log cabin-style motel-bar combo across the windswept street looks sullen in comparison. These guys are pros. ACP shares a few laughs with his crew chief as he rummages through a duffel in search of a business card. He finds one, hands it over.
Andrew Comrie-Picard, it reads. Rally Driver, TV host.
Start your engines
Comrie-Picard is a professional rally driver with sponsorship, confidence and a winning tan. In fact, he won the 2006 running of Sno*Drift, and last summer he competed in rally racing's inaugural appearance at the X Games, ESPN's annual extreme sports extravaganza, alongside other nationally ranked drivers such as Ken Block and Travis Pastrana. (The 24-year-old Pastrana, widely regarded as the hip, new face of the sport, migrated to rally from motocross in 2003 and promptly began to kick ass.)
ACP has some competition here at Sno*Drift. Pastrana and Block are in Lewiston for the race too they drive for Subaru Rally Team USA, and on this cold afternoon their support crew has built a compound of Subaru-branded trucks and tents at one end of Kneeland Street, the town's main drag.
All 50-plus of the cars entered in Sno*Drift are lined up in the center of the street; they're participating in what's called the "parc exposé," a period before racing begins that allows for final mechanical tweaks, but also some community between the drive teams and the fans. The professional, nationally ranked drivers will pull out first when the race begins; ACP's Lancer is here, as are the gleaming blue Imprezas of the Subaru team. But not all the drivers at Sno*Drift are competing for points, national rankings or the action-sports glory of an X Games victory. In fact, most of the registered rally racers an entry list that includes men and women, and more than a few Michigan-based drivers have a more basic goal.
They race simply to finish.
"We don't come out here to win anything," Adam Boullion says. Boullion's royal-blue Ford Focus is parked midway down the line of Sno*Drift competitors, near an aging but proud Volkswagen GTI ("Best car to learn rally in!" swears its driver); the charmingly battered teal VW Jetta of Miles Bothee, a driver from the Grand Rapids area; and, of course, an assortment of Subarus. There's even an ancient Porsche 911 in the field, driven by Ray Foulkrod of Plymouth. Purple smoke coughs from the idling Porsche's perfectly pear-shaped back end.
Like many rally drivers not named Comrie-Picard or Pastrana, Boullion isn't sponsored. Besides some donations from motor sports companies, his race operation is financed out of his own pocket. (Bouillion's budget for racing rally in 2007 is about $7,000. "That's why it's so important not to wreck the car," he adds.) He doesn't even expect to compete directly with guys like ACP or Pastrana. They're all racing against the same clock, but the stakes differ considerably between the high-performance "open" class of the pro drivers and "group 2," which is designed for local (and more cost-sensitive) drivers. And yet, Boullion is still an equal partner in the overall experience of rally. He represents the side of the sport that's still welcome to refit a production vehicle and compete alongside the best in the business, a tradition that recalls rally racing's 100-year history as a wild and woolly overland test with few rules, less financial incentive and few victory speeches.
Let's see you drive a modified street ride out onto Turn Four at Michigan International Speedway and ask to join the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series.
"It's more of a group effort than a race, and that probably evolved from rally's roots as an endurance sport," Bouillion says. "Initially, rally was 500 or 600 miles, and there were no sponsors or anyone like that involved."
Boullion, a Livonia resident and financial analyst at Ford, is joined in the Focus by his brother Philip, his co-driver (or "navigator"), who sits in the passenger seat and barks instructions on how to navigate upcoming portions of the race course. Consulting the notations in his route book, Philip commands Adam to correct left, say, or adjust his speed to better handle a certain turn.
In some forms of rally, maintaining a designated average speed figures into the scoring. But Sno*Drift is more a "performance" rally, in which there are no set speed limits, and that makes the co-driver's job even more important. Philip runs his family's tractor dealership in Dexter during the week. But on the rally course, he's an extension of Adam's brain and decision-making process, his brother's partner in their quest to finish the race unscathed. They still take a physical beating bumps, bruises and achy bones and the car often bears its own scars after a race. But it's rewarding.
"We're racing for pride," Adam says, "but it's a huge stress reliever too. When you're out there driving, you're not thinking about anything else in the world."
As we talk, the Bouillions are doing the same thing as all the drivers around us, making last-minute alterations to their car, tweaking light rigs the bulging, bolted-on aftermarket lamps are an absolute must for night-driving stages and checking with their crew (which includes Adam's wife) to finalize their location and plan for "service," which is essentially rally's version of a pit stop. Every few minutes the bleating signature of a revving rally car engine slices through the chilly air.
I tell Adam and Philip about my run-in with ACP, and ask them about the relationship between the national and local drivers.
"There's a lot of camaraderie," Adam says. "There aren't any barriers between you and anyone in this sport, so even though there are some people with notoriety nowadays, it's still a group of people together in a sport."
He stoops to show me the tow rope protruding from beneath the Focus's back bumper. Wipeouts ("going off" in the language of the sport) are frequent in rally, but so is the sense of community on the course.
"The majority of these people are out here on their own dime, and have no financial incentive to win," Bouillion says, tugging on the tow rope. "But they realize, 'If I can help this guy out of a ditch to keep going, he's going to get a lot more bang for his buck.' I go off in two miles, and my rally's done. That sucks. But if we see somebody off and we can pull them out, we'll pull them out, and vice versa."
The Bouillions point out that rally's community atmosphere extends to its fans.
"It's not gotten so bad that the spectator is separate from the competitor," Adam says. "You stand in the middle of the race, instead of 50 rows up."
Rally has always appealed to car club aficionados, gearheads who swear that rally drivers are the best racers in motor sports and will cite facts, figures and history to back up their claims. But with the arrival of names like Pastrana and Block to the sport, it has also drawn in the action sports fan, the would-be thrill-seeker who loves rally's unpredictability, room for creativity and ever-present danger level.
On Kneeland Street, locals and fans are thronging through the array of cars before the race, chatting with drive teams clad in their fire-retardant NOMEX hoods and racing coveralls crisscrossed with bright swaths of color. Five men on snowmobiles sit stoically on their sleds, taking it all in. People are crawling under the cars, and bundled-up little kids are scurrying around and peering into engine compartments. It's like a parade at rest, brimming with kinetic energy on pause.
While competitors like the Boullions might not expect to win Sno*Drift, they know that the volatile combination of skill and preparation the race demands of every participant means that anything can happen.
"I brake way before the turn," Adam says of his driving style. "It's not the fastest way to go, but you're a lot less likely to go off the road. And usually there are big snow banks here, which you'd bounce off. But that's not going to happen today. I expect you'll see a lot of people off the road."
The race is on
There's more than one bar up north with a sign out front gloating happily over the watering hole's inaccessibility. Something like "Located at the center of the middle of nowhere!" or a banner welcoming elk hunters. Atlanta is actually the elk capital of Michigan, according to the billboard painted on the side of a dilapidated barn on the way into town, and at 10:17 Saturday morning, Sno*Drift's official log warns drivers to use caution on Stage 10, where a large herd of elk has been spotted.
Snow, ice, single-digit conditions, underused roads and herds of wild animals. And that's just for the race. Actually watching Sno*Drift is nearly as much of a challenge, as taking in the action involves navigating rutted, snow-crusted two-tracks to spectator areas set up at specific areas along the winding, lengthy course.
By Saturday afternoon, a few racers have dropped out due either to car trouble, crashes or both. (There are no reported elk collisions.) Fortunately, however, most of the field is intact. I follow a rural route off M-32 for about 10 miles until it dead-ends in a cul-de-sac crowded with the vehicles of other spectators. The ever-present Subaru fan convoy is here, their blue and silver Imprezas mixed in with SUVs and a smattering of aging Audis and Volvos. In keeping with the sport's cult following, most of the vehicles sport bumper or window stickers promoting rally.
I'm hiking toward the tree line a few minutes later when I hear it, a high-pitched bleat followed by the grinding of brake rotors. This isn't the obnoxious, fumy bray of the snowmobiles, though that sound is common out here too. That whining engine, under tremendous strain, is clearly tuned for high performance.
The trees thin and there it is, the junction of two county roads cordoned off with emergency tape. All that's left of the race car I heard is a muffled echo, but about 100 fans still line the yellow tape, and rally marshals stand ready to direct traffic or report problems. Everyone is waiting for the next car.
Five or six racers eventually tear through the spectator area, and every time a Team Subaru car appears, a pocket of fans erupts with croaking cowbells, waving a flag bearing the company's Pleiades cluster logo. Each drive team handles the sharp turn differently. Comrie-Picard drifts his Lancer through at a graceful angle and accelerates smoothly up the hill, and later Adam and Philip Boullion push through steadily in their Focus.
There's a sense of anticipation in the air, even during the downtime between car appearances. But suddenly there's a squawk on the marshal's radio. (It's so cold out here, I half expect to see the breath of the person on the other end spilling out of the speaker.) There's been an incident with a group of snowmobilers out on the course, obstructing the path of the lead drivers, and the rally stage we're at has been closed to competition. There's plenty of griping about meddling snowmobilers as the rally fans trudge through the snow back to a makeshift parking lot, but soon everyone is rumbling over the rural route, heading to the next competition stage. Watching rally is like traveling to a series of middles of nowhere.
Beer trees & banquet halls
I'd heard Sno*Drift described as having a small town atmosphere. Well, ahead of me lies the largest viewing area I've seen all weekend, and it looks like its own small town. Fans stacked four rows deep surround the severe horseshoe curve of another county road turnout, inches from the course's snowpack and restrained by little more than common sense and the plastic ESPN 2 banners that ripple in the brisk wind. There's also a steep grade in the direction of travel if one of the drivers loses control, this could resemble Pamplona, only with Subarus.
Two guys in rusty brown Carhartts are decorating a low-lying shrub near the course with empty cans of Busch when an agitated squeal breaks out over the murmur of the pleasantly soused crowd. Lauchlin O'Sullivan's crests the hill at speed and decelerates consistently before he guns his nimble Subaru out of the horseshoe's final turn and disappears around the bend. It's a fancy bit of driving, and the beer tree shudders as the crowd roars its approval.
Later that evening, there's a banquet to congratulate the Sno*Drift winners and thank its throng of volunteers. The parking lot at the Hillman Community Center is a motley mix of regular folks' cars and rally vehicles fresh from the course; there's even a line of snowmobiles along one side.
I run into Miles Bothee, the driver of the battered old Jetta. I remembered seeing him race in a stage late Friday when he took a turn hard and sent an enormous spume of snow and mud arcing over the spectator area. I'd lost track of his VW after that. As it turns out, he and his team had a series of mishaps, including shoddy tires ("we ran the first three stages with snow tires in the front and crappy touring tires in the back") and loss of second gear. The Jetta eventually died in the borrowed garage of a local man late Friday night as Bothee and his team tried desperately to remove and fix its ailing transmission.
"We got there and started taking out the transmission," he says, "but we ran into a problem. On VWs, the axles are held onto the transmission by 14 12-sided Allen screws. We didn't have a tool, but we got a grinder and ground a flat head into the bolts, then used a crowbar and vice grips to get the bolts out. It worked until the grinder wheel wore out with only four bolts left to go."
Bothee's disappointed that he wasn't able to finish the race. But as he excitedly recounts the transmission fiasco, it's clear that he's at Sno*Drift for the entire challenge of it, from the preparation to the racing and the troubleshooting that follows. He'll be back next year.
The interior of the community center is a happily chaotic mixture of bake sale, pizza party, open bar enthusiasm and the exhilaration of having finished the race in one piece. The local Sno*Drift organizer gives a speech, thanking the drivers and volunteers, but also wagging his finger at the snowmobile incident that had shut down the earlier 25-mile stage. Travis Pastrana and his co-driver Christian Edstrom are declared champions of Sno*Drift 2007, posting an overall time of 1:53:44.3, and Pastrana's friendly, funny speech probably makes the Rally America officials present at the banquet weep tears of joy shaped like dollar signs. With ESPN 2 calling Rally America recently signed a three-year television deal with the network and a crop of talented front-runners like Pastrana and Comrie-Picard (who finished fifth, barely a minute behind the leader), greater exposure and interest in the sport seem imminent.
The Bouillons are seated at a table just a few feet from Pastrana and his crew, enjoying some pizza. The top of Adam's race coverall is unzipped and draped around his hips.
"Phil and I were pleased with our performance," Adam says. (They came in 26th overall with a time of 2:20:33.2.) "We would have liked to run a little faster today. But we're doing this for fun, and as long as we had fun, the weekend was well worth it."
Besides, he adds, "it's more important to simply finish with an intact car than worry about being first." I bet Miles Bothee would agree with him.
I wonder where rally's increasing national exposure (and the lucrative sponsorships and television deals that go with it) leaves the locally based and self-financed racers, the drivers like the Bouillion brothers and Bothee who give rally its roughhouse, seat-of-the-pants charm.
Bouillion, for his part, is confident that he'll still be able to race rally unsponsored and on a tight budget.
"I don't worry too much about the money taking over rally in the classes that get less exposure," he says, "though it's already happening in 'open class,' where Subaru is so far ahead of everyone else that it's impossible to compete without a huge budget."
Sure, the world-class drivers at the top of the heap are a thrill to watch, and they've proven over the Sno*Drift weekend to be as accessible and friendly as anyone. But as the dollar amounts driving sports in America cycle ever upward, I still think the smaller guys could be forced out. Let's hope that doesn't happen. Rally's charm lies in its accessibility and sense of community, even when it's in the middle of nowhere.
Ruf Road Motor Sports Press Release
More information about Adam and Philip Bouillion's E85 ethanol-powered Ford Focus.
Their Web site: www.rufroadmotorsports.comJohnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]