Sno*Drift Rally: cold day’s journey into night

  • A desolate sand pit near Atlanta, Michigan, is the site of a Super Special Stage (SSS), a segment of the race set up in the open for mass spectatorship – and photo ops. Photograph by Brad Dececco
  • The sticker that Matt Conte of St. Louis applies pre-race may look cool, but it doesn’t signify sponsorship. Conte and Ron Erickson keep their 1994 Subaru Legacy running on their own dime. Photograph by Brad Dececco
  • Erickson grabs the pace notes, which detail the course and, when read while racing, let Conte commit to blind corners at full throttle. Trust is key for the co-drivers, who have been friends since high school. Photograph by Brad Dececco
  • The charm of rallying lies in its diversity. Conte and Erickson, capable mechanics with jobs in engineering and IT, respectively, compete against professional teams with budgets the duo can only dream of. But Conte and Erickson’s battle-scarred Legacy is a Frankenmobile – a glorious low-budget hodgepodge of home-brew fixes and junkyard-acquired body parts. Photograph by Brad Dececco
  • Conte, suited up for the race, fastens on the Legacy’s skidplate hours before the rally starts. DIY repairs on the fly are both common and required. In one race, they went off the road doing 100 km/h, Erickson says. “The car was on its side in a ditch, with frontend damage; we fixed it and got back in the running.” Photograph by Brad Dececco
  • Rally’s lexicon, like that of many motorsports, is French. During the parc exposé at the Sno*Drift Rally, competitors park in downtown Lewiston, Michigan, and mingle with spectators before the day’s racing begins. Not surprisingly, given the sport’s quirky nature, rally has its aphorisms. Our favourite, overheard at the Michigan event: ‘If you can’t walk away smiling from a steaming, wrecked hunk of steel in the woods, then you shouldn’t be here.’ Photograph by Brad Dececco
  • With night approaching, the factory- sponsored 2012 Subaru Impreza WRX STI of English driver David Higgins takes a corner, four wheels scrabbling for traction on a mix of ice, snow and frozen muck. What the image can’t convey are the hoots of spectators on the ridge above (enthusiastic drinking goes on at the Sno*Drift Rally), the whistle of the Subaru’s turbo system, and the howl of a Michigan winter wind. Photograph by Brad Dececco
  • After sundown, fans trek far into the woods – reaching the outpost above demands nearly an hour’s drive – to cheer on the competitors. Spectating at Sno*Drift is almost as unusual and extreme as driving in the rally: in subzero temperatures people gather for hours, waiting for cars to pass. Bonfires, snowball fights, cowbell ringing and drunken singalongs are de rigueur, and so is running stop signs at high speeds on the race’s roads, most of which are closed to public traffic. Photograph by Brad Dececco
  • Sponsored teams, whose cars are superior to the majority in the field, routinely finish in the top spots. Higgins crossed the finish line first in his Subaru (centre), and Canadian Antoine L’Estage finished second in his Rockstar Energy Drink–backed 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X (left). Conte and Erickson posted a DNF (Did Not Finish) on the first day, due to a blown head gasket that required a midnight engine teardown. On day two they slid home in 19th place among 64 teams. Photograph by Brad Dececco
Date:1 February 2013 Tags:, , , , , ,

First run 40 years ago, Michigan’s Sno*Drift Rally is the greatest race you’ve never heard of: 48 hours of gruelling, kidney-jarring driving along 209 kilometres of roads in a godforsaken tundra, you know, just for the hell of it. By Sam Smith

At first blush, rallying is a pretty innocuous pastime. You buy a car. You install a roll cage and safety equipment, including a fire suit and a helmet. You find a friend to ride shotgun and navigate. You drive off into the woods – and then things get exceptionally weird.

Races start in the morning and last well into the night. They are staged in asphalt-melting heat or face-freezing cold. Lasting two or more days, they require driving flat-out on unfamiliar roads – many of them unpaved and rutted – guided only by your reflexes and the shouted instructions of a co-driver. Wrecks are common and can be severe: roadside hazards include 30-metre drop-offs, caravan-size boulders, and stout tree trunks. The course, more than 150 kilometres long, is completed at highway-travel speeds. If you are slow, you lose. If you kill your car and don’t make it home, you lose. And if you don’t have fun, you miss the point.

Now take all of this mayhem and stick it in a deep freeze in Atlanta, Michigan, 40 kilometres northeast of nowhere. This is the location of the Sno*Drift Rally, held for two days almost every January since 1973. Entrants range from supremely hot – and supremely expensive – Subaru’s and Mitsubishis to old bangers held together with duct tape.

At the 2012 event we were delighted to witness a gritty, snowcovered cross between a motorsport circus and non-stop spectator party. We took particular interest in Matt Conte, 25, an engineer for Boeing, and his co-driver, Ron Erickson, 24, a software developer for Maritz. They competed in a 1994 Subaru Legacy that they bought for a song online and got race-ready with their considerable mechanical skill. The car was capable, but the driving was still harrowing. It’s like ice-skating in street shoes, says Erickson, “except you’re wrapping out third gear in the middle of the forest, just begging for enough grip to make it around the next turn”.

Related video: Watch a video explaining the tyre tech used in races on ice such as the Sno* Drift Rally here.

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