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.