The Adrenalist

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Rally Racing Starter Guide



Racetracks. Who needs ‘em? Not rally drivers, that’s for sure, and they’re darn proud of it. Today, we tip our hats to a special group of Adrenalists who believe high-octane auto racing should take place anywhere but on a circuit. And as a bonus, we’ll give those of you looking for a new pastime a rally racing starter guide.

History of Rally Racing

Officially kicking off in 1894 with France’s Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux, or Horseless Carriage Competition, rally racing gained early prominence throughout Europe over the course of the 20th century as a past time that showcased drivers’ skills and automotive manufacturers’ mechanical prowess. Though different countries boasted different permutations, the general set of rules were simple: he who completes the race in the fastest time wins. But unlike events housed on a set track, rally drivers were limited only by control points (like checkpoints) they needed to cross during their journeys, leaving considerable room for creative maneuvering. As is the case today, races could be held on any type of roadway–public, private, smooth or gravelly, sandy or snowy–and drivers were accompanied by co-pilots who helped them navigate demanding terrain at high speeds. As rallying evolved, so to did the length and intensity of the courses.

Race Types

There are two types of rally racing events: stage rallies and road rallies.

Stage Rallies: Since the 1960s, stage rallies have been the standard professional rally event. They always take place on private roads, closed to non-competition traffic, and test drivers by subjecting them and their vehicles to especially challenging terrain, from ice to brush-ridden forest floor tracks. In stage rallies, the emphasis is on raw speed.

Road Rallies: Road rallies are usually amateur events held on public roadways open to normal traffic. Though road drivers are not asked to conquer harrowing terrain, they’re often faced with any combination of navigation, timekeeping or problem-solving tests depending upon the specific event in which they’re enrolled. Participating in road rallies can be likened to orienteering with cool, fast cars. Strategy rather than speed is usually the prime success factor here.

In both types of races, drivers’ “co-drivers”  offer “pacenotes” or navigational tips about forthcoming terrain, including turns and jumps. Sometimes driver/co-driver teams are allowed to run a course before the race begins and create their own pacenotes in a process called reconnaissance or “recce”. Sometimes pacenotes called “route notes” or “stage notes” are provided to teams. It all depends upon the event.

Getting Started

If you think you’d like to try your hand at rallying, there are a few important things you need to know before entering your first race.

Most important, and most expensive, is the small issue of actually buying a rally car. No one’s going to give one to you, so if you don’t have some spare cash on hand, and you’re unwilling to outfit your current commuter mobile with some significant upgrades, you’d better start saving. Though rally vehicles don’t have to be expensive, they do need to be able to take a beating. That means they must have all-terrain tires, all wheel drive, a higher-than-normal suspension and a roll cage in case you flip. Spoilers are always a nice touch, too. To get started, search sites like to get a sense for what kinds of cars are out there and what parts they need. When you’re ready to either buy a ride or modify one you have, visit a local rally track to ask for recommendations on retailers,  mechanics and body shops in your area.

Once you’ve snagged a ride, you’ll need to learn how to drive it. Rally racing is way different than driving to your local 711 to pick up a gallon of milk and you’ll need to be trained to handle different environments and road surfaces. Luckily, performance driving courses only last 1-2 days on average and are pretty affordable. Visit a site like to find one near you and sign up.

Finding a racing partner to help you navigate will be essential, as will hiring a crew you trust to service and repair your ride. Again, a visit to your local rally track should help in wrangling the proper personnel to fill these positions. Google will come in handy here.

Rallying is driving and all drivers need licenses. Unfortunately, your DMV issue won’t work. New racers will need to visit the NASA Rally Sport website and pony up $40 for a membership fee and $50 for a license. Both are payable annually to prevent expiration.

It should come as no surprise that the last item on your rally racer to-do list is actually signing up for some races, and though it may take you some time to work up to the World Rally Championship, the premiere event for rally racers everywhere, new drivers can search events by division and region by visiting NASA Rally Sport or the Sports Car Club of America.

And now, you’re off to the races! Just don’t forget your tenacity and a healthy sense of recklessness.

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