Get a front-row seat to the action from the eyes of a rally car race volunteer.
Between the game Gran Turismo and the early days of internet video, I discovered the World Rally Championship. They raced on real roads, not perfectly manicured race tracks, in all weather conditions. There were no rain delays like NASCAR. And these were real cars that you could buy and drive on the street, not open-wheel Formula cars or V8 rear-wheel-drive Toyota Camrys. This, to me, was real racing.
When I moved to Maine in 2004, I heard about what was then known as the Maine Forest Rally. It wasn’t the World Rally Championship, but it was part of the premier American rally series, and it took place only a couple of hours away from home. Spectating is fun, but events like this need volunteers to run them. Amongst the volunteers they needed were amateur radio operators to provide communications all along the rally stages. I’ve been licensed since I was a kid and had all my own mobile radio equipment already installed in my car. Now I was able to combine both my radio and car enthusiast hobbies to not only watch the rally, but actively participate in it. Since then it has expanded to run in New Hampshire as well, and the name has changed to the New England Forest Rally to reflect that.
How It Works
Rally competitors travel on open public roads (yes, these race cars are street legal) to several Special Stages throughout the weekend. Each Special Stage is a closed section of road where they drive from one end to the other as fast as they can. Competitors race the clock rather than each other, and start at one or two minute intervals so that they rarely even see each other on the road.
At the start, finish, and all up and down the Special Stage, marshalls and radio operators keep the road closed and watch the competitors’ progress. As each car starts, the start radio announces its car number and start time, which everyone else writes down. As the car passes each radio, the operator checks it off their list. When cars reach the finish, we know that they made it all the way through successfully.
It is almost never the case that everyone gets through the stage successfully. Cars get flat tires, broken suspension, or otherwise break down. Some may go off the road or crash spectacularly. By knowing where we last saw a car, we have a general idea where they ran into trouble. If they passed point C but not point D, we know they’re somewhere in between. Additionally, in a major emergency such as a fire or someone getting hurt, competitors can stop at a radio location to report the crash and get help.
Radio operators like me serve a vital function to ensure everyone’s safety. One beneficial side effect of this job is getting to drive down the rally stages — not nearly as fast as the racers do — and get a roadside seat to enjoy the show as cars zoom by at several times the usual posted speed limit. It’s the best seat in the house.
Setting the Stage
After a morning of volunteer meetings, I met up with my stage crew. The New England Forest Rally has four independent crews that run each Special Stage. Today, two crews would join forces to run the long South Arm and Icicle Brook stages. These are two versions of the same stage, run in opposite directions, with an extra loop on the way back to make it just over 16 miles long. This stage requires countless people to block intersections, run the start and finish, manage spectators, and provide communications.
An ongoing issue with this stage is a big hill between the start and finish that traditionally prevents them from hearing each other on the radio. For the past few years, my job has been to not only watch cars from the top of that hill, but also to relay communications between the start and finish. This job can get a bit hectic. In 2018, Ken Block crashed his Ford Escort Cosworth near the end of this stage and set the forest on fire. As you can imagine, my life as the relay radio at the top of the hill got a bit hectic.
Our team met up, then convoyed out to the road where we would run the stage. The radio operators left early, because we needed more time to set up our antennas. I actually ran two stations out of my van on two different frequencies. Fortunately, I had a friend to take care of one of them while I handled the other. We checked with others on the radio to make sure they could hear us, then had some time to ourselves while the competitors raced elsewhere. Even when they ran the South Arm stage, we wouldn’t see them because we were on the extra loop they added for the second run through. We still had to monitor and relay radio communications, though, because that was our job on the top of the hill. The course opening cars came through, official vehicles checking the road to make sure everything was safe and ready for competition. Eventually, around 4:00 PM, the Icicle Brook stage started.
Enjoying the Show
A few minutes later we started to hear the cars coming our way. Before long, this turned into a constant buzz of engine noise. Soon after that, Travis Pastrana, who was leading the rally at that point, drifted onto the straightaway leading up to us. He pitched the car left, then right to carry momentum and slide the car past us without losing much speed as he hammered down the next straightaway.
Others soon followed. Next was Ken Block of Gymkhana video fame, back in a Subaru instead of the Fords he’s driven for years. Then came Barry McKenna, who brought a fleet of rally-prepared Ford Fiestas, including a few prepared to World Rally Championship standards. David Higgins, a past winner who drove alongside Pastrana for the Subaru team for years, was driving one of McKenna’s WRC Fiestas. All in all, 81 competitors started the rally, and over 70 of them drove by in a high-speed parade of race cars.
As we went farther down the starting order, the cars got slower. This doesn’t mean they were any less fun, though. There was more variety in the types of cars people were racing, such as E30 BMWs, a Saab 900, a Subaru BRZ, and even a Datsun 280Z. I’ve worked enough rallies that I’ve gotten to know a lot of these people. Cheering for celebrity front runners is one thing, but to me it’s even more meaningful to cheer for Chris and Sara who I’ve known for years; or Kathy, a long-time volunteer who was competing for the first time ever; or Rob and Nate, who passed me with a flat tire and a no back bumper because it had fallen off earlier in the stage. We have a saying in rally: “Press on regardless.” They finished the stage, changed their flat tire, got their car fixed overnight, and proceeded to win their class.
Day turned into dusk, and finally the sweep team came through. This is a team of trucks and SUVs who follow the competitors through the entire event, assisting crashed and otherwise disabled cars. When the last sweep vehicle passes, the road is open once again, and we can pack up and leave. We did that with the last bit of setting sun, then made the long drive back to pavement. I drove back to my campsite, parked, and immediately rolled into bed. (That’s an advantage of living in a camper van.)
Starting the Finish
It was another early morning start, but instead of meetings, we started the 90-minute drive to the Morton Cutoff stage. Unlike the previous day, this was a short three-mile stage. We would run it twice, in the same direction with no changes. So once we set up, we were set for the day. This time I was the radio at the finish. I’d read back the car numbers and start times when the start radio announced them, as well as handle any other logistic communications needed between the start and finish. By the time race cars passed me they’d slowed to a crawl, stopping at the finish so other officials could fill out their time cards. There were no high-speed passes for me today, but that was okay. It was still an important job.
It was a fairly easy stage to set up, being so short. I started the day sitting under the tent where the other finish workers were, but I found that loud rally cars idling next to me made it difficult to hear the radio. I moved to my van, which was facing oncoming traffic and made it easy for me to read car numbers as they went by. The timing was tricky. The start announced the next car number at precisely the same time another car was driving past me, so I had to take notes on both cars at the same time. I managed, though. I’ve had years of practice running a finish radio, mainly at local SCCA RallySprints. Three cars crashed during this run, all of whom were accounted for with the drivers and co-drivers unhurt.
There were a few hours between the first and second runs through our stage. It was a long enough wait that they reopened the road to all traffic. Abe and Bonnie, the assistant stage captains running the finish, brought a grill and hot dogs for everyone, so the other workers temporarily abandoned their posts and came to the finish to eat. Food is important. We socialized for a while, then made our way back to work before the course opening cars started to come through again.
Meeting a Star
Barry McKenna, who was in the lead but had severe body damage when he came through the finish the first time, was out of the race, leaving Travis Pastrana in the lead and his former teammate David Higgins close behind. Start radioed that Pastrana had entered the stage. Not long after, point D, the radio operator where two competitors had crashed during the first run, told us that Pastrana had crashed just down the road from him, was out of the car, and running toward him. A minute later, point D reported that the wrecked car was partially blocking the road, and Pastrana had wanted competitors behind him (which was everyone) to know about it so they could avoid it. This guy had just put a Subaru on its roof, and his first thought was for the safety of others. That’s a true sportsman.
Pastrana’s crash handed Higgins the lead on a silver platter, with just one short stage to run after ours. He played it safe, kept the car on the road, and went on to win the rally, in a Ford instead of a Subaru as he had in the past. In fact, every competitor besides Pastrana made it through the second run of our stage without incident. This left the sweep team free to head straight to Pastrana’s crash and deal with it.
While we were waiting, someone from Subaru Motorsports came over and politely asked when we thought the road would be open so they could go pick up Pastrana’s wrecked car. During this conversation, sweep rolled through the finish with the car back on its wheels with Pastrana steering. “I guess that answers that question,” he said. We packed up the finish, then a few of us went to check out the wrecked car.
Pastrana himself was just hanging out and chatting with fans, and I joined them. He’s probably the most down-to-earth celebrity I’ve ever met. Talking with this superstar was exactly the same as talking with any of my other friends at the rally. Well, almost the same. I’ve never seen anyone so calm and cheerful after a crash. He was drinking a beer a fan gave him. (It’s not like he was driving anymore.) We talked about racing, a little bit about motorcycles since we both ride them, and the Climb to the Clouds race up Mount Washington two weeks later, where he hopes to defend if not smash his own record time up the mountain.
The rally concluded with a barbecue dinner, free for all volunteers, as well as the award ceremony. We’d all been running around all weekend, whether in rally cars, service trucks, or as volunteers like me. This is where we all finally get to mingle with each other. We’ve been calling ourselves the “rally family” since long before The Fast and the Furious made “family” a trope. As my stage captain, Jim, likes to say, “Work a rally once, make friends for life.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re a professional driver or some guy with a radio who will probably never compete. You’re there, and you’re in. As a result, I’ve gotten closer to this motorsport than I ever thought possible. I may never become a driver for Subaru Motorsports, but I’ve rubbed shoulders with them, and that’s pretty much the next best thing.
Recovering autocross and track day enthusiast. Once turned a VW Jetta into a pickup truck. Lives in a van down by the river. Dream car: 2001 Subaru WRC rally car.