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Thursday, June 21, 2007
Updated: November 7, 11:58 AM ET
Moto's Little Secret

By Bill Lockwood
EXPN.com

Fans look for cover as Block's Monster-powered Subaru crushes a rut.
America's most popular motorsport keeps fans penned up behind metal chain links. From the comfort of stadium seats, these speed freaks endure 200 laps, weekend-long barbeques and $8 beers. And whether it's Jeff, Kyle or Dale, NASCAR always wins.

Or does it? Sixty miles southwest of Seattle, rain-filled trenches flank a perfectly graded gravel logging road. Some might say spectating here is hazardous, and though access is difficult at best, a mile-long strip of cars parked bumper-to-bumper confirms it's worth the risk.

It's late May, and hundreds of fans line the Nahwatzel spectator point at the Olympus Rally, stop number four on this year's Rally America series. In seconds (or maybe minutes), Aussie Andrew Pinker and his co-driver Robbie Durant will hit 100 mph and flick their Jack Daniel's Subaru WRX STi into an acute right under heavy braking before accelerating full throttle through the next set of turns. Fans wait, some for hours, only to turn sideways to avoid heavy gravel spray.

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Spectating at a rally leaves you muddy if it's wet, dusty if it's dry, sunburned or frostbitten. Races run year round, and while the X Games is the most public venue, and the easiest to attend (if you're in LA), each of the twelve months hosts a Rally America national event, generally a couple hours from where you might live.

Fans push cars out of snowbanks or back on their wheels if they've gone over. They cruise the pits, shoot the shit with drivers and listen to crews who burn their arms during service (cars pit in for fuel, tires and even transmissions between stages).

"That's what's so cool about rally—it's accessible to people. Cutting into a 12-minute service, I'll tell a story about something that happened on the stage and because of it, people can relate to rally more," said 2006 US Rally champion and 12-time X Games medalist Travis Pastrana.

Matt Iorio balances a heavy foot and an overheating motor for 5th place at Olympus Rally.
Rally car racing's popularity has increased since its X Games debut last year. Over 60 teams entered this year's Olympus Rally, many of them hungry to earn enough points to qualify for this year's Games. "It's always great to have competition," explained Pastrana, "but this year you can't afford to let off at the beginning. You used to be able to go a little easy and then make up time if you needed to. Now you have to be in it from the start. And that doesn't always work out."

Like Pastrana, DC Shoes co-founder Ken Block (and co-driver Alex Gelsomino) has had some bad luck this season. The Team Subaru teammates still hold their number 2 and 3 spots—Block, then Pastrana, respectively—and are unquestionably fast, but so are Ramana Lagemann, Tanner Faust and series leader Andrew Pinker.

Paul Choiniere, Andrew Comrie-Picard, and Matt Iorio have had problems this year, too. Together they've gone through eight motors, seven bumpers, six driveshafts, stacks of brake rotors, two suspension uprights, two transmissions and a couple cars worth of fenders. "The ante's been upped. Everyone is pushing their equipment so much harder this year. It's brutal—but we're faster. The whole sport is faster," said Iorio after discovering that his fourth motor of the season was drinking coolant at the STPR rally in Pennsylvania last week.

Toro! Travis Pastrana and Christian Edstrom charge through the Asaph spectator point at STPR.
The rules for spectating at a rally are loose: don't get hit. Each spectator point is lined with a thin strip of caution tape to protect the curious fan from getting too close, as if 10-to-15 feet, and feeling the crackle of antilag bouncing off your chest, isn't close enough.

Initially, fan cultures collided. The novice DC, Burton and Volcom-clad shreds raised red flags for the sage rally fans of old. To the barnacles of the sport, a new, disparate fan base suggested the end of the rally way of life. But, as it turned out, the new, younger fans breathed much needed life into the races. They also tapped into the old guard for their crucial spectating needs. Ask any rally vet about the best place to experience their sport first hand and their eyes light up.

"Don't be gentle on the rental," Jerry Jasinowski, a tried and true rally fan and owner of White Peaks Rallisport on Vancouver Island told me before I drove my Enterprise Hyundai Accent into the history books as the dirtiest, stinkiest, most pounded rental car ever. I hit every pothole that weekend, but one exceptionally large rut not only knocked my head into the roof, but simultaneously spilled two energy drinks out off their cup holders and made the CD player skip for the rest of the weekend.

Watching a rally, like driving a rally, isn't about getting between destinations. It's about navigating backroads, reading maps, grappling for position, getting in, out and rushing to the next spot. Like a safari, you need to know how to stand next to the lions and not get mauled, and you need to know where to run to catch the next group ripping through the forest. And laggards beware—these big cats tend to sneak up on slow-moving prey.