Why you need to attend a rally car race

Rally Car Race Toyota
It’s scientifically impossible to take a bad photo of Mount Hood. Photo: Robert Pursell

Up until two weeks ago, I had never been to a rally car race.

To take it a step further, I had never even considered going to a race; much to the dismay of my father, I know literally nothing about cars beyond, “ooh, that looks cool” and “wow, that’s fast.” I (ignorantly) envisioned car races as consisting of a bunch of guys driving in one giant circle, while scores of drunken fans blindly cheered them on.

That all changed when I was invited by Toyota to Portland, Oregon two weekends ago to take in the Mount Hood Rally.

What followed was a weekend that could only be described as transformative: my entire opinion of the sport changed and I’m now preaching the Gospel.

With all that said, here’s why you need to get yourself to a rally car race:

They’re set in some of the most beautiful parts of America

Nothing against the beauty of a 2.5-mile long piece of circular asphalt, but I’m willing to bet that most rally car courses are slightly more scenic than the closest NASCAR track.

The race I went to took place in Mount Hood National Forest, set amongst the towering cedar trees and foggy weather that Oregon is so famous for.

Rally Car Race Toyota
The drive into Mount Hood included a quick stop at the Columbia River Gorge, which isn’t the worst sight in the world. Photo: Robert Pursell

It was, for all intents and purposes, a photographers dream.

Setting aside the fact that I am woefully inadequate when it comes to discussing the finer points of automobiles, the visual experience of being inside a national forest and having cars fly by me at 80 mph was astonishing.

And it wasn’t like Mount Hood was some outlier, just take a look at some of the other stops on the Rally America tour: Frazier Park, California; Cedar City, Utah; Prescott, Arizona.

You’re right on top of the action

One of the things that always turned me off to the thought of attending a race was that (again, ignorant) image in my head of thousands of people sitting on bleachers hundreds of yards away from a racetrack and watching cars drive endlessly in circles.

That isn’t the case with rally car events.

Rally Car Race Toyota
Rally car races let you actually feel like you’re a part of the action. Photo: Robert Pursell

We were right up on top of the course which, by the way, is insanely narrow. The cars are doing 80 mph down dirt roads slightly wider than a doorway and you’re standing a few feet off to the side of them.

This proximity has interesting side effects: I set up too close to one turn in the first stage of the race and was rained on by pebbles being kicked up from the tires of driver Ryan Millen’s car as he slid through a corner.

Rally Car Race Toyota
When racing on narrow roads beset on both sides by towering trees, the price for one small mistake is dire. Photo: Robert Pursell

While it might seem counterintuitive to think that getting covered in the dirt and grime being spit out by a rally car is fun, it’s a hell of a lot better story than, “I sat on a metal bench and watched cars drive in circles for three hours.”

The people you meet at the events are incredibly welcoming

Whereas other races might be harder to gain access to, meeting and speaking with the racers at a rally car race is surprisingly easy.

And, they don’t care if you know literally nothing about cars (like me!), they’ll be happy to explain everything you need to know about what they are doing, and why they are doing it.

Rally Car Race Toyota
Even though I can’t tell a crankshaft from a carburetor, Ryan Millen and his crew were more than happy to explain everything. Photo: Robert Pursell

I had Ryan Millen walk me through, step-by-step, all the adjustments he had made to his RAV4 to get it to run so smoothly on the dirt track, asking him to dumb down every adjustment to the most basic, foolproof explanation that I might be able to understand.

And while at the end of the day, I still won’t be able to impress anyone with my automobile knowledge (sorry dad), I got a crash course in how to operate a rally car without being talked down to.

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