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Voluntown Chronicles: Press on regardless, a stage rally story

It’s 2001, my birthday, and in my hands, my wife had placed a gift certificate for an auto-racing experience in Thompson called Racing Reality. All of our lives together, she had been hearing about my desire to race and she made it happen.

“You’re going racing!” she said.

I think, too, this may have been her solution for me to get this racing thing out of my system.

It didn’t take.

She was a dealer and I was a brand-new junkie whacked out on speed.

Following my racing adventure, I discovered Skip Barber Racing School, a road-course based school in Lime Rock Park, where Paul Newman used to race. I took a class there too, in open-wheel format.

Still not out of my system, I found the ultimate racing school in all of the known universe: Team O’Neil Rally School. Located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, snow-laden photos of rally cars flying through the woods jumped off the web page at me, and I might as well have been in Sweden. I was hooked instantly.

I must attend this school, I said to myself.

Right now.

Euro sports were always sort of my favorite, cycling, soccer, etc., and when I discovered rally in the early 1980s, that sealed the deal. By the time I hit driving age a few years later, I could barely afford my $500 first car, never mind a racecar.

So I made a call and before I knew it, I was sitting in a real rally car (I had never even seen a real rally car before) in the middle of the mountains. If I wasn’t a rally junkie yet, I was totally ready for rehab after the week-long class.

We learned the finer points of driving on gravel surfaces, using left-foot braking and something called the pendulum turn, or more colloquially, The Scandinavian Flick.

This particular maneuver goes against every natural driving instinct normal humans have and flicks the car around a corner using – you guessed it – a pendulum momentum at butt-puckering speeds. For the full story on my rally school experience, check out this page: slapdashracing.com/chatter.

That was 2004. The next summer, I was able to cover the Maine Forest Rally (now New England Forest Rally) for my then-newspaper. After seeing a real, live event, where the cars, drivers and co-drivers, were immediately accessible in something called Parc Exposé, I was so hooked I would have dumped my 401k to be able to become a part of this world.

On the five-hour drive home, I dreamed, but the dream had turned into scheming, prioritizing and otherwise turning my world on its ear to get into racing – somehow. I learned about something called autocross, a high-performance event where a driver pilots any car (racing or street) through a course of cones on a closed off parking lot. I hit Craigslist hard looking for a cheap car and came up with a list of VW Golfs and Jettas, like they used at Team O’Neil, and showed them to my wife.

“No,” she said. “You need something even cooler.”

So I showed her a classic BMW, the one I wanted in high school. “There you go,” she said. “Get that one.”

I almost renewed my vows on the spot.

So the search began anew and by late September of that same year, a 1988 BMW 325is sat in my driveway. The following April, I participated in my first-ever competitive automotive event, an SCCA-sanctioned autocross at Horseneck Beach, in Westport, Mass.

The next day, a friend of mine came over and we started taking the car apart. Then, after an exhaustive search for roll cage builders, I landed on Cage This, in Lynn, Mass. The owner, Bill Doyle, and I became fast friends, in part due to our both having the same car.

Eventually, he agreed to sponsor me and my efforts with Slapdash Racing (slapdashracing.com). Bill was thoroughly influential in getting me to my first-ever stage rally, the New England Forest Rally, the very one I covered as a newsie in 2011. After 25 years of dreaming, I finally found myself behind the wheel of my own rally car – even though I had to borrow the actual wheel (Thanks Bill!)

Way back in high school, in the heady days of the late 1980s, I sat on my couch one fine summer morning and saw a 30-second clip of a stage rally competition in Europe on ESPN. What the H is rally, I said. Was that an Audi with truck tires on it bombing through the woods at ludicrous speed?

That Lancia just crashed and the fans are rolling it back over, and the car is taking off again down the narrow lanes of Finland? Or cliff side in Monte Carlo?

More of this, please. More ... of ... this.

When you crash in rally, or have an ‘off’ or a ‘big moment,’ you are expected to keep going at all costs, whenever, wherever possible. Press on regardless, is the mantra.

There are more than a few pictures online of a dedicated co-driver operating the throttle from within the engine bay after the accelerator cable had snapped. Fans lined the course, which was on a regular road. Like, a real road. Just like the forest roads that course through Voluntown and Griswold, among others. And were those license plates on those racecars that looked like they literally rolled off the showroom lot?

Yes and yes.

Most people – and I would recommend this actually – take several years to build up their chops in autocross and rallycross before attempting a stage event. I went from autocross to full-on stage rally in two years, including the time it took to build the car. I only had three autocrosses under my belt before I went to Maine. Somehow I had it in my head that I was going to get hit by a bus before I ever made it to the stages. So I accelerated my plans.

Before I knew it, I was panic-stricken sitting in line for scrutineering (tech inspection) at the Sno-Cat shed at the Sunday River Ski Resort, the base camp for the New England Forest Rally. I passed tech with flying colors – a testament to all the hard work by all my team members, sponsor and myself – and ultimately found myself sitting at the start control, then gunning it through the Maine woods, with my navigator beside me shouting course directions.

I had materialized a dream. Cloudy visions during sleepless nights finally descended from the ether and formed into the shape of a vintage BMW loaded up with go-fast bits.

I did it.

I made it happen.

Kris Gove lives in Voluntown.

 

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