Forget the snow, fan the flames

Last week's Sno*Drift offered an assault on the senses and lived up to David Evans' expectation of a great event

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It was a dilemma. Keep staring at it or put it back on his head? That was the question. He kept staring at it. His friend was similarly spellbound by a fresh selfie.

The two of them had just met a 40-year-old man from Maryland.

“He’s…” one of them tried to verbalize it. But failed.

His pal went route one. “Man, he’s just a f*****g dude.”

Welcome home Travis Pastrana. In short, he’s that guy. The one that flies Subaru wagons, jumps off buildings and out of planes without the inconvenient bulk of a parachute. And now, much to the relief of American rallying, he’s Brandon Semenuk’s team-mate. Again.

As characters, the Subaru stars are chalk and cheese. The Canadian’s the quieter of the two, happy to sign the Parc Expose posters, chat briefly and then step back out of the limelight. That is, however, all done to a backdrop of trucks driving by, windows rolled down, to deliver the scream: “We love you Brandon!”

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After a year away from the pinnacle of American rallying, Pastrana was just as popular as ever in Michigan

Pastrana’s all about the entertainment. Take the fan who brought along an early 2004 edition of SportsCar magazine to be signed. Pastrana stared at it, then grinned.

“Where did you get this?” he asked. “That was my first ever cover [shot]. That’s so cool.”

At gone 11 on Saturday night, Pastrana moved along on the picnic bench in Briley Park, Atlanta and made room for the fan to sit next to him, to tell him his story. This went on. And on. The line just didn’t get any smaller. In the end, it took Vermont SportsCar big boss Lance Smith to step in and remind his driver there was champagne and a podium waiting. Not to mention a DirtFish interview.

Semenuk and Pastrana are gold for American rallying. And for Subaru. And it’s only going to get better: the rivalry is fierce, the respect even more so. They understand the value of each other, both in terms of promotion and sporting benchmark.

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On his debut aboard the WRX, Pastrana finished Sno*Drift a distant second to his team-mate Semenuk

The relationship has evolved with an element of student to teacher for Semenuk. It was interesting talking to the defending champ on Friday lunchtime as he looked ahead to the opening six stages. As you might have gathered, there wasn’t so much snow at the Sno*Drift last week, but the recce had revealed patches; inside of this corner, apex of that one. Running first on the road presented Semenuk with an opportunity. Dipping a wheel in, he could haul a chunk of snow out and leave it right into the path of his team-mate and rival.

Would he?

“Sure,” was the response, quick as a flash, with a steely look in the eye. “I’d do that 100%. He will be able to see my braking marks, I’m going to finding the tricky places ahead of him. So yes, you use everything you’ve got.”

It’s going to be a fascinating season watching these two scrap for Stateside and Subaru supremacy.

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Semenuk and Pastrana have huge respect for each other, but the pair of them share a common target in 2024

Now, what else was great about the ARA opener? I’ll be honest, I thought winter’s departure might spoil the Sno*Drift vibe. Not a bit of it. Winter hadn’t deserted Michigan completely. It was still chilly enough for hats and gloves and there was a definite element of the Monte about the place as debate raged about tires and how much to soften the set-up. What to do? Gravels versus Yokohama’s AO34, very much the preferred snow and ice cover in these parts (but seemingly harder to get hold of than hen’s teeth). The answer for most was a regular gravel tire with lots of additional cuts added. The inconsistency of weather and surface threw a proper pair of curved balls at the season-opener. I loved that.

But the best thing about last week? That was saved almost until the last.

Sno*Drift is an event that’s fascinated me for two reasons. For years, I’ve pondered the prospect of a full-on winter event without studded tires – I’ll keep pondering that one. The other? Two words: Bonfire Alley.

It’s important to point out that Bonfire Alley is no longer recognised as a stage name. Thunder River is the new name for the short Saturday night blast through a village where folk might – or might not – light a fire. Or two.

The change of name has changed nothing. The fires started. And didn’t stop.

Along with DirtFish colleagues Brenten Kelly (a Michigander and former Sno*Drift podium finisher himself) and Colin Clark (a Scotsman with less podiums), I’d driven the stage on the recce. It looked like a relatively innocuous three-miler; a couple of fairly quick stretches connected by a hairpin left. On the face of it, nothing special.

Not far off the start we passed the first house, plenty of activity in the driveway with trailers being unloaded. In the gathering gloom, it was hard to see exactly what was being constructed on property after property, fully two days before this stage went hot.

“It’s the fires,” smiled BK. “They take it pretty seriously – they’re getting them ready. It’s in the driveways down here that you’ll get the biggest ones. As you get down towards the hairpin, the area is quite a lot narrower, it’s busier with spectators and harder to find space to build a big fire.

“I remember the first time coming on the rally, I was just level with this driveway when they lit the thing up, poured some fuel on the fire. I could feel the heat on my face. It was unbelievable. And it just gets more intense as you go through the stage.”

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Bonfire Alley didn't disappoint as thousands of fans faned the flames on the ARA opener

Fast forward to Saturday evening, 90 minutes before Semenuk’s due into Bonfire… sorry, Thunder River. We’re heading towards the hairpin and the spectator area. Fortunately, the super-helpful volunteers have assured us there’s media parking assigned at the junction. Getting there, we pass parked cars for three miles. Another access road reveals a similar number. Busy doesn’t come close.

Fans are arriving in their thousands – plenty have been there all day. Snow or no snow, sleds are dragged, piled high with logs and laden down with beer and burgers. Somehow, you just know you’re in for something special, but nothing prepares you for what’s coming. Nothing.

The forest glows orange. The fires are everywhere. Size-wise, they range from the smaller two-person conflagration all the way up to the full-on bonfire with folk lobbing pallets and modest-sized tree trunks in every couple of minutes.

A DJ is doing his work over there, while a projector screen has been erected over the road, showing highlights of last month’s Monte Carlo Rally. There’s the raw and raucous aspect, who have clearly been enjoying the moment for much of the day, but there’s a more refined corner where vegetables are being sliced to add to a risotto being prepared on the open fire. I kid you not.

“It’s been Swiss-cheesed by the sparks from the fire…” Evan Mosley

Fans were everywhere, the atmosphere was off the charts – especially when lasers were fired into the night prompting the fires to be ‘fed’. Fans climbed trees. Fans fell out of trees.

We caught up with DirtFish alumni Evan Mosley. First thing he did on departing School? Bought himself an Impreza STi rally car and reserved the #19 for his ARA assault. He’ll be back here soon with a helmet on and a Subaru beneath him. But for now he’s dodging the flying embers. Or he thought he was. Mosley’s new jacket hadn’t fared well.

“It’s been Swiss-cheesed by the sparks from the fire…” he smiled, thinly.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see a fan-packed El Condor in full flight and, of course, there was the Tourniquets de Bayon, which lit up the second stage of Monte Carlo last month. Neither has anything on the intensity and flavor of Bonfire Alley (let’s call it what it is).

The place was absolutely jumping. And that was before the cars got there. Semenuk’s arrival into the junction was telegraphed by the whole forest erupting in a more vivid orange than ever. The fires crackled, the fans hollered and the world, briefly, went bananas. It was awesome.

It was just what I’d hoped it would be. For the second time since October, thank you Michigan.

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Class-winning co-driver Jamie Lambert giving it the bull horn out of the window of Eric Cessna's M3. Nothing but cool