How to master the toughest winter rally in America

Striking the right balance between attack and caution key to being fast on ARA's season opener says multiple winner Higgins


No rally in existence can be considered anything but a challenge, but the Sno*Drift Rally is certainly one of the toughest events, not just in the United States, but indeed in the entire world.

The clue is in the name: Sno*Drift.

While the stages in Atlanta, Michigan would be difficult in their own right if the American Rally Association visited them in July for example instead of February, it’s the winter date for the traditional opening round of the ARA that makes it so demanding.

That challenge is multiplied by local state law which prohibits the use of studded tires on the public highway. That means that unlike on other winter rallies where crews can run these special tires that almost negate the lack of natural grip, on the Sno*Drift Rally the drivers can only use winter tires in the snowy and icy conditions. It takes a special kind of driver to conquer that challenge.

David Higgins knows more about that than most, having won the rally more times than any other driver.

“For me it was always the best event of the year,” the 2003, ’12, ’14 and 15 victor tells DirtFish.

“It’s really difficult. We actually have a really good tire available for the snow conditions if the stage was 100% snow. It’s not as good as a stud but it’s not a million miles away or horrendous by any stretch, and you can attack that really hard.


The history of ARA’s unique season-opener

The wintery Sno*Drift Rally provides a different kind of challenge to start the year off for the crews

“The problem you’ve got is if you’ve then got a stage with a lot of ice on it – which a lot of them on Sno*Drift can because they’re main roads which get polished as they’re used constantly and it’s by the likes where you can have a melt effect. You can have a tiny bit of warmth and then it freezes over again so you just get sheet ice on top of that snow.

“The snow tire we have is absolutely useless on those icy stages. We have a really good tire we used on the icy parts where it’s basically a winter road tire but you run it on a tractionizer on spikes. With millions of holes in each tire, they’re very good on the ice and give you good grip but the same problem again, if you put them on the snow they’re absolutely useless.

“Very, very rarely do you have the right tire for each stage. If you get a massive dumping of snow then you’d go out on the snow tire and it’s easy, but in all the years I did that rally that was never the case.”

Sno*Drift therefore requires a different approach to the rest of the season. The pilot with the heaviest right foot isn’t always the one who wins. It’s those that use their head that tend to prosper, as 2020 winner Barry McKenna explains.

“This rally is just about getting around, trying not to have any silly moments, not sliding off the road, not overshooting,” he says.

“[It’s about] just trying to slide the car a little bit around and have gentle, controlled slides. You can’t push, you’ve really just got to go gentle with the car, that’s it.”

MSX25036_w’s such a hard rally to calculate your gaps because you can just throw in a risky blinder where you can have a massive tire advantage like I’ve done some years when it’s been super icy. David Higgins

Higgins more or less agrees, but points out you still need to be prepared to take some risks to score the big points. Speeds are deceptively high, and the rally result is nearly always on a knife-edge due to the ever-changing conditions.

“You’re actually going really quick on the rally – we’ve hit 125mph+ in the real fast sections but obviously your braking distances are way different, your recovery is way different and it’s a massive balancing act,” Higgins says.

“I led the rally once one year [2013] and we had a problem on the day before, fought our way back into the lead and won the last three stages. We went into the last stage with something like a 15-second lead but it was a long stage and was horrible with parts ice and parts snow.

“We went into it thinking ‘let’s go through it, don’t make any mistakes, we don’t need to push quite as hard’ but the guy who was in second place [Antoine L’Estage], the gap behind him to third was four minutes so he went on the approach of ‘well I can spin 15 times and still be second but if I take a balls out risk I could come out and win it,’ and he did.

“That just means it’s such a hard rally to calculate your gaps because you can just throw in a risky blinder where you can have a massive tire advantage like I’ve done some years when it’s been super icy.

“It’s the only rally ever in my life when I’ve said to Craig [Drew, co-driver] I don’t want any times at all until I get to service. [You want to] get into a rhythm, get through them and not be worried about [positions] because if somebody has the right tires on they might pull out a lot of time.

“We got through the first three and actually found ourselves with a really big lead but it is a rally where you’re going way faster than you think you’re going. If you want to win it you have to push harder than people imagine.”


Driving technique is different too on a winter rally. Paying attention to the camber of the road on the recce can make a huge difference to your end result according to the 10-time US rally champion.

“When the road’s got the ice on it the camber just makes a massive difference,” Higgins affirms.

“Sometimes the roads can be really, really wide but you’ve got to make sure you’re on the right part of the camber and the right part of the corner.

“It’s really important on the recce that you’re not just looking at the width of the road but you’re looking at where you want the car to be because sometimes trying to get it to shift from one side to the next can be a massive job so you’re planning everything with your driving so much more in advance.”

In a nutshell, conquering the Sno*Drift Rally isn’t easy. It takes a very special kind of driver to win, but when they do, the satisfaction drawn from the result can be that bit sweeter.

“When you were doing the event, I’d never say it was my favorite because you were always on such a fine line,” Higgins admits, “but when you’ve finished it it probably gave you the biggest sense of achievement than on any other rally.”

This year’s rally has been slimmed to be just a one-day affair and is running a month later than the usual January slot, but don’t be fooled into thinking that makes it any easier. A rude awakening awaits the class of ARA 2021.