It was impossible not to smile. Who thinks of rallying a 1985 Toyota Tercel or a diesel-engined Audi TT?
Standing at parc expose at the Lake Superior Performance Rally on Friday morning was one of the season’s biggest treats. Firstly, the number of people was staggering.
With fall knocking on the door of winter and the first of what could be 150 inches of snow ready at any moment, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula might not be everybody’s cup of tea at this time of the year.
Rallying in America clearly loves a cup of tea. The place was packed. To the uninitiated, parc is where the fans come to meet their heroes and to see the cars up close. It happens every morning of every Green APU ARA round. And it’s great.
Over there? Brandon Semenuk and Keaton Williams, looking all WRC-ready in their Subaru finery. The same could be said for Hyundai i20 R5 pair Patrick Gruszka and Florian Barral.
But look around. Yes, you’re right; the early ’90s are back. That is indeed a Mitsubishi Gallant VR-4 and a Volkswagen Golf G60.
With a bright blue sky high above and Lake Superior dominating the horizon, Marquette was a mighty fine place to be ahead of the start of last week’s ARA season-closer. For the next two days, it just got better and better.
Rallying is, of course, primarily about the competition, but it’s also about the place and the people. Semenuk and Williams had the competition side of things sussed at the front of the field, but there were no shortage of battles through the entry that defined just how much success on the stages means in this part of the world.
Chasing the limited four-wheel drive crown, Javier Olivares and Matt Dickinson went at it from the off. Their cars couldn’t be more different. Olivares’ Ford Fiesta Rally3 is the modern take on a Group N car from a generation ago.
Dickinson’s Subaru Impreza STi is a modernized Group N car, recently upgraded to include a brake on each corner after he heroically steered it through the last round with just three anchors.
Even with the added stopping power, he couldn’t slow Olivares from taking the title. Both will be back for more of the same next year.
As with every ARA round, the National cars – led by the Semenuk Subaru – take the spotlight and top the podium. The Regional cars which follow are just that, regional competitors from whichever part of America we happen to be in. Last week Zach Jacques and his dad Ron were the local heroes.
Leading the Regional event into Saturday, their event looked to be done when they came out of the Double Trouble stage with their Subaru hidden in a cloud of its own steam. Water was literally gushing out of the bottom of the radiator.
Zach jumped out and described the situation in a flurry of quotes unusable in a family show. A minute later, his first rival arrived on the scene and was immediately out of his car offering assistance. Out of nowhere, a spectator hauled a pair of pliers, a screwdriver and an enormous water tank out of the back of his truck and fixed the thing.
But what about the 50-odd-mile road section back to the final stage? No problem, he was towed.
The whole tale was told as the Jacques celebrated on top of the podium.
Er, outside assistance anybody?
That’s not a thing in American rallying. The result’s important, but the ride’s everything.
I loved that. The sense of camaraderie and togetherness was everywhere in Michigan last week. And nowhere more so than on the shores of Lake Superior on Saturday morning.
Twelve months ago, the unimaginable happened to the Dantes family. Al Dantes Jr was standing filling his service truck with fuel on the eve of his local round of the championship – an event he would be starting in his beloved #50 Mazda RX-7 – when a drunk truck driver failed to make a turn and plowed into the gas station. Al was killed.
The Dantes’ world stopped. And so did Michigan and America’s rallying community.
Saturday morning in Al’s hometown of L’Anse, that community took another step forwards. The purple Mazda sat at the heart of parc expose on day two, still covered in the messages of love and support which had been written a year ago almost to the day.
When chairman of the event Steve Gingras stepped forward to say a few words, you could hear a pin drop. Al Dantes Jr represented everything that was good and great about American rallying. He knew everybody. He had time for everybody. Steve’s words were as emotional and beautiful as they were painful to deliver.
Al will be missed forever.
Rallying does, however, have a habit of looking after its own. Watching that happen up close was humbling.
I’ll be honest and admit I didn’t know much of Michigan before I arrived last week. Yes, I knew there were some lakes and it could get a bit chilly, but I wasn’t even close to being prepared for what greeted me. What a stunning part of the world.
Our own Brenten Kelly is from the state’s southern part, but he made for the perfect tour guide as he took me through the fall colors, the Kenton gun shop (it’s ‘Glocktober’ apparently) and the perfect start to the day in the shape of a three-egg omelet at the Big Boy diner.
The place is simply stunning. And never better than right now – but be quick, that blaze of color in the trees is about to be extinguished with a white blanket. This place knows about snow.
The Great Lakes are, essentially, nature’s snow machine at this time of the year. Cold air combines with moisture off the water and falls in abundance. Peak snowfall? It was 270-something inches close to Houghton a few years ago.
Nature’s not always welcome, however. Just ask DirtFish’s intrepid photographer Peng Du, who managed to wake a bear on his way back to his car after snapping a stage on Saturday. Suffice to say, he was in his car quicker than he was out of it.
The bears, the wolves, the mousse and the bald eagles high above are all part of this perfect picture, though.
There are so many to thank for an awesome week in Michigan, but most important are Steve Gingras and his co-chair, rallying’s second most famous Eric Carlson. Without those guys and their dedicated team, none of last week would have been possible. Thank you.
And a very, very big thanks to Steven Olona and Adam VanDamme for having the sense of adventure to rally a 1985 Toyota Tercel and a diesel-engined Audi TT.
Like everything else at LSPR, they were perfect.