Hello. My name is Martin Brady, an Irish co-driver with a decidedly American bias! I began rallying in 2000, did my first USA event in 2006, and I joined Seamus Burke in 2010.
We have competed together in the USA ever since, and the 2021 Sno*Drift Rally will be my 471st rally start. Most recently we have driven the Mustang V6-powered Escort Mk2, and that car took us to our second ARA two-wheel-drive title last season in a very loud and sideways fashion.
But for 2021, we begin the season at least in the Mitsubishi Evo 9 that took us to a ARA National title in 2016. Sno*Drift is such a challenge, we decided that having all four wheels fighting for the limited grip may be more enjoyable than dancing around in an inevitable spin cycle that the Escort would be predisposed to with all that power at the rear wheels.
To say Sno*Drift is a challenge is perhaps cliché, every rally is a challenge in its own inimitable way, the battle of the stopwatch and the conditions is never easy, indeed if it was we may not enjoy the sport half as much, but Sno*Drift is a rally with no equal.
I say that knowing that rally cars on snow isn’t that rare, as right now our World Rally Championship betters will be preparing to go rallying in the snowiest of all regions in the Arctic Circle.
There they will see temperatures dropping below -4°F (-20°C), as do we here in Michigan this weekend, but there is one crucial difference that the Ogier and Tänaks of this world have in their arsenal compared to us here in the American Rally Association fraternity: studs.
And no that’s not some compliment to the physicality of those WRC stars, it refers rather to those crucial 384 small protruding metal spikes that make sure Pirelli’s WRC tires dig into the ice or snow.
The Sno*Drift Rally takes on local Michigan roads where such metal tire additions are restricted, so we go into the stages somewhat toothless!
That’s what I mean when I proclaim that Sno*Drift has no equal, as I can not think of any similar winter event where rally cars willingly arrive at the start line on tyres that have such reduced capability for the conditions.
On this rally studs are not an option, so it comes down to a different choice: do you take a snow tire with a deep but open tread pattern which digs into the snow and propels you forward (mostly!), or take a tire adapted and specialised to cope with ice – done by a process called tractionizing where the tire is prepared by quite literally driving it on a tortuous looking metal roller system with small metal piercing spikes that break up the rubber tread blocks to leave the smallest margin of the top of the tyre broken up into an almost paintbrush-like format which spreads out on the ice and gives you grip that you just have to place faith in. So much so that you have faith that on glare ice you can drive in sixth gear on a surface you may not walk confidently on for six feet!
Every year I look forward to Sno*Drift, its beauty and attraction for me is in that unique difference. There is nothing like it, and I don’t mean just the fact this area of Michigan is so picturesque when blanketed in snow, it is the season opener and there is an air of excitement for all the new cars and new colors to take on the stages.
Success brings great satisfaction, but margins for error are so cruel here you can find yourself heartbreakingly buried in a snowbank with very little damage but a good result passing you by while you stand roadside thinking of what could have been and trying to regain feeling in your fingers and toes (I speak from bitter experience here!).
But every year it is great to come back and get our annual fix of winter rallying as we slip-slide away.
This year promises to be no different, a strong quality entry of 50 cars and all the championship glitterati of last season will be on the start line.
The defending champion crew of Barry McKenna and Leon Jordan will be followed into the stages by the Subaru Motorsports USA cars of Travis Pastrana/Rhianon Gelsomino and Brandon Semenuk/John Hall and just behind that the R5 chasers of Ryan Booth returning in his McKenna Motorsport-prepared Ford Fiesta and Joseph Burke who debuts in his new Rally2 Fiesta.
Expect both of those to be right there to pounce if McKenna or the Subaru cars so much as stutter.
Testing on Thursday reminded us of the Sno*Drift’s harsher aspects. Firstly, it is much warmer in the car than outside it. Secondly, the grip is there one moment and it abandons you the next, so it is a constant dance between the snowbanks.
As the stages have more cars run through them, you end up scrambling for grip as the road gets a finely polished sheen that glistens like fine crystal but pitches you like a pendulum the second you push your luck and chances of adhesion.
With a loop of stage repeated three times, it’s certain that by the time you revisit a stage you can be certain that critical corners will be an ice rink. The key here is to watch the road and see the grip ahead as best you can, or hope the snowbank is solid enough for you to play bumper cars against.
Friday’s recce will be key to trying to pick out the patches of ice already present or to predict the areas where polishing will likely occur and be anticipating the changes. A total of 85 stage miles over 12 stages await us on Saturday and I hope we get to enjoy every sideways mile of them because the wait to enjoy the 2022 event will be a whole 12 more months ahead!