For those who follow car culture, February sucks. No car meets, no track days, no drift events — just sitting at home twiddling our thumbs. Yet, there is one aspect of car culture that is alive and well this time of year: rally racing. It was this line of thinking that got me messaging one of my rally friends, in hopes of finding a local rallycross event to enter my 1999 Mazda Miata. Complete with steel wheels, an open differential, and non-studded winter tires, I knew it was a terrible idea, but terrible ideas usually make great stories. What I did not know, was just how terrible of an idea it would be.
That’s how I ended up running around at midnight after a work party throwing supplies into my trunk. Axle stands, random sockets and wrenches, a helmet for me and my co-driver/photographer Andrew Zhang, and a spare tire in case I destroyed one of my fragile steelies. Four hours later we were on the road with the car loaded to the brim, fueled entirely by coffee and Red Bull for the three-hour drive to Bancroft, Ontario.
What is rally cross? Take a field with about two feet of snow, plow a path, and race through it. Unlike autocross, it’s not about the fastest overall time, but rather the sum of all of your times added together. During the drivers’ meeting the Maple Leaf Rally Club’s event coordinators warned us that two-wheel drive vehicles would likely have a lot of trouble. If and when we eventually got stuck, we were told to honk three times and a pick-up truck would pull us free from our snowy predicament.
“I imagined that they were beginning to get annoyed with my experiment.”
From what I saw, I could have been attending a Subaru meet: they were everywhere. Impreza wagons, WRXs, purpose-built STi rally cars that arrived on enormous trailers. There were two Ford Focus rally cars with welded front diffs, an Eagle Talon, a Mazdaspeed Protégé, and shockingly, another Miata. This one was a 1995 Purple M-Edition with a destroyed soft-top that was purchased for $1700. The one notable difference between our cars: his had a torsen differential. One thing was obvious: If your car wasn’t a purpose built rally car, it was a beater. Rusted out quarter panels, rattle-can paint jobs and missing front bumpers were typical.
Then it was time to line up for the parade lap where we’d get a chance to drive the course at a moderate pace, and I began to get a feel for what I signed up for. The first half of the course was shallow snow, which was good considering the Miata’s five inches of ground clearance. Then it got deeper; the car became a snow plow.
I imagined this would be only slightly harder than commuting through a snow storm, which I’ve done in the Miata many times. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was there more snow to contend with than I’ve ever driven through, but the terrain was rough, elevation changes were dramatic, and if I did get off course even in the slightest, I had snow banks waist high to battle. If I didn’t carry enough momentum going up a hill and one tire broke loose, I was done.
I was already having traction issues and we hadn’t even entered the start-box. On green, I performed the gentlest launch ever seen in motorsports and sat there spinning one tire. Four bystanders ran over and pushed on the tail of my little car, and I managed the most pathetic launch on the planet. The victory was brief. About thirty seconds into the run my left tire caught a snowbank and once again I was stuck there spinning one tire. I honked my horn, a pickup truck came over and roughly yanked the car free. Another thirty seconds later, I managed to get myself stuck again. Once again, a pick-up truck came over and pulled me about four feet forward. This time, it wasn’t enough: I was still stuck. They tried again until they got fed up and pulled me through the rest of the course to the finish line, while I swung helplessly behind the truck like a rag doll .
I imagined that they were beginning to get annoyed with my experiment.
With the front bumper loaded with snow from my plowing efforts, I was starting to imagine myself going home without a bumper cover. Bystanders were kind enough to offer advice consisting of mostly: it’ll get easier as the snow gets shallower throughout the day, and that I may want to remove my front bumper. Further inspection showed that removing the front bumper, or even the front lip was next to impossible given the tools we had. So we went into round two with a new strategy: launch ten feet further back, stick to the path religiously and go as fast as my nerves allow.
As we lined up, the start box volunteer gave us a strange look given that we were about a car length back, but when the countdown turned green, we managed to get out onto the course on our own power. I went hard, trying to carry momentum everywhere while avoiding a head-on collision with a snowbank. Hard packed snow hammered the bottom of the car, and I was plowing everywhere. Miraculously, we did it — an entire run under our own power.
At an autocross, I’d be rushing back to check on my times, see who was faster, and make a dedicated effort to learn from them. Here at rallycross — I couldn’t care less. I managed an entire run without getting stuck: I felt victorious, despite having put in one of the slowest runs of the day.
“I did break one thing — I put a hole in my car.”
After two runs, I took a ride with amateur rallyist Mike Prce in his Mazdaspeed Protégé. Using left foot braking, lift-off oversteer and dabs of handbrake, he managed to carry absurd speed. More so, his limited-slip differential saved him when one tire got caught in a snow bank. Here, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I’ve spent the past four years honing my track day and autocross skills and I had come to believe that I was becoming a decent driver. At rallycross, I felt like a toddler on their first day of Kindergarten.
Would I do it again? Absolutely — in a different car. I’m not one to store my car, take it out only on the nicest Sunday afternoons and freak out over rock chips. I’ve done a lot of ridiculous things in this car, but rallycross takes the cake. Wheels break upon impact with hard packed ice and ruts, bumpers get torn off, your underbody gets beaten and tortured. If I didn’t like the Miata, I’d lift it, swap in a limited-slip-differential and take it rallying all summer… but I really do like my car. Rallycross is not for your daily driver. You will break things, and given time you will eventually destroy it.
I did break one thing — I put a hole in my car. After my first successful run, I managed to drive over one of the jack stands I had brought along and punch a hole through a patch of thin sheet metal. I know — I’m an idiot.
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