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Night grips the northern Michigan forest in a frozen shroud and low squadrons of nimbus clouds, bellies bloated with snow, scud over the stands of pine and birch. A knot of people, all puffed with winter clothing, shivers in the darkness watching the corner of a rutted, one-lane logging trail carved through the woods. Muted somewhere far away in the wilderness, a moaning sound is on the rise. "Car coming!" someone shouts, and the small crowd shies back.
The sound becomes identifiable as an engine straining at high revs. Headlights appear through the silhouetted pickets of the trees, and a car, its nose marked by quartz-iodine headlights, comes over a small knoll and bears down on the corner at 80 mph. At the last second its driver moves down through a pair of gear changes, reaching second before he flings his muddy Toyota coupe into a power slide through the corner. Still crabbing sideways with its engine screeching, the car skates dangerously near a stockade of birches lining the trail and disappears into the dark. Other cars follow, deepening the furrows of sandy soil with each spinning tire. Another dozen or so cars pass by the collection of spectators, surging out of the gloom in ragged intervals, before the last of them, crippled and battered, departs into the black woods, returning the forest to the silence of an early winter night.
On they go, through the thickets of Michigan's Upper Peninsula in what is known as the Press On Regardless International Rally, legitimately described as " America's oldest, longest, meanest car rally." It also is one of the more obscure of all U.S. motor events.
A group of amateur sports-car freaks from Detroit is responsible for the Press On Regardless, which is a valid facsimile of the rallies being run on the Continent. By using a spiderweb of state and federally owned forestry roads and trails in the expanses of northern Michigan they have managed to keep the racers isolated from the public while permitting them to employ the kind of driving styles used in Europe. While the POR has been run in various permutations for 25 years, it has used its present 1,700-mile-long, car-killing format for the past four seasons. For two years the event has counted as one of 10 international events that make up the World Rally Championship, though participation by European stars has been limited.
The concept is relatively simple. The competitors (this year 58 cars, each carrying a driver and navigator) run from dusk to dawn for three consecutive nights, covering 500 to 600 miles on each run. Most of the rally takes place on "special stages," where from one-to 13-mile stretches of wilderness trails are cut off from normal traffic, and the rallyists try to run them at the fastest possible speeds. The quicker one goes, the fewer penalty points awarded, and the team with the lowest overall score wins. "For years we tried to make the public understand the difference between a race and a rally," says Bill Stephenson, a bearded, pipe-smoking veteran of the POR. "Now we've given up. Hell, it's a race—a simple race against the clock."
Now, it is snowing on the parking lot of a restaurant in the bleak resort town of Manistique. The winds swirling off nearby Lake Michigan are harsh and the condensing exhausts of the rally cars and their support vehicles eddy among the headlights. Crewmen, cursing the cold, scramble around the machines, changing tires and bashing rumpled bodywork back into shape with hammerblows. Inside, the bleary drivers and navigators revive themselves with soggy chicken drumsticks and black coffee.
Walt Boyce and Doug Woods, a pair of young Canadians from Ottawa, have established an early lead and are adding to it in their Toyota Corolla 1600C, thanks to Boyce's forceful, sideways-through-the-spruce-trees driving and Woods' precise navigation. Boyce's altar-boy face, wreathed in a wispy beard, is strained with fatigue. He is the three-time rallying champion of Canada, a former ski racer whose multiple shoulder dislocations forced him into competitive driving. "Actually we're in such good shape because Doug ran the entire 1,700 miles a few weeks ago," Boyce says. "He made a complete set of pace notes—a list of every hill, turn and rough spot in the entire rally. The notes were so complete he sold more than 30 copies at $30 apiece. A lot of our competitors are using them, too. They almost got us into trouble last night: Doug skipped a line as we approached a blind knoll at about 85 mph. He read to me 'flat over crest,' so I stayed hard on the throttle. But the road made a sharp left turn. We managed to slide through—but we bounced the rear end off some trees. It got a bit hairy for a moment, but I'm used to driving roads like this blind, and in a sense it's easier."
In this setting, one cannot spot the foreigners. Among the diners is Edgar Herrmann, a stolid, 41-year-old German hotelman from Kenya, two-time winner of the East African Safari Rally, a genuine star in the sport. But his impressive credentials will do him little good; he will finish an obscure 14th without ever threatening the leaders. "Up here," says a POR oldtimer, "one is crazy to run without a veteran Michigan navigator. It's like hunting polar bear without a guide."
By St. Ignace, beyond the Mackinac Bridge, the automobiles are a mess. Most are pocked with dents resulting from various sudden confrontations with tree trunks, ditches and the occasional white-tailed deer. All are coated with a glaze of mud and grime that gives them more a look of military reconnaissance vehicles than racing cars. Fewer than half of the Toyotas, Volvos, Datsuns, Fiats and such that swept away from Detroit two days earlier are still present. The others have either crashed or broken along the route. A quasi-official trio of four-wheel-drive American Motors Jeep wagons scattered their engines on the first night. Embarrassingly, someone had goofed in setting them up for the race. Last year a similar vehicle, driven by a jocular Dearborn policeman named Gene Henderson, appeared on the POR for the first time and won easily—much to the noisy dismay of the sports-car purists. They maintained the rally was intended for conventional automobiles, not burly bog-jumpers like the Jeep, and predicted the rally would turn into a northwoods version of the Baja 1000 offroad race if the four-wheel-drive cars were allowed. But the Jeeps were properly qualified under the international rules that govern the POR. In fact, while no Jeeps have been successful in other world championship rallies, they bring unique strength to the POR, where their mountain-goat traction in the mud and sand offsets the speed and nimbleness of the competition.
Mixed in with the racers now is one other serious international team, a three-car contingent from Poland, driving Fiat 125P sedans built in Warsaw. A lot of bad jokes later, it is discovered that Team Polski, which includes Andrzej Jaroszewicz, the youthful son of the Polish Prime Minister, is indeed in dead earnest about winning. But the roads are as strange as the language and the nights are long, and despite excellent organization and the blessings of the Polish Ministry of Machinery, Team Polski lumbers home in 6th, 11th and 15th places.