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There are several kinds of driving competitions that come under the rally heading--rally-raid style, for example, which is a multiday endurance event (motorcycles included) like the Baja 1,000; or time-speed-distance rallies, which reward drivers not for being fastest but for hitting timing marks most precisely. But the glamour event, the staple of the annual four-continent, 16-race World Rally Championship, is performance rally, in which two-person teams negotiate temporarily closed-off roadways as fast and aggressively as they can. The cars they drive are torqued-up factory models (lots of Subarus and Mitsubishis and, in Europe, Citro�ns and Peugeots), and across the pond the best of the drivers are national heroes. Two-time world champion Carlos Sainz, who retired last year, was one of the highest-paid athletes in Spain; recent reports estimated his salary at between $5 million and $10 million a year, not counting endorsements. When Sainz drove a goodbye loop through Madrid last November, 100,000 Spaniards crowded into the plazas, climbing onto rooftops and signposts to catch a glimpse. (Sainz came out of retirement last month to compete in cross-country rally, which is strictly off-road competition.)
Rally terrain varies from region to region: snow in Sweden, rural asphalt in Ireland, slippery gravel in Australia. The inconsistency is the point: Cresting a mountain at 130 mph just as the dry road surface turns to sheet ice is the kind of thing a rally racer looks forward to. In the U.S. nearly all performance rally is staged on unpaved roads, Forest Service lands or other public property that's relatively easy to close for a couple of days. Subaru Rim of the World, one of the dozen American rallies big enough to draw racers from some distance every year, covers a wide swath of rocky Southern California in Angeles National Forest just north of Los Angeles. Susquehannock Trail twists around 125 miles of Pennsylvania State Forest roads. Sno-Drift, run every January in a reliably frigid corner of northeastern Michigan, is pretty much what it sounds like; the Sno-Drift website's write-up of this year's rally begins, cheerfully, "There was a solid base of ice on the roads with a layer or two of packed snow."
Getting a close look at U.S. performance rally is something of a challenge for newcomers. The World Rally Championship circuit at one point included an American race, but that was almost 20 years ago; in this country rally remains a sport of amateurs, the overlooked distant cousin to multiple forms of roundy-roundy. Cable and satellite channels throw the occasional half hour devoted to rally into their late-night programming, but it's perplexing entertainment for most American racing fans, who are accustomed both to nonstop action and, if they are going to take the trouble to show up in person, to comfortable stadium seating, preferably with a beer stand nearby. Rally enthusiasts regard this as prissy. A few of the stops on the domestic circuit now include small stretches of NASCAR-style spectator risers, but the proper way to watch performance rally is to pack a lunch, hike through the woods or drifting snow or whatever, and find a place the veterans say is safe. This is a very big deal, part of why rally races are so dauntingly expensive to insure in the litigious U.S., since the drivers have roll cages but the spectators don't. An alternate way, not recommended at all for anybody who's put off by the idea of chugging Dramamine-- Red Bull cocktails at 7:30 in the morning, is to find oneself invited, by virtue of an old friendship with a California lawyer named Matt Gauger, who happens to be Jamie Thomas's codriver, to observe his sporting pastime by taking his place for a race day.
Inside the rally car, that is, and reading out navigational directions from an official route book while hurtling at viscera-compressing speeds through the piney mountain woods. The official route book looks like a midsize city's telephone book, except for the thick black lettering on the back cover: o.k. If you are, but you've crashed, you're supposed to prop the cover on your mangled car where the next drivers can see it. If you're not, there's printing on the cover's opposite side, too: a big, bright-red cross.
"jamie can't not race," Gauger says. He sounds aggravated but resigned. It's late autumn in Odell, Ore., which is a beautiful forested place near the base of Mount Hood, except that the weather is miserable right now, drizzling and cold. "I've told her: You've already won. Keep the car on the road, don't race. But she'll do it anyway."
Gauger rubs his hands together. He has a perfectly reasonable day job in Sacramento, but he discovered performance rally a few years ago, and now his idea of a good time involves flying all over the damn place, usually at his own expense, to help keep Jamie Thomas from driving her race car off cliffs. (At the end of each race day he phones his wife, by mutual agreement, to report that he is still intact.) Gauger's fire suit, which would normally be warming him up, is instead wrapped around his temporary replacement, who is lowering herself dubiously into the codriver seat of the WRX and watching Thomas tighten her own harness. On Thomas's website one of the photos is a glitzy head shot that shows her smiling in red lipstick, but out here she looks pale and fierce. She glances over. "Look, I can't tell you we'll back off, because if I don't drive how I drive, we'll have an accident," she says. "I'm not going to hand these guys anything. They all know you're here, and they're going 'Yes!' because I've been beating them all year. So I'll just drive what I see."
Translation of that last sentence: I know you took the daylong codriver-training course last month, and I'm guessing that as you sit there clutching the route book in your lap, all you remember is that some shorthand means "turn left at four-way intersection" and some other shorthand means "enormous slab of granite right in the middle of the 160-degree blind curve the car is about to rocket into," and that not only can you not call to mind which is which, you also have no flipping idea how fast I'm about to drive. So I'm not exactly relying on you for directional guidance, all right?
A race volunteer yells at Thomas as the WRX rumbles out of the service area, "Hey, Jamie! Don't scare her to death." No response. After a couple of minutes Thomas says, "Normally I don't get amped on the second day of a rally, like this. Day One, I get a little nervous, each and every time I'm out here. Because I don't want to crash. I've got my babies at home. I'm not being paid a hundred thousand dollars to do this. It's fun to do. But crashing sucks."
Thomas has 6.89 miles to cover, the route book says, from the service area at the county fairgrounds to the dirt-road turnoff where the first of the day's seven race stages starts. As Gauger has already pointed out, the outcome of the weekend's competition, one of the 50 or so regional performance rallies held every year around the country, will have no effect on Thomas's overall racing record, which is very good, especially for a relative newcomer to the circuit. She competes in Production GT class (that means she's allowed turbocharge but none of the meatier modifications available to drivers in the Open class), and she's already wrapped up three championship titles for 2004: Western States Rally PGT Driver, Nor Pac Region PGT Class Champion and NW Region Driver Class 2 Champion.
Indeed, she could drive every one of today's race stages at 30 miles per hour, which is faster than anybody ought to be skidding around rutted-out mountainside roads in the mud, and it wouldn't cost her a thing. There is no possibility that this reasoning will make any impression on her at all.