SI Vault
The Off-Road Warrior
July 25, 2005
Driving on twisty, unpaved roads at breakneck speeds, dodging boulders and cliffs--now that's what top rally racer Jamie Thomas calls fun
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
July 25, 2005

The Off-road Warrior

Driving on twisty, unpaved roads at breakneck speeds, dodging boulders and cliffs--now that's what top rally racer Jamie Thomas calls fun

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4

Thomas is 35, has been through two marriages, works for a Subaru dealership in suburban Seattle and had never heard of performance rally until she came upon a flyer five years ago for a race near Olympia. She and a friend decided to investigate. "We went out to this middle of the woods. Muddy. Mucky," she says. "No idea what we were doing. We were told, 'Stand here. Wait.' What are we waiting for? Then you hear this ... noise. Way off in the distance. Crack-bang! Crack-bang! Crack! Crack! Crack! And around the corner comes this car. And the dirt and rocks and dust are flying off the car, and this guy goes flying by, and the rocks are landing at my feet, and I go, 'Oh, dude. That is cool.' And right then I became a fan of the sport."

Thomas learned the way many new rally enthusiasts do, volunteering at races and then seeing what it was like to codrive. But she understood right away that she wanted to be behind the wheel and that she was weirdly suited for it. She has always been strong, coordinated and competitive; in Belfair, Wash., the Olympic Peninsula town where she grew up, she played nearly every sport the high school offered and was a star at soccer, which she still plays. Since she was a teenager she's had both a lead foot and a kind of obsessive, impatient intelligence that makes her tetchy and restless when information isn't bombarding her quickly or urgently enough. "My brain just never stops," Thomas says. "If you could put a microphone inside my head while I'm driving, it would be, 'Jamie, look as far ahead as you can. O.K., that's a corner. Look. Look. What did Matt just say? Oh, that's a hairpin. What's that car doing? Loosen hands. If we get a straightaway where we can hammer it, I'll just fly at 100 miles an hour. Oh, that sucks. Loosen hands. Look.' If we could record all this, it would be hilarious."

She's on a four-lane rural highway now, 2.35 miles to the start point, which she knows because hanging off the right side of the dashboard is a racing computer that displays many rapidly clicking numbers that the codriver is supposed to be reassessing constantly so as to keep the navigational instructions precise. (Gauger's expectations, in this regard, were not high. "Just don't get her lost," he said.) Thomas seems in good spirits. "Car smells like wet mud," she says. "Awesome! One of my favorite smells in the whole world is burning brakes. We've had them on fire, flames coming off the side, your rotors get so hot they're glowing bright red. You just keep driving. It's fantastic."

The biggish dent on the passenger-side door is remarked upon, uneasily. "Tree," Thomas says. "My fault. Every driver knows you will go where your eyes fixate. I was driving way too fast. Matt's calling, 'Turn!' and I'm looking at this tree, thinking, Wow, that's a big tree. I hit it hard enough to open the door. Matt screamed, 'Door's open! Stop the car!' I'm like, 'F--- you, I'm not stopping the car.' On the next curve I swung so hard to the right that the door slammed shut." She smiles and turns off the highway, past the road closed sign, bumping the WRX up onto the dirt.

Thomas calls her car Burnsie, which some people assume is an homage to a famous English rally driver named Richard Burns, whom Thomas admires greatly. In fact, though, the car's been on fire more than once, hence the name. Burnsie is brilliant blue under the road filth, and covered with decals that Thomas lays on and scrapes off as piecemeal sponsorships come and go: stongard transparent auto protection, smart service subaru care. Like nearly every other American driver she knows, she spends most of her disposable income on racing and is constantly trolling for backers; nobody in this country makes a living racing rally cars, which can cost from $5,000 for an old two-wheel-drive beater to more than $100,000 for a high-end all-wheel-drive with far more horsepower than Thomas wants to manage right now. Burnsie cost $13,000 before Thomas and her mechanic friends started upgrading. When the all-wheel-drive is working full-out on rough dirt roads, she estimates the car's horsepower at about 190, which is less than two thirds what a top-end car might deliver. "At my level of experience, adding a whole lot of horsepower is not a good idea," she says. "You see that all the time, these guys in their torqued-up cars, and they're upside-down, wrecked. And they've just destroyed $40,000."

The subject of wreckage comes up all the time among rally drivers, who say things like "nosing it" when they mean launching off a high bump and smashing the front end of the car onto the dirt, or "in the woods" when they mean steering a high-speed car that has just shot off the road and is now plowing out of control through the forest, or "stuffing the car" or "wadding it up" or "having an off" or "going over," all of which are things drivers usually, but not always, survive. During the 2003 season both members of a veteran driving team were killed instantly when their car hit a tree during a race in Oregon. Thomas has a small piece of paper with their surnames on it pasted to a back side window on her car; she was there, waiting for her turn on the stage, when they crashed. She says she learned that day that she could race her car immediately after crying so hard that she was unable to read the roadside timing clock. Naturally there was talk of canceling the rally on the spot, Thomas says, but no serious driver would want his own death to end a competition; like any high-speed adrenaline sport, rally racing is a risk undertaken deliberately, and the drivers who win races are the ones who have spent so much time thinking about that risk that they understand how to manage it even as it draws them in--how to push aggressiveness exactly to the limits of human control, and no further.

Once, early on, not yet acclimated to the vroom of Burnsie's turbo, Thomas spun the WRX backward over a cliff. A tree's root system caught her, teetering, just below the edge. She supposes tiny guardian angels held up the back of the car for a while. Five trucks and three jeeps pulled it out. Thomas recasts this story according to her mood: Sometimes it's intrepid blonde hothead cheats disaster, and sometimes it's yes, at certain moments we do resemble a road runner cartoon. But most of the time it's a cautionary tale about letting a powerful car outrun one's own abilities. In her first race car, she points out--this was the one without AC, the heatstroke car, which she likes to call her "little yellow putt-putt"--she hooked a ditch or two, but not at fast enough speeds to cause alarm. "You couldn't hurt yourself in that car," Thomas says. "I'd had it to the floor, going as fast as I could get it to go, and it just wouldn't go over 95. It wouldn't."

She puts on her helmet. The codriver does likewise, fumbling with the chin strap, and Thomas leans over to examine the fit, as though double-checking a child's shoelaces. The engine revs, loud and louder. Just outside the window a man in a thick jacket is repeatedly lowering his outstretched arm, fingers extended in signal: five, four, three....

Then the checkered flag snaps up and there's a roaring, space-shuttle-liftoff sort of noise, and spraying dirt and scenery rushing by and a steep uphill left-right turn sequence coming straight at the car quite a bit faster than the codriver is able to register in time to form the words "in point-one mile, left 90 degrees, then right 90 degrees," which is how the route book suggests phrasing the instruction for that first turn sequence, except that here comes the giant cliff on the right already and the tree in the middle of the road and the crest where the car lifts up in the air and then whomps down still going very, very fast, and very fast also around the sliding hairpin left where the road is full of jagged rocks, and from under the car comes a violent scraping sound, and Thomas cusses, richly, once. Thomas's head and shoulders appear to remain still, her breathing steady, her right arm darting back and forth between the gearshift and the steering wheel, and inside the helmet her face is mostly stony and set until the codriver ventures, "I think the flying finish might be coming up--oh, jeez--right here," and people are by the side of the road with stopwatches and Thomas sails the car past them at 80 or so and screeches down into the next curve and whoops.

"That was fun," she says.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4