Jamie Thomas, who has a deep-blonde ponytail and looks as though she might weigh maybe 110 pounds in her helmet and fire suit, is explaining why she had air conditioning installed in her second rally race car. She's on a Seattle freeway, observing the speed limit, which irritates her. At the moment she's not in the race car, but since her street car is a throaty black Impreza five-speed with a massive spoiler, Thomas's general presence on Interstate 5 is having an interesting effect on certain other drivers, who feel that toying with her will be amusing. In this they are mistaken.
"Well, we were out there in the middle of nowhere," Thomas is saying, "and it was only my second or third time in my first race car, and in a Subaru when you take a jump and you hit the road really hard and land on a rock, the force of the impact can push the power-steering lines loose."
The pace of Thomas's speech is, as a rule, caffeinated. "So we're on a road in the middle of the desert, I don't have any power steering, it's a hundred degrees outside the car, I had no air conditioning because I had done what everybody tells you to do, which is take the AC out since it uses up power. It's the deepest, twistiest stage in the rally, just sand, and I could not control the car. I'm literally pushing on the steering wheel, using my back, my whole upper torso, just trying to turn it. I stall the car as the steering wheel snaps out of my hands. We hang one wheel over a cliff. I back up. I start to panic. I'm getting hot. I'm crying while I'm driving. I'm biting my tongue to keep from vomiting. I'm thinking, We're going to crash, we're going to die, that's all there is to it...."
The entire rear window suddenly fills with the nose end of a white Silverado pickup. "Oh, no, dude, no. Off my butt.No." Thomas downshifts, eyes on the rearview mirror, and without lifting her foot from the accelerator reaches down and yanks the emergency brake. "Usually if you slow down with no brake lights, and all of a sudden they realize you've slowed down, they back off," she says. "Like he's doing right now."
Uh, doesn't that rely, sort of perilously, on the reflexes of the tiny-brained tailgater?
Thomas shrugs. "If he got close enough to barrel into me, I'd just go right back on the throttle," she says. "So, anyway, when we get back to the service area, I'm shivering uncontrollably, I'm about a thousand degrees, I have huge goose bumps--I'd never seen anything like this on anybody--and I'm saying, This is stupid, this is dumb, I am done. Next thing I can remember, the doctor's there, poking and prodding, and he said I had heatstroke. But I started drinking water, people poured water on me, and I had a couple more drinks of Gatorade, and I go, 'Is the car ready yet?' There was no way I was going to quit. I didn't want them thinking, Oh, the cute little girl, she's going to quit. Somehow I convinced the doctor to give me clearance. As we left, I remember I was still shivering--it's like 90 degrees outside and I'm shivering. We were catching cars, I was jumping cars two at a time, but there was no place on the road to pass. It sucked. We came in third in our class."
The Silverado lunges around to Thomas's left, its solitary driver now illegal in the HOV diamond lane as he pulls up close and looms menacingly alongside. Her face registering no expression at all, Thomas darts into an invisible pocket between two cars on her right, waits for the Silverado to lurch back out of the diamond lane and then angles in front of him again. "So that's why"--agitated warning bleeps from the vicinity of her dashboard bring chuckles from Thomas as the radar detector sounds--"that's why I put air conditioning in my race car."
Here's Jamie Thomas's idea of a fun outing in rally season, which is in full throttle right now on closable back routes around the United States: Settle her two kids, ages 13 and 7, with friends or family. Load the race car onto a trailer if she can afford the tow; drive it herself on the freeways, decorative yellow flames and all, if she can't. Travel three or nine or 16 hours, spend the night in a budget motel, get up at 5:30 in the morning to root around inside the engine, checking on things that don't sound right. Breakfast on coffee and Red Bull. Strap into a six-point seat-belt harness. Proceed to a designated spot on some bucolic, twisty, unpaved mountain road with thick forest and inspiring views and so on. Drive this road at an absolutely insane speed, the right foot flooring the accelerator and the left foot working the brake while a fire-suited codriver strapped into the passenger seat barks out instructions like "In two tenths of a mile, 90-degree left at T! Cliff exposure! Double caution!" Post a faster time than anybody else, including assorted male drivers with cars a lot more amped than Thomas's two-year-old Subaru WRX wagon. Refrain from gloating--sometimes possible and sometimes not, given Thomas's overall personal wiring. (The yellow lettering across the back of her race car reads you just got beat by a wagon.)
Thomas likes to refer to NASCAR and Formula One racers, who drive on racetracks--paved racetracks, on which they're allowed practice runs and which lack sand, gravel, snow, mud, ruts, boulders, stream crossings, giant fir trees, hairpin curves atop unfenced cliffs and the occasional deer bounding out of the bushes--as "roundy-roundy guys." Thomas and her boyfriend, a driver named Gary Cavett, argue sometimes about roundy-roundy guys; like Thomas, Cavett is a serious weekend competitor in the unheralded but passionate world of American rally racing, and every time he points out that a good NASCAR driver can hold the pavement at 200-plus miles per hour, Thomas retorts that roundy-roundy bores her. "That's all they do, is go around in circles," she says. "I don't get it. We drive blind, on the absolute edge. You're pushing the car as fast as you can, on roads you've never seen before--real roads, not some track. I think rally drivers are the best race car drivers in the world."
Rally racing is one of the most popular spectator sports in the world, especially in Europe, where fans will tromp by the thousands onto Finnish snowfields or up hot Catalonian hillsides to watch lone cars roar by, every so often, going extremely fast and then disappearing around the next curve. The inherent gratification in this may be tough to convey to a NASCAR fan. "I've been to a rally in Scotland where there were people everywhere, people hiking out into the countryside when it's pouring down rain, like, Let's stand out here and watch cars go by," says Sue Robinson, who until this year ran a rally program for the Sports Car Club of America. "It's cultural. And people who come over here from Europe, they're like, God, don't these people get it? Don't they understand how much fun it is?"