SI Vault
Sam Moses
May 23, 1983
There are strange things going on in the woods at night, stirring things, thrilling things, dangerous things, things that we don't hear much about and that if we ever came upon by chance might affect us like a close encounter of another kind.
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May 23, 1983

The U.s. Adaptation Of Pro Rallying Keeps Drivers And Fans In The Dark

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The turbo whines as it is unbound. Stones smash against the skid plate under the chassis as all four wheels churn. At this point the car is usually still so far sideways that Buffum's arms are completely crossed on the steering wheel; they untwist back to nine o'clock and three o'clock, and he speeds off toward the next turn, the turbo's whine building like the sound of a spaceship taking off in a science-fiction movie. Buffum upshifts at 7,000 rpm without watching the tachometer, so intent is he with the task at hand outside his windshield. Nothing distracts him, not even the trees whizzing past the Quattro's windows, branches clicking against the door handles as it speeds down the pencil-thin logging road in the dead of night.

Sometimes a rally feels like a moonshine run. Only infrequently do the cars come upon each other on the road, so driver and navigator feel alone with their mission. But suddenly, near a paved road, they will reach an intersection where photographers' strobe lights will flash and unseen spectators will shout encouragement, reminders that they're in a race. Then it's back into the forest again.

Buffum occasionally mumbles to himself, and through the headset he sounds like Ray Charles groaning to his music at the piano. Buffum's feet play passionately on his own pedals, creating the rhythmic whine and chirr of the turbo, and even the shattering of stones on the skid plate seems part of some outrageous original melody. And when the brakes lock, the oil-pressure warning light on the dash, as big and round as a sand dollar, flashes a protest and fills the cockpit with an amber glow.

One of Buffum's most enjoyable wins was last October in the Tour de Forest Rally through the Olympic National Forest and mountain foothills, near Olympia. Wash. There was a stage in the rally called Bingham Creek; it was the longest at 20.78 miles. It was also Buffum's favorite, breathtaking, winding around the walls of a deep canyon, the gravel road everywhere "exposed," as the route book noted. That's the same ominous message one finds in rock climbing guide books, and it means: If you fall here, you're going straight down for a while.

The hairpin turns on the stage were on the face of the canyon walls, and the broad beams of the six high-intensity headlights sprayed light into the black void beyond the edge. Buffum threw the Quattro into the turns, one foot hard on the throttle and the other bouncing on the brake, the turbo howling and the stones thrown God only knows how far.

Buffum was running from the man who dethroned him as champion in 1981, New Zealander Rod Millen, who started each stage of the Tour de Forest one minute behind him. As the Quattro climbed the far side of the Bingham Creek canyon the lights from Millen's Mazda RX-7 appeared winding down the opposite wall. They were miles away, and Buffum knew they would stay there. The Quattro was invincible this night.

Buffum won the Tour de Forest by four minutes over Millen, averaging 49.94 mph for the 131 miles and being fastest over seven of the nine stages. And he would go on to win the 1982 SCCA championship, again over Millen, who would win four rallies during the year but was simply outgunned by the Quattro. But around the time of the Tour de Forest, Millen saw the light—it would take a 4WD to beat the Quattro.

Buffum won the first two rallies of 1983 as easily as he had won most of them last year. In the third rally, Buffum introduced his new Quattro, which has the same features as the last one, and Millen unveiled his new car: a 4WD Mazda RX-7 that he had built himself. It was a giant-killing effort: a small shop in California vs. an entire factory in Germany. Buffum won again. But in only its second rally, on April 17, the Mazda upset the Quattro. Buffum literally upset himself, rolling the Quattro on its roof during the event, a fairly common and usually harmless occurrence for a rally driver, but still humbling for Buffum.

But the message had been sent, the gauntlet thrown. Buffum and the Quattro would not have it all their way with the series this year, as they had in 1982.

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