“Crazy” Leo Urlichich readily admits that his chosen sport of rally racing likely lies somewhere between obscure and insignificant when it comes to popularity in Canada, if it even registers at all.
And that means trying to attract attention and bill-paying sponsors to his beloved rally racing isn’t exactly easy.
“Most traditional media is just not interested – we are just not big enough,” said Urlichich. “I am a big fan of Formula One and in Canada and North America, unfortunately, even it doesn’t get much coverage – it’s all about NASCAR and other sports.”
Toronto’s Urlichich has been rally racing professionally since 2007. He has four regional wins and one national victory in 30 total starts. At the halfway point of the six-race 2012 Canadian Rally Championship, Urlichich and his Welsh co-driver Carl Williamson have one second and two third-place finishes in three starts to put him second overall in the standings with 45 points. Four-time Canadian Rally champion Antoine L’Estage, of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., leads with 66 after three consecutive victories to open the 2012 season. Drivers get 22 points for a win.
This year, Urlichich is also racing in the Rally America championship for the first time, and remained third overall despite a rough weekend in Newry, Me., where he did not finish the New England Forest Rally after taking a wrong turn and crashing out of the race.
The next Canadian race for the Can-Jam Motorsports driver is the Rallye Defi in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, Que. in early September.
While the Canadian Rally Championship does get on television, the tape-delay digest broadcasts shown on both TSN and RDS months after the race does not help it attract a fan base. As for other coverage, Urlichich insists he feels lucky if he gets mentioned in the local newspaper and on the radio station on the weekend of a rally.
That stark reality pushed Urlichich, who usually goes by “Crazy Leo,” to social media to try to get his message out.
“The only way to get sponsors and promote yourself for the sake of getting recognised and getting more opportunities to go to better and bigger championships is social media – thank God we have that,” he said.
“I don’t really care about being famous or making money out of it ever – I just love driving fast.”
So far his social media focus is working pretty well.
While his roughly 30,000 Twitter followers lag far behind the 70,000 that keep track of IndyCar driver Alex Tagliani, of Lachenaie, Que., Crazy Leo (click here for his Twitter page) has about 7,000 more Twitter followers than two of Canada’s higher profile racers: IndyCar star James Hinchcliffe and 2003 Champ Car champion Paul Tracy. His total dwarfs several others, such as DTM driver Robert Wickens, who has about 4,600 followers.
“I started quite early on Twitter and before anyone in North American rallying, so those who were fans online kind of jumped on to me right away,” said Urlichich, who also ran a few contests on Twitter to help boost his follower numbers.
“I respond to fans publicly and not privately – they can ask me any question and I will respond so others see this and think ‘he actually talks’ and they want to talk to me as well. You have to be active and talk to the fans.”
He is doing well on Facebook, too, with about 20,000 likes on his fan page. As a comparison, Tagliani’s Facebook fan page has about 6,000 likes, while Hinchcliffe’s has roughly 3,200.
Part of Crazy Leo’s incredible social media success comes from a sensational YouTube video of a crash and recovery in the 2012 season opening Perce-Neige rally in Maniwaki, Que., which clocked up more than one million views in about two weeks.
The video shows Urlichich losing control of his Subaru, sliding into the snow bank on the edge of the road and then spinning before slamming backwards into a telephone pole. While the crash made Urlichich “scared for his life,” he incredibly restarted the damaged car and continued in the rally to take second place overall.
“What I am trying to do is make videos to show fans that I am a purist: I like rallying and racing against the clock and that battle,” he said.
“And that’s what I am trying to portray, which is why the only big video we made wasn’t about us drifting on some parking lot but was about an actual accident that happened at a real rally and we climbed back up after and finished well.”
In the end, Urlichich would rather risk attracting fewer numbers of viewers and losing followers by portraying the sport as it is instead of trying to glam it up with trick driving and cool stunts. He would like his next video to show the intricacies of the foot and hand co-ordination used to control a rally car and the amount of work a driver does to race at speed.
While it’s challenging and hugely fun, rallying can also be extremely dangerous.
F1 star Robert Kubica was critically injured in a crash during an Italian rally in February 2011. The Polish driver’s career was thrown into doubt when an Armco barrier pierced the floor of his Skoda and almost severed his hand. He has had several surgeries since the accident to repair the damage to his arm and may never race in F1 again.
“Last month, in the Intercontinental Rally Challenge [in Sicily] we lost a co-driver [Welshman Gareth Roberts], who was just 24 years old and it was very sad news. It was the same kind of accident as Kubica’s,” Urlichich said.
“When I started this my mom kept telling me ‘be careful, be careful’. Now that she has actually seen what I do, she calls me before each race and tells me to ‘Go hard and win it. If you are going to be in it, you might as well try.’”
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