Your first clue that something’s up is that the place is lousy with Subarus. Outbacks, Foresters, WRXs and STIs are scattered across the parking lot of the local Best Western hotel, wearing knobbly gravel tires and auxiliary lights. Inside, there’s the buzz of people fuelling up on coffee, ready to head out into the chilly morning mountain air.
A few minutes later, I’m headed out to the day’s first stage, riding shotgun in a rented Explorer with photographer Andrew Snucins. “Snooch” has been covering rally for a dozen years and this leg, the 41st running of the Pacific Forest Rally, is like an old friend.
“It’s going to be a great day,” he says, “The weather’s just perfect. Last year, we had snow.”
After a brief transit north on tarmac, we reach a small gravel road and the start of the first stage, Helmer. The cars ran this stage uphill last night, but it'll be different in the daytime and downhill – big speed and bigger danger.
The first thing we come across is a trio of young men, who camped out in their cars overnight. They're shuffling into heavy workwear overalls, all big grins and huge furry hats. You don't need tickets to spectate at a rally, but long johns might be a good idea.
There’s frost on the ground, but it’s burning off. We take position on a hill that affords a view out to the north, and down onto three sharp corners. Snucins, who lives in B.C.’s Interior, is also an avid hunter, and it would be romantic to say that he stakes out a spot and waits patiently, searching through a viewfinder rather than a scope.
But this is rally and, as in life, little goes as planned. Five seconds after the first safety car – the “zero” car – comes through to scout the course, he’s hoofing it up the slope, swapping lenses and looking for a better position. This provokes no end of amusement from videographer Marshal Chupa, who is already set up at the first corner.
The three safety cars come through, getting faster until the triple-zero car is at full rally speed. Team Fugawi, as they call themselves, collectively have more than a half-century of rallying experience, and are responsible for clearing the course and making sure any spectators aren't in dangerous spots.
First to arrive, sideways in a cloud of dust, is downhill mountain biking star Brandon Semenuk in his open class Subaru Crosstrek. Built by Rocket Rally in Squamish, this 300+hp beast features long-travel suspension, a full cage and a sequential transmission. Semenuk’s the favourite for today, leading by more than a minute already. He’s got the skill and the professionally built machinery to stand atop the podium.
The dust hangs in the air, lasting longer with each passing car as the ground gets chewed up by gravel tires. One of the spectators laughs between coughs. “It's not a rally unless you're eating dirt.”
Also, it’s not a rally without a couple of upsets. Helmer will be surprisingly brutal, with mechanical faults taking out Semenuk and two other competitors. Then the radio crackles: The other purpose-built Crosstrek here, driven by David Nickel, has had a serious off after being unsettled coming over a cattleguard at speed. It’s around 30 metres off in the underbrush, but happily, no one’s hurt.
The shakeup punts the mid-pack runners to the fore and, as if sensing the chance of victory, everyone starts charging that much harder. The Subarus are all out in front, running hard, but the rear-wheel-drive cars are the most spectacular to watch, swinging their tails around.
Several battles emerge. Overall victory is a duel between two Québécois teammates who have made the long trek west to build championship points. Driver Karel Carré and co-driver Samuel Joyal build speed in their STI, moving into the lead while TEST Racing teammates Simon Vincent and co-driver Hubert Gaudreau come on strong. Meanwhile, the production class cars are all within 20 seconds of each other, passing the lead around like a hot potato.
The cars flash by all-too-briefly between the trees, but spectators can track them using an app called Rally Safe, via GPS markers. As the last car comes into view, Chupa is poised by his video camera, ready to grab the shot, then make the sprint to the crashed Crosstrek to scoop up on-board footage from the GoPros.
The last car is a green VW Golf, which has a pair of speakers bolted to the roof. They’re blasting Kenny Loggins' Highway to the Danger Zone. Everyone cheers.
It's a dash to the next stage, and Snucins nods to the radio crew as they wave us through. “Those volunteers are the lifeblood of rally,” he says, “Without them, this doesn't happen.”
I catch up with that radio crew at the service area. Stephen Muller and Merrilee Gilley have driven up from Oregon and Washington respectively, and hope to see more cross-border competition in the near future.
“Big White should be good this year,” Gilley says. “There’s just enough time between events for everyone to fix their cars.”
Service is busy, as the cars take a beating. Former Irish national rally champion Trevor Harding seems good-natured about the gearbox failure that's ended his rally hopes early. Instead, he's pitching in on prepping his friend Nick Spencer's 2015 WRX.
“Sure, that’s rally for you,” Harding says. “We were in podium position with a bit of luck; I really wanted to taste that champagne. But we’ll be back.”
The last stage of the rally is Spius, about 40 minutes south from Merritt. I hop back in my borrowed 2018 WRX, and head out to find a position, arriving well ahead of the road closure. The marshals wave me through, right into a paradise of smooth, roller-coaster gravel roads, threading between the flickering larches. The WRX kicks up leaves and dust, rotating through the sweeping corners like one of the safety cars.
Subaru pulled their factory-supported team out of rallying this year, and the sport seems the better for it. There’s no corporate thumb on the scales any more, but there is more money for smaller teams to compete. Subaru offers discounts on new cars that are built to Canadian Rally Championship spec, contingency money to any Subaru-driving competitor who starts a race, and a payout if you finish a rally the top six Subarus. There’s also a financial award for top Subaru-driving finishers in the championship.
That’s good news for Carré and Joyal, the overall winners today and current leaders in championship points race, and also good news for Canadian rallying in general. It’s a shot in the arm for the close-knit community that surrounds this sport, and also encouragement for more teams to participate. A deeper field means better competition, and more variables in play. And, in rally, the more unpredictable life is, the better.