I am always up for a new photographic challenge, so when Ken Block invited me to tag along with him and his crew for this year’s New England Forest Rally, I figured it would be no sweat. After all, I did the exact same thing last year at WRC Spain, so this wouldn’t be much different, right? Boy was I wrong…
With only limited access to places where you can watch the action from, rally in itself is a very hard sport to spectate – no matter where in the world you are.
In Spain the crowds were massive – the World Rally Championship event there has become a family tradition with the locals. Fathers bring their sons to races and when they have sons they do the same, and so on. Plus WRC tends to hold rallies closer to major cities – sometimes right in the middle of them.
It’s a little bit different in America, because unfortunately rallying is not as popular here as it is in Europe.
Even though the New England Forest Rally is probably one of the biggest events of its kind held in North America, there are few spectators. But it’s hard enough just to get to the stages, let alone find a comfortable place to watch from.
You would have to be absolutely nuts to try to follow a certain team on multiple stages. Of course, that’s exactly what we did….
Out of the 13 special stages held over the course of the two-day race weekend, we caught the leaders a total of eight times.
Looking back, I think that’s physically the best we could have done, considering we basically had to run our own rally just to keep up.
This included driving some of the special stage roads before they were closed to the public ahead of the competitors coming through.
Some that we drove through were downright treacherous, and our rental SUV was bottoming out around every other bend. We did anything and everything we could to follow Ken and his co-driver Alessandro ‘Alex’ Gelsomino.
Of course, Ken was not the only big-name driver making an appearance at this event. Travis Pastrana also competed.
He piloted his Subaru to a 3rd place overall finish, which was much better than he expected considering the mechanical failures the team had to deal with on the first day.Hoonigan Racing Division
Mornings with the Hoonigan Racing Division (HRD) team are pretty relaxed at first – but then they turn hectic. When we arrived at the pits, Ken and Alex were already going over stage notes.
Ron Zaras, HRD’s photographer, was busy setting up all of Ken’s on-car and helmet GoPros. Most of the photos you see of Ken and the team are from Ron’s itchy trigger finger.
At the same time, the crew were busy prepping the car for the long day ahead.
Next to Ken’s car was a brand new Ford Fiesta R5. This is a more basic and slightly more affordable rally car compared to a full-blown WRC machine, but it’s still very capable.
The cars are built by M-Sport in the UK, and this weekend was the perfect place to test them out and see how they rate against the Fiestas that Ken and other teams run.
Back in the trailer, I could smell breakfast being prepared. It was almost time to head out to the stages.
Meanwhile Ken was getting some sparing in with his personal trainer and nutritionist, Kit Cope.
While most people don’t realize it, you really need to stay in shape to be a professional racing driver. The cockpit is not only extremely hot, but you get thrown around like you wouldn’t believe.
Maintaining a balanced diet and the endurance needed to stay focused is not easy. But it only takes a split-second lapse in concentration for it to all go wrong, and when you’re driving down a narrow, tree-lined gravel road at well over 100mph you don’t want that to happen.
Before the teams headed out for the stages the cars lined up at Parc Expose, which was a giant ski resort parking lot. You can see the slopes in the background. It was nice because it gave the fans a chance to get up close and personal with their favorite cars and drivers.
This is when I spotted one of my favorite cars. I’m sure you guys can guess why.
Photographing rally is unique, because just like many off-road races you only get to see a certain team a handful of times over the event. You just can’t afford to mess up a shot if you are following a story.
In circuit racing, if you miss a shot you just have to wait a few minutes for the car to come around again.
Experience and taking time to plan your shots really comes into play with rally. Ken’s manager, Matt Tuccillo, was also acting as our driver for the weekend, shuttling us from stage to stage. But here he was acting as my focus point.
You often only have one opportunity to get the shot, so sometimes you can’t let something pesky like auto-focus get in the way.
As quickly as he arrived Ken was gone and our encounter with the first special stage was complete. It was time to make the long trek back to the car and then make a sprint for the next stage.
The first day was very dry and hot, which proved difficult to navigate on the stages. As soon as a car would come by we would get dusted out, and you could barely keep your eyes open with the amount of dust particles floating in the air.
Then of course there was the fact that we were standing next to what was essentially a hot race course with cars flying by.
Some stages are definitely not photographer-friendly, so it was nice to be able to walk in spectator zones every now and then.
The first few cars are sent two minutes apart, which gives some extra time to move from spot to spot as well as allowing the dust to clear. But once the slower cars start coming there’s only a one minute interval.
Which means sometimes it’s a complete white-out of dust which proved to be very difficult to shoot in.
However, at the same time it was absolutely beautiful as the light rays filtered through the clouds of dust.
On the way back to the pits after a full day of running our asses off, we saw the Nameless Performance BRZ rally car. Yes, they’re the same guys who built Ryan Tuerck’s Formula Drift car, but unfortunately their Subaru caught fire early on so they could not finish the rally.
Back in the pits, the Hoonigan Racing Division service crew were busy getting the car prepped for another day of rally abuse.
Everything needed to be cleaned and checked – nothing can be left to chance.
Just look at the crud that accumulated over a few rally stages on one of the Subaru rally cars.
As cool as it was to see the cars all caked up with dirt, they still need to be street legal, so between special stages the teams try their best to at least clean the lights and license plates.
After a day of racing around the forest, Ken was sitting in 2nd place due to a small issue that prevented his motor from making full boost. The next day he’d have to push even harder if he wanted to take the lead.
It was quiet in paddock that night as most of the teams left early to get some rest. The next day was going to be a long one.
It’s usually a luxury to get any sleep at these types of events, so I didn’t stick around very long either.Getting Attacked
The next day was even more rushed than the first, because it consisted of 10 special stages – a few of which were in Maine and some even in New Hampshire.
While it’s cool to see the big-name guys compete, what has really kept this rally going for 25 years are the local amateur teams.
This R2 Ford Fiesta was being driven by Brendan Reeves, and he’s the most skilled front-wheel drive rally driver I have seen yet.
I just couldn’t believe how fast he tossed the car around – especially given it’s only a 1.0-liter!
We headed out to the stages very early on day two, but the skies had opened up overnight and the ground was wet.
That meant no more dust clouds, but now we had to deal with swarms of mosquitoes – and not the everyday household variety.
I’m talking more about the eat-you-alive kind. We had to wear picnic basket covers for head protection.
It was absolutely agonizing, because as we waited for the cars to come by, we couldn’t move because of being limited in terms of space. We were at the mercy of the mosquitoes.
We just had to sit and wait. I spent a lot of time marching in position because they were sucking blood from my feet through my shoes. Bug spray was ineffective as I would just sweat it off, which in turn made the mosquitos even more aggressive.
There was a moment when we were all sitting there waiting for Ken to come by, but he didn’t. An incident on a previous special stage appeared to have caused the gas pedal to malfunction.
So we waited and we waited, till we heard on the radio that he was about to start on the stage that we were waiting on. It was absolute torture, because by this point I must have had at least 50 mosquito bites all over my arms, face, neck and feet. You can bet we ran all the way back to the car as soon as Ken and Alex flew by.
On the next stage we ran into Subaru Rallycross driver and skateboard legend Bucky Lasek. He is an awesome dude and very passionate about racing and rally. I would love to see him behind the wheel at a rally event like this one.
It was the final special stage of the day and we were absolutely exhausted. Having to hike about a half a mile into the stages every time we parked our car was grueling, not to mention the fact that we had to sprint our way back if we didn’t want to bet bit by more mosquitoes.
Just like that, David Higgins and his co-driver Craig Drew blasted by in their Subaru Impreza to take the win at the 25th annual New England Forest Rally.
The thing is, you really did have to go into a full-on sprint, because there were only a certain amount of safe zones with enough run-off area to insure that you would not get run over. The last thing you want to do is hide behind a tree, because if a car hit you’d be punted like a rag doll.
Ken and Alex placed 2nd overall, which was not bad considering their car had major mechanical issues the first day, and Ken had a significant off-course excursion on the second day.
What’s interesting, is that even if you already won the rally, or the class you are competing in, it does not actually count until you make it back to the pits via the touring stages on public roads.
There have been cases where a car has won, but for whatever reason could not make it back, and therefore did not end up winning at all.
It was quite surprising to me to see how many fans and media actually came out to greet the winners.
It definitely helps to have big-name drivers like Pastrana and Block, which makes me wonder why more teams don’t compete in Rally America…
I am grateful to see factory-backed efforts like those from Subaru and Ford pushing the motorsport agenda on the younger generation of gear-heads.
Congratulations to David Higgins for bringing home the win. He got a well deserved champagne shower for his efforts too.
So what’s next for the Head Hoonigan? Well, he is currently leading the Red Bull Global Rallycross series with half a season left to go. After missing out on his first RB GRC championship by just a few points last year, he will continue to push hard to earn his first win fair and square.
As for traditional rallying, his next appearance at Rally America will be at the Lake Superior Performance Rally. If you want to experience a rally for yourself – and you really should – I have some advice for you: make sure you wear comfortable hiking boots and pack plenty of bug spray!