Craig Wade's childhood, like that of many of his peers in the Oxford County hamlet of Peru, revolved around cars. He started driving go-carts when he was eleven and soon moved to circle-track racing and then oval-track competitions at Oxford Plains Speedway. But on one weekend every July, rain or shine, Wade has hung up his own driving gloves and headed into the woods to watch dozens of street-legal passenger cars turn the logging roads near his hometown into a grand prix, Maine style.
For the past fifteen years the Maine Forest Rally has pitted up to fifty teams of racers against the same dusty, pot-holed, and notoriously washboard-prone back roads that have sent more than a few local cars to an early automotive grave. Wade and the 2,000 other Mainers who set up lawn chairs in the woods to observe the summer rally (a similar event is held each winter) say the event allows them to witness top-notch racing in the laid-back, natural environment where most of them grew up.
"It's more of a down-home feeling because you're not sitting on hot bleachers with 10,000 people, you're comfortable sitting in the shade of the woods," explains Wade, now a college student. "Having the free range to be able to stand wherever you want is something that you don't get in any other sport. You actually feel the little pebbles the cars kick up when they go by."
While rally racing — competing with heavily modified passenger cars on off-road courses — has been popular abroad for decades, it has only received attention and sponsors in the United States in the past few years (it'll be featured at the X Games this August for the first time). The two-day Maine event consists of several competitions on temporarily closed logging roads that can be from four to twenty miles long, interspersed with several timed "transits" where racers travel on paved roads between the off-road segments. But don't expect to find the Cannonball Run on the residential byways between Mexico, Newry, and Oquossoc, where this year's event will be held — drivers are actually penalized if they complete a transit too quickly, and they're eliminated if they get a speeding ticket.
But watch out once the cars, many of them turbocharged Subarus, hit the logging roads in one-minute intervals. "You're going fifty to eighty miles per hour on the turns, a hundred or more when it opens up," says Dave Getchell, of Camden, a driver with the Last Ditch Racing team. "The co-driver is reading the course book to tell you what dips, crests, or turns are coming up, and the driver is actually turning the wheel before he sees the turn in the road. It's kind of like playing music, where the timing and delivery is everything."
Luckily, the three Maine teams know the tune.
"The Maine Forest Rally is known as one of the roughest, most brutal rallies, but for us it's like driving to camp," explains John Cassidy, a physician's assistant from Bangor who formed the Last Ditch Racing team in 1999. "We've driven on these roads all our lives — it's just Maine." But even he knows to respect the driving conditions in the Pine Tree State; Cassidy and Getchell were ranked among the top ten rally racers last year before crashing during the Maine event (fortunately, more than 150 feet of roll cage is welded into each car, and the pair walked away unscathed).
John Buffam, a retired champion rally driver and an organizer of the Maine event, says most racers look forward to competing in northern New England. "People from New York City or Pennsylvania or wherever they come from where there's more asphalt, they really enjoy coming to the backwoods of Maine, so to speak," he says.
Ironically, the adrenaline junkies who compete in the Maine Forest Rally say the western Maine logging roads are where they feel safest. "I find it terrifying driving in traffic on the way home after a rally weekend," Getchell says. "People are flying around in their SUVs while yakking on their cell phones or arguing with someone in the back seat, and I just wonder: 'How do these people keep from crashing into one other?' "
Chances are, Craig Wade and the other spectators who head into the woods to watch the Maine Forest Rally this year will be asking themselves that very same question.
Fast and furious
With rally cars costing tens of thousands of dollars and many drivers burning through up to a dozen tires in a weekend, rally racing is an expensive hobby. But for the pairs of drivers and the handful of people comprising their service crew (teams get just twenty minutes between off-road stages and highway transits), the thrill of tearing through scenic parts of Maine and elsewhere on the rally circuit is worth every penny they put in. For spectators, rally racing offers the chance to watch high-octane action up-close and without the hype or monotony of NASCAR.