We visit a race unlike anything we'll ever see in the Los Angeles basin.
The American Rally Association’s first National event of the year stirs up the quaint, snowy towns of Northern Michigan.
By Collin Morgan
Thu, Feb 20, 2020 01:50 AM PST
Once a year, anti-lag and turbo spool echoes off the hills nestled in the northern tip of the ‘Mitten’, or Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. This sparsely populated area is known best for hunting, canoeing and a hefty annual serving of snow. During this weekend-long rally, Atlanta, Michigan welcomes an influx of racers, fans, and hardy locals eager for this unique spectacle.
Sno*Drift Rally has been running on and off since 1973 and has been classified as a National Event since 1997. The likes of Ken Block and Travis Pastrana have been known to attend. In 2009, Pastrana and co-driver Christian Edstrom claimed victory at the rally in their Subaru Impreza WRX STi. The 120-mile stage route is notorious for being challenging thanks to the consistent snow, ice and slush nearly covering the entire course.
41 teams entered Sno*Drift this year ranging from professional to amateur competitors. A wide diversity of cars blazed through the twisting roads ranging from WRC-style Fiestas to WRXs and even a classic Ford Escort RS1600. The rally consisted of 17 stages, with six scheduled for Friday night, and 11 throughout Saturday.
The Friday night stages were run in the dark. To add more of a challenge, the consistent mist had glazed the roads over with an invisible instant ice rink. Saturday was warmer, with much of the snow turning to slush. Either day, the drivers had no grip whatsoever. To add madness to mayhem, studded tires are NOT ALLOWED at the rally. Deep-grooved rubber was the tire compound of choice.
Barry McKenna and James Patrick Fulton came away with this year’s victory, completing the rally in 2:02:51.2 hours in their 2011 Ford Fiesta R5.
I was given the opportunity to volunteer for the rally and jumped at the chance. The folks I stayed with were fantastic (thanks Pete & Debbie!) and the entire volunteer staff was an outstanding group of individuals. I was appointed the position of Course Marshal, and duties included set-up and tear-down of the stage, crowd control, and clean-up. While that might not sound so glamorous, there was one big bonus.
I was track-side for the entire weekend.
The rowdy crowds were contained by a simple ribbon of yellow caution tape, set back far enough for safety in case any car slid off the road. While the tape didn’t always do its job of corralling fans (hence the need for Marshals), it was necessary. The main perk of being a volunteer is that, within reason, I could stay in front of that yellow tape to keep an eye on the crowds. That also means I was able to get close and personal with each car that flew by. Every pop, every gear change, every kicked-up chunk of snow flew by me at roughly one-minute intervals.
People from all over the world attended and each group brought enough alcohol to incapacitate a herd of moose. I heard Polish, Japanese and thick Midwest accents. Bonfires are the go-to heater around here and roughly 30 fires populated one stage aptly named ‘Bonfire Alley’. Wood pallets seemed to be the choice fuel, and a group from New York brought an entire trailer stacked high with them. A 2-liter Jameson bottle floated around and was quickly emptied. Laughter, new friends and campfire stories dispelled the cold, and comradery bonded people together.
We have the luxury of becoming oblivious to comfort. Warm days, sunny skies and smooth roads become the norm. I highly recommend breaking away from that once in a while. Go stand knee-deep in snow under a strong pine tree and watch a rally. Hold your hands over a crackling fire surrounded by people with stories to tell, passions to share and laughter to unleash. It’ll wake you up. It’ll make you appreciate the small things in life, such as warm cheeks or hot cocoa.
Sno*Drift isn’t just a rally, it’s an experience. You better believe I’ll be back next year.
Check out Sno*Drift’s website to learn more: https://www.sno-drift.org/
About The Author
Collin Morgan is a Grand Rapids, Michigan based writer and enjoys the unique and unusual aspects of the automotive industry. He has experienced the worldwide car culture firsthand and has visited the automotive shrines of Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Pagani in Central Italy, tackled the Autobahn, and toured Wales with a rally club. Back in the States, he frequents car events in Detroit and Chicago and is convinced Michigan is the most underrated state for picturesque drives. He owns a 1999 Miata and has happily allowed many good hair days to be ruined by the open road turbulence.