Racetracks. Who needs ‘em? Not rally drivers, that’s for sure, and they’re darn proud of it. Today, we tip our hats to a special group of Adventure seekers who believe high-octane auto racing should take place anywhere but on a circuit.
If you think you’d like to try your hand at rallying, there are a few important things you need to know before entering your first race.
To many car enthusiasts, rally racing is the most exciting automotive sport, and for a good reason. It’s the only form of racing, apart from drift events, where sliding around corners is not only justifiable but actually faster than when trying to keep all wheels gripping at all times.
In this guide, we’ll take a look at everything someone needs to get started in rally racing. We’ll focus mostly on stage rallies and see what kind of a car is required for the job, how to get a racing license, and what kind of crew and support equipment is needed.
A Short History of Rally Racing
Officially kicking off in 1894 with France’s Concours des Voitures sans Chevaux, or Horseless Carriage Competition, rally racing gained early prominence throughout Europe over the course of the 20th century as a past time that showcased drivers’ skills and automotive manufacturers’ mechanical prowess.
Though different countries boasted different permutations, the general set of rules were simple: he who completes the race in the fastest time wins.
But unlike events housed on a set track, rally drivers were limited only by control points (like checkpoints) they needed to cross during their journeys, leaving considerable room for creative maneuvering.
As is the case today, races could be held on any type of roadway–public, private, smooth or gravelly, sandy or snowy–and drivers were accompanied by co-pilots who helped them navigate demanding terrain at high speeds.
As rallying evolved, so to did the length and intensity of the courses.
There are two types of rally racing events: stage rallies and road rallies.
Since the 1960s, stage rallies have been the standard professional rally event. They always take place on private roads, closed to non-competition traffic, and test drivers by subjecting them and their vehicles to especially challenging terrain, from ice to brush-ridden forest floor tracks.
In stage rallies, the emphasis is on raw speed.
Road rallies are usually amateur events held on public roadways open to normal traffic. Though road drivers are not asked to conquer harrowing terrain, they’re often faced with any combination of navigation, timekeeping or problem-solving tests depending upon the specific event in which they’re enrolled.
Participating in road rallies can be likened to orienteering with cool, fast cars. Strategy rather than speed is usually the prime success factor here.
In both types of races, drivers’ “co-drivers” offer “pacenotes” or navigational tips about forthcoming terrain, including turns and jumps. Sometimes driver/co-driver teams are allowed to run a course before the race begins and create their own pacenotes in a process called reconnaissance or “recce”.
Sometimes pacenotes called “route notes” or “stage notes” are provided to teams. It all depends upon the event.
The Rally Car
Most important, and most expensive, is the small issue of actually buying a rally car. No one’s going to give one to you, so if you don’t have some spare cash on hand, and you’re unwilling to outfit your current commuter mobile with some significant upgrades, you’d better start saving.
Though rally vehicles don’t have to be expensive, they do need to be able to take a beating. That means they must have all-terrain tires, all wheel drive, a higher-than-normal suspension and a roll cage in case you flip. Spoilers are always a nice touch, too.
Most serious stage rally events have an extensive list of rules when it comes to cars allowed to compete in them.
Naturally, the most important aspect would be the power output of the engine. Cars are often divided into classes, such as “Open AWD Light” or “Stock Heavy”.
Of course, there are quite a few safety regulations too. Unsurprisingly, a racing helmet for the driver is a must in all stage rally events. More often than not, the driver must also have a race suit and boots, as well as a HANS device.
And when it comes to the car itself, a roll cage is usually a requirement in the event host’s set of rules, along with a fire extinguisher and other safety devices.
So there’s a bit of planning ahead to do before buying a car for rally racing, but, technically at least, any car can be modified to compete in any event.
Understandably, beginners should stick to buying used cars. In rally racing, the car will undergo much more abuse than in track racing. Especially in events where multiple cars are racing at the same time.
Almost every used cars dealer has something to offer for beginners. We also think that people who are looking for their first rally car should go for something less powerful, and preferably not RWD.
Naturally, AWD is the dream for anyone who wants to go fast on dirt. But cars that output the power to the rear exclusively require a more refined gas pedal control and can be too much for amateurs to handle. Plus, most entry-level stage rallies only allow FWD anyway.
To get started, search sites like CloseRatio.com to get a sense for what kinds of cars are out there and what parts they need. When you’re ready to either buy a ride or modify one you have, visit a local rally track to ask for recommendations on retailers, mechanics and body shops in your area.
Here’s our list of top 5 rally racing cars for beginners:
Small, light, easy to handle and simple to work on. Long and rich racing heritage.
Any Old Volvo
The Volvo 240 is especially popular with Rally beginners as you can usually pick one up (in the USA) for somewhere between $500 and $2500.
Any Old VW Golf
Known for their reliability and long-lasting engines. Simple to work on.
Ford Fiesta MK6
A more expensive option, but it’s a car used by many rally racing teams.
Škoda Fabia MKI
A cheap European car that was popular in rallying in the early 2000’s.
Of course, preparing a car for rally racing requires time and a considerable amount of money, in order to meet the event guidelines.
A good professional mechanic can easily do all the work. And those who understand tools that are more advanced than a hammer, and whose name is not Jeremy Clarkson, can do most of it on their own.
Learn to Drive Like a Pro
Once you’ve snagged a ride, you’ll need to learn how to drive it. Rally racing is way different than driving to your local 711 to pick up a gallon of milk and you’ll need to be trained to handle different environments and road surfaces.
Luckily, performance driving courses only last 1-2 days on average and are pretty affordable.
Now, we know there are some people who think that they don’t need lessons and a racing license.
It’s good that they have confidence in their skills, but racing is a lot different than driving on the road. Yes, the steering wheel and the pedals are in the same place on both rally and road cars.
However, while the point of road driving is not to make the passengers reach for the Jesus handle, racing is quite the opposite.
Competitive racing is about pushing the vehicle to the limit and exploiting every single stroke of the cylinders and every millimeter of the brake pads to the max. And, of course, that means going fast.
At speed, a split second decision can be the difference between a podium finish and crashing into a ditch.
Successfully operating a rally racing car can’t be taught in a day. Taking lessons and passing the test is only the first step. So we urge anyone interested in participating in rally events to be smart about it and respect the guidelines.
Naturally, it’s easier to start with an FWD car with less than 200hp. Even in a car as simple as that, there’s a lot to learn.
In rallying specifically, handbrake turns must be second nature to the driver. Also, it takes some time to get used to the understeer that comes with driving a front-heavy car on dirt.
Lastly, practice tracks aren’t that hard to find. Sessions on them are a fairly inexpensive and safe way to sharpen one’s skills. Here is a list of tracks to get you started:
Track Name: Circuit of the Americas
Location: Austin, Texas
Track Name: Road Atlanta
Location: Braselton, GA
Track Name: Palmer Motor Sports Park
Location: Ware, MA
Track Name: Sonoma Raceway
Location: Sonoma, CA
Track Name: Virginia International Raceway
Location: Alton, VA
Track Name: Lime Rock Park
Location: Lakeville, CT
Track Name: Road America
Location: Elkhart Lake, WI
Track Name: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
Location: Lexington, OH
Get a License
Rallying is driving and all drivers need licenses. Unfortunately, your DMV issue won’t work. New racers will need to visit the NASA Rally Sport website and pony up $40 for a membership fee and $50 for a license. Both are payable annually to prevent expiration.
First of all, all drivers who want to participate in rally events must have a license. Don’t sweat it though, the license can cost less than 100$ and is valid for the whole year.
Also, drivers sometimes need to be members of the Rally Club that hosts the event.
Furthermore, the drivers need to submit a medical form. They are used to evaluate if someone is fit for competition automobile racing, and whether they can withstand the environment they may operate in during a race.
Most rally racing organizations provide lessons and can issue a racing license. And those that can’t can at least direct someone interested to a school that can do that.
Assemble Your Team
Finding a racing partner to help you navigate will be essential, as will hiring a crew you trust to service and repair your ride. Again, a visit to your local rally track should help in wrangling the proper personnel to fill these positions.
In rallying, the co-driver is as important as the driver himself and should be the first team member to pick when forming a crew. There’s no real hierarchy among the two. During the race, they should be in sync like Simon & Garfunkel.
But, of course, their synergy alone won’t win many races if their car is misfiring and a wheel keeps coming off. So having a good mechanic is the way to ensure that the car is in good condition and set up properly.
It goes without saying that most people interested in rally racing are able to maintain and tune the car to some extent. But a specialist will usually have much more experience and knowledge, which is essential for quickly changing the setup for a series of events.
Manager & Marketing
Those aiming to form an official team should consider hiring a manager and a marketing expert as well. Maybe not at the very start, but as the team keeps growing, they will become a necessity eventually.
On the other hand, there are certain rally racing events where showing up alone, or with a co-driver only, is perfectly fine.
For example, in Finland, there are so-called “folk racing” rally events. The budget for the car is small and no one takes the racing too seriously.
In fact, a beaten up 1980’s Volvo appears to be a popular car choice among the participants.
Obviously, where there’s a car, there’s a need for tools. However, a common wrench and a screwdriver aren’t enough to work on a racing car.
Only more advanced tools will enable working on the engine, transmission, suspension and electronics. And let’s not forget a portable lift to access the bottom side of the car.
Upon that, the team will need some way to communicate with each other, such as a radio communication device. Also, a laptop with Internet connection is a must for basically anything today. The laptop can also come in handy when working on the car electronics.
And of course, the tools and the other equipment have to be transported in some way. Therefore, a team should have a trailer dedicated to that. Also, it’s a good idea to install storage compartments such as a tool drawer inside the trailer.
Furthermore, another trailer is needed to transport the car.
Understandably, a rally racing car is illegal to drive on the road. And even if it weren’t, it would be a nightmare to drive hundreds of miles to the next event, as racing cars are usually very uncomfortable and noisy.
Lastly, the team members will need a cool RV to travel around in. Some events last for several days, so it’s good to have somewhere to rest and feel a bit like at home.
Sign Up For Your First Race
It should come as no surprise that the last item on your rally racer to-do list is actually signing up for some races, and though it may take you some time to work up to the World Rally Championship, the premiere event for rally racers everywhere, new drivers can search events by division and region by visiting NASA Rally Sport or the Sports Car Club of America.
And now, you’re off to the races! Just don’t forget your tenacity and a healthy sense of recklessness.
Start Rallying Now
Whether you’re planning on rallying as a hobby or you want to become a professional racer, we hope this article helps you with taking your first steps. There’s a lot to learn, and it takes a lot of time to be successful in the sport.
Also, rallying can easily be quite expensive. But at the entry-level at least, it can be less expensive than golf. Plus, you really can’t put a price on the thrill that comes with securing a podium finish by pulling off a perfect Scandinavian flick.
Here are some of the coolest Rallies in the world brought to you by The Adventurists:
- The Dakar Rally: World’s Toughest Off-Road Race
- The Africa Rally
- The Budapest-Bamako Rally
- The Mongol Rally