It was a crash that, Matthew Johnson puts lightly, typically does damage to the driver.
In just the second race of the 2007 Rally America Championship series, Johnson's Hankook Tire Subaru WRX flew off course along a tree-lined stage of the 100 Acre Wood Rally near Salem, Mo.
Suddenly the reigning Production GT national champion and man to beat, who knew a huge crash definitely did not fit his budget, was out with a concussion, broken leg and a totaled vehicle.
No one said a national rally title would come easy.
"Rally will demand more of you than you think you can ever give - and then you find out if you have the heart and can make it work," Johnson said.
So Johnson embarked on a gut-checking six weeks he never wants to relive. He endured a bout with carpal tunnel syndrome from the consecutive 18-hour shop days, and he called in every last favor to find a new shell and to build a new car from the ground up. Somehow Johnson and co-driver Jeremy Wimpey were ready for the Oregon Trail Rally, then the next race in the nine-race series, and jumped to a 12-second lead after the first day.
Then their gearbox blew up. A second consecutive DNF (Did Not Finish) could've deflated Johnson's hopes for defending his title.
But he went out and won the next two races.
Which brings us to Steamboat Springs, host to the series' eighth event, Rally Colorado.
It felt like home turf. At least as close to home as anything for Johnson, who claims Apex, N.C., but estimates he rarely spends more than four days in one place aside from the five months he resides in Steamboat each winter, teaching at the Bridgestone Winter Driving School.
What brought Johnson to the school was the knowledge that race rival Tanner Foust's driving had matured there. That little edge gnawed at Johnson as he and Foust battled in the Production GT class of the 2005 and 2006 Rally America seasons.
"He was the first rally driver I knew that could drive faster than me in a similar car," Johnson said about Foust, who was based out of Steamboat for eight years while teaching at the Winter Driving School. "I would go all out and Tanner would be tied or just ahead or right there with me."
Neck and neck for the national PGT title going into the 2006 Rally Colorado, Johnson caught a break when the wet muck of otherwise slick Routt County dirt roads caked up in Foust's rear suspension. Foust was leading by more than a minute into the race's final stage when he hit a hole, popping up the back of his car, shooting it off a 30-foot drop, "hitting the ground like a lawn dart," and rolling twice into a fence.
Johnson went on to take the race and the 2006 title, but he still felt he needed that extra edge. So that winter, Johnson followed Foust's footsteps, heading to the Winter Driving School's iced-over training course and perfecting his slide.
And that slide was never more important than in Johnson's return to Rally Colorado at the end of his trying 2007 season, for mud was the critical factor after heavy rains. Foust, who had used his own national PGT title in 2005 to advance to the elite open class, avoided another off-course crash to take second in the top field. Meanwhile, Johnson slid to a win in the PGT class and repeated his national title with a win at the series finale Lake Superior Rally in Michigan - again, with a little help from his closest competitor flying off course into a pond.
"Hey, that's rally," Johnson said. "You can be winning one minute and then sitting on the roof of your car the next."
Mark Cox also understands the risk. It's the factor that the Steamboat resident and Winter Driving School director knows can instantly turn a vehicle with 1,600 hours of work and many more thousands of dollars invested into "no more than a wad of foil."
But the ability to handle rally's inherent risk has defined the developing success of the Rally Colorado event that he helped found.
Fortunately, he has good help navigating turns.
Steamboat's Jim Gill has been hooked since his first 1974 Canadian rally in a Datsun 510. The experienced co-driver has teamed with Cox for nearly 50 races since 1995, from the Rally America series to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
That unique trust forged on course is precisely what enabled the duo to put their necks out together to create a new performance rally event and hope to break even.
Gill and Cox had helped organize the Steamboat Springs Vintage Auto Race, which tested a broad range of classic road racers every Labor Day weekend from 1984 to 1998 on a road track around Mount Werner Circle.
But before they could replace the excitement and economic impact of the popular road races and their ancillary events, Gill and Cox had to create a solid foundation.
"We didn't spend a lot of time in the early years in marketing, promotion and PR, and we avoided the distractions of making lots of bells and whistles, parties and car shows and losing track of the core elements that make it a good rally," Gill said. "We came in to this to create a competitors' event - making sure the mileages were right and roads were challenging, and it was fun and it was safe."
What started as the small regional performance rally in fall 2001 dubbed "Colorado Cog Rally" grew as drivers discovered a unique mix of technicality, open terrain and high speeds while local support - from sponsors to new committee member volunteers - strengthened around the organizational nucleus of Gill and Cox.
The pair chalks up this initial success to a combination of positives, between the strength of the organizing committee, the structure and facilities of a resort community hospitable to tourists to the support from Routt County commissioners, the town of Hayden and the West Routt Fire Protection District. Gill sees a win-win event that brings late summer crowds to Steamboat without congesting its streets, as the races move to the minimum-maintenance county roads west of town for two days of weekend racing.
The risky volunteer venture expanded from a race pulling in about 20 entries to one with the potential to break 40 entries every year, becoming a national-level rally in 2004 and part of the Rally America Championship series in 2005. Re-branded last year as "Rally Colorado," the two-day, 18-stage, 110-mile championship race also included two shorter regional rally race courses and proved the organization's ability to integrate those "bells and whistles" - from the Parc Expose car shows, post-race video shows, a media/sponsor ride-along stage, champagne toast and awards parties.
Now Cox thinks Rally Colorado is one of the series' only races strong enough to stand alone.
"There's potential for it to step up to the next level," Cox said. "It's a long, complicated international process. At this point, we're not headed that way. But is it possible? Yeah."
Rocks and rolls
For now, Gill and Cox are satisfied with the successful realization of their event - a demanding race that not only earns the respect of drivers, but also extends a sport gathering attention from a growing fan base to Steamboat.
Although organizers lament the disparity between tepid American and rampant international interest in rally while drivers lament the disparity in manufacturer support and paycheck size, Gill and Cox feel a positive change in the wind. One factor is Rally America's partnership with ESPN, in which series drivers can qualify for the Summer X Games and a shot under the national spotlight.
The partnership works both ways. As top drivers thirst for an X Games invite, the X-factor heads to rally.
"The name recognition has been phenomenal; you get some of those top guys, and it draws out the crowds and brings people," Gill said of the crossover drivers from the action sports world that include DC Shoes co-founder Ken Block, prolific freestyle motocross rider Kenny Bartram and BMX legend Dave Mirra.
Most notable in the bunch is Travis Pastrana. The visibility of Pastrana's double-backflipping freestyle motocross fanaticism brought immediate rally recognition to new audiences (and value to sponsorship dollars) as Pastrana, at age 23, took home X Games gold in the first rally event held at the 2006 summer games, which the Subaru Rally Team USA driver followed with back-to-back Rally America open-class national titles in 2006 and 2007.
But before all that, the open landscape visibility and tempting hammer-down speeds of the Rally Colorado course got the better of Pastrana. Three years later, people still talk about the jaw-dropping carnage Gill calls "surely the best-documented crash ever in U.S. rally."
To view the full footage of Pastrana's errant 100-plus mph turn into eight violent flips, go to www.vtcar.com and click on "Check out the Travis Crash." If you're not intrigued by the sight and sound of a vehicle worth more than $200,000 ripping itself apart as it is hurtles through a cloud of Routt County dirt, you better check your pulse.
The flip side
Based on his own flip the next year, Foust understands the challenge for drivers and prospective fans.
"The unique part about rally is that rather than going around the same corner 100 times, you go around 100 corners one time, so it's the opposite approach to NASCAR," said Foust, who dethroned Pastrana at the 2007 X Games by winning gold. "With NASCAR I think you take a motor sport and make it the most spectator-friendly thing possible where you see the whole race in front of you in a lawn chair with a beer in hand. Rally is really quite a challenge and it's really survival for these drivers, navigating through a course without breaking something, and it takes a different kind of fan."
The discerning spectator willing to soak in one of the point-to-point stages and take advantage of chances to access drivers in service areas or shows can get a closer perspective to appreciate all that goes into the race discipline.
That means international melting pots of crews from every corner of the World Rally Championship circuit map for the top open-class teams. An engineer from Japan will be working on the suspension of Foust's Rockstar Energy Drink Subaru Impreza WRX STI alongside technicians from Belgium managing the heat from a turbo spinning through thin Colorado air at more than 130,000 rpm.
The drivers need gearing up, too.
"You don't need to be muscular to race a car with power steering, you need to control your core and your neck and your reaction needs to be there," said Block, detailing his three weekly weight training sessions prior to winning the 2007 Rally Colorado, 24 seconds ahead of Foust in second. "It's very specific with a lot of fast-twitch muscles as opposed to bulk. Beyond that, I'll do five to seven cardio workouts a week and various reaction exercises."
And that split-second reaction is exactly what drives the drivers.
"What I like about rally is the unknown," said Pastrana, who emerged from an off-course flight unscathed to take third at last year's Rally Colorado. "With any kind of circuit racing, you know if you're coming in too fast or too slow or you know what's coming up."
This is where the co-driver becomes integral. Strapped in while the road blurs by, the co-driver matches studied route book to odometer, firing off a string of directions at specific mileage points prior to entering a new line of road. A single, eight-mile Rally Colorado stage has 15 pages of seemingly indecipherable note directions reading like, "!R4 + > stay out rox," to be instantly interpreted and relayed to the driver.
Unfortunately, the degree of trust in this rapid, collaborative visualization is one no spectator could ever observe.
"You could be at night in the dark flying a jump where your headlights are straight in the air," Pastrana said, "and you're going 120 mph in the snow with a cliff on one side and trees on the other assuming that the road's still under you because that's what he said. Now, if you'd been down that road 10 to 20 times, you'd know you're fine. But with rally, you're like, 'I hope this is right.' If it looks like a hairpin left and (my co-driver) says it's wide-open right, we're wide-open right."
The on-road response levels the playing field so premium is placed on raw driving skill and the talented cream can rise up through entry classes toward bigger budgets and faster street-legal cars.
"That's the beauty of rally - so much more focus is on the driver than the parts in the car," said Johnson, who's racing a new Subaru WRX STI with the Hankook-RalliSpec Rally Team this season, finally breaking the sponsorship support threshold of not having to race, and risk, his own vehicle. "Driving skill can make up for tens of thousands of dollars in parts."
He and Foust are now going head to head once again in some of the finest modified rally machines and in the thick of the championship title hunt in the open class. After the first five races, Johnson was sitting in fourth overall with four top-five finishes and eyeing his first X Games invite, just ahead of Foust in sixth, with a pair of podium finishes to his name.
But when these two local racers - at least ones who mastered their skills locally on ice and snow - return to the slide through the corners of slick "home course" county roads, they will not just be gunning for one another.
Cox plans to have his new Subaru open-class rig ready to race by September. He'll step aside from the organizational role that has kept him from the one series race he has yet to experience from the driver seat. The veteran racer finally will have his shot at the rough Rally Colorado roads that he and Gill, who will remain the event's chairman, have used and worked on for nearly 10 years to establish their rock-solid event.