The world of rallying is unlike any other form of motorsport.
The more you think about it, the more you see how drastically different it is from other sports. Take a look at the cars, for instance. You start with a small econo-box car, gut everything out of it, drop a cage in it, and slam a little engine that makes 300-plus hp with what seems like 5000lb/ft torque. Then, look at where they race, little dirt roads with little to no run-off on either side, sometimes deep in the forest or maybe atop a mountain. There is so much more that goes into it, so I guess the word “diverse” is the best way to describe it. It’s probably what draws all the fans into it to begin with. I mean, it sure worked for me.
Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t surrounded by the world of cars, let alone rallying, as a kid growing up in Los Angeles. But, fortunately for me (and the rest of us), the internet exists. Through the glorious world wide web, I was able to find photos and videos of old school rallying.
Since then, I’ve always wanted to attend (and shoot) a rally event. Last year, I finally was able to attend an event, the New England Forest Rally. But I was there for a press drive and was only able to attend part of the rally.
I was, however bitten by that rally bug and have been thinking about shooting stage rally more and more. It doesn’t help that I also shoot a ton of rallycross, which only makes me more and more obsessed with stage rally.
A few friends told me about Oregon Trail Rally and kept repeating that it is the most beautiful rally in the United States. I had some doubts at first because I thought NEFR was pretty damn beautiful. But after more and more people claimed that it was, I had no other choice but to check it out for myself.
It would be the first rally that I’d chase as Media from start to finish. To be on the safe side, I went along with my friend and (awesome) photographer, Alex Wong. He’s done his fair share of documenting stage rally and I consider him a veteran when it comes to photographing it in the States.
The rally itself took place over the course of three days.
On the first day, the competitors ran four Super Stages at Portland International Raceway
It started in the afternoon and led into night. With over 50 racers attending, it was bound to be an exciting rally.
The featured attraction is always the guys from Subaru Rally Team USA. David Higgins, their star driver, would be racing alongside his teammate, Chris Atkinson. Chris hasn’t competed in a stage rally with Subaru since 2009 when he was racing with Subaru World Rally Team. To say he was excited for his return to rally with the Seven Sisters is somewhat of an understatement. I too was excited to see what would happen as my interest in rallying started around 2006/7 when Atkinson was racing with teammate Peter Solberg in WRC.
The other star entrant was none other than the HHIC, Ken Block. I’ll have a separate post about Ken and his return to US stage rally so keep an eye out for that in the near future. Racing alongside Ken was Mrs. HHIC, Lucy Block, in her R2 Fiesta. Those 1-liter turbo cars are no joke and are extremely quick little rockets.
The Super Stages are nice in that they run into the night and shooting at night is not only exciting, but also presents a challenge for all shooters. The lack of light changes everything.
As expected, the two Subarus of Higgins and Atko were sitting first and second after the first four stages, with Barry McKenna sitting in third with his Ford Fiesta.
The second day of rallying took place early the next morning about two hours east of Portland around Goldendale, Washington. Yes, in another state.
The first of Day 2’s stages took place on Dalles Mountain. They run the course uphill and later again, but downhill.
This stage was the first real stage that showed me how beautiful OTR is. From where I was standing, I could overlook the Columbia River and see Hood River, OR on the other side of it. That sight alone was breathtaking to say the least. And it was just the first stage of the day!
The coolest part of that stage was being able to see Mt. Hood as clear as day from where I was standing. Mt. Hood is known as one of the top skiing (and snowboarding!!) resorts in the US and it’s usually open year-round. Also, it’s a volcano, so that’s cool too.
We were locked in on stage, so we had to watch every racer roll through before the road opened for us to leave. It’s not too bad as I can try shots I didn’t plan for like the one above.
Because of transit and how fast the rally cars are (and because we were locked in on stage), it’s almost impossible to shoot at every stage. Good thing for media though is that the racers will race on certain courses more than once. This brought us from Dalles Mountain (Stage 5) to Badger Gulch (Stage 8) to catch up with the leaders.
We went to a popular spectator area for Badger Gulch as we didn’t want to get locked in on stage this time. Higgins was still leading the rally by this point and flew by pretty quickly. Horror struck, though, when Atko flew by and went down into the gulch but didn’t emerge from it. Everything fell silent as everyone was trying to figure out what had happened. I ran down to find out that his engine caught on fire briefly and everything just stopped working. Luckily, he and his co-driver were fine. This meant that they were out of the run for a win. It sucked because he was only a few seconds off of Higgins’s pace and even had a similar amount of stage wins up to that point.
We quickly stopped by a service area after the stage to see what was going on. Higgins made a quick stop for fuel and was off while mechanics were working on getting Atko’s car ready for Sunday’s stages.
Sorry for pointing my camera at your face, man.
Our next stop was going to be at the Maryhill Loops. It’s the most popular location for the rally and draws in a good amount of spectators. The competitors run on this freshly groomed tarmac stage that’s not only beautiful for media, but also easily accessible for everyone.
Seriously, it’s like a fresh touge road made specifically to drive on with spirit. There’s literally no run-off though so any slight mistake and the drivers are off.
We finished off the day by going back to Dales Mountain for our sunset spot.
Again, we locked ourselves in as there was no rush to leave.
One by one, we shot the cars as they flew by us at dangerously fast speeds of which my grandma would never approve.
I spent some time on this specific shot and was happy that I got a sharp(ish) one of this BRZ.
Lucy passed us right at dusk
On our way back, I noticed the SRT USA guys working on Higgins’s car right off the road, literally. I had to stop and snap this photo.
Higgins was leading by quite a margin, leading into the third and final day of the rally. All the stages for this day would take place in and around Dufur, Oregon.
The first spot we hit is called Boyd Loop for Stage 13 where we got locked in. It’s famous for having Mt. Hood right by it. This is a photo of Alex setting up his shot and me being his focus point before the cars roll through.
The main jump at OTR isn’t all too big but the top guys will have their foot pinned to the floor and go full send and fly well over 100ft through it. So, it’s still extremely exciting in photos and videos.
This is a BMW 2002 that’s being rallied. I figured you would all enjoy it as much as I did when I saw it drive by.
After a quick lunch break we went to Deere Run for Stage 17. Again, we locked ourselves in.
Deere Run is famous because it has the water crossing on stage which is what we spent 2 hours shooting.
Similar to the jump, many of the top competitors didn’t bother lifting while going through the water. Even, after hearing that two competitors broke down on the first run through Deere Run earlier in the day, people were still giving it their all.
Shooting at the water crossing was probably the most amount of fun I’ve had while at the rally. It’s so dynamic in that every car that hits it causes the water to splash differently.
This guy didn’t have the best of luck. He babied it through the water but still broke his front bumper. It didn’t help that the water was about 40 feet across, both ways.
Our final spot was at Boyd Loop again, but at a different location. We didn’t stay here for too long, but Alex calls it the Windows XP spot, which it kind of was.
Higgins ended up winning the rally by quite a large margin. Block managed to grab a third place overall in his 30-year old Group A Escort RS Cosworth.
The Oregon Trail Rally definitely showed me some beauty I never thought I’d see in motorsports. I can’t wait to see what other rallies are like now. Which one should I go to next?