Story by Paul Eklund, Photos by Yulia Smolyansky
Jim’s breath is visible. It hangs in the cold mountain air as a cloud, then dissipates with his next breath. He draws the air in slowly. With temperatures this low, it can sting both throat and lungs.
It is silent in the woods. Only the occasional crack of a frozen branch, succumbing to the weight of snow heaped on its boughs, breaks the quiet. He shifts from one foot, stomping the other. The deep snow dampens all sound, the trees look like Christmas. This is Canada in the heart of winter.
Soon another crack is heard, followed in quick succession by a staccato “pop-pop.” Something mechanical has entered the forest. Jim glances down at the red digits of his clock. They march at an even pace, unrelenting. He can hear the car approaching now, tires crunching against crusty snow and ice, engine straining up the grade. It swings into view, and heads swiftly towards the hidden rally checkpoint.
Jim left his own car ½ mile up the road and is standing back from the road, concealed in the woods. He smiles as he recognizes the front of the vintage Ford Cortina, two ancient Cibie Oscar driving lamps imbedded in the grillwork. As the car flashes past his position, he triggers the clock, and records their time.
The time at which their meandering path through the woods on a cold, February day intersects with his hidden checkpoint location. They are less than one second off of perfection. 36 other cars, from Subarus to Celicas, and even a big, black Cadillac Coupe de Ville will follow suit, each rally team trying to hit that same random intersection of mileage and speed at exactly the right time. The act will be repeated at about 45 other checkpoints over the Thunderbird Rally weekend.
Inside the car:
“Left at Tee, CAST 35; watch out here, [it] looks a bit polished off,” chirps the navigator. We will call him Russ. “…and looks like one of the early cars, or maybe a checkpoint worker bounced off the snowbank.”
The driver, named Garth, just grunts in reply, and flicks the little Cortina around the hard left, throwing the car into a long, deliberate slide. Glancing at the digital display in front of him, he corrects the slide and applies throttle. Just 3 hundredths of a minute down (late) after a 90 degree turn on packed snow with an underlayment of ice.
“Nice,” he thought and smiled for the briefest of moments until an uphill twisty section grabbed his full attention.
The Cortina spat and backfired as he downshifted into 2nd gear. Maintaining even 35 MPH in these conditions proved difficult, but what would one expect for a 56-year-old car, crammed with modern rally electronics, being pushed through a snowy mountain logging road in Southern British Columbia in the middle of winter?
The car clawed up the hill, studded Cooper WeatherMaster tires spinning then biting into the ice, leaving not a lot of power to spare. The driver was working as hard as the 1960’s drivetrain. To maintain a proper average speed on the icy forest road, bursts of speed were needed after each corner to get back on time.
“Seems like a good place for a checkpoint” adds Russ, but after a moment, “but I don’t see any worker cars here…just the one back about a half-mile…”
The Thunderbird (winter) Rally is rich in history. Starting in the heyday of TSD Rallying (Time/Speed/Distance Rallies), 2018 marks its 47th running, with the first year being 1957. Back then, nearly everyone it seemed would take their car out for a weekend “drive.” Rallies added a competitive aspect, challenging roads, and sometimes extremely challenging conditions.
The gas crisis of the 1970’s put a damper on the flourishing rally scene, and cars like the Pinto and Vega were not so fun to drive as the Shelby Mustangs and Austin-Healeys of the 60’s. By the 1980’s many rallies had ceased to exist. The Thunderbird took a few years off. But in the late 80’s a young man named Paul started helping put rallies on, including the venerable Thunderbird in Southern British Columbia. The rest they say, is history.
It was not long before Paul became a Rally Master, and began to design, write, and execute some of the best touring rallies on the West Coast (or anywhere for that matter). He developed a knack for finding interesting, rural roads in Southern Canada, linking them together, then picking the absolute PERFECT average speeds (CASTs) to delight both driver and navigator.
Just hard enough to present a challenge with a low chance (but still a chance) of ending up in a ditch.
That’s the formula that has made his rallies popular with novices and seasoned rallyists alike. Add variables like snow and ice during the winter events, sprinkle in excellent checkpoint locations, and top with a dedicated group of expert rally workers (like Jim) and you get a great rally.
The Cortina was high in the overall standings all weekend, but a little time spent in a snowy ditch towards the end of rally pushed them down the standings.
A green Subaru Impreza wagon was leading the event with an impressive low score after day one (yes, this is 2 days long), but they too swept past a checkpoint on a long, downhill, sweeping left turn and ended up in the ditch on the outside of the corner, just past the timing point, dashing their chance at victory.
Another car, this one a 1980’s vintage BMW 325IX (the AWD one), starting the day only a second behind the green Subaru, won the rally by 2 seconds over a hard-charging red Subaru Forester (piloted by your author).
To give an idea, the winning score was 15 seconds of penalty over 320 miles of rallying across 46 timed checkpoints…. The big, black 1996 Cadillac finished 29th of 35 with 1221 seconds of penalty (that’s 20 minutes, 35 seconds off of perfect time).
Each team, from the real (tiny) Austin Mini Cooper, to the fully outfitted Porsche Cayenne diesel, to the lowly PT Cruiser, came away with big smiles, and larger than life stories of their own…
Editor’s Note: Thunderbird Rally is hosted by Rally BC.