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Rally America National Championship 2016 Comes to a Colorful Close at LSPR

Stage rallies are challenging for both race teams and media crews alike; weather conditions vary from rain, snow or shine, and courses range from oily muck to rutted gravel. Each stage could be set miles apart with tricky access points for spectating. While drivers race for their next best time, photographers aim for their next best shot. It’s a rush we simply can’t resist.

Some of the best rally cars are seen at the Rally America National Championship, and we were there for the eighth and final round – the Lake Superior Performance Rally (LSPR) in Houghton, Michigan. It comes every year just in time for the peak fall colors, and the 15 stages of this year’s event did not disappoint.

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Friday, October 14, before fans scattered to the spectating areas, crowds gathered at the Parc Expose to gawk at rally cars and chat with the race teams. The crowd swarming around pro-drivers Travis Pastrana and David Higgins went to extremes.

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Once the first rally car rumbled back to life, everyone dispersed like a raindrop on an anthill and headed to the competitors’ first challenge.

A Rally Car Mud Bog

The cars got dirty early into the first stage, where a muddy .23-mile course was roped off on the Fairgrounds. It was a hippo’s paradise, but not for long: with each car’s passing, the ruts dug deeper, and the four-wheel-drives repeatedly split the sludgy lake in half like Moses.

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The two-wheel-drive cars made it through at full-throttle, and the GMC Sonoma looked right at home with its extra-long mud flaps dragging across the surface.

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Alas, the teams still had bigger fish to fry. After the mud war came to an end, racers headed to the next start line while spectators rushed to their post in the woods to listen for the faint hint of an engine’s rev or a blowoff valve’s hiss. Every five minutes, a car would skid around a corner into sight and race right by out of sight, leaving echoes of exhaust backfires.

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For spectators, it was a game of “hurry up and wait.” After each stage, everyone hastily picked up and drove (some hiked) to the next location. For media, the next best shot was all about being in the right location at the perfect time.

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This series of events continued into the night, when often the only visible things were blinding headlights and red-hot rotors. Instead, it was all about the sounds after sunset: burley exhaust notes, harsh, smile-inducing backfires and whirring turbos.

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Late Nights and Early Rising

We kicked Saturday morning off with coffee and rally cars at the Parc Expose in L’Anse, and found that hundreds of spectators had the same idea. While avoiding two-legged traffic, we spotted a row of vintage rally cars neatly displayed near the waterside.

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Before leaving for the morning’s first stage, Subaru Rally Team USA pro-driver Travis Pastrana took a moment to update us on Friday’s events.

“The vehicle’s setup is spot-on," he said, "and we are running with no mechanical issues, which puts us in a good position for the final day."

Let the Races Begin

More than 10 entrants were down for the count by day two, and the light overnight rains and spitting sprinkles throughout the day caused some low-traction areas, as witnessed by the progressive damage on various vehicles. Overall, however, the day held perfect, temperate rally weather for both drivers and spectators alike. 

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New to the event this year was a city stage formed with concrete barriers in downtown Houghton. Immense energy radiated from thousands of excited onlookers. Some folks had to get creative to catch a glimpse of the action.

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On ground level, exhaust backfires and rev limiters echoed between the tall brick buildings while the erotic perfume of race gas whirled up our nostrils. The cement walls looked intimidating; squealing tires and intense body roll action around the sharp corners complemented the challenging course.

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The Diverse World of Rally Racing

Anything from a 2016 Subaru WRX STI to a 1974 Ford Capri could be seen kicking up gravel and slop at the Lake Superior Performance Rally.

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Travis Wallick and Cameron Carr competed for the first time in a mellow yellow 1976 Volkswagen Golf recently imported into the U.S. from Finland three months prior.

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Drivers fought varying course conditions throughout the weekend’s 15 stages, and several teams were forced to forfeit; but some, like the Relentless Rally Team, stuck it out against all odds.

“The power steering rack on the car blew on the first stage of day two,” reported driver Dylan Helferich, “but we pushed through and finished 4th in our class.”

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And the Winners Are…

The much-admired 1991 Porsche 911 handled by Ramana Lagenmann and Nathalie Richard drifted into 1st in 2WD and 6th place overall.

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Team Subaru dominated the stages. Driver David Higgins with co-driver Craig Drew boosted ahead to 1st place with a 1:32:06.8 overall time, while Travis Pastrana and Robbie Durant trailed behind in 2nd, trailing by just 1:32.5.

With the conclusion of this season, post-rally depression is bound to set in, so we made sure to provide plenty of photos for your viewing pleasure to hold you over until the 2017 opening season at Sno*Drift in Atlanta, Michigan, in the gallery below.

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