Motorsport is mad. Bear with me for a minute, but imagine trying to describe the phenomenon to someone from the mid 1800s before cars themselves even existed.
You strap yourself inside a modified metal wagon, which has a practically solid-metal heart consuming a kerosene-equivalent screaming away a few feet in front of you, forcing air-filled rubber sacks to propel you in circles around a course at a rate greater than any of it was initially designed for. A wacky proposition, and yet, I think they would understand once they saw it.
Despite the inherent dangers involved, which we’ve only began to properly combat in recent decades, there’s some sort of innate human desire to push the limits of anything with wheels and a motor. Doing so on dirt, gravel, and grass just makes it all the more dramatic.
If you caught my quick preview to the 2019 Oregon Trail Rally, you’d know that the first stages (one stage run twice) took place at Portland International Raceway. Although this was one of the rally’s few stages that took place on smooth tarmac, and the only which made use of a proper racing circuit, it should be immediately obvious that this wasn’t a road-only stage.
One really cool aspect of the Oregon Trail Rally is that there is a huge variety of cars competing. Front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, as well as big-budget national entries – like the Subaru Rally Team USA – alongside a plethora of home-brewed regional entries.
There was some interesting and vintage hardware out and about as well, and I’ll need to spotlight a few of these cars in the near future.
Now that you have an idea of the sort of machinery that shows up, the best part is that everyone has access to it all.
Before the stages begin the cars line up in parc expose, giving the fans a great opportunity to poke around, and even under the cars. Just be careful how much you poke – some teams are a bit more serious than others.
Even if you miss parc expose there are plenty of chances to wander around the paddock and even hop into a car. In what other motorsport can you test the seat in a race car that’s still cooling from its last run?
In just about every way, rally is a motorsport unlike anything else.
Blood, Sweat & Dirt
The only part which is the same — the driving on pavement bit — actually isn’t quite. Neglecting drift events, never in my life have I seen so many race cars breaking loose on a tarmac course. One driver with plenty of experience on road courses is Jeff Gamroth, who was piloting a Porsche 964 for the event.
Just for a little name drop, the 12 Hours of Sebring is one of many races Jeff’s wheeled at over the years.
This is Jeff’s first season competing in the world of rallying, having freshly converted his 964 over from long-suspension-travel NORRA 1000-spec.
The way the layout is designed, the drivers head down the main straight, through a few corners, and out into the fields surrounding track. Some of these surfaces are groomed, and others aren’t. Ultimately, some paved support roads lead drivers back into the dirt and on towards the jump.
It may not look like much, but it’s plenty enough to test the suspension in the cars and the grit of their drivers.
At best, the take-off point is a meter tall and the path to the jump is a short grassy straight out of a tight turn, so I figured that cars wouldn’t be getting all that much hang time.
I was wrong, especially when it came to the top teams. While some drivers opted to sacrifice a second or two and lift for the sudden elevation change, the front-runners plowed through at maximum speed.
Still, through the first stage I wasn’t impressed with the shots I was getting at the jump. They just didn’t convey how hard these cars were pushing through this little feature, nor how bonkers it looked from the sidelines. Rather than experiment with another corner of the track, I returned here for the second run through.
And then, sunset… There’s nothing like a bit of good light to convey the texture and the insanity of such a wide variety of cars sailing violently though the evening air. Volvos, Fords, Subarus, Subarus, and mostly Subarus.
But still, plenty of cool cars other than Subarus, like this Toyota Starlet. This shot as the sun went down made me realize something else altogether about this little jump, though: the abysmal lack of visibility these guys are dealing with.
This applies to spectators, too. But despite only being able to see a few yards (sorry, meters) in front of you, the jump was far and away the best spot to view the action from. If you positioned yourself properly in the crowd, you could see the final tarmac-dirt transition as well as the last couple of corners and the run-up to the jump.
As for the drivers, there was a flag marshal on the left-hand side of the track to warn if a car was stuck in the cloud of dust. This way, teams could essentially point it and send it, trusting that they’d come out alive through the other end.
On the topic of sending it, Jeff Gamroth certainly wasn’t holding back on the jump, and for that I am thankful. The 964 in rally trim is already a fantastic looking car, but adding a foot or so of air between its wheels and the ground really does something for the Porsche.
Flipping through the photos with Jeff after the fact, he said he might need to adjust the rebound in the rear to account for the big jump on Sunday — a note which demonstrates firsthand the differences in the mind of a proper racer and a photographer.
If you look closely you also might notice he caught some caution tape which is used to mark the track boundaries, although this was from overcooking it into a corner earlier during his run.
While the results showed Jeff as one of the quickest on the day, it wasn’t exactly the run he was hoping for. Still, I’m fairly certain he had a good time regardless, and that’s ultimately the goal of any motorsport.
Sure, winning is nice, but it’s the adrenaline-filled fun that comes from driving a car on the limit that keeps motorsport alive and well around the globe.
Racing has been around since the dawn of the automobile and regardless of evolving tech and what’s to come, racing our cars is something we’ll be doing for decades to come.
There’s simply nothing else like it.
Additional photos by Sara Ryan