There are strange things going on in the woods at night, stirring things, thrilling things, dangerous things, things that we don't hear much about and that if we ever came upon by chance might affect us like a close encounter of another kind.
Imagine yourself camping in a forest at 3 a.m., and you're awakened by a muted howl, far in the distance. It grows closer, far too rapidly to be alive. It sounds mechanical, or unearthly if your imagination tends toward that sort of interpretation. The pitch of the howl rises and falls and the thing approaches as a glow through the trees, and it passes through your mind that in seconds the world is going to end. Finally, the thing bursts upon you with an explosion of brilliant lights and a roaring engine, and you say, "Is that a cart" but you can't believe it because cars don't move sideways. Then you catch a glimpse of two men inside, apparently controlling it, and after it passes the big yellow lights become smaller red ones, taillights that tell you for sure it's a car. The taillights chase the headlights off into the woods at about 70 mph, and the howl tapers away. You look back in the direction it came from. There's another one coming.
Somehow you've pitched your camp along the route of an SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) professional rally. The event is a far cry from the more familiar amateur rally, which is held on public roads and planned so drivers don't need to speed to win. A pro rally is a highspeed chase through the woods at night, usually beginning at dusk and ending just before daybreak. There are 13 rallies in the SCCA series, over mazes in forests from Wellsboro, Pa., to Mendocino, Calif. The cars start at one-minute intervals and are timed over a number of stages, commonly from 10 to 30 miles long on narrow park roads and dirt logging trails. A typical rally might have 12 or 13 stages totaling 120 to 150 miles—though there are some two-day rallies that are double that—with stretches of highway connecting the stages and a service area for refueling and changing tires between them.
This format is similar to that of a rally in Europe, where the sport is taken extremely seriously, with heavy factory participation and hundreds of spectators lining the often icy roads. But in Europe they race in broad daylight and on public highways; because motor racing is a way of life there, governments obligingly barricade the roads. But in the U.S., where there's a woeful lack of appreciation for skillful driving, such accommodation is rarely heard of. So rallies often include stages held under the cover of darkness, usually on public land, if not highways, the drivers, like outlaws, running through the night. Which is just as well. The sub-rosa nature of the proceedings brings a special challenge to the sport and gives it a uniquely American character.
The most successful rally driver in the U.S. is a lean and energetic 37-year-old Vermonter named John Buffum. He has won the SCCA championship six of the eight years he has competed, including last year, and the North American championship, which includes Canada, four times. In addition, he has also placed higher than any other American in the famed five-day Monte Carlo rally: In 1969, while stationed in Germany with the Air Force, he bought a used Porsche 911 from the factory team and drove to 12th overall.
A rally driver needs superb car control and a lion's heart. "Trying to read the roads going that fast at night is like trying to read in a foreign language," says Buffum. "You don't have time to translate it, you've got to think in that language. When trees come out of the dark ahead of me, I can't be thinking about what they mean. I have to be able to sense them if I'm going to react quickly enough."
Rally drivers never see the course before the start, so they need navigators. The navigator is the ultimate backseat driver; he literally tells the driver where to go. He, too, isn't permitted to see the course in advance and is given a route book outlining it only hours before the start. The book contains mileage notations, stick diagrams of intersections—called tulips—and terse notes subject to interpretation. He communicates with the driver via a helmet intercom, as if they were flying in a two-place jet fighter, giving him a countdown in tenths of miles to the turns, which come out of nowhere given the speeds—routinely as much as 100 miles an hour, sometimes even more. Between keeping his place in the route book and watching the digital odometer on the dashboard—frequently adjusting it after frantic arithmetic in his head, the car's wheelspin having thrown it off—the navigator barely has time for glances through the windshield.
Enormous mutual trust is needed. The navigator must have faith that the driver isn't going to toss them both over a cliff, and the driver must have confidence that the information he's being given is accurate. False alarms will cause him to drive tentatively, and surprises bring what Buffum calls "biiiig moments," the words expelled as if someone were squeezing his solar plexus. Says Buffum's diligent navigator for the last five years, Doug Shepherd, "I've never seen John's jaw go slack. I've seen his eyes wide a few times, but never his jaw slack." He means it as a compliment to Buffum's control and perception, but it's also an indication of his own sharp navigation.
Biiiig moments—and sometimes edgy ones—can also occur if the driver and navigator don't understand each other perfectly. How simple it sounds to take directions from a passenger; how confusing it can be. Misunderstanding lurks at every turn. Buffum and Shepherd have their own language and code words. For example, "Straight right in 20" means: There's a side road branching left in two-tenths of a mile, but don't take it.
Buffum's car, a German Audi Quattro, is one of only a few specially built by the factory, the others belonging to top European rally teams. It was ordered last year by Porsche/Audi, a subsidiary of Volkswagen of America, which has Buffum under contract, and he drove it to victory in 10 of the 13 rallies last year. It is a spectacular automobile, a rolling paradox, created from a luxury sedan, the elegant and expensive ($36,000) Quattro. It has full-time four-wheel drive, a turbo-charged five-cylinder engine, fuel injection and a five-speed gearbox. Buffum's Quattro produces about 320 horsepower and is as solid as a German tank. Last July he entered it in the Pikes Peak Hillclimb and shattered the stock-car record by 30 seconds, shocking Peak veterans: a foreign car demolishing marks set by the likes of Parnelli Jones and Bobby Un-ser, who in years gone by had charged up the mountain and set stock-car records in thundering American V-8s. Says Salty Sottolano, Buffum's colorful mechanic who helped rebuild the car in Germany before it was shipped to Libra Racing, Buffum's shop in South Burlington, Vt. "I've been in this game a long time, and I've never seen a car like this. Bleepin' thing's awesome." The four-wheel drive and turbocharger give the Quattro a wide competitive edge, but there is a flip side: They also make it extremely difficult to drive—flat-out on dirt roads, at least. The 4WD provides traction in turns when Buffum would sometimes rather slide tail-out; and keeping the turbo on the boost, or "kicked in," is a challenge only the very best drivers can meet. To stay on the boost Buffum has to keep on the throttle, even in tight turns. He has had to learn a special technique: left foot braking. While he presses his right foot on the gas pedal for the turbo's sake, he stands on the brake with his left foot for his own sake, for survival. When it's time to accelerate again he eases his foot off the brake and the car springs forward.
The turbo whines as it is unbound. Stones smash against the skid plate under the chassis as all four wheels churn. At this point the car is usually still so far sideways that Buffum's arms are completely crossed on the steering wheel; they untwist back to nine o'clock and three o'clock, and he speeds off toward the next turn, the turbo's whine building like the sound of a spaceship taking off in a science-fiction movie. Buffum upshifts at 7,000 rpm without watching the tachometer, so intent is he with the task at hand outside his windshield. Nothing distracts him, not even the trees whizzing past the Quattro's windows, branches clicking against the door handles as it speeds down the pencil-thin logging road in the dead of night.
Sometimes a rally feels like a moonshine run. Only infrequently do the cars come upon each other on the road, so driver and navigator feel alone with their mission. But suddenly, near a paved road, they will reach an intersection where photographers' strobe lights will flash and unseen spectators will shout encouragement, reminders that they're in a race. Then it's back into the forest again.
Buffum occasionally mumbles to himself, and through the headset he sounds like Ray Charles groaning to his music at the piano. Buffum's feet play passionately on his own pedals, creating the rhythmic whine and chirr of the turbo, and even the shattering of stones on the skid plate seems part of some outrageous original melody. And when the brakes lock, the oil-pressure warning light on the dash, as big and round as a sand dollar, flashes a protest and fills the cockpit with an amber glow.
One of Buffum's most enjoyable wins was last October in the Tour de Forest Rally through the Olympic National Forest and mountain foothills, near Olympia. Wash. There was a stage in the rally called Bingham Creek; it was the longest at 20.78 miles. It was also Buffum's favorite, breathtaking, winding around the walls of a deep canyon, the gravel road everywhere "exposed," as the route book noted. That's the same ominous message one finds in rock climbing guide books, and it means: If you fall here, you're going straight down for a while.
The hairpin turns on the stage were on the face of the canyon walls, and the broad beams of the six high-intensity headlights sprayed light into the black void beyond the edge. Buffum threw the Quattro into the turns, one foot hard on the throttle and the other bouncing on the brake, the turbo howling and the stones thrown God only knows how far.
Buffum was running from the man who dethroned him as champion in 1981, New Zealander Rod Millen, who started each stage of the Tour de Forest one minute behind him. As the Quattro climbed the far side of the Bingham Creek canyon the lights from Millen's Mazda RX-7 appeared winding down the opposite wall. They were miles away, and Buffum knew they would stay there. The Quattro was invincible this night.
Buffum won the Tour de Forest by four minutes over Millen, averaging 49.94 mph for the 131 miles and being fastest over seven of the nine stages. And he would go on to win the 1982 SCCA championship, again over Millen, who would win four rallies during the year but was simply outgunned by the Quattro. But around the time of the Tour de Forest, Millen saw the light—it would take a 4WD to beat the Quattro.
Buffum won the first two rallies of 1983 as easily as he had won most of them last year. In the third rally, Buffum introduced his new Quattro, which has the same features as the last one, and Millen unveiled his new car: a 4WD Mazda RX-7 that he had built himself. It was a giant-killing effort: a small shop in California vs. an entire factory in Germany. Buffum won again. But in only its second rally, on April 17, the Mazda upset the Quattro. Buffum literally upset himself, rolling the Quattro on its roof during the event, a fairly common and usually harmless occurrence for a rally driver, but still humbling for Buffum.
But the message had been sent, the gauntlet thrown. Buffum and the Quattro would not have it all their way with the series this year, as they had in 1982.