At the Oregon Trail Rally, cars and hope fly high, crash hard

May 16, 2013

For something that feels so right, things are about to go terribly wrong.

French Canadian rally driver Antoine L’Estage is in damn good spirits right now. The four-time Rally America Champion and four-time Canadian Rally Champion has been catching up to arch rival David Higgins all morning in the Oregon Trail Rally, the perfect terrain for L’Estage to mark his comeback as he claimed the day’s previous two stages. At the very first rally of the 2013 Rally America season, Sno*Drift — held on the frozen tundra of inner Michigan — L’Estage claimed victory. Then the following two he surrendered to current champion Higgins. But today, in this fourth rally of the season, L’Estage is committed to taking the podium above the Brit en route to hopefully capturing his fifth Rally America Championship. Unfortunately for L’Estage, the rally gods have other plans for the plucky Quebecois.

As the road bends right, L’Estage misses a direction from his co-driver Nathalie Richard and turns left — if only for an instant. And while this might be correctable on a corner with a berm or fence, on this particular turn the only thing his Mitsubishi WRC meets when the road ends is air. And lots of it. The car soars off the trail and down a steep slope, flipping over and making first impact on a massive tree stump. Upon smashing the roof the Mitsubishi continues its crumpled descent downhill, flipping over again and shattering everything in its path, from bush to sapling to rotting stump, before colliding against another tree and coming to a smoldering standstill. The first sound overpowering the gentle trickling of falling debris is the voice of his navigator Richard crackling over his headpiece, asking if he’s OK.

“The big impact was the tree stump. It happens in a fraction of a second, and boom it’s done, it’s over,” remembers L’Estage two days after the crash. “As soon as we stopped the first thing that came to my mind was the budget. I knew right away before getting out of the car that it was probably a bad accident, so right away I thought about money, and…” his voice trails off, lost in French-tinged regret. “Everybody tells me, ‘Oh we’re glad you’re OK!’ And it is true; it is the main thing that we’re both OK. Metal is replaceable, the people in the car are not. But as a driver you don’t always see it like that. You just want to keep going and it’s just frustrating to not have the budget to fix it quickly.”

Only days removed from the accident, L’Estage sounds contemplative — it’s clear he has not fully recovered from the impact. He’s processed it, or rather is in the midst of processing it, but there is a part of him still lodged in that Oregon hillside, still spinning as uselessly as a shredded Pirelli turned upside down, futile. It’s not visceral healing he needs, mind you — except for some soreness L’Estage is physically fine. No, when that WRC flew off the cliff at 60 mph and collided against that stubborn stump it wasn’t just his $300,000 Mitsubishi that was finished, but also his very chances to compete this year in Rally America. In one (fell) swoop, his goals were eviscerated by the pure financial weight of the sport. For someone who hasn’t crashed in over 80 races, the headspace is bleak.

And that is the peril of rally driving, be it in Rally America or the top-tier World Rally Cross or any of the smaller leagues banging it out across the world. Finance is king.

You make a mistake like L’Estage made and sometimes you bounce off a dirt hill or run over a rock. Other times, you launch off a cliff. Like any mistake in life, sometimes the repercussions are soft tissue bruises and other times they’re full limb amputations. Unfortunately for L’Estage, who was breaking in a World Rally-quality Mitsubishi Lancer for the first time this year — a car that was to level the playing field versus competition like Higgins’ Subaru WRX STi and Ken Block’s Ford Focus — it was the former. The margin for error is hiccup thin in rally racing, the cost heartbreaking.

“This may be the hardest race in the Rally America championship,” explains Matthew Johnson, the voice of the Rally America circuit and a longtime rally driver himself. “It eats tires, it eats cars; hopefully it doesn’t eat any people, but it is a very difficult event.”

Launched in 1984 the Oregon Trail Rally takes place over three days, covering a variety of racing conditions. Drivers spend the first day competing inside the Portland International Raceway. Unlike most rallies held in remote areas, this urban leg of the OTR gives it a high profile among sponsors. On the second and third day, the rally moves to Mount Hood, about an hour east of Portland. Here in the treacherous roads, precise and cautious driving takes precedence. “There’s a lot of embedded rocks, really narrow bits of road,” warns Johnson. “There’s exposure, it’s really easy to go off — as you know L’Estage had a massive off today, flying through the air off a cliff Thelma & Louise style. It’s amazing he’s OK.”

“It’s always been one of those events that will reward tidy clean driving rather than the high-risk style that some drivers use. The margin of error is very slim, so clean driving wins here, and that’s the type of driving I excel at,” says David Higgins, who ended up winning the OTR to capture his fourth 2013 victory in five races for the dominating Team Subaru. “The different flow from very fast stages to tight technical stages has always suited me and my car.”

To be fair, Higgins wasn’t bragging — the question was asked as to why he performs so well at this particular rally, which he’s won all five times he’s participated. Still, it’s notable that his precise approach is what has garnered him so many points here. Ken Block — the most famous driver in Rally America, known for his brash, extreme driving style — had his plate full all weekend. On day one, the front wheel of his Ford Focus was sheared off, requiring Block to finish the stage on three wheels, shooting one-hundred meter sparks from his car like a CGI-enhanced Fast & Furious casualty. On day two he broke his driveshaft. Day three, Block hit bedrock and broke his wheel.

“I felt (the wheel) come off and obviously at that point the front right corner of the car is making contact with the ground via the suspension and brake rotor, so you really lose a lot of the steering ability,” Block explained about day one. “I had to do a 180 degree turn in the wrong direction—going right—at one point to make the rotation around a left turn. Two rights make a left, right? But it's rally, you get used to pushing on through weird situations like that.”

Still, Block’s superb driving skills were enough to capture second place.

Despite its perilous nature, OTR remains one of the most beloved circuits in Rally America. Over the dirt roads the daunting summit of Mount Adams looms in the background. It’s an image straight from the Austrian Alps, the Hood River valley stretching its verdant peaks in every direction. Only two weeks ago there was snow on these roads, yet today the rally gods have blessed the stage with 80-degree temps, baking the roads into a gravelly iron maiden for tire and driver alike.

But no race survives without its fans, and the Oregon Trail draws one of the most diverse crowds of any motoring event. Many walk miles in the dusty heat dragging coolers, folding chairs and pop-tents over the dirt roads to remote spectator points. There’s the flat-billed Oakley wearing variety, the Formula One European sophisticates, the pot bellied yokels all hollering and waving shoulder to shoulder. Of course there’s also the legions of hipster Oregonians present that obviously believe in the “Keep Portland Weird” motto. If you can make your way here, dragging your body and whatever else you plan on nourishing it with for the day, then you’re welcome. And seeing as this is the biggest thing to hit the rural valley all year, well, many do.

For the immediate future at least, L’Estage is certainly not seeing any beauty in those damning Oregon hills. “It’s really devastating. I’m a competitive guy, I don’t want to sit home — I want to win championships but now it’s not going to happen. It’s a really, really tough one to swallow.”

“I don’t know what else to say; the next few days will be hard. I don’t feel really well when I think about it… What if, what if, what if… I need to tell myself to move on.”

For Higgins, Block and others they’ll have their opportunities to move on. Unfortunately for L’Estage, he’ll have to spend the next eight months dwelling in every racer’s private hell. But there’s always next year Antoine, rally gods be damned.

The next race in the Rally America circuit is the Susquehannock Trail Rally in central Pennsylvania, May 31-June 1.