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