Mike White of Camden first competed at the New England Forest Rally in 1998. He’ll be back this weekend, driving a 1984 SAAB 900. Photo courtesy of Mike White

John Cassidy was channel surfing in the late 1990s when he came across the Maine Forest Rally, an auto race through the logging roads of western Maine. As he watched the cars, all street legal, tear around corners and soar over bumps, the physician assistant from Bangor decided he wanted to get in on the action.

By 1999, Cassidy was in the driver seat. He hasn’t missed the event since.

“Once you start rallying, unfortunately, you can’t stop,” said Cassidy, now 54. “There’s not much exciting about real life once you’ve been to a rally.”

The 30th edition of the race, now called the New England Forest Rally, will run on Friday and Saturday. The pandemic forced cancellation of the event in 2020.

Approximately 90 cars will blitz through race stages on closed public roads around Sunday River ski resort in Newry and other towns in western Maine. The lowest cumulative time determines the winner.

Rally cars, consumer vehicles upgraded with safety equipment and robust suspension systems, can’t rival the top speeds of NASCAR or Formula 1, said Chris Cyr, CEO of Team O’Neil Rally School. But drivers’ ability to accelerate around tight corners makes rally a thrilling spectacle.

“Cars on a 25 mph dirt road are exceeding 80 mph pretty consistently,” said Cyr, who is also the business manager of the New England Forest Rally. “It definitely is a sight to see.”

About 5,000 people, many longtime fans, attend the event each year, he said.

Rally competitors are able to drive so aggressively thanks to aid from a co-driver who reads aloud detailed “pace notes” – turn-by-turn instructions dictated by the driver during a 12-15 hour “recce,” or reconnaissance, drive of the course at the speed limit the day before the race.

Spectators line Sturtevant Pond Road in Magalloway Plantation to watch the New England Forest Rally in 2017. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal file photo

“We’re processing a lot of information at once,” said Cassidy, who will share a 2003 Subaru WRX with his son and co-driver John on race day. “If he gets the note wrong, we’re in trouble.”

Even when drivers perform well, rallies often dish out more punishment than cars can take.

“If you’re able to even finish the rally, that in itself is an achievement,” said Cyr, who estimated 50% of competitors fail to finish each race. “Much less actually winning it.”

“There’s always something that breaks,” said Mike White, a Camden resident who competed in the rally for the first time in 1998. “A lot of really crazy stuff happens to get cars back out on the course.”

Like Cassidy, White, 52, has a team of friends who will help maintain his car, a 1984 SAAB 900. The team will have limited windows to service the car between race stages.

White, like his crew, won’t make any money at the New England Forest Rally. Only a couple members of the field, including action sports stars Travis Pastrana and Ken Block, are professionals, according to Cyr; the rest are hobbyists who pour their own money into the sport they love.

That shared passion helps create a collaborative community among racers, even as they try to outdo each other on the roads, White said. Sharing parts is common, even when it means sacrificing a competitive advantage.

“If he broke his axel, and I had a spare, it would be leaving my serviceman and going onto his car,” White said. “There’s a level of trust and camaraderie there that maybe is not as present in other forms of motorsport.”

Mike White’s car is decked out with the logos of businesses that he says provided excellent services for the Camden area during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Mike White

This year, White will extend that camaraderie beyond the racetrack through what he calls a “reverse sponsorship.” He has fit his car with free advertisements for five Camden area businesses that he says provided excellent services for his community during the pandemic.

“I am carrying their logos on my car as a thank you to them,” White said. “That’s a big part of why I’m doing this event this year, to sort of revel in this cool community here in Maine of awesome people and awesome entrepreneurs.”

Spectators can watch for free as long as they’re prepared to arrive at a stage at least an hour early and stay until the last car finishes and the roads reopen, according to Cyr.

Weekend tickets for the Rally Bus, which carries spectators from stage to stage, are also available on the race’s website for $150.

Cassidy warns that new fans may quickly find themselves hooked.

“Once you go to a race and see it, you’re like, “How can I not go see this?'” he said. “The fans are rabid.”


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