Thursday, February 4, 2016

Revisiting My First Meeting With Dave Mirra...

With the extremely sad news of Dave Mirra's suicide today came the memories of my first meeting with the BMX and Rally star some eight years ago.  It was my first time attending a Rally event but wouldn't be the last.  Reading through what I wrote about him then remarkably matches up with what everyone seems to remember about him.

Also funny is the people that I didn't realize I had run into at that time that I would get to know much better later on in life--Vittorio Barres and his Audi for instance.  Regardless, it makes for a nice remembrance...only wish the memories would have stayed buried and not dredged up due to Dave's death.

OK, so Dave Mirra's performance at the “Team O’Neil Rally” probably wasn’t as good as he hoped...

Errrr…well, it definitely wasn’t as good as he (or his fans) had hoped, but Mirra’s entrance into the first stop on the Rally America Eastern Regional Championship did create a “Mirra”cle of sorts. In conjunction with his fellow racers, Dave Mirra brought real racing excitement and economic benefits to a small, sleepy, (decidedly blue collar) New England town that doesn’t share in the benefits that winter snows bring to nearby ski resorts.

Coming into the weekend it was known that Dave Mirra would be entering his freshly prepped, Monster Energy Drink sponsored, Vermont SportsCar Subaru. The onetime BMX superstar and holder of the record for most medals won at the X-Games, Dave Mirra is following the path of other crossover stars like Travis Pastrana, “Cowboy” Kenny Bartram and Boris Said in trying his hand at Rally Racing. Having started his rally “career” only a few months prior with a four day class at the Team O’Neil Rally School, located in Dalton, New Hampshire, Mirra returned to try and show off his early progress. The “Team O’Neil Rally” would mark only his second full rally race ever. His only previous race came back in November of ’07 at the “Rally of the Tall Pines” in Ontario, Canada where he finished 22nd in a field of 34.

Coming up from his home in comparatively balmy North Carolina, Mirra might have been questioning his sanity coming through the permanent snow storm that hovers in the mountain pass of Franconia Notch; the entrance into what New Englanders call the Great North Woods. Noting the N.C. plates and large Monster emblazoned support truck and trailer it was to miss Mirra’s arrival, early Friday evening before the Saturday race.

Though traveling with a logistical support team larger than any other team at the race, Mirra comes off as being humble and low key. Stepping into the Dalton, NH town hall Mirra does not demand half the attention the graphics on his race vehicle do. Short, lean and compact, Mirra comes off as perhaps more of a Golden Glove caliber boxer than one of the best known Gen-X “extreme” athletes around. He carries none of the bravado or “look at me” demands that we associate with that scene. But despite his understated stature and ego, Mirra still attracts attention wherever he goes.

Unfortunately for the Applebee’s waitress attending to Mirra and crew after the driver’s meeting, her corporate policies forbid her from asking for an autograph or picture with him that she would have loved to get - but was reduced to watching Mirra walk back to his hotel and talking about her brush with fame with the rest of the waitstaff. Fortunately, freelance writers and not bound by a like set of corporate policies and I was as giddy as a little schoolgirl to have my picture taken with Mr. Mirra!

Saturday morning arrived clear and cold, with little wind. Great conditions for a winter rally, not only for the racers but for the marshals and other course workers who would be standing outside most of the day, marking start/finish times, keeping the locals from getting run over and monitoring radio traffic, etc. As one of the workers assigned to the far end of the course I got to drive its length and see just what the racers were up against.

The course was broken down into three basic sections. One being a tight, heavily forested, twisty area where the one lane road surface consisted of mostly hardpacked snow with some small icy patches. A skilled driver could speed though this section, sliding through corner after corner without fear of any major damage. Going off course here would mean high-centering your car in a snowbank or at worst, crashing your car into a relatively small tree (nothing outside the ordinary for a rally racer).

The second major section of the course was the most interesting. Coming out of the forest, the course quickly transitioned into the working property of Chick’s Sand and Gravel. Almost like a mini Pike’s Peak, as a number of people described it, the road would switchback its way over and over down a very steep hillside. The road was a frozen gravel, providing decent traction and lots of flying debris as the cars tried to avoid skittering off the outside edge of the road. Much like Pike’s Peak, a mistake here could mean the end of your vehicle and possibly your life, as the dropoffs were literally heart stopping.

The third and final section held the highest speeds of the day. When exiting the gravel pit, the road widened into long sweeping turns and straightaways, access roads for the large dumptrucks and construction equipment. As one competitor commented, this course was exactly what a winter, regional rally should be—A relatively short course over mixed terrain, meant to challenge but not frustrate the competitors.

The vehicles attacking this course were an eccentric mix of new and old, high end and home brewed, running the gamut from a pair of vehicles born in 1987 (an MR2 and an Audi 4000) all the way up to an ’03 Impreza STi.

In theory, rally races start the fastest car first with the rest of the field following in intervals to minimize the chance of any vehicles coming into direct contact with one another. Rally racing is not as much a car vs. car sport as it is a car vs. course sport. While this sounds good in theory, throw in the vast differences between 2WD cars and AWD cars, experienced and inexperienced drivers, and intervals that may have seemed sufficient at the starting line become non-existent in reality.

More than once during the day a pair of cars would come roaring by the snowy straightaway I was at. They traveled so close that if this was desert racing, I would have expected the faster, rear-positioned car to come up and punt the slower car out of the way. As a low key regional event however, no inter-car shenanigans took place and all competitors ended the day on good terms.

The morning session of runs produced a number of strong and close results with the Subaru STi of John Cassidy and Dave Getchell grabbing stage wins in two out of the first four stages, placing a close second in the other two. Cassidy’s STi seemed well prepared for the slick, twisty sections. Whenever his competitors’ speeds slowed, Cassidy’s times rose to the top of the leaderboard. Dave Mirra put together a very consistent morning with a third, two fourths, and an eighth place finish in the first four stages.

With no major carnage in the morning sessions, all ten competitors were ready to go in the afternoon with just a quick inspection of their vehicles and a bite to eat. Many of the afternoon runs would take place on the same sections that were traversed in the morning, but run in the opposite direction.

Instead of running down the mini-Pike’s Peak gravel pit switchbacks, the drivers would now be going up it. While this took much of the major danger out of the course (momentum and gravity would now be working with the racers, keeping the vehicles from going over the edge,) it also meant that traction and horsepower would be the deciding factors on the steep road and loose gravel. This being the case, it’s no surprise that the Subaru STi of John Cassidy and the Mitsubishi Evo VI of Enda McCormack dominated the afternoon time sheets. Cassidy won both the stages, running directly up the mini-Pike’s Peak with McCormack finishing in second each time. Cassidy also finished second behind Christopher Duplessis and his surprisingly strong 1990 VW GTI in the other two afternoon runs.

While there was little damage in the morning runs, the afternoon was a different story. Whether the limited amount of sunlight melted some snow and greased things up a bit or the competitors were getting tired is unknown. What is known is that a couple of the competitors would not finish the day.

First on the chopping block was the mid-engined Toyota MR2 of Jim McCelland. Struggling all day with the slick conditions, the game little MR2’s traction finally gave out and off the track and into a tree she went. Some minor damage to the MR2’s headlight and front fender was the result but McCelland was able to get the Toyota back on the track and cross the finish line. As Tim O’Neil (founder and owner of the Team O’Neil Rally School and five-time US and North American Rally Racing Champion) said, “Many racers at that point would have cut their losses and called it quits." McCelland didn’t. He pressed on and with a giant grin on his face, finished every stage thrown at him and the little MR2 that could.

Murphy’s Law’s next victim was Dave Mirra and his really shiny Impreza. Again showing off some solid driving skills for someone so new to the sport, Mirra continued finishing in the middle of the pack during the first three of the afternoon runs. However, on the very last run of the day, Mirra lost control of his machine, sending it careening into another of New Hampshire’s finest (trees that is), and taking out a good portion of the front passenger side of the vehicle. Deciding that they could not extract the now mangled Impreza in a timely manner, Mirra and Edstrom (who as the regular co-driver for Travis Pastrana must be used to such accidents) ended their day with a DNF.

Last but not least was the experienced team of Vittorio Bares and Kristin Chute in their ’87 Audi 4000. In their case, the mini-Pike’s Peak hill climb proved too much for the Audi’s fuel pump as it gave up the ghost on their final run of the day. They needed a tow by one of the sweep vehicles back to the O’Neil Rally School’s compound, resulting in the other DNF of the day.

With the day's racing finished, the competitors and workers retired to the “Folk House” restaurant (which was only staying open through this event as a favor to Tim O’Neil and was closing its doors permanently afterwards) where the beers flowed, racing photos were examined, and stories of the day were swapped. Dave Mirra left the festivities early (but not without saying goodbye to about 50 of his newest friends) as he was off to the Vermont SportsCar facilities to prepare for the following weekends Rally America Sno*Drift event in Atlanta, MI. Mirra will be moving from regional events into Rally America’s premier series, against the big names in American rally racing like Pinker, Foust, Block, Bartram and reigning Rally America champion Travis Pastrana. Here’s hoping the boys back at Vermont SportsCar can get Mirra’s car back in one piece after this weekend's brawl with a tree in time for the Sno*Drift Rally.

Shortly after Mirra’s departure, the final results were posted. Coming in third in the ’07 Team O’Neil Rally, with three stage wins and a total time of 56 minutes, 12 seconds were Christopher Duplessis and Catherine Woods in their very feisty VW GTI. Second place went to Enda McCormack and Bernard Farrell, with a single stage win in their Mitsubishi Evo VI and a total time of 54 minutes, 42 seconds. Winning four stages on the day and taking the ’07 Team O’Neil Rally crown with a time of 52 minutes, 36 seconds was the Impreza STi of John Cassidy and Dave Getchell.

The spoils of Cassidy’s dominant victory? There are no gold medals here and no wads of cash - but something just as valuable, to rally racers, anyway.

With the win, John Cassidy and Dave Getchell secure themselves a free entry into the New England Forest Rally (July 11-12 2008), the sixth stop on Rally America’s current schedule, valued at well over $1000. Held in the Bethel, ME area near the Sunday River ski area, the New England Forest Rally is only New England stop on the circuit for North America’s top rally series and generally brings out fans in droves from across the Northeastern United States and Canada. The free entry will now ensure Cassidy’s ability to compete against the big boys of American rally racing and show them that it’s not just the better known names that can hammer down.

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