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Rural Missouri Magazine
Real roads, Real fast
Sports Car Club of America brings European-style rallying to the Ozarks

by Bob McEowen

A Saab driven by John Groo of Hartford, Conn., picks up speed in a straightaway. Highly modified rally cars often top 100 mph on dirt roads during performance rallies like the Trespassers Wil and 100 Acre Wood rallies held in Ellington and Salem in February,

The woods are silent except for the quiet conversation of a small group of spectators and volunteers waiting near the intersection of two dirt roads in rural Crawford County. When not passing the time talking they stamp their feet to fend off the cold, shiver and look down the road.

Suddenly someone hears a faint drone from a nearby valley and announces, “Here they come!”

The distant sound becomes a high-pitched whine as a Mitsubishi sports sedan tops a nearby hill, crunching gravel under its tires. The car barrels down the road until the driver locks the brakes, sliding the car sideways through a sharp 90-degree turn.

As quickly as it arrives the vehicle disappears in a shower of dirt. Just as the din of the departing car’s engine fades into the next valley, another is heard approaching.

The 100 Acre Wood rally is underway. For the second year in a row, amateur sports car enthusiasts from around the country descend on south-central Missouri to claim bragging rights in the obscure world of club-level performance rallying.

A course marshall checks Phil and Dallas Smith onto a night stage of the Trespassers Wil. Husband and wife, the Smiths traveled from Ohio to race their 1968 MGB.

Held on a cold, wet weekend in February, this year’s 100 Acre Wood and a companion rally called the Trespassers Wil attracted 44 teams, each consisting of a driver and co-driver, to the Missouri countryside. The 70-mile Trespassers Wil began and ended in Ellington on Friday while Saturday’s 100 Acre Wood left Salem for two 120-mile laps through Viburnum and Potosi and back to Salem. Together, the two rallies passed through portions of five counties, Feb. 21-22.

Unlike traditional motor sports in which cars race wheel to wheel in packs, or road rallying that involves little more than a timed Sunday drive from checkpoint to checkpoint, this event combines the excitement of racing with the structure of a rally.

Popular in Europe and championed in action-packed video games, performance rallies include transitional stages run on public highways, where drivers must obey traffic laws, interspersed with so-called special stages. Here, on roads closed to other traffic, drivers push their cars and their own skill while co-drivers call out every turn and hazard on dirt and gravel two-track lanes.

“There was a car running last year that was clocked at 130-plus on a dirt road,” says Bryan Cohn, a rally car co-driver and manager of club racing for the Topeka-based Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), which sanctions the event. “They’re taking corners at 30 to 40 mph, which doesn’t seem like much but try it. It’s fairly fast.”

The reigning U.S. Formula Ford racing champion, Pritchard describes his experiences driving Ozark back roads. The England-born driver took up performance rallying to again experience the fun of learning a new motor sport.

Drivers enter stages at predetermined times, spaced one minute apart, with the fastest teams going first to minimize passing. About half of the event is run at night, behind blinding headlights. The course is secret until the drivers check in and are given a route book detailing every hairpin turn, cattle crossing and “yump,” the rally term for a rise in the road where cars go airborne.

Performance rallying was an annual ritual in the Ozarks during the late 1970s and early ’80s after the Pooh Corner Rallye Team hosted the first 100 Acre Wood. As rally enthusiasts turned their attention from racing and toward raising children the event stopped. In 2002 it was resurrected as the national club-level rally championship for the SCCA.

Both events are named in honor of A.A. Milne’s tale of Winnie the Pooh. The fictional bear and all his friends lived in the 100 Aker Wood and “Trespassers Wil” is all that remained of a sign nailed to Piglet’s tree. While lost on anyone but a Pooh fan, the 100 Acre Wood name is fitting for this event that runs through the heart of Missouri’s forests.

“From the competitor’s point of view we have the greatest roads in the country,” says Kim DeMotte, a nationally ranked pro rally competitor from St. Louis who chaired this year’s event. “They’re smooth and fast and they’re tight and twisty.”

The SCCA’s Cohn and British-born driver Justin Pritchard are veterans of road racing but newcomers to performance rallying. The two got their first sense of racing on Ozark roads when they entered Pritchard’s right-hand-drive 1966 Austin Mini Cooper in last year’s 100 Acre Wood rally.

Brian Scott of Lake Orion, Ariz., drives his Mitsubishi Eclipse down a rural road near Salem during a shake-out stage which allowed drivers to check their cars prior to the start of the rally. Drivers do not know the rally course until they arrive at the event. Scott and his co-driver, David Hackett of Reno Nev., won the Production GT class of the event.

We were going down a straight-away section and I noticed, all of a sudden, he lifted off the gas,” Cohn says. “I looked over and we were doing 95 mph and he decided this is fast enough. In this car, for this road, lined by trees, this was fast enough.”

Although the diminutive Mini Cooper is no match against the turbo-charged, all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi and Subaru sports coupes that dominate performance rallying, the team still competes. Pritchard, a two-time U.S. Formula Ford champion, captured the historic class title, beating a 1968 MG and a 1972 Corvette that was not able to finish.

The Corvette’s team was not alone in its fate. Of the 44 cars entered in Friday’s Trespassers Wil, just 35 made it to Saturday’s rally. Only 26 teams finished the 100 Acre Wood.

Driven by St. Louis performance car shop owner and first-time rally driver Doug Jenkins, the Corvette was one of just two cars entered by Missourians. The team of Shawn Teegarden of Peculiar and Robert Hamlin of Branson entered a 1987 Dodge D-50 pickup, one of only three trucks in the event. A broken transmission took them out of the running.

Although most of the event’s organizers live in the St. Louis area, nearly all the competitors travel at least 500 miles to participate. Many, including several teams of top drivers from Ireland, are based on the East Coast.

The chance to showcase the Ozarks to visitors from across the country is welcomed by community leaders who roll out the red carpet for the rally.

Local residents braced cold and rain to see the cars exhibited during a "parc expose" held in downtown Salem.

“It’s a significant event for us,” says Sharon Tubbs, Salem’s economic development director. “It’s a really good marketing opportunity. We’re able to show our community to people throughout the whole nation.”

Besides the hotels and restaurants that filled to capacity, businesses and community groups throughout the area pitched in to welcome organizers, competitors and their crews.

Dent County Motors in Salem emptied its showroom and became rally headquarters for the weekend. In downtown Ellington, Black River Electric Cooperative director Walter Baker kept his business open late Friday night as tech crews lined up for welding service at Baker Machine and Sales following the first half of Trespassers Wil. In Salem townspeople braced rain hinting at snow to attend a display of the rally cars downtown.

“The amount of community input and cooperation we get is almost embarrassing,” says rally chairman DeMotte. “The whole rural community just opened up and said, ‘Sure, this looks like fun. Let’s try it.’”
The public cooperation begins long before rally weekend. Organizers spend nearly the entire year between events planning the race course and seeking permission from every land owner and resident along closed course competitive stages. They also work with county road commissions, fire departments and ambulance districts to prepare the roads and provide emergency services.

“There’s absolutely no question that the economic impact is critical to their help,” DeMotte says, adding that this year’s rally brought about $100,000 into the area.

The rally team of Justin Pritchard and Bryan Cohn, driving a 1966 Austin Mini Cooper, accelerates out of a corner while rally marshalls and spectators take photos. The tiny car was a favorite of crowds throughout the weekend.

“Now that means absolutely nothing to the guy who lives along a road we want to race on who gives us permission to do that. He does it because it’s exciting.”

Indeed, the arrival of nearly 50 high-performance race cars and their crews to towns like Salem and Ellington certainly goes a long way to brighten a cold, dreary February weekend. While the winter weather kept crowds at spectator points down, those who braved the cold were treated to the sights, sounds and sensations that only champion-level motor sports provides.

“It’s not often that a professional type event comes to your town,” says Rob Benowitz, a Salem merchant who never strayed far from the action during rally weekend. “It’s spectacular. It’s really something to watch.”

The 100 Acre Wood will return to Salem through 2005. For more informatin visit www.100aw.org or www.scca.org on the Internet or call the Salem Chamber of Commerce at (573) 729-6900.

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