In a word, it’s tough. It’s grueling. It’s dirty. The rally will come to an end and you’ll wonder what you actually just saw and why you’re covered in an inch-thick layer of dust and you feel like you’d been wading through a swamp. But wow, what an experience. There’s nothing else like it.
Go to spectate or shoot any road race on a conventional circuit and it’s a walk in the park. To get from one corner of the track to another, it might be a 5 or 10 minute walk. Everything is paved, well marked. Go up in the grandstands and you can probably see the majority of the track. The same cars go by lap after lap for hours on end. Whichever car or team you’re focused on, you know exactly where they are in the standings each time they pass because you can see the rest of the field go by at roughly the same time. If all else fails, there’s usually a big scoreboard or an app for whatever series you’re following that shows the timing and scoring for the race.
Now try to follow the action in a rally. You’re often driving 20+ miles in between stages on poorly marked roads trying to find the lone spectator area for each stage. You can go hours on end without seeing any rally cars whizzing by. And unless you have a teleportation device or a time machine, chances are you’ll only get a chance to watch the cars fly by two or three times all day. And every time you do see one of the cars fly by at breakneck speed, you’re choking on dust clouds and getting pelted by rocks left in their wake. At least checking the standings throughout the weekend is as easy as checking Rally America’s website on your phone… As long as you can get signal in any of the remote areas where the stages are held.
It’s not all bad though. Sure shooting at a circuit is easier, but with rally, you’re experiencing the great outdoors. You get to drive on a lot of the same (or very similar) roads that the rally uses for stages. Fellow rally spectators are some of the kindest and most enthusiastic fans I’ve ever met, often because they’ve put in the work to get to the same remote area as you, for the same reasons. And because the cars aren’t really racing head to head, wheel to wheel, like they would at the track, the viewing experience is much more relaxed. You’ve got time in between cars to have conversations with people, to grab a drink, move around a little. All with beautiful, scenic landscapes all around you.
As a photographer though, this presents a significant number of challenges. What sort of gear do I bring? How do I want to capture the car in a way that shows both the speed and spectacle in which it goes by while also showing the natural beauty of the surroundings? None of the stages feature much by way of protection between the fans and the cars ripping by, hanging on by a mere thread of control, so often times the crowds are pushed further and further back, far away from the action. Being out in the elements has its perks, but you and your camera will also be exposed to uncontrollable rain, massive clouds of dust, the blazing sun, and frigid winds. It tests your character, forcing you to endure.
No doubt about it, shooting rally racing is an endless struggle, but get things right – or at least a bit lucky – and the results can be well worth it. You can snap away until the memory cards are full and the batteries are drained and only go home with a handful of shots you’re proud of but on the long drive home, there’s a sense of accomplishment, of camaraderie, of witnessing something special. There’s something magical about rallying that makes it unlike any other form of motorsports. It’s the way the wind laps at your face. The way crisp country air, untamed brush, and speckled wildflowers mix with the hazy clouds of dust and race gas. The way the serene stillness of an untouched forest is broken so abruptly by the staccato engine notes of highly-strung race cars hammering between gears. There’s something about that dichotomy between the tranquility of nature and the wild frenzy of motorsports that created a unimaginable combination that will keep you coming back for more.