It was midnight, and Ben and I were settling in to our sleeping bags. We set up his tent in a forest-lined pasture near Strasbourg which, for one day a year for the last three years, is turned into a parking lot.
5:30AM – Our tent is flooded with the headlights of parking motorists. Car doors open and jubilant conversations in French, German, or some Scandinavian tongue pierce the thin walls of our tent. Car doors close and our tent is bathed in flashes of yellow light as they lock their car and walk away.
7:00AM – The continuous stream of excited motorists finally dislodges me from my sleeping bag. The air outside the tent is crisp, the freshly-mowed grass damp, and the field is already filled with cars. Hundreds and hundreds of small birds are funneling south above us, calling softly from just far enough to elude identification.
The mist had lifted, but the air was still thick with anticipation.
We were near the German border in the Alsace region of France, the home of Sébastien Loeb, eight-time World Rally Car (WRC) World Champion who has enough overall points to potentially secure a record ninth title this weekend. He is the Dale Earnhardt Jr of WRC—fast, popular, ruggedly handsome, and from modest rural upbringings—and just announced his semi-retirement from the circuit 8 days ago.
Ben and I shovel down a quick breakfast and trudge up the forested driveway to the closest segment of this race course, the first of three stages each pilot and navigator will race today—twice.
This course is a cement road that winds through a forest and several small towns. As we approached the crowd, huddled in the designated spectator section, it’s easy to draw another parallel with NASCAR: spectators are white, male, and rural. As my French friend Ben succinctly puts it: “Parisians don’t come to WRC races.”
We snaked through the trees on the edge of the road to find an ideal vantage point. The key—as Ben describes—is to stand next to a tree big enough to protect you should a driver careen off course. In fact, two spectators would be injured later today after a driver veered off the road, plowed through a vineyard, and slammed blindly in to a power pole, which fell with dramatic sparks into a group of nearby spectators.
I rest my shoulder against the largest alder I can find, take my camera out, and wait.
Little can prepare you for the approach of your first rally car. The rotor chop of the television helicopter provides some warning, as well as the building sound of the tuned exhaust lurking in the distance. In a blur, the mechanical banshee passes me: an oil-curdling cacophony of thunderous belches, piercing whines, deafening backfires, and the screech of tires fighting tooth and nail to stay connected to the ground.
I stood there, stunned; I look at my camera, nothing. As a photographer, I am relieved another car is coming in a couple minutes. As a testosterone driven humanoid, I am ecstatic that this high-octane procession will continue for over an hour.
Never before have I been more content to ignore birds in a forest.
Ben and I move through the trees to enjoy a variety of vantage points between passes, seeing drivers from France, Finland, Brazil, Norway, Great Britain, New Zealand, Germany, Estonia, and Mexico driving cars by Citroen, Ford, Mini, Skoda, Proton (Malaysia), Mitsubishi, Renault, and Peugeot.
Ben and I would catch all three of the stages on Saturday, and two of the three on Sunday, including the third and final stage on the streets of Sebastien Loeb’s hometown of Haguenau where he secured his record ninth WRC championship title in front of massive crowds.
Video of 2012 WRC Rallye de France
I edited a video of some haphazard clips I recorded of 16 driver passing me at various stages on Saturday.
Images of passing cars, cars standing still, a cool dog, and some old buildings in Strasbourg.