Action Vets Rally Around Auto Circuit

By Andrew Astleford
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Five years ago, Chris Yandell read in a magazine article that motocross star Travis Pastrana had tested a rally car in Britain and called it one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life. Reading the piece tantalized Yandell, the marketing manager for Vermont Sports Car, a company that builds rally cars.

Yandell envisioned Pastrana, with his nine X Games gold medals and wide following among action sports fans, introducing a new consumer segment to rally racing and giving the sport wider appeal in the United States.

Yandell decided to offer Pastrana and Kenny Bartram, another motocross star, a formal introduction to the sport. In July 2003, the group met at the Team O'Neil Rally School in Dalton, N.H., for a lesson.

Pastrana and Bartram learned about a form of racing in souped-up hatchbacks that takes place on public or private roads rather than a track, one that has enjoyed great popularity internationally yet has struggled to gain visibility in the United States.

"My angle was that it could be a cool [public relations] story, and people would find out about rallying through it," Yandell said. "My goal has always been to grow rallying, and I thought, 'Hey, if these guys want to have fun with rallying, it will help the sport.' "

The meeting, which ended with Pastrana and Bartram both expressing interest in rally careers, drastically changed the sport's outlook in the United States.

Because of the athletes' popularity among action sports fans, additional eyes were introduced to the sport, and this week rallying will be contested at the Summer X Games for the third time. In the five years since Pastrana and Bartram visited Yandell, rallying has positioned itself as the action sport of auto racing.

Like Pastrana and Bartram, some longtime X Games stars in their late 20s or early 30s -- old for bike jumps but young for auto racing -- have turned to rallying to satisfy a curiosity and competitive itch. Some are attracted to the sport because it offers the rush of motorcycles without the risk. Those who have made the transition say the thought of retiring doesn't appeal to them, even after successful careers in other action sports. Some, after spending their younger years pushing life's limits, view rallying as a means to sustain the thrill.

"When you're going through a forest around a corner and there are trees right on the edge, it's scary, but that's the cool thing, because you know you can do it and know it's possible," said Dave Mirra, a 34-year-old BMX athlete who holds an X Games-record 32 medals and started rallying in 2007. "It's how far you want to push it."

Said Bartram, a 29-year-old freestyle motocross rider with 57 career victories: "This is basically another way where I can find another adrenaline rush. I'm getting close to 30, so my motocross days are winding down.

"With cars, you look at some of the rally drivers, and they're in their 60s and they're still winning rallies, and you're like, 'Wow, I could do this forever.' "

Major-event rallying began in Europe, and in 1911 the Monte Carlo Rally served as the first large rallying championship. Because the race was held each year in treacherous conditions along Monaco's twisting mountain roads, auto manufacturers used the event as a platform to test early automobile specifications.

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