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by Larry Roberts

April 09, 1999

Rallying in Europe is a lot like NASCAR Winston Cup or Craftsman Truck racing in this country. A number of manufacturers spend enormous amounts of money to produce racers that have little or nothing to do with the cars that are available on showroom floors. They're driven by highly-skilled and dedicated drivers who make a great deal of money and their crews are equally dedicated professionals whose job in life is to make their cars as fast and as rugged as possible.

There's a couple of differences, however, because the European rally cars run against the clock and their "tracks" are dirt trails in forests and on secondary dirt roads. Also, their "live" spectatorship is limited to local onlookers who gather at "action" spots.

But despite the seemingly hap-hazard circuits, big-time rallying there is closely followed on TV and in print by its legions of enthusiasts and its stars are almost as popular as Formula One drivers.

Actually, its a misnomer to call the FIA (Federation Internationale Automobile) World Rally Championship (WRC) "European." Besides events in nine continental countries, WRC rallies are held in Kenya, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina and China. The world-wide promotion of the events is important advertising fodder for the many international factories that participate. "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" is as true in Athens, Greece as it is in Athens, Ohio.

The analogy between NASCAR racers and FIA WRC cars is accurate in other ways, too. The Winston Cup rear-drive, front-engined, V8-powered Cup cars bear only superficial similarities to the V6-powered, front- drive family cars they represent. WRC rally cars are only minimally more "stock" in that the basic configuration has to remain as original as possible in order to be approved by the FIA. But from there on almost anything goes. All-wheel-drive can be used, turbochargers can be added, original internal engine parts can be replaced by specially-made units and the suspension system is open to team interpretation. Some years ago, a similar class of cars know as "Killer Bees" (a nickname used because of their official FIA Group B designation) was so fast and so dangerous on the unguarded third-world courses that the class was dropped over 10 years ago.

That onus has all but disappeared over the years and the nearly unbridled WRC cars are as fast as ever.

Toyota, Subaru, Mitsubishi and Nissan have all spent enormous amounts of money to produce winners and a segment of the rally aficionados complain that their unlimited resources have all but eliminated some of the less-subsidized competitors.

The upside of that situation is that the successful Japanese teams are actually Europeans who have contracted to build and field cars with Asian labels. And the vehicles they represent are made in European factories by European workers.

The Japanese makes don't have the field entirely to themselves, however. While Mitsubishi and Toyota have are the most consistent podium finishers so far, Ford managed a win in the bone-rattling 1700-mile Safari Rally in Kenya earlier this year.

Unlike our own off-road races held in our Southwestern deserts and in Baja, Mexico, the rules and protocols of the FIA events are very strict. The reason for the strictness is that so much promotional and sponsorship money is involved. NASCAR won't let any perceived rules infractions slip past its inspectors and neither will the FIA. In a recent event, an official Ford entry was found to be carrying an illegal water pump and was disqualified. I don't know if even NASCAR would go that far.

There are 14 events on the WRC calender, but none are held in North America. The closest we come to it is a six-event professional rally series put on by the Sports Car Club of America. It seems that doing it in American dirt doesn't appeal to international auto makers.