The night air was chilly as my friends and I hiked down the side of a gravel road deep in Mark Twain National Forest. As we arrived at an intersection, I looked up at the stars and heard the sound of an exhaust off in the distance, echoing through the trees. My anticipation grew as the sound became louder and louder.
We didn’t have to wait long. The low rumble grew to a full roar as the vehicle’s bright lights lit up the forest. Despite being night, I remember it looking bright as day. The brake rotors glowed a hot orange and threw sparks as the driver slowed. As the car throttled out of the corner, we were pelted with gravel and the exhaust sound faded back into the forest. I stood in awe of what had just happened. Little did I know what impact that magical moment at the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood would have on my life.
After that experience, I knew I wanted to rally one day. However, I had no idea when or how I would reach that goal. The drivers and their co-drivers became my heroes. Then they became my friends. As I became more involved in rally, the magical moments became countless. My passion for rally grew bigger and brighter every day.I started out as a very timid rally driver. Having co-driven for several years, I was very comfortable in that role with my partner and driver Calvin. When he gave me the opportunity to begin driving I was humbled by how much there was to learn. As my confidence grew, so did my success on the rally stage. One of my biggest goals when I became a driver was to pay that opportunity forward and bring more people into the sport by throwing them in the hot seat. I could use my experience as a co-driver to help them.
Since becoming a driver I have had the opportunity to give four people their first ride in the co-driver’s seat. Watching them blossom next to me after starting out nervous and unsure is just as thrilling as the driving itself. This is why I love helping others.
“Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
I’ve written about the relationship between the driver and co-driver before—it is the foundation of rally. It is important to trust one another—sometimes even more than trusting the car. With one of the four people that has been newly acquainted to rally through my passenger bucket seat, we had to learn this quickly.My first event with Olivia Vargo as my co-driver was Sno*Drift Rally 2022. The Northern Michigan roads would be covered in sheet ice. It had rained the night before the rally began, making the snow packed gravel roads treacherously slick. To make matters more challenging, we were one of only a few rear-wheel-drive cars that entered the race. I had never faced conditions like this as a driver, and deep down I was terrified.
Teams that had competed in previous years pulled out when the conditions changed. Despite being a novice driver, my rally experience told me that most teams racing wouldn’t even make it to the finish line in such brutal conditions. As it was Olivia’s first time sitting in a rally carI chalked her resolute faith in us as a team up to naivety. Even so, I had one goal for us and that was to make it down the final stage of the rally, the super special dubbed Bonfire Alley.
The full five miles of the stage are lined with spectators and their blazing fires. This stage is run at night and is a thrilling and surreal experience that I wanted Olivia to see. We pushed and encouraged each otherr through countless mistakes. I fought with the car and myself. One moment we would be crawling across the ice and the next helplessly pirouetting down the road. Learning to read pacenotes in these conditions was just as difficult for Olivia. The early sunset of deep winter in the midwest meant that she was reading her first book of notes by flashlight and wasn’t wearing gloves so that she could turn pages.
Through patience and perseverance, we achieved the goal I had set for us. It was a brutal race and we got stuck numerous times. Nevertheless, we made it to the start of the final stage, Bonfire Alley. At the start of the stage, Olivia counted us down and we were off. The next few minutes of driving were some of the most thrilling in my career. We launched down the ice-covered, dark, forest road. Massive fires appeared in the distance. “Look up from your notes when you can and take all this in,” I told her. Olivia was flawless with her note delivery and I had finally learned how to keep the car pointed in the right direction. We still weren’t fast, but seeing the spectators with their bonfires was spectacular. We learned and grew so much together over the course of this rally. Crossing the finish line elicited tears of joy and giggles from both of us. Technically, our overall time was so slow that we were considered a DNF (Did Not Finish), but simply crossing the finish line as two novices, was a huge accomplishment. Our friends, partners, and a couple of women were at the finish line waiting to tell us how proud they were. This was my third event behind the wheel. As we took photos and celebrated, I finally felt as though I had earned the title of rally driver. —Kelsey Stephens