BETHEL – Despite having a global following at its peak, rallying has always been a bit of a niche sport.
In a way, that’s part of its appeal. A driver and co-driver push an often overpowered small car through the woods on gravel roads, sometimes to glory, sometimes to spectacular disaster.
It can be a thrilling sight, although the noise and adrenaline isn’t for everyone.
But a small local rally team in Bethel combines its passion for the sport with an inclusive message that the hopes of the tight-knit team members will make rallying less forbidding, more open and not just tolerant but welcoming. While Ed Best has been a rally fan since he was 14, he and his wife, Becky, made their rally car a vehicle for more than two people. And maybe it will be good for the rally as well.
“It’s not just there in the car. There’s a whole team culture with us,” Becky, the team’s wrestler and, for lack of a better title, spiritual leader, said during a recent interview at the Best family home in Bethel.
The car, a 1998 Subaru Impreza, which Ed paid $450 for when he was in his twenties, has been dubbed UniCARn and features a unicorn on each side, the team’s animal totem. Alongside the names of the pilot and co-pilot, Best and Heather Littlefield, are their personal pronouns (he/him, she/her, respectively). The grille of the car is painted like a rainbow flag.
Becky, who is trained as a graphic designer, has stickers printed and gives them to people who pull up in front of their cars in the paddock.
The team represents “inclusiveness, civic responsibility and respect for the Best family name,” Becky said. Rallying uses a lot of resources for something that may seem frivolous, she added. “I feel like you have to find a way to use it to make the world a better place.”
Spectators regularly come to see the Bests and hug them, they said.
“They see this rainbow and they know,” Becky said.
Stage rallying, so called because there are timed stages meant to be driven flat out, might well be, as Ed described it, “the most inclusive form of motorsport”, but speed is the attraction. A typical stage rally, which includes timed stages on closed roads and transit sections on open roads in between, can cover 500 miles, with perhaps 100 to 150 miles of special stages on which the car lays it. faster wins.
This weekend, the top rally team is at the New England Forest Rally, the only national rally held in New England. It is primarily operated on private roads through paper company land in the Maine woods and is based at the Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, Maine.
In addition to Ed and Becky, and Littlefield, the Maine-based co-driver, the team consists of Ed’s father, Ken Best, who worked as a mechanic while Ed was growing up and is now a machinist; Eli Ferro, a Sharon Academy student who helps with mechanical work, and another volunteer from Massachusetts.
Ed, 34, and Becky, 36, both grew up in Bethel and at one point attended daycare together. They live in Ed’s childhood home in East Bethel and work on the car in a garage in the house.
The Bests started rallying in 2019, after years of spectators and volunteers at rallies while also working on the Subaru. After fixing the bodywork, installing a roll cage and putting in other required safety features, including a full fire suppression system, Ed decided he had to move on, find a co-driver and take part in an event.
“You can’t wait for the car to be ‘finished’ before you go racing, otherwise you’ll never go racing,” he said.
Along with a co-driver from Missouri, the team has competed in rallies in Pennsylvania and Maine, and has stayed there since the coronavirus pandemic curtailed the 2020 season.
Among rally cars, the UniCARn isn’t particularly powerful, but since stage rallies are run almost entirely on dirt and gravel, “it’s a game of momentum,” Ed Best said. Last year the car hit around 95 miles per hour. With a transmission rebuilt over the winter, the car will be able to make the most of its limited power and should reach 130 mph on the fastest stages of the New England Forest Rally.
Having good notes that the co-driver will pass on to the driver as he accelerates through the stages is more important than having a powerful car, Best said. Before driving the high-speed specials, Best and Littlefield spend hours going through them in Best’s daily driver, another Subaru, to hone the notes that Littlefield will follow to guide Best.
In rally pace ratings, each corner is assigned a number from 1 to 6, with 1 being the sharpest and slowest and 6 the most gradual and fastest.
The goal is the cleanest ride possible. The New England Forest Rally could have a 40-50% attrition rate. The question that marks someone as a savvy rally fan isn’t “Did you win?” but “Are you done?” For a team spending their own money and building their own car, there is a financial incentive not to get wrecked, even if an accident is to be expected.
“There are those who have driven and there are those who will drive,” said Ed Best, who built his car with durability in mind.
Few rally teams operate with substantial outside support. One of the best known in the United States is headquartered in Vermont, the Milton-based company Vermont SportsCar, which prepares rally and rallycross cars under the Subaru of America flag. Vermont is also home to John Buffum, who remains the nation’s most successful rally driver, winning 11 national titles, mostly in the 1980s.
With so many gravel roads and Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, NH, the Twin States may seem like fertile ground for rallying, but there are relatively few teams and events. Decades ago, a rally was held in the central Vermont town of Plymouth, but Buffum said he doubts such an event could be revived today.
“We’ve always had a rally group in Vermont,” he said in a phone interview. But “there are no gatherings here because there are so many people living in the woods that we could never close the roads”.
The Upper Midwest is more fertile ground for rallies, he said, mainly because there is more land for paper companies and private roads. There are four national rallies and 10 regional events within 500 miles of each other.
The Bests are more optimistic. On the one hand, the economic impact of a rally can be immense. When last year’s Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally in Pennsylvania had licensing issues that limited the event’s reach, there was an outcry from the business community about millions in lost revenue. And the Bests also noted that other motorized events use both public and private Vermont roads, including hill climbs in Ascutney and Okemo.
“I would like to bring the rally back to Vermont,” said Becky Best.
For now, that effort will have to wait. Becky has struggled with a puzzling health issue for the past two years, a cerebrospinal fluid leak that doctors have been unable to identify.
“It causes a whole roulette wheel of symptoms,” she said, including fatigue and headaches.
“I’m at a point,” she added, “where I can’t wait to get better,” but she “don’t know if that will happen.”
If healthy, Best said she plans to make an effort to stage a stage rally in Vermont, but “I don’t want to make a commitment that I can’t keep to the fullest,” she said. she declared.
In the meantime, simply fielding a rally car is more than enough to keep them busy. Becky is planning all the food for the race weekends and will be hosting the spectators. She dyes her hair for every rally.
For Ed, the rally is also an escape. Nerves will set in, but as the timer counts down to start a stage, he relaxes. “When we get in the race car, everything goes away,” he said.
UniCARn works its magic for both of them, welcoming a wider audience into the sport they love.
Alex Hanson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3207.