Inevitably, you've seen many an article, post and video about rally. It is an intriguing motorsport, one that will draw a second glance from even those less enthused with automobiles. And by now, some of you may have wondered to yourself, "I wonder if I could ever go to one of those rally things, and if so, how?" Well wonder no longer, for here is a handy dandy little guide on how to be a rally fanatic and spectator in North America.

Plan Ahead

The very first thing you must do is look up where the nearest rally is to your location, and find out when it is run. The best events to spectate at are going to be through Rally America, NASA Rally Sport, and the Canadian Rally championship. A locally organized rally simply won't attract the caliber of drivers and cars that makes this sport so fun to watch. A map of all the rallies run on the North American continent can be found here. After finding a rally, go immediately to its official website and start reading. There will be lots of useful information on lodging, the spectator locations, the schedule of events, and more. Also, Google is your friend here. It will help you find a place to stay if you are traveling more than an hour or two from home. Once you find a place, call that day. I have made the mistake more than once of waiting nearly too long to make reservations, and have gotten the very last room available for miles around. Most rallies take place in areas that don't typically see much tourism, and lodging can be sparse. For a larger event such as a Rally America championship race, plan on making your hotel reservations at the very least 6 months in advance, and some would consider that too long. Many teams make their reservations for the next year's event as they check out for the current one. The one upside is that some of the hotels are usually so happy to have every room sold for an entire week that they will offer a discount if you mention you are staying there for the rally. The other alternative is camping, if you are the sort that likes to rough it. This also is much more budget friendly, costing usually a quarter of the amount for a hotel room.

Getting there

Spectating at a rally requires the use of a car, so either drive your own car or rent one. Good companies to rent from can be found here. Renting can be a bit more costly, but if you drive one of those cars that some might say is less than perfect, it can make your spectating experience far less stressful. Just make sure you wash it before returning it, as most rental agreements forbid driving on dirt roads. If you choose to take your own car, make sure it is in good running order because you will easily put a few hundred miles on it over the course of the event. Also, I would highly recommend those motoring enthusiasts who enjoy the less vertical vehicles to not take their own cars, as you will be driving down dirt roads that are not very well maintained. As an example, at Lake Superior Performance Rally last year, I drove past a "hellaflushyo" Volkswagon GTI that had pulled off to the side of the road on its way to a spectator point. In the dirt on the back window, its owner had written "My oil pan didn't like this road :(". In addition to this, most rally fans think lowered cars are stupid, and some might write insults in the dust on your back window. It's perfectly fine to be a stance enthusiast, I'm just warning you now. Rally is not your car's friend. Most cars sitting at stock ride height should have no issues. We took my wife's Mazdaspeed3 (one of the lower riding cars produced) to STPR last weekend, and while we scraped once or twice it suffered no damages.

You're there

Once you have arrived, it's time to prepare to spectate. After checking in to your hotel, make sure your car has a full tank of gas and you have some granola bars and water bottles. While it might seem cool to go about drinking Monster, Red Bull or Rockstar because your favorite driver is sponsored by them, I wouldn't recommend doing this. Caffeine is a diuretic, and will cause you to have to urinate like no tomorrow, and there will be few porta-johns to be found. Stick to water, trust me. Once you have procured supplies, find out where spectator guides can be found. Rally America does a great job of having very informative guides with directions to the spectator points and the latest up to date schedule of events. The directions part is especially useful, as cell signal can be scattered at best in many places, and relying on your cell phone for GPS can end up leaving you stranded scratching your head. This isn't limited to one carrier or another by the way, although some are better than others. Either way, you'll want the printed directions on hand.

The rally starts

The traditional beginning to a rally is the Parc Expose, where all the teams and cars come together in one place and park for a bit. I personally think this is one of the coolest parts about rally, because you can walk up and touch the cars and meet the teams. Many of the top teams will give away posters, sunglasses, wristbands, cowbells, stickers, and other cool items and will be more than happy to sign anything you shove at them. They will gladly tell you about their cars, how they are set up, or anything else you might want to know. The Parc Expose usually lasts about an hour or two, so getting there right on time isn't essential. What I can tell you is leaving before it ends is critical. Driving from the Parc Expose to the first spectator point can take as long as 45 minutes, and will usually take you down roads that you won't want to drive more than 25mph down.

At the spectator points

Rally is different than most other motorsports, in that you can't watch the cars travel the whole course. Instead, you watch each car come through in sequence at approximately 30 second to 1 minute intervals. Spectator points are usually located at a junction of two roads on a tight corner. You will want to arrive at least a half hour before the stage begins in order to get a good spot for parking and for viewing the action. Once there, you will notice a car go past with (depending on how early you arrive) three zeros, then two zeros, and then a single zero. These are race officials ensuring the stage is clear and safe to race on. After the car with the single zero goes past, expect the action to start in about 10 minutes.

Choosing a SAFE spot

This is quite possibly the most important part of this whole article. There are safe spots to view rally, and unsafe spots. I suggest you use the picture below to educate yourself on these locations.

If you want to spectate from a point that is across the stage from the road you drove up on, make sure you get there extra early. The stage marshals and officials are very strict on when you can and cannot cross the stage. Usually, all movements must be made before the single zero car comes through. Once the stage is declared "hot" (meaning race cars are now traveling down it) do not – and I cannot emphasize this enough – DO NOT cross the stage. Cars come through at high speeds and are not anticipating dodging a person on the road. Even if you cross without incident, the stage marshals will tell you to leave, and usually have an armed police or conservation officer there to escort you to your vehicle. Due to the many hoops event organizers have to go through to be able to even get this kind of racing approved and insured, they take safety extremely seriously. If a marshal asks you to do something, do it. Don't get offended or take it personally, just calmly agree. They have the power to cancel the stage if you don't comply with the rules. I've been at stages where this has happened, it isn't an empty threat. Spectate from the approved areas, it makes life easier and better for everyone. Also, don't lean up against the safety tape unless you enjoy being yelled at. Climbing trees is also usually frowned upon, so just don't try it.

Dealing with other spectators

While you are waiting for cars to come through, you will hear people around you talking about rally. I recommend taking everything you hear with a grain of salt. Rally is still largely misunderstood here in America, and not many are very knowledgeable about the sport. If you don't know much about rally, it can be very easy to be misled by someone who thinks he knows about rally. If you do know a lot about rally, it can be very easy to think it is your job to correct everyone who says something grossly false. My advice is either to ignore the incorrect statements or learn how to take a very gentle informative tone, the first choice being preferred. Instead, just appreciate that these people are interested in rally, and hope that that interest motivates them to educate themselves on the sport. Also, at least 1/3 of the people spectating at the stages with you are locals who have nothing better to do that weekend, and often have no knowledge of how rally works.

Other helpful tips

Don't drink at the stages. Just don't. I love a good beer as much as everyone else, but this isn't NASCAR or NHRA. You will have to drive to the next spectator point once the one you are on is done, and driving intoxicated is illegal and unsafe. Rowdy drunk spectators are the last thing stage marshals want to deal with, and as I said before, they won't hesitate to cancel the stage if people are getting out of hand. Also, driving from stage to stage might seem like a great time to show off how loud or fast your car is. I personally have been guilty of this one. Try to keep your testosterone driven urges down, and drive safely. If you think you have what it takes to race, then get your license and build a car and enter. Finally, don't try to go to all the stages. You simply won't be able to make it to every single one. Plan out which you think you can go to and stick to those.

Go to the services

It might look like a dull moment on the schedule, but it can actually be a very enlightening experience to watch the teams change a control arm, brake rotor, coilover and reattach a bumper cover in a 25 minute service. This can also be a chance to meet the drivers and codrivers if you missed Parc Expose, and learn more about the cars.

Have fun

Spectating rally is exciting and very fun if you follow these steps. You will see some of the most beautiful parts of our continent. The best part about it is all of this is usually free. Yes, free. The most you'll ever pay is $5/person to watch a rallycross style super special stage. I can guarantee you will be hooked after the first time you go. As my wife said after our most recent trip to STPR, "I've officially gotten my first sunburn of the year and I've eaten more than my fair share of dust today, and tonight I'm sleeping in a tent in a campground with no running water or electricity. I might be crazy, but its all worth it because I've had the time of my life today."

Go watch a rally. Trust me, you'll love it.

Spectating safety photo credit:http://www.newtonabbotaudistages.com/spectators.htm