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Autoweek America Adventure Part 1: The Rally

Alex Kierstein
Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Davey G. Johnson, my friend and a writer for Autoweek, was on the phone. There was this rally, and he needed a co-driver. The gist: a 500+ horsepower Mercedes coupe with flares that would make a DTM car jealous, the open roads of Colorado, six days of navigational and racing challenges … and I cut him off right there. I said, “With Forza Horizon dropping that week, do you realize how perfect this is? It’ll be like Horizon in real life!” His response: “So that’s a ‘yes’?”

Of course it was. 

Insert one of those typical travel movie montages here: the suitcase zipping shut, a taxi door slamming, a flight attendant demonstrating things to no one in particular, and then suddenly I was at the Colorado Springs Airport, a bounce in my step and thoughts of tachometer needles dancing in my head. But where was Davey? In my montage frame of mind, I’d forgotten to coordinate a pickup with him. He was actually hooning a Grand Cherokee SRT8 around an autocross course at Pike’s Peak International Raceway. So another taxi door slammed, and I cooled my heels at the hotel while I tried to envision what the next few days would bring. Of course, I’d never expect to be off-roading a Mercedes Benz AMG C63 Black Series Coupe, now could I?

But I get ahead of myself. The Autoweek America Adventure had the “adventure” part right. It’s part time/speed/distance rally, part trivia challenge, and that means that not only was each team responsible for figuring out where to go, they had to get there within an aggressive timeline while keeping things within the speed limits. To enforce this, our car was outfitted with a GPS system that would flag violations. We were also outfitted with an AutoNet wireless router, a couple of laptops, an assortment of cell phones, and our car’s in-dash COMMAND navigation system.

After a generous and garrulous dinner, I somehow ended up in bed. Just as I was drifting off, it seemed, the alarm was blaring. Rude predawn awakenings would become a routine throughout the trip. A typical day would involve a hurried shower to rinse off the pitiful few hours of sleep, bolting down some questionable food, imbibing large amounts of coffee, filling the Mercedes--dubbed “Lalah” for reasons that remain obscure (a nod to the main love interest in the Gundam Mobile Suit mecha anime series)--to the brim with gear, and then clicking the bright red three-point belts in. The last part of the ritual was the one I liked the best – stabbing the Start button to unleash a crackling roar as the big V8 spun to life. 

It would take up way too much real estate to describe each and every challenge we encountered, so let me give you some highlights. Our first day was typical. We consulted the rally’s mobile app, and the clue asked us to find a couple of smooching camels. Luckily, I’ve got a habit of reading up on each town I visit, and those camels rung a bell. I’d just read about the Garden of the Gods, a park with lots of rock formations, including the amorous Kissing Camels. We plugged it into the GPS, and a short drive later, I was using forced perspective to take the place of one of the rocky ungulates (which, incidentally, only looked like camels if you’ve never seen one before). Then we mugged with a stuffed puma, befuddling the visitor center staff with our out-of-towner antics, and then, with the briefest of tire chirps, we were off into the sunset. Repeat similar scenes at the Museum of Colorado Prisons, downtown Telluride, and the gargantuan Royal Gorge, and you’ll get a sense of what our fast-paced (but legal-speed observing) days were all about. Within the six days allotted, we accomplished quite a bit. Whether it was white-water kayaking with an air temperature of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (don’t ask what the water temperature was), blatting around a dirt course in some dodgy go-karts, or chasing cows around a pen for points, we had a blast.

While Team Bullet Train to Vegas (as we were officially known) started out quite competitive, the other teams proved to be serious rally racers, despite how friendly everyone was. From the Flying Baldini Brothers (with a newly minted fiancé along) in the Charger they won last year, to the #13 Lotus Elise of Erik and Nancy that had an unforunate facelift, courtesy of a dead deer right before the rally, our competitors were there to play hard. Some folks were just along for fun, however, such as IZOD IndyCar Series driver Graham Rahal (who was there supporting the charity work of his Graham Rahal Foundation), and the powerhouse Honey Badger Boo-Boo team, consisting of Autoweek’s Dutch Mandel and SRT’s Beth Paretta. There were too many great people we met to mention all by name, but I will call out the up-and-coming Firestone Indy Lights drivers Stefan Wilson and Logan Gomez, who campaigned a Mini Countryman and were great fun to be around, despite their ferocious assault on the leaderboard. The overall winners were the much-deserved Cactus Racing team, Dick and Marie in their heavily modified Subaru STi, whose fob opened the grand prize 300 SRT at the final awards ceremony. 

Speaking of ferocious assaults, the C63 endeavored to devour hundreds of miles of twisties without showing any sign of fatigue. I’ll tell you more about the car in another post, but I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that it was sort of the ultimate geek-out for a guy like me, who not only loves fast cars, but was giddy with the opportunity to live out some on-the-road fantasies that I’ve dreamt up while playing Forza Horizon. Being able to climb into the mountains on Highway 145 out of Telluride was a lot like careening down the road from Bunker to Beaumont. And of course, the red rocks in many parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona reminded us of … guess what? Yeah, Red Rock. I’d say the only visual disappointment in real-life Colorado was that we’d missed some spectacular fall leaves (like you see in many parts of the game) by a couple of weeks, and that is a stretch – the bare-tree-lined highways were still achingly beautiful.

In the end, we’d travelled through five states and across almost 1,200 miles of the country’s most beautiful roads in a superfluous and impractical car, competing with other teams for a shot at a prize car. We made good friends, talked a lot of shop about cars, and – without belaboring the point – had an incredibly good time. We’re glad Autoweek, SRT, and the Graham Rahal Foundation put this all together so that we could give the Forza Faithful a bit of a taste of what the real roads that inspired Horizon are like.

And offroading the AMG? Well, you’ll have to tune in for the next article about the car itself for that little story.

By the way, if you’d like to read Davey’s excellent write-up on the adventure from his perspective, you can find them on Autoweek. Click the links to read parts one, two, and three.

If you’d like to comment on this post or ask me a question, visit the Forum thread here.