Widely regarded as one of the toughest one day rallies in all of North America, the Rally of the Tall Pines returns again to the sleepy town of Bancroft, Ontario for its 47th running.
Now with Lincoln Electric joining on as a title sponsor and with increased investment from Subaru Canada (among many other fantastic sponsors), the future is bright for one of the few stage rallies in this part of the country. Of course above all that none of this would be possible without the time and dedication of the amazing staff and volunteers who organize this event year after year; the Ministry of Natural Resources and the various townships for the use of their roads; and the Watters family, the Golton family, and the Tait family for allowing spectators onto their properties for the duration of the rally.
The full album of photos will be available here for y’all to browse at your leisure:
After a rather uneventful two and a half hour drive East at some silly hour in the morning, I arrived at Rally HQ only to be greeted by what was an empty field and a handful of racecars. Given that it was another hour before the service park actually sprang to life, I did what any other Canadian would do and backtracked to the nearest Tim Hortons for a quick bite.
Intermittent rain throughout the day meant fast and slippery conditions for both competitors and spectators alike. Rather than spend the entirety of my day shooting at Iron Bridge like last year, I decided I would explore Bancroft for once and use some of the spots the video guys have used in the past (even if it meant I would miss a few passes of the cars in transit).
But first back to the service park; as the wonderful sound of cars warming up and heading out for shakedown filled the air, I started to notice how muddy some of the recce cars had gotten. Naturally the Subarus scattered around the paddock would have had no issues with the conditions but it was nice to see cars being properly used.
As if right on schedule at 7AM the Rocket Rally crew were out prepping the pair of Subaru Rally Team Canada cars for the days action; Under the tent across from them a slightly familiar sight of Vermont SportsCar banners although not with the VT15Rs they’ve become synonymous for.
At a total of 24 cars across the four classes (six down from last year), there was a healthy mix of blobeye/hawkeye STIs and Evolution VIIIs up and down the field for spectators to enjoy. Although the teams of RPR and OSM Rally were not present, the service park did see another legendary name return: Can-Jam Motorsports, an outfit more well known with their time-attack machinery but whose roots can be traced back to these forest roads.
Also returning was the familiar name of “Crazy” Leo Urlichich, a driver equally well known for driving on the limits as he is past them. Although one would think that being in a production class STI would prevent him from challenging for a podium, the difficulty of these forest roads is always a great equalizer.
Being somewhat close to the US-CAN border also means there is always a small contingent of American teams that come up to experience what is usually a winter-gravel rally. What better names to partner with than schools like Dirtfish! I was ecstatic to see the Perrin fin stabilizers in addition to the PasswordJDM gurney flap on Travis Nease’s STI, as the combination resembles a production-oriented variant of the old ProDrive WRC wing.
There were of course some familiar faces who had competed in Bancroft from years past and whose cars had changed little, if at all, since the previous running. It would only be a matter of time before these cars became barely recognizable under a thick layer of mud.
While some drivers swear by AWD for rally, there is a certain level of fun mixed with challenge that can be had with slower, FWD cars. Although it would have been amazing to see Simon Dube return in his winning golf (Edit: it appears it was put up for sale back in October), his absence was filled by an equally interesting entry: Sean Burke and his Honda CR-X, a car which he had rallied for nearly a decade on the east coast. The hills would soon be filled with the sound of VTEC.
It was while admiring the last few moments of racecar cleanliness that something odd caught my eye: Robert Jekosz’s STI, which appeared to have additional flaring at all corners but no telltale indications of whether it was a ProDrive built car. Would have loved to see it on stage but like many of the cars, that never ended up happening (officially it retired after an “off-road” incident).
.A very colourful Parc Ferme soon gave way to the ceremonial start of the rally. Or in my case, a frantic panic as I quickly did a shakedown of my own having not shot with with my long Sigma since late in the summer.
Between the constant shuffling around to get the shot and the short list of entrants, this part of the day went by pretty quickly. Almost too quickly, because I showed up at my first spectator point almost an hour too early (although I needed a moment to rest regardless). Nonetheless a titanic battle was about to go down between the top open class cars, and Leo, and to be honest we were all itching for some action.
As the familiar faces began to roll off and the shutter bugs clicked away, there were murmurs about what to cover next .Some opted to head early to Iron Bridge to snag a good vantage point, others stayed behind for first service. I decided to head to a spot new-to-me: the Detlor crossing, which unbeknownst to me was an incredibly short window to catch cars passing through.
But what a beautiful area this is. A logging community with old roads largely undisturbed and shaped by the few residents that traverse this landscape. A true rallycar backroad if there ever was one, and as you can see, the terrain becomes quite tricky once the white stuff starts to come down in large quantities.
If you ever get the chance to I highly recommend going for a drive down some of these roads yourselves. They may not be the fastest or smoothest roads in southern Ontario for fun-having, but there’s a good reason both the Black Bear Rally and Lanark Highlands Forest Rally both share this same region. Between the roads and the wilderness, it’s a blast just to explore these lesser travelled routes (and if you have the time, shoot some photos!)
Unfortunately while killing some time with the marshals and nearly witnessing one of them get run over by an insistent farmer in his truck, I was ill-prepared for the passing of the first few cars.
Of course I completely missed L’Estage’s pass and the next successive shots were at the completely wrong focal length but I eventually got the hang of it. From this vantage point you could tell how committed drivers were by way of throttle position, as in the case of Crazy Leo and some of the 2WD guys who were flat through the Detlor transition.
The once-navigator-now-driver Simon Vincent has always been a strong performer in the CRC, despite fielding one of the oldest Subarus in the series. Like his father before him, Simon is one of those drivers who knows when to take risks and is usually incredibly consistent in his style.
The Americans were doing surprisingly well by this stage despite rarely seeing conditions like these; Martell and Nease bracketing the Open 4WD class on the Old Detlor stage with mid 8- and 9-minute stage times respectively.
Between the 2WD and Production 4WD classes, there is an abundance of opportunity for new players to get in on the action even if they don’t want to pony up the cash for a full open class ride.
Despite having only one rally on the calendar (to Quebec’s 3 CRC events), it’s always nice to see the Quebecois making the trip over to compete. Now that I think about it, French was definitely the most spoken language whenever I was perusing the service park.
Video break! Knowing that I would most likely miss a lot of the cars I decided to set up a remote camera to capture some of the stage action, similar to what I’ve done previously at Mosport. Unfortunately I only got around to covering Stages A4 and B1, but hey it’s something.
A very quick once-over at Service 2 on my way back from Detlor, as I was expecting Iron Bridge to be completely packed with spectators. Little did I know for some reason half of the people there were cleared out by the time I arrived even though the stage was to be run twice. But to their credit, it was starting to rain again and I was slightly worried for my gear.
As you can guess, Iron Bridge is always the most popular spectator stage on this rally. Between the abundance of standing room and the one corner that always eggs drivers on to give the full beans, there’s never a shortage of rally action here (Iron Bridge is run 3 times). Why is it called Iron Bridge? Well, because there’s an iron bridge beyond that corner they have to cross before attack this hill - a bridge whose guardrails have claimed many a bumper over the years.
As with last year, L’Estage once again showed how driving smoothly is sometimes the fastest way through these slippery stages. Other drivers opted to approach some corners like Pastrana did, whether pitching the car sideways was of their own volition or because it eventually did get that loose naturally.
There are few automotive spectacles more impressive than rally cars fully sideways with massive rooster tails of gravel.
Night eventually fell on Bancroft along with another healthy downfall of rain making the Golton Rallycross a properly sideways affair. I unfortunately positioned myself on the down-side of the jump directly inline with the various assortments of headlights, meaning I was blinded most of the time. Quick to adapt I eventually caught a few shots but these were far from ideal.
Even here Leo isn’t afraid of pitching it sideways in the darkness. Frankly I’m astounded he managed to keep the car as spot-free as he did!
To my surprise they only ran Golton once but at this point I was ready to pack it in. It was cold, everything was wet, and my back was killing me even though I admittedly shot a fraction of what is a usual track weekend at Mosport. One last coffee, a quick top up of the tank and I set off for the three hour journey home. And straight to a car wash.
To no one’s surprise L’Estage and Subaru Rally Team Canada eventually took the rally win with conservative stage times to make sure the car made it home. Martell eventually claimed a second place finish (an amazing feat considering his main goal was just finishing) and Crazy Leo snuck home a third place with stage wins on the last few night stages. At the end of nearly 190 competitive kilometers over 16 stages, 19 of the 24 entrants made it back home to Rally HQ.
Congratulations to all the finishers and a massive thanks to all the wonderful people behind the scenes that helped make this happen. This event only gets better and better with every running, and when Mother Nature decides to grace us with good weather, never ceases to amaze with intense action on stage.
You can learn more about the Rally of the Tall pines and future runnings here:
Archived scoring results also available here:
If you made it this far - thanks for reading! Be sure to follow me on Flickr or Instagram to keep up to date with whatever car show or motorsports shenanigans I get into in the new year (of which there will hopefully be many).