The Empire State Performance Rally almost didn’t happen this year. The traditionally tarmac NASA-sanctioned stage rally in upstate NY was forced to reschedule thanks to late April snowfall covering the stages in sleet and ice. The event was moved to October, then again to November with organizers scrambling to get all the pieces in place.

I arrive early, as I usually do for these sorts of things. This is my first rally without being accompanied by someone who actually knows what they’re doing. Slightly nervous, I stumble upon a volunteer meeting, and quietly join the group huddled around a poster that had stages and spectator locations marked down. I listen, and take note of some minor changes to the schedule. I go wander around the paddock. Not a large competitor field, I think to myself.

After walking the entirety of the rally headquarters, I realize I left my car in a section designated to volunteer parking. I ask an official-looking man where spectators should park in the paddock area. He’s unsure, citing the date changes as the reason for unpreparedness. I decide move my car when the volunteers leave, so as not to get in their way.

I start to see the volunteers get in their cars to take their positions along the stage. The first competition car was scheduled to be on course soon, but I still have no idea how to get to the spectator points. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, I decide to simply bring up the rear of the volunteer car convoy. I figured the worst that could happen was I’d get told to turn around.

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The group is being led by a 20-something man with long blonde hair in a smallish flatbed truck. It seems volunteers are getting dropped off throughout the stage, so we’d hit a spectator area eventually...right?

The convoy enters the stage, and I follow. The official-looking man from before is now at the starting line. “I guess I’ll just follow them and see what happens!” I yell out my window. He laughs, and ushers me on. This is a much more laid back rally than any Rally America sanctioned event. A few minutes in I realize I’m doing something I’d always dreamed of doing.

I’m driving on an actual rally stage.

The car in front of me is a Forester. We’re not going flat out, as none of us had any sort of safety equipment. The road is extremely bumpy and peppered with sharp rocks. My P-Zero summer performance tires are struggling.

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But none of that matters because I’m having the time of my life. I break traction at every opportunity, and oppositelock was plentiful.

Eventually, all the volunteers are dropped off. I’m the only car left in the pack, now directly behind the flatbed. The 20-something gets out and walks up to my car.

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“Who are you??”

Expecting the worst, I answered honestly.

“...uh...just a spectator looking for somewhere to watch the rally!”

“Oh cool, I’ll drop you off at a good spot. Follow me.”

A small sense of relief comes over me, as we turn down back into the stage.

The road is much smoother now. Relief turns into excitement. The flatbed is sideways most of the way, and so am I. Fifty miles per hour means something different now. This exhilaration is unlike anything I’ve felt before. Even now, recounting the experience, I’m yearning for more.

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Miles go by in what feels like seconds, and we finally pull off the stage. I sneak through the red tape marking the spectator area and parked the Fiesta.

I become just another spectator, but I felt different. I know exactly what the competitors were about to go through. The thin dirt roads have exactly zero runoff, and there are trees at either side, waiting to greet your overzealous driving with a stern lesson in inertia. This newfound respect is something I won’t forget.

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I join the throng of spectators, none of them give me a second glance. I successfully blend back into the crowd. Just another spectator again.

A few minutes later, the pops of anti-lag and the thick smell of race gas fill the air as the real rally cars populate the forest.

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I attend 3 more stages throughout the day, following others in order to get from one spectator area to the next. Seeing these purpose-built machines fly by at unspeakable speeds with so little room for error—I always wondered what it was actually like. On-boards and action flybys could only do so much.

For once I feel like I could relate, even just a little.