NEWRY – Mike White seems normal enough.
White is of average height. He owns a modest house in Camden. He is raising a family and works in information technology.
His wife’s name is Suzanne.
He is also, by his own account, certifiably insane.
Every year for a few breakneck days, White ventures into the woods of western Maine with a cadre of trusted friends, straps into a 1984 silver and red Swedish sedan, and drives as fast as humanly possible down unfamiliar dirt roads.
As one of a small but committed contingent of amateur American rally racers, White finds satisfaction in one of the most grueling tests of competitive driving, engineering, mechanical skills and intestinal fortitude. The race atmosphere falls somewhere between a natural disaster, an outdoor music festival and an engineering circus.
At the 2013 New England Forest Rally held this weekend at the Sunday River ski resort, White’s highly modified 1984 Saab 900 was among a field of 54 cars to compete against the clock along 120 miles Friday. The cars rarely run on the same sections of road twice, and cover huge distances between different parts of the route.
Nothing about it is easy. The cars regularly break down on the punishing roads, forcing crews to work through the night to fix them, only for the cycle to repeat again the next day. Before the weekend was out, White’s crew would do just that.
This year, White said he is confronting a classic conundrum of the amateur racer. While everyone competes to win, drivers don’t want to wreck their cars, hurt themselves, or injure anyone else. One of the many self-funded teams, Whites treats the competition as a test of endurance.
“The allure to me is being part of a very small group, being out doing your thing pretty much on your own,” said White. “Once we’re out in the woods we have to kind of be able to fix the car ourselves.”
So why do it?
“The other thing is, it’s fast,” he said. “I like going fast.”
ATTRACTED TO THE IMPROBABLE
Viewed up close, rallying is controlled terror. The cars always seem eager to careen into the woods, skid into boulders, and generally maim anyone in their path.
Each of the hundreds of turns on the course offers risk and reward, or at its worst, possible injury or death. Driving competitively on loose surfaces is a dance performed at the edge of control. To compound the difficulty, drivers and co-drivers are allowed to preview the course only once during a low-speed reconnaissance period — no practice runs, no second chances. Competitors’ blood types are stitched into their racing suits.
John Cassidy, a 14-year veteran of the sport from Bangor who competes at the top of the amateur ranks, does not take the perils lightly.
His run this weekend is a return after he was stricken last September by a brain hemorrhage — a surprise for someone with the lean and fit frame of a triathlete.
When acquaintances first learn about his hobby, the reactions are predictable.
“People are like, ‘That must be awesome,’ ” said Cassidy, a physician assistant. “Yeah, its fun, but this is serious. … We’re control freaks, but there’s a huge amount of chance. We don’t like to admit it, but its true.”
Before he leaves for a race, Cassidy said he mows his lawn, cleans the house and sends emails to his kids, “in case I don’t come back,” he said. “I call it reverse nesting.”
Next to him in the car is co-driver Dave Getchell, whose job is to read to Cassidy a series of notes that describe the road ahead. Cassidy must interpret what he hears, combine it with what he sees and feels, make adjustments to the direction and attitude of the car and then drive through the turn — a process that occurs within a fraction of a second.
Getchell and Cassidy teamed up after Getchell covered the Maine rally in 2000 for a weekly newspaper he worked for at the time.
“I met this guy, struggling at the back (of the field) with this little banged-up Honda, trying to solve some relatively simple thing, but he didn’t have the resources,” said Getchell. “We’ve been self-funded for many years. When we break it, we pay. When we race, we pay. We trust his car with our lives, literally.”
As Cassidy became more serious about racing, better results followed. He would go on to win four regional championships with a newer car, a Subaru, between 2007 and 2011. It had been two years since the pair raced together, and the first rally drive for Cassidy since his stroke.
“I was wondering, would I be sharp enough to do this? I can’t put Dave at risk. I have kids,” Cassidy said. “We’ve had comments like, ‘Do you have a death wish?’ I don’t do it because I want to die. I do it because I want to live.”
On Friday, Cassidy and Gethcell won their class. Cassidy said it was one of his best days rallying.
Cassidy, Getchell and their crew were on their way to sipping Stella Artois beer and tucking into barbecue sandwiches Friday night in the hospitality tent, when the work was just beginning for White and team Saab.
In the final part of Friday’s racing, clipping through the trees at about 90 mph, the Saab’s gearbox — located direcly underneath the engine — made an unplanned meeting with an indigenous boulder.
“We hit a rock the size of a toaster,” said White, who had moments earlier climbed from the car, still sweating. “We came over a crest, and there’s this rock.”
For normal drivers in regular cars, such a breakage would spell disaster. But within minutes White was working the phones, looking to score a few parts.
As the last of the sunlight faded over the ski slopes, White hit pay dirt: Not one, but two replacement transmissions had been located.
“We’re sending the boys to Portland,” White said, grinning.
The four-hour journey would mean few on the team would sleep that night.
No one knew if one of the transmissions would work, or in what condition they would be. But those are real-life concerns for regular drivers. This is rallying, he explained. They had to try.
Watching the familiar drama unfold in the paddock, Getchell, a longtime friend of White’s, knew the feeling too well.
“This is it, in a nutshell,” Getchell said.
More than 12 hours later, on Saturday morning, White and Clark were back in the car. The car was due at the starting line in a few precious minutes, and White’s face was in a strained grimace as the engine turned and turned.
He kept trying, the starter-motor whining. One cylinder caught, and then another and another. The motor roared to life, and the silver and red Saab with antique plates eased into the queue of rumbling race cars, ready to try it again.
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: