July 29, 2013

Wild and crazy ride attracts racers to Sunday River

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

NEWRY - Mike White seems normal enough.

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Dirt flies from a rally car as it navigates around a hairpin turn on the Newry race course.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The Last Ditch Racing team of John Cassidy and Dave Getchell work their Subaru through the Concord Pond Stage of the 2013 New England Forest Rally in Newry on Friday. Driving competitively on loose surfaces is a dance performed at the edge of control.

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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." 


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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Aiden Gardner Baker, 5, cheers as he and other spectators watch racers during the Icicle Brook Stage on Friday.

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Racer John Cassidy’s firesuit displays his blood type, to help rescue workers in case of an emergency.

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John Cassidy, front, and Dave Getchell, rear, of Last Ditch Racing, settle into their Subaru rally car before departing for the first stage of the day at the New England Forest Rally.

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Mike White and Geoff Clark prepare to enter their Saab in the South Lodge parking lot at Sunday River on Saturday as they and other rally teams line up for the start of the second day of the New England Forest Rally.

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Dave Getchell, co-driver for Last Ditch Racing, dons his racing helmet before departing for the Sunday River Super Special Stage.

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Erik Lee, in driver’s seat, and Cullen Gillis sit in the front of Last Ditch Racing’s Subaru rally car late Friday night as they go through final pre-race checks for the next day.

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John Cassidy, left, goes over racing footage from the first day of the New England Forest Rally in Newry as co-driver Dave Getchell checks his phone before going to bed.


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