July 11, 2012

Steve Solloway: Rally driver Chris Duplessis is becoming a big wheel

By Steve Solloway ssolloway@pressherald.com
Columnist

NORTH WATERFORD — If accelerating out of a power slide on a dirt road spraying gravel while making a 90-degree turn at 40 to 50 mph is your idea of fun, Chris Duplessis is your guy.

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Chris Duplessis, who grew up in the western mountains of Maine, may be headed to the top tier of rally racing in the world, but he still builds his own cars. He’s also traveling the world, teaching in Washington state and honing his craft in European competitions.

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Chris Duplessis has plenty of reason to smile, living the life he’s always dreamed of living.

RALLY TIME

WHAT: 21st New England Forest Rally, the fifth event of six in the Rally America National Championship series

WHEN: First car starts at 11:06 a.m. Saturday and at 9:36 a.m. Sunday

WHERE: Sunday River

MORE INFORMATION: new-englandforestrally.com

If you think gee-whiz technology has removed too much of the human element from driving a race-prepped car very fast, shake Duplessis' hand. You'll find him in Newry this weekend at the New England Forest Rally.

He's the 25-year-old graduate of Telstar High in Bethel – and life in the rural Western Maine mountains – who can get more out of a two-wheel drive Ford Fiesta R2 than other rally cars with twice the horsepower. He's the unassuming throwback to the days when men drove fast race cars. Not the other way around.

Ask Duplessis if he's enjoying life and the grin just gets wider. His passport has been stamped in Great Britain, Portugal and Greece this season, and he heads to Finland in about three weeks. He's a young American in a motor sport more beloved by Europeans who appreciate finesse over raw horsepower.

Rally fans on the other side of the Atlantic aren't accustomed to seeing a Yank who knows how to handle a car at speed on twisty dirt roads or dirt tracks. Americans like their racing around oval tracks in packs, NASCAR style.

Although in the sport's beginning, the story goes, its drivers once raced the back roads of the deep south, lugging moonshine from illegal stills. Sounds a little like rally racing. Stage rally fans prefer essentially street-legal cars racing the clock from point to point.

Rally drivers race with a navigator in the passenger seat. With the exception of a reconnaissance run before the event, drivers are on an unfamiliar course, relying on their navigator reading from notes.

Duplessis has raced the New England Forest Rally five times. Each time the course around private roads near Sunday River Ski Resort has changed. "I've got a feel for it. I know the land and that matters. This is my home."

He knows how to make quick decisions. He was 14 and working on the safety crew on a section of the Mt. Washington Auto Road during the traditional Climb to the Clouds race when a driver crashed. The car burst into flames. Duplessis and his father ran to the burning car.

Duplessis beat down the heat with a fire extinguisher and pulled the driver to safety. He got a commendation from the New Hampshire governor and a little story he lets others retell.

It's difficult to explain how a Maine kid grew up to be a world-class rally driver. Maine is stock car country. Young Maine drivers still have the dream of following Ricky Craven's path to Sprint Cup driving, even if that dream in 2012 is much more difficult to realize.

You got a big-money sponsor, kid? Or a wealthy family?

Duplessis has a supportive family but no wealth in the material sense. Three years ago he was racing an old Volkswagen GTI he converted into a rally car.

He's no stranger to junk yards. Even today he and his wife empty out pockets of winter clothes or search under seat cushions for lunch money.

"I just got back from Greece. I can't really complain. But all our money goes back into this. I'm lucky I met my wife in rally racing. She understands."

Duplessis attended the Team O'Neil Rally School in New Hampshire when he was 12 and later worked there as a driving instructor for Tim O'Neil. Now he teaches at DirtFish Rally School in Washington state.

Instructing students and spending more time on rally courses honed the skills that Ford Racing noticed.

Duplessis won his two-wheel drive class at the Maine Forest Rally last summer and finished fourth overall in a field of several dozen entries. That was also noted.

He was invited to join World Rally Championship's Academy, a development series for rally drivers. Duplessis is the lone American among 11 drivers in the series.

World Rally Championship racing is the pinnacle of the sport with 13 events, mostly in Europe, but also in South America and New Zealand.

"It's all happened so quickly," said Duplessis. "A lot has changed but some things haven't. I'm still building my own cars (with Ford-provided parts) and I like that."

He laughs. On his tax forms, in the space asking for his occupation, Duplessis writes: driving instructor. That's his paying job. "I'm flying under the radar."

Not for long.

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

 

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