Kentucky: Why it’s a great place for rally racing

J.A.
By J.A. Ackley
Mar 20, 2023 | rally, Kentucky | Posted in News and Notes | Never miss an article

Image Courtesy Patrick Gruszka

Deep in the woods of eastern Kentucky, the seeds for rally racing have been planted by two promoters, Matt Earl and Bernie Obry. After starting two NASA Rally Sport events in the Bluegrass State last year, they’re looking to expand on their success in a state not only seemingly built for the sport, but quite welcoming to rally racing, too.

The Backroads to Success

Erik Hubbard leads Backroads of Appalachia. The nonprofit organization seeks to revitalize the eastern Kentucky economy through motorsport tourism. Erik introduced Matt and Bernie to Kentucky’s McCreary County, an area in which their economy once centered around the coal mining industry decades ago.

“When I was able to check out the roads, I said, ‘Man, we got a rally,’” says Bernie. “The roads are unimaginably different from one another just a couple miles away. Each one of them is a superior rally road. We said to each other, ‘These are great roads and they need to be driven.’”

The roads were just what Matt and Bernie wanted.

“We like gravel rallies,” Matt says. “We like roads that are fast, flowing, technical and sideways. Those types of roads are fun. There are thousands of miles of gravel roads in [Kentucky]. Erik said he had a lot of those mapped out for motorcycle tours, and he said there was a good opportunity in McCreary [County].”

Rallying Support from the Community

It’s no secret that the decline of the coal industry has ravaged eastern Kentucky. Unemployment, poverty, illicit drug use and resultant crime have taken its toll on the region. Despite the area’s issues and its need for an influx of capital, racing still needs to prove itself as not a Simpsons-like monorail- project.

“It’s important to include [the locals so they can] see what their tax dollars have been invested in to make more money,” Matt says.

But, how? How can you show it? Rally racing does not lend itself well as a spectator sport. To help prove its worth in front of the local community, Matt and Bernie came up with an idea.

“We developed, in Lawrence County, a Super Special Shakedown,” Bernie says. “It was an event where you could watch the cars ride in and out of this unique course at the county fairgrounds. [It was] followed by a parc expose, where all the cars were exhibited by the fairground gazebo, which had a rock band and BBQ. People could walk around the cars, with a band playing. It was right up everybody’s alley. It had a good turnout, with well over 600 people.”

Matt and Bernie understand the value of working with nearby residents.

“Without the local community, you cannot do it,” says Bernie. “You need the cooperation for the roads, the services.”

The two are also keen in not taking advantage of those who help them achieve success.

“We wanted to work within that community, without disturbing them or causing a hassle,” Bernie says. “We succeeded in McCreary and Lawrence counties. We did not pass a single residence [on the rally]. In McCreary, we found 92 miles without a mailbox. We did not inconvenience anybody.”

Low Barrier to Entry

“A lot of people don’t realize how accessible it is,” says Matt of competing in a rally. “The [rally] car has to be tagged, titled and insured, because they travel on public roads for transiting, from one stage to the next. As long as you have the proper safety gear [including roll cage], the car is safe and passes a logbook inspection, you can go rallying with little to nothing. Any vehicle can be a rally vehicle.”

The entry list for the Lawrence Super Stages event had the usual favorites, such as the Subaru Impreza and Ford Fiesta, but also included a Jaguar X-type.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the best rally car to start out in?’” says Matt. “The answer is just like with any other form of motorsports: It’s one you can get in and learn with and get some seat time. Whatever car you can afford to get you out there competing is the one you need.”

Growth on the Radar

Matt and Bernie admit their two rallies in 2022 served as a “proof of concept” that rally racing and the local communities could not only peacefully coexist, but also thrive.

Now, they’re looking to up their game.

Last year, the McCreary County Gravel Rally attracted 10 entrants, the Lawrence Super Stages drew 15. The promoters hope to add a RallyMoto motorcycle division, which would further their upward trajectory.

“Changes to the McCreary County Gravel Rally [include] moving all operations to Stearns, Kentucky, so that we have a more central location to reduce transit miles,” says Bernie. “It should also be noted the McCreary County tourism [department] and government are working hard help us provide a spectator-friendly event as part of the Shakedown.”

Mark your calendars.

The 2023 McCreary County Gravel Rally takes place on April 28-29. The 2023 Lawrence Super Stages official date has not been released, yet, but expect it to occur around late October.

Matt Earl and Bernie Obry hope to make both events more “competitor-friendly” and “spectator-friendly,” and by doing so, they look to introduce more to the sport of rally racing and the state of Kentucky.

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Comments
Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
3/20/23 9:42 a.m.

I was thinking about the last time I visited the small Kentucky town I was born in with both my parents—surprisingly fun-to-drive roads out that way–both paved and unpaved.

Captdownshift (Forum Supporter)
Captdownshift (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/20/23 12:44 p.m.

They're growing something special in that part of the world. 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
3/21/23 3:38 p.m.
Captdownshift (Forum Supporter) said:

They're growing something special in that part of the world. 

Very much. 

irish44j (Forum Supporter)
irish44j (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
3/21/23 8:36 p.m.

I know those dudes :)

Though..."“A lot of people don’t realize how accessible it is,” says Matt of competing in a rally. “The [rally] car has to be tagged, titled and insured, because they travel on public roads for transiting, from one stage to the next. As long as you have the proper safety gear [including roll cage], the car is safe and passes a logbook inspection, you can go rallying with little to nothing. Any vehicle can be a rally vehicle.”

I mean, it's accessible, but it's not "cheap racing" by any means...this ain't the Gambler lol. Cage, seats, harnesses, fire system, helmet, intercom, ~$1k per rally entry fee (on average), several days off work, several days lodging, towing, lots of gas. We've done rally for about 7 years now and try to do it as low-budget as possible, but on average each rally still costs $2500 or so (and that's not split with a 4-person team like chumpcar or something - most codrivers don't pay much or any of the costs). None of that counts rally tires, breaking stuff, the car itself, etc. 

Rally is definitely accessible in a general/vehicle sense though, especially if you can build your own cage and do your own work - some schmuck like me can run in the same events as Pastrana and Block (RIP) and those guys, you don't need a $100k car to compete in the top rally events in the US, you can do it in pretty much any car, as Matt notes....from a WRX to a Cherokee to a 38-year old BMW. So that's cool. 

Looking forward to our first rally down that way (Bristol Forests Rally in Tennessee in early May) and hope to eventually get to the Kentucky events if they ever host them outside NASA.

side note: West Va. also passed similar laws encouraging this kind of stuff, so there's plenty of talk of Rally West Virginia coming back as well. More mid-atlantic rallies is what I'm all about!

Captdownshift (Forum Supporter)
Captdownshift (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
3/25/23 11:08 p.m.

In reply to irish44j (Forum Supporter) :

Building a rally car is pretty cheap. Campaigning one is extraordinarily expensive. Travel, lodging, towing, entry cost and we haven't even talked about vehicle maintenance and the frequent body and transmission/differential maintenance. Even with a cage, hans, halo seats, computer, intercom and fire suppression and remote reservoir coilovers, it's the operation cost of rally that's absolutely insane. 

 

That's why what's going on in Eastern Tennessee, western SC, Western NC, Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and South East Ohio so potentially great. I'd really like to see it spread to south western VA and South Western Georgia. If it were to, then the Pennsylvania Hill climb association would serve as a bridge of stage competition between the Appalachian rally trail and the New England rally trail. The amount of available seat time for people with logbook cars would be impossible to keep up with. 

84FSP
84FSP UberDork
3/26/23 8:43 a.m.

So...  The next event is 4/28-4/29.  It is a short 3hr drive from Cincinnati.  This sounds like fun.

https://www.mccrearygravelrally.com/

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