2 local men participate in SnoDrift Rally

Growing up in Alpena, Justin Kollien and Dan Garant attended SnoDrift Rally events and dreamed of participating with their own car one day.

That dream will become a reality today when Kollien and Garant take part in the 41st annual SnoDrift Rally, which starts at 1 p.m. in Lewiston and has races scattered all over the county throughout the weekend. The rally starts the season for the 2014 Rally America National Championship.

“Montmorency County has become the exclusive venue of SnoDrift because of the amazing support we get from not just the homeowners along our route, but the law enforcement and road commissions as well,” Alex Berger, one of the rally organizers, said. “It takes many pieces fitting together at the right time to put on a successful rally, and without that support, we couldn’t have won Rally America’s Rally of the Year three times.”

The SnoDrift is a performance rally featuring two-wheel and four-wheel drive cars. A large part of the appeal is because the cars race on real roads in a timed competition. Two days of racing over snow and ice makes this event a favorite among locals, visitors and rally fans.

“One of the highlights of the race is that it is the only true snow event in the Rally America Series,” Berger said. “The snow also levels the playing field, as driving skill becomes a bigger factor than just horsepower.”

SnoDrift attracts more than 40 domestic and international teams, as well as legions of dedicated fans who come back year after year to watch the rally races. The racers run without studded tires at high speeds, and have to adjust to the ever changing road conditions.

Drivers come from across the United States and many other countries to participate in this unique event.

“We’re striving to put on a world class rally again this year, and we’re pleased to be able to do this in Montmorency County. It’s a great place for an event of this caliber,” Don Rathgeber, SnoDrift chairman said.

Kollien and Garant built their own modified car for this weekend’s races and are looking forward to battling the elements on Northeast Michigan’s back roads. Kollien will drive the car and Garant will be his co-pilot.

“To me, the racing for rally it’s completely uncontrolled if you will. You’re running through the woods on a road that can be any kind of surface condition imaginable,” Kollien said. “It can be ice, snow, rain, dry. It’s not like running on a road course where you run it repeatedly. It’s you against Mother Nature in a way.”

Starting in March 2013, Kollien and Garant and some friends stripped down a 2013 Ford Fiesta and began modifications to make it suitable for the event.

“At the beginning of the day it was a completed car just like the one that’s sitting out there,” Garant said. “By the end of the day, not a wire, not a bolt, nothing on the inside.”

The duo estimate they spent hundreds of hours modifying the car and put in a new suspension system, springs, shocks and interior safety equipment including new seats and brakes. They also drove the car to New Hampshire to have a roll cage professionally installed.

Kollien and Garant will navigate the course with stage notes and did a test run of the course on Thursday to get a feel for the layout. Of the 58 teams competing, they’re one of 16 in the G2 class’ two-wheel drive vehicles with no real engine modifications. Depending on the stage, their car might go as fast as 70 miles per hour.

“It’s just the rawest form of motor sports,” Garant said. “Growing up that’s what you want to do right? Drive fast on the roads and that’s what you get to do legally now.”

Kollien and Garant hope to compete in the event annually, but for their first race they’re just looking to finish. The Fiesta is a popular choice among rally racers and if the car makes it through the weekend, the pair wants to be able to park in the garage and only make some minor modifications for next year.

“My personal goal is to finish the race and have the car together. I hope we’re reasonably competitive and I think we will be,” Kollien said. “I think we work well together, I think we’re set up well.”

Fans have plenty of opportunities to meet their favorite drivers and watch the action on more than 120 miles of competition roads and at the fan-friendly Ralph Thayer Mazda and MAHLE Clevite sponsored Super Special stage, which takes place Saturday afternoon in Lewiston at the Lewiston Sand and Gravel Pit located just off of Buttles Road. Admission for the Super Special is $5 per person. This stage allows spectators to watch all the action from start to finish from one location.

The rally action begins in downtown Lewiston at 1 p.m. Friday at the Parc Expose, where spectators will have a chance to view the rally cars on display as well as meet and get autographs from the many driver and co-drivers prior to the event start. Spectator guides are available with instructions to viewing areas.

Besides the national event, two seperate regional rally events, the Sno Regional and Drift Regional Rallies, will be run Friday and Saturday to help support the regional rally competitors.

Nicole Grulke can be reached via email at ngrulke@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5687. Follow Nicole on Twitter @ng_alpenanews.

James Andersen can be reached via email at sports@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5694.