Valley News — The Vermont rally team’s message on inclusion is looking for a more open, albeit bumpy, road
BETHEL – Although rallying at the highest level has a worldwide following, it has always been a small niche sport.
In a way, that’s part of its appeal. A driver and a passenger chase a small, often wildly overpowered speedster through the forest on gravel roads, sometimes to fame, sometimes to a spectacular catastrophe.
It can be a captivating spectacle, although the noise and adrenaline isn’t for everyone.
But a small, homegrown Bethel rally team couples its passion for the sport with an inclusive message that the team’s hopes for close membership will make rallies less forbidding, more open and not just tolerant but welcoming. While Ed Best has been a fan of rallying since he was 14, together he and his wife Becky have turned their rally car into a vehicle for just over two people. And maybe it’s good for rallying too.
“It’s not just in the car. We have a whole team culture,” said Becky, the team’s fighter and, for lack of a better title, spiritual director, during a recent interview at the Best family home in Bethel.
The car, a 1998 Subaru Impreza that Ed paid $450 for in his early 20s, is called the UniCARn and is adorned on both sides with a unicorn, the team’s totem animal. Next to the names of the driver and passenger, Best and Heather Littlefield, are their personal pronouns (he/him and she/she, respectively). The car’s grille is painted as a rainbow flag.
Becky, the trained graphic designer, has stickers printed and gives them away to people who drop by her car in the paddock.
The team represents “inclusiveness, civic responsibility and living up to the Best family name,” Becky said. Rally uses a lot of resources for what might seem reckless, she added. “I feel like you need to find a way to use this to make the world a better place.”
Viewers regularly come to the Bests and hug them, they said.
“You see that rainbow and you know it,” Becky said.
Stage rallies, so called because there are timed stages designed to be driven at full speed, may be, as Ed described it, “the most inclusive form of motorsport,” but speed is the bait. A typical stage rally, which includes timed stages on closed roads and intermediate transit sections on open roads, can cover 500 miles, with perhaps 100 to 150 miles of special stages where the fastest car wins.
This weekend, the Best Rally Team is in the New England Forest Rally, the only national stage rally held in New England. It operates primarily on private roads through the paper company’s land in the Maine woods and is based at the Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, Maine.
Alongside Ed and Becky and Littlefield, the passenger from Maine, the team consists of Ed’s father, Ken Best, who was a mechanic when Ed was growing up and is now a machinist; Eli Ferro, a student at Sharon Academy who helps with the mechanical work, and another Massachusetts volunteer.
Ed, 34, and Becky, 36, both grew up at Bethel and once went to daycare together. They live at Ed’s childhood home in East Bethel and work on the car in a garage at the house.
The Bests got their start in rallying in 2019 after years of watching and volunteering at rallies while also working on the Subaru. After repairing the body, installing a roll cage, and implementing other necessary safety features, including a full fire suppression system, Ed decided he needed to push forward, find a passenger, and attend an event.
“You can’t wait for the car to be ready before you race or you’ll never race,” he said.
With a co-driver from Missouri, the team has competed in rallies in Pennsylvania and Maine and has stayed with them since the coronavirus pandemic rolled back the 2020 season.
Among rally cars, the UniCARn isn’t the most powerful, but since stage rallies are almost exclusively contested on gravel and gravel, “it’s a momentum game,” said Ed Best. Last year the car hit around 95 mph. With a gearbox rebuilt over the winter, the car will be able to get more out of its limited horsepower and should top 130mph on the faster stages of the New England Forest Rally.
“It’s more important to have good marks for the co-driver to pass on to the driver as they blast through the stages than to have a strong car,” said Best. Before driving the stages at high speed, Best spend and Littlefield spent hours going through them in Best’s daily driver, another Subaru, to refine the notes that Littlefield will follow to guide Best.
In rally notes, each turn is assigned a number from 1 to 6, with 1 being the sharpest and slowest and 6 being the most gradual and fastest.
The goal is a drive that is as clean as possible. The New England Forest Rally could have a 40-50% attrition rate. The question that marks someone as a knowledgeable rally fan is not “Did you win?” but “Are you done?” For a team that spends its own money and builds its own car, there is a financial incentive not to crash despite the possibility of an accident.
“There are those that have rolled and there are those that will roll,” said Ed Best, who built his car with durability in mind.
Few rally teams operate with significant outside support. One of the most well-known in the US is headquartered in Vermont, the Milton-based company Vermont SportsCar, which produces rally and rallycross cars under the Subaru of America flag. Vermont is also home to John Buffum, who remains the nation’s most successful rally driver, winner of 11 national titles, mostly in the 1980s.
With so many gravel roads and the Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, NH, the Twin States seems like fertile ground for rallies, but there are relatively few teams and events. A rally was held in the central Vermont city of Plymouth decades ago, but Buffum said he doubted such an event could be revived today.
“We’ve always had a few rallyists in Vermont,” he said in a phone interview. But “there are no rallies here because so many people live out there in the forest that you could never close the roads.”
The upper Midwest is more fertile ground for rallies, he said, largely because there is more paper company land and private roads. There are four national rallies and 10 regional events within a 500 mile radius.
The best are more optimistic. For one thing, the economic impact of a rally can be immense. When last year’s Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally in Pennsylvania faced permitting issues that limited the scope of the event, the business community clamored for millions in lost revenue. And the Bests also noted that other motorized events use both public and private Vermont roads, including hill climbs in Ascutney and Okemo.
“I’d love to bring rallying back to Vermont,” said Becky Best.
Those efforts will have to wait for now. Becky has struggled with a puzzling health issue for the past two years, a CSF leak that doctors have been unable to pinpoint.
“It causes a whole roulette wheel of symptoms,” she said, including fatigue and headaches.
“I’ve got to a point,” she added, “where I can’t wait to get better,” but she’s “not sure it’s going to happen.”
When she’s healthy, Best said she can see she’d make an effort to bring a stage rally to Vermont, but “I don’t want to make a commitment I can’t fulfill to the utmost of my ability,” she said.
In the meantime, just using one rally car is enough to keep them busy. Becky plans all the food for the race weekends and greets the crowd. She dyes her hair for every rally.
For Ed, the rally is also an escape. The nervousness will set in, but as the timer counts down to begin a stage, he relaxes. “When we get in the race car, everything is gone,” he said.
The UniCARn works its magic for both of them, welcoming a wider audience to the sport they love.
Alex Hanson can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3207.