Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

Tony Nelson

It's evening--cool and clear--and about 20 people are crowded in a garage in northeast Minneapolis. As they make small talk, they form a cluster around a bright red, 1987 Volkswagen GTI. Two race suits hang from the wall studs. An upturned crash helmet, placed on the driver's seat, is brimming with cash: donations made in exchange for beer and chili, and as a down payment of sorts on the dreams of a friend.

"I don't know what the hell I'm doing," allows the host, Dave Grenwis. Grenwis, a technical writer by trade, exudes a sort of fidgety energy, speaking mainly in staccato bursts. "We're probably the most clueless guys out there. You don't see a lot of 25-year-olds doing this," he adds, as he gestures toward his partner and college buddy, Dan Goldman.

That Grenwis is juiced is to be expected. In a few weeks, he and Goldman will be competing in their first race--the Lake Superior ProRally in Houghton, Michigan--and their anticipation is building.

If you've never heard of ProRally, that's not surprising, either. Yes, it is car racing, but it is the virtual antithesis of popular motor sports like NASCAR. There are no Confederate flags, no gun racks, and--most significantly--no eternal asphalt loops. ProRally is, rather, strictly a backwoods affair, with courses that cover rugged terrain full of yawning turns and ruts.

In some respects, ProRally most closely resembles the lesser-known sport of orienteering--a cross-country foot race where competitors use a map and compass to negotiate unfamiliar territory. In ProRally, driver and navigator don't know where they are going until just before the race begins. At that point, the navigator is supplied with a course book. A description reads, "This is a fast, short, uphill stage on moderately poor quality pavement. It is narrow and a bit rough, but plenty of speed can be generated. There are lots of places to get airborne, so be prepared."

Because both navigator and driver must wear fireproof hoods and helmets, communication is problematic. Goldman, who will be the navigator, figures to overcome this hurdle through the use of a time-tested technique: He will scream and gesticulate.

Like most motor sports, ProRally is not without risks. The sport's original governing body, the Sports Car Club of America, recently announced that it will cease involvement with ProRally due to liability concerns. A Minneapolis-based organization called Rally America is stepping into its place.

None of this seems of much concern to Goldman and Grenwis--not that they haven't given the matter some thought. In the interest of safety, they explain, all the gear must meet certain standards. The racing suit is rated for how long the wearer can be engulfed in flames. "The ones we have are for three seconds. You wear Nomex underneath, which gives you an extra three seconds," Goldman shrugs. "Basically, we have six seconds to get out of the car before we catch on fire."

For footwear, safety regulations contain a single provision: no nylon. Given carte blanche, Goldman decided to make style a priority. "Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High?" he says. "Jeff Spicoli, played by Sean Penn, he wore those black and white Vans. It's got that whole checkered flag theme. I found a pair for Dave and I for $35 each."

"We are shiny out of the box," Grenwis laughs. "Everything we're going to wear is new. We're going to look like complete tools."

Goldman and Grenwis first became interested in ProRally when they were college classmates at Michigan Tech in Houghton. The Lake Superior Rally had just come to town and, on a lark, the two decided to check it out. The spectacle of cars roaring through the snow and darkness, nearly overturning into swamps, grabbed them.

"After seeing the cars and meeting the drivers, I realized that this kind of racing wasn't too far out of reach," Grenwis says. "I then realized that I would be able to drive as fast as I wanted on real roads with no consequences--except death or injury. Nothing major. I was hooked."

Not long after that they purchased the GTI, which they nicknamed "Delores." It's red, street legal, and has an engine that remains unaltered. They paid $200 for a 1988 Volkswagen Golf that serves as a parts cadaver.

Most Wednesday nights are set aside "for rally." Roughly translated: work on the car and drink discount beer. "Some nights we get a lot done," Grenwis says, then admits: "Other nights we do nothing."

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