Through one of those cosmic convergences of complete insolvency and bizarre opportunity that happen so often in my adopted home city of Prague, I found myself in Greece this past June as press officer for two Skoda cars competing in the World Rally Championship. It was my job to write firm but flattering PR copy for the souped-up Skoda Octavias, which spent three sun-baked days tearing up mountain roads around the ancient coastal city of Itea, not far from the now forgotten Delphi, where a summoned oracle once told Socrates he was the wisest man alive for his lone philosophical humility.
Twenty-five centuries later, the 48th Greek Rally is consuming humility like unleaded gasoline, spitting it out in roaring farts of carbon exhaust.
World Rally Championship events happen monthly around the world, and are comical neo-Romanesque showcases for man's mastery over both machine and nature. The cars pull into the (usually quaint) rally locations on the backs of big rigs, drenched in advertising and accompanied by technical-diplomatic entourages worthy of 10th century warrior-kings. But despite the trappings of sport, the pretense to greatness and the shimmer of glamour, the ultimate purpose of Rallying is the dull imperative to sell compact cars on the civilian market. Unlike its more famous sibling Formula One, Rally racing employs the same mundane models that clog rush-hour expressways and befoul city snows from Warsaw to Winnipeg. Instead of the sleek and muscular Ferraris used on the asphalt oval tracks of F1 stadiums, World Rallying is all about the middle-manager mascots and the housewife hatchbacks of prime-time television: the Subaru Impreza, the Toyota Corolla, the Ford Focus.
The basic idea is simple enough: find the most beautiful and exotic locations on earth--the seaside mountains of Greece, the open plains of Kenya, the lush forests of Finland--and then rip them to shreds in a showcase of two-door automotive strength and reliability. If the smart and sensible Mitsubishi Carisma can dramatically blow away the competition on the jagged gravel of Cyprus, goes the marketing strategy, then clearly this is the car to conquer the slow moving traffic blocking the route from home to office and back. Captured images of an otherwise unexciting car whipping up exciting slow-motion clouds of dust are the real fruits of the rallies for the manufacturers. That, and the pebble of media attention the events generate outside of rallying, a subset of motorsport, itself occupying a minor role in the wide world of professional sports. The deeper one gets into rallying culture, however, the harder it gets to see the concentric circles of irrelevancy spiraling overhead, and as far as many rally professionals are concerned, it is the king of sports. In American parlance: rallying rules!
But for now rallying is little known outside a small group of what might best be called "enthusiasts." The marketing people that own the rights to World Rallying are banking on a new Sega videogame to boost its image, but most likely the game will suck what little interest people have directly back into its own pixelated images. Without the audience share or marketing appeal of Formula One, the return on a carmakers' rallying investment is modest, even with a winning team.
It is thus a testament to the wealth of the major manufacturers that they can dump such cash into the annual 14-event World Rally Championship schedule. Until a couple of years ago the big factory names were spending as much on their rally team as they were on research into fuel-cells or hydro-powered engines. Backed by such deep pockets, the rally cars receive a level of expert mechanical attention that is nothing short of military. The best drivers earn up to $9 million per year and travel with personal chefs and therapists, as well as a "team" comprising hundreds of professionals representing everything from sound technicians to public relations. Ford, the leading name in World Rallying, imports its own fresh produce to each event for use in its traveling gourmet kitchen/mess hall--which feeds 700 of its own employees and corporate guests. The total effect of the teams converging on the event site is thus something like a subcultural micro-version of the Olympics.
Our Skoda team set up camp 20-minutes from rally headquarters in a small town called Amphyssa. Its central square was an idyll of palm trees and fountains; its quiet streets filled with small playful children until well after midnight. Innocent Amphyssa did not bear the brunt of the rally's masses, but even the comparatively modest swarm of invading green Skoda shirts was enough to rattle its inhabitants. "There are so many of you," gasped a lovely and slightly horrified waitress with a name that sounded like Yoda. "When are you all leaving?"
We were leaving in the morning, and from the attitudes of the natives, it wasn't an action packed day of World Championship Rallying too soon. The brief economic eruption in nearby towns caused by the rally is equaled, if not overshadowed, by the brashness of the event itself. Rallies draw native fans from around the country, it's true, but also bring hordes of journalists and assorted hangers-on from around the globe. Their intrusion into the small host communities is felt in the extra danger brought to local roads, as well as in the beefed up coffers of the local forestry agency, a result of heavy tithes levied on rally organizers for the punishment inflicted on the local environment. It is unlikely that this causes so much as a prick in the conscience of the "motorsport community"--and why should it? These people love cars, make a living off them and even draw that kind of happiness--known only to real gearheads--which is had from a day of strong brakes and a functioning suspension. Most of the crowd at rallies consists of such folks, for whom rally cars are blessed objects of both art and sport, fulfilling the glorious potential of the combustible engine on surfaces designed for nothing else. The death screams of the unmuffled engines are music to their ears. The similarities with bikers are strong.
Watching rally car drivers, it is hard to deny the athleticism of their profession. The gear-shifting and brake work required to compete is dazzling, a flurry of arm and leg motions that swing the car around impossible corners and down hills at speeds that would turn 99 percent of the driving population into a post-impact borscht of plasma and bone chip. The experience of co-driving a rally car has been described as a terrifying carnival ride from hell, where the mind explodes with the certainty that there is no way the car can turn in time to avoid instant death--yet always does. Then when you've seen your life pass before your eyes, you are already facing another hair-pin turn on a steep cliff. There is no room for a single mistake on most courses. Injuries and even deaths are not uncommon. In terms of driving, these guys are gods.
They are also generally soft-spoken and kind-hearted. Most of them come from long family traditions of rallying and began driving on the family farm when their feet could barely reach the pedals. They maintain extremely high levels of physical conditioning, as the upper-body strength needed to maintain control of the car on rocky paths at high speeds is immense. The heat inside the cars during the summer rallies would make most professional boxers faint. None of the drivers I met will be performing brain surgery any time soon, but the tough bastards have my full respect. Ditto their mechanics.
I didn't meet too many of the journalists, but not surprisingly they all looked the type in cut-off jeans and sun-dried faces. Every national character is on display at rally events, from back-slapping Greeks to poker-faced Germans. These were the objects of my writing, the multinational artist troupe who molded the wet clay of my press releases in their native tongue. At least this was what I told myself. I was supposed to "cultivate and supply" the journalists. Having watched CNN my entire life I had a pretty good idea what this meant, but transplanted onto this context it was harder to see. On the second day of the rally I recognized the bushy profile of Martin Holmes, the 60 year-old Brit and acknowledged dean of rally journalism who writes each year's Pirelli Tires sponsored World Rally Yearbook. He saw my newly minted press credentials and met my stare briefly as we passed, but ignored the subtle nod of my head, sensing correctly that I was a newbie and didn't really give a damn about the sport that had crowned him reporter-king. Generally the writers were friendly, though, and happy to humor the novice from Skoda at the beginning of a steep learning curve.
The same cannot be said for the collection of weasel-eaters and former tax clerks that occupied the public relations room in the rally media tent. Except for a lone spiky-haired Japanese guy from Mitsubishi who spent the whole race smiling in a Hawaiian shirt, the official hacks churning out press releases for their respective cars were a sad and humorless lot of neatly pressed and pleated mental trousers. The mild-mannered and middle-aged French crews at the Peugeot and Citroen tables were inoffensive enough, typing away their plain and competent copy with all the dignity and urgency of a middling student at the Grandes Ecole Nationale d'Admistration. And the Belgians were detached but amiable, hard to distinguish from the French. The Skoda table was, of course, the very picture of creativity and personability.
It was the British that were hard to take. World Rally Championship culture is very much British, from the top drivers to corporate management. The PR firms hired out to handle rallying for Ford, Subaru and Hyundai are all British. Skoda even fired a Brit to hire me, the only American in the room and one of a handful at the rally. In any case, these three tables seemed to resent my un-British mastery of the English language, and my furtive attempts to engage them in small-talk met with studied evasiveness. They were good little PR scribes, these Brits. Their releases were always the first to be completed and were well-written in a way that never strayed far from the same small family of clichés. The only things in the room tighter than their pinched faces were their clenched sphincters.
During the rally, I spent from between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. in the media tent with these PRites, shielded from gorgeous seaside views by a wall of thick canvas and climate controlled air. I saw the actual rally only through a mounted color monitor and spent most of the day focused on a computer terminal that streamed in the updated tracking times of each car. I imagine it was a bit like following stock prices from the factory floor at Bear Stearns, and were it not for the pocket rocket of Czech bathtub speed I vacuumed in the port-o-potties out back, I probably would have passed out from boredom by lunch. As it was I maintained enough interest and composure to churn out some eleven articles detailing the progress of Skoda's two World Rally Cars. A few of these were even picked up by Rally.com, rallying's "leading" website. These clips, despite the lack of a by-line, are destined for the mantelpiece.
In the final stretch of the 48th annual Greek Rally, sudden technical failures retired leading Ford and Subaru cars, allowing Skoda to finish a god-given 7th and 10th overall. I dutifully wrote a wrap-up report that gave no mention of the fact that Skoda's two finishes were gifts made possible only by the last-minute misfortune of others. It was not the first time I had ever bent my keyboard to airbrush reality, but it was the first time I ever felt okay about it. This is public relations, and it's only a racecar, after all. Once you've accepted the limits of the gig, the rest follows: small stakes, small rewards, small sins.
That final report will be my last fib as a PR flack, for Skoda or anybody else. Upon returning to Prague my employer informed me that he would no longer be requiring my services, and would I please return my rally study materials for the new guy? It turned out that they wanted a Company Man as much as they wanted a competent writer, and it was obvious to all that my step would never be spritely enough to fit the Guy Smiley suit. So Skoda's performance in the rest of this year's World Rally Championship schedule will be inflated and posted by another sentence constructing monkey paid to fly the company colors. To him or her I wish the best of luck. It's a good job, as long as you don't take it too seriously. But that's what this world demands, and therein lies the rub.