One of the world's most popular car racing events is testing out the trails and back roads in Southeast Tennessee this weekend to determine if it will return to America for the first time in more than 35 years.
Chattanooga is hosting Rally Tennessee, a two-part series that includes demonstration events this weekend and a test event scheduled for September, for the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile to determine if it will bring its World Rally Championship here in 2024 as the biggest sporting event ever in Southeast Tennessee.
Despite the rain forecast for Saturday, the rally teams will still test out both a 3-mile and a 10-mile track through a part of the Cherokee National Forest in Polk County. On Friday night, amid misty rain, seven rally racing drivers and their navigators who will test the course Saturday in Polk County gathered next to the Chattanooga Choo Choo to display their cars and meet rally car fans eager to bring a World Rally Championship back to the United States.
"One of the great things about rally racing is the proximity of the vehicles and their drivers to the average fan," Stuart Wood, the rally manager for the event, said during a community block party on Station Street in downtown Chattanooga Friday night.
During the block party, America's most recent racer in the World Rally Championship series, Sean Johnston, greeted fans and said he is eager to see the series return to U.S. soil.
"This is my first visit to Chattanooga, but my partner has raced on these roads (in the Cherokee National Forest) in a rally race before, and he says this is one of the best areas in the country," said Johnston, who was injured in January during an accident at Rally Monte Carlo. "Having a World Championship Rally would do a lot to build fan interest in the sport in this country, and I'm really excited about the prospect of bringing the event here."
Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., which has worked for nearly two years to recruit the racing event to Southeast Tennessee, said the World Rally Championship would be the biggest sporting event ever held in Southeast Tennessee and is projected to pump $34 million into the local economy from racers, racing teams and spectators.
If successful, Hamilton, Bradley and Polk counties could host the series' first American round since the Washington-based Olympus Rally hosted three events from 1986 to 1988.
Taylor Foxworth, a lifetime fan of rally racing who lives in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, is eager to see a World Rally Championship in person.
"I'd love to see the race come here," he said Friday night while taking an up-close look at the vehicles racing in Saturday's test run during the Station Street block party. "This is the most exciting -- and might be the most dangerous -- form of racing because you're going in between trees and jumping over hills at over 100 miles an hour. There's nothing quite like rally racing."
Competitors will use street-legal cars to follow the event route Saturday on Lost Creek Road/FR103 in the Cherokee National Forest in Polk County. Although Saturday's races are just a test of the track, in actual World Rally Championships, the short-wheelbase racing vehicles will have both a driver and a navigator who race a series of different stages or courses during time trials to get the fastest overall time.
World Rally Championship Director of Events Simon Larkin told Dirtfish.com the series "has been interested in a return to the USA, a country that was an occasional host to WRC events between 1973 and 1988."
Now in its 51st year, the FIA World Rally Championship is scheduled to be contested in 2023 over 13 rounds crossing Europe, Africa, North and South America and Asia. Tim Morgan, the chief sports officer for the Chattanooga Tourism Co., said in much of the world rally racing is more popular than NASCAR racing is in the United States.
M-Sport team Principal Richard Millener told Motorsport.com that having a North American event "is part and parcel of why Ford wants to be involved" in sponsorship for the World Rally Championship.
"We want to see an event; it is a huge market that is currently untapped," Millener said.
Wood said nearly 100 volunteers are helping this weekend during the test run, and he remains hopeful of convincing the series to bring the World Rally Championship to Tennessee in 2024.
Others remain wary about racing in the back roads of the Cherokee National Forest, complaining that the event will restrict other uses of the forest during the events and could damage the park with traffic and road changes made to accommodate the event.
An online petition against the planned races in the Cherokee National Forest has been signed by more than 400 people.
"The Cherokee National Forest is not a racetrack," the petition started by Brian McCord says. "All who enjoy the natural wonders of this national treasure will be victimized by the roar of engines, the screeching of tires and the aftermath of damaged roads and trails through our beloved forest, all in the name of entertainment."
Manny Silva, who lives in Coker Creek near Polk County, questions why the U.S. Forest Service would allow such high-speed dangerous racing through the wooded mountains in East Tennessee.
"It's an abomination," Silva said in a telephone interview Friday. "It's just not safe, and I know a lot of the locals don't want it."
Polk County Commissioner Greg Brooks, the chairman of the county's building and grounds committee, said many of the initial questions voiced during a Polk County Commission meeting last month were addressed by the National Forest Service and event organizers.
The forest service is not restricting road access this weekend. In response to concerns about a lack of involvement by Polk County, event organizers agreed to hold the service operations for Saturday's racing at Hiwassee Outfitters in Reliance and to have a ceremonial finish behind the Web Brothers Rafting and General Store in Reliance.
Brooks said Saturday's races will not cut off access to the Cherokee National Forest this weekend when the Young Sportsman Hunt opens for this year's turkey season. Brooks said he hopes the September demonstration races also can be scheduled to avoid interfering with the September opening of archery deer hunting.
"We'll see how this weekend turns out and go from there," Brooks said.
He said officials in Polk County are still concerned that most of the advantages from the event will go to Chattanooga, where racing teams will be based and stay, while Polk County will provide most of the roads for the races.
Promoters of the event said the event organizers, OtherSports LLC, will be responsible for the safety and maintenance of the roads used, and most of the races will be in the Cherokee National Forest, not on any public roads in Polk County. The Chattanooga Tourism Co., which gets much of its funding from the Hamilton County hotel-motel tax, is putting up $200,000 to help recruit the World Rally Championship to Tennessee.
White said the globally televised audience for the World Rally Championship races would bring international attention to Southeast Tennessee that should pay off for the region for years in the future.