Some Polk County residents object to rally racing in Cherokee National Forest

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / A view in 2021 of Parksville Lake in the Cherokee National Forest in Polk County. The Chattanooga Tourism Company is leading an effort to bring a World Rally Championship race to the Cherokee National Forrest in Polk County in 2024.

The Chattanooga Tourism Co. is touting a World Rally Championship race next year as potentially the biggest sporting event ever in the region.

But in Polk County, where most of the short-wheelbase car racing will happen on the gravel roads in the Cherokee National Forest, some residents and county commissioners are objecting to such an event.

"The idea reveals the worst kind of disrespect for Polk County residents, the forest environment, quality of life and nature in general," Polk County resident Brian McCord said in an emailed statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "The arrogant idea to draw the financial gain and attention to Chattanooga, with some scraps leftover for Polk County, only to be overwhelmed with the excessive noise and air pollution, and terrified wildlife" is offensive.

McCord has launched an online petition against the event, which has already attracted more than 120 supporters.

"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," the petition on said.

Promoters of the event said the event organizers 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 globally-televised audience for the World Rally Championship races will bring international attention to Polk County and surrounding areas, which should showcase the scenic area and promote more visitors and tourism spending in the future even beyond the projected $34 million economic impact from the World Rally Championship event itself, the promoters said.

"This will bring thousands of race participants and spectators to our region, and the television and other media coverage of these races will showcase Tennessee on a global stage," Barry White, president of the Chattanooga Tourism Co., said in an interview last week

The World Rally Championship races are scheduled this year on gravel and back roads in 13 countries around the globe. In Portugal, the races last year drew more than 30,000 spectators.

But the popular rally races have not been held in the United States in 36 years since they were last conducted near Seattle.

Tim Morgan, the chief sports officer for the Chattanooga Tourism Co., said in much of the world, rally racing is bigger than what NASCAR racing is in the United States.

A national rally competition was conducted at the Cherokee National Forest in 2002, and similar road races have been held on National Forest trails and roads throughout the nation, according to event organizers.

The National Forest Service has authorized a test rally run in April to test the track and, if successful, a demonstration race would be in September to lead up to a potential World Rally Championship race in Tennessee in 2024.

The event would be headquartered in Chattanooga, but most of the races would be on the gravel back roads in the Cherokee National Forest around the Ocoee River region in Polk County. The short-wheelbase racing vehicles 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.

James O. Woody, a former Polk County commissioner who is president of the Polk County Chamber of Commerce, said the local chamber has had a couple of meetings to talk with Chattanooga Tourism Co. leaders about bringing a World Rally Championship to the region.

"I think it would be a good thing for our community and help our local tourism industry, which helps our overall economy," Woody said in a telephone interview last week.

Kip Gilliam, owner of Cascade Outdoors and a former president of the Ocoee River Outfitters Association, said he is "super supportive'" of the World Rally Championship both as a rally fan himself and as a business owner who expects to benefit from the event.

"Tourism is Polk County's largest asset, and Chattanooga is fitting the bill for this event, and all Polk County is providing is the land for some of the races," Gilliam said.

The Chattanooga Tourism Co., is spending $200,000 this year and working with the same event operator that is conducting another rally race in Mexico this year to put on the test runs this spring and fall to help demonstrate the race potential and safety here. If successful, a World Rally Championship race could be headquartered in Chattanooga next year with a race possibly in the spring of 2024.

Polk County concerns

During a public listening session at last week's Polk County Commission meeting, several residents voiced concerns about the rally race and whether Polk County will get much out of the event if the racing teams and spectators are housed in Chattanooga.

Polk County Commissioner Greg Brooks said the commission and other county leaders should have been aware of the plans to have such a race in Polk County before the Chattanooga Tourism Co., announced to the Hamilton County Commission last week that it is pursuing a World Rally Championship race using the Cherokee National Forests and other sites in Southeast Tennessee.

"We had a similar rally race here in 2002 that caused a lot of problems as far as local people being behind access roads and a funeral procession was held up by an hour and a half because of it," Brooks said in a telephone interview. "There was a lot of public outcry about it."

Brooks said he thinks the financial gain for Polk County, a rural county of fewer than 18,000 residents, will be minimal, and some residents are worried about the National Forest being restricted during all of the races and test trials.

Brooks said he still has a lot of questions about the race. The County Commission has scheduled a public forum at 7 p.m. March 28 at Polk County High School to discuss the proposed rally race and the test runs leading up to any World Rally Championship.

"I'm not going to say at this point that I am for or against this type of race, but I do want to hear a lot more details," Brooks said.

Former Polk County Commissioner Dewey Esquinance, who lives in Ocoee and attended last week's County Commission meeting where residents spoke out against the proposed rally race, said Chattanooga will get the benefits of the event while Polk County has to support the race with its emergency services, roads and host facilities.

"It's going to cost our county," Esquinance said in a telephone interview. "It's going to tear up roads and it's just not economically feasible for Polk County. It might be a fun event and great for Chattanooga, but it's not going to bring any revenue into our county. "

McCord and other opponents to the race vow to fight the event, potentially going to court to challenge the National Forest Service licensing or through other means.

"In short, we are enraged at the news of our forest being used as a racetrack," McCord said in his emailed statement. "We will not remain silent in this matter."

Contact Dave Flessner at or 423-757-6340.

What's next?

— The Polk County Commission will conduct a public forum at 7 p.m. on March 28 at the Polk County High School to hear more comments and information about the rally races and the potential of a World Rally Championship event in Southeast Tennessee in 2024.

— A test of the rally courses will be conducted and evaluated for safety, access, performance and other criteria on April 7-8. If successful, a demonstration run would be done in September leading up to an expected World Rally Championship event in Hamilton, Bradley and Polk counties in 2024.