NEWRY – Automotive enthusiasts from around the nation will converge on Western Maine today when the Rally America Championship Series makes its annual stop in Maine.

The two-day New England Rally will start in Mexico and continue on the rugged logging roads north of town.

The race moves to Berlin, N.H., on Saturday before finishing at Sunday River in Newry.

“While the car count may be down slightly this year, the quality of the cars is excellent,” said event organizer John Buffum, an 11-time national champion. “I’m confident we’ll have some great racing and close times within the stages. Both western Maine and the Berlin, N.H., area are beautiful, making for the ideal backdrop to our race.”

Rally racing is a test of man and machine, where two- and four-wheel-drive vehicles compete on gravel roads at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour.

The highly-modified cars are street-legal and are based upon current popular models such as the Subaru WRX, Mitsubishi EVO, Dodge Neon and Volkswagen Golf.

Officials from Rally America, the national sanctioning body, held a meet-and-greet session with the drivers Thursday evening at Sunday River Brewing.

Fans had the chance to meet Travis Pastrana, the 2006 national champion and a superstar in the sport of freestyle motocross.

Others on hand included Ken Block, currently second in the points standings, Paul Choiniere, a seven-time national rally champion, and Tim O’Neil, a five-time national champion and operator of the O’Neil Rally School.

“Coming from this area, this is a very special race for me,” said Christopher Duplessis, 20, of Bethel, the local entry in this year’s rally. “I’d love nothing more than to win it, but mostly for my fans and family who support me all the way. I love this kind of racing because its unique. They race rain-or-shine, and the adrenalin rush is like nothing I’ve ever done before.

“All the racers help one another. It’s just a close family and a very exciting sport to be a part of. It is very exciting to watch, as well, so I hope folks will come out and see what we’re all about.”

The race has progressed to a national event after starting in 1994 as a regional competition.

“The event has grown nicely over the years and we’re still thrilled to be racing up here,” said Buffum. “The late Carl Merrill got us in here because he knew the folks at the mill, who controlled access to the land. This event was Carl’s dream, he made it a reality, and we’ve carried it forward as best we could.

O’Neil took a few moments to discuss the sport of rallying, what it takes to win races and titles and how he hopes to do this year.

“This is a sport that demands as much thinking as it does pressing the throttle,” said O’Neil. “Those drivers, who focus entirely on running wide open and winning each stage, often have troubles and don’t finish. It’s an old cliche in motorsports that in order to finish first, you must first finish. I’ve been very successful over the years because of a few factors. First off, you have to look at the big picture during the race and think about not only the corner or obstacle in front of you, but the next few turns beyond that, too.

“It’s a thinking man’s game, yet the equipment has to be set up perfectly, too. Like any form of racing, it all needs to come together just right to wind up in Victory Lane.”

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