Ryan Rice lifts the hood prior to working on the engine of a rally car that belongs to a customer and friend who will be racing in the upcoming New England Forest Rally. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Ryan Rice’s association with cars has come a long way since he was a little kid whose parents had to be pry him out of his beloved cozy coupe.

Ironically, it was his growing daughter that lured him out of a real race car a couple years ago. But Rice is never too far from an automobile with speed.

He won’t be driving in the upcoming New England Forest Rally, which runs through the Bethel and Rumford areas next weekend, but he will be invaluable for a handful of drivers who will enter the race, lending his expertise in cars and how to make them go faster. It’s the same thing Rice does every day at his Lisbon performance shop, Portland Performance, where Rice said he does “anything from oil changes to full rally, track or drag racing builds.”

The cancellation of last year’s New England Forest Rally gave Rice, a 34-year-old who grew up in Topsham, a chance to focus on his business moving into its new location, but he’s excited that the race is back on for this year.

“The rally is a big event on my calendar each year that I always look forward to — competing or just helping friends run their cars,” Rice said. “I am used to seeing my rally family at least a few times every year, and last year was hard for us all. It will be great to get together and have some fun, and put on a show.”

Rice said he’ll be supporting several teams in their service areas between stages.

“I’ll be checking in on the cars when they come back from stages, helping to fix any damage, and evaluating how the car is running and if tune changes are necessary,” he said.

The inside of a rally car being worked on at Portland Performance in Lisbon Monday afternoon for the upcoming New England Forest Rally. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Rice has become a go-to for car owners looking to get the most out of their cars, which often go above and beyond the typical daily driver.

After Rice grew out of his cozy coupe, he turned to snowmobiling and ATV riding.

“Any activity involving gasoline, engines and loose surfaces is my Zen time,” he said.

That’s what made rally racing a natural fit for him.

He attended the New England Forest Rally for the first time in 2010 and was instantly hooked.

“I was awestruck with the sheer speed of the cars on loose gravel logging roads and the skill of the rally drivers and co-drivers to maintain that pace,” Rice said. “It almost didn’t seem real that they could stay on the road. And it was certainly way more intense than it seems just watching online. I wanted to learn more, so I started to get more involved by helping friends’ teams prepare and compete each year at NEFR.”

He volunteered as a stage marshall in 2011 — “making sure folks kept the stage clear while cars were running,” he said — before transitioning to working on service crews the following year. He has worked with Last Ditch Racing of Bangor, Rez Racing of Old Town, Puschock-Cripps Rally Team of Portland and Lost in Maine Racing from Alfred. Rice also fondly remembers helping driver Fabio Costa rebuild a blown engine overnight in 2015.

“We drove back to my house and grabbed parts and gaskets from my rally car I was building, an engine hoist and a bunch of tools. We got back in time to help put the engine back in the car and get it running with less than 10 minutes to spare,” Rice said.

Rice first got the idea to build his own rally car in 2013. That’s when he competed in the Vermont Winter Challenge Rally in his daily-driver 2005 Subaru STI.

“It was my first TSD (time-speed-distance competition), and heavy snowfall coating the road all night made keeping the car between the ditches and navigating the correct turns a huge challenge,” Rice said. “Maintaining those kinds of speeds on that slick of a surface in a street car was a surreal experience — one I wanted to repeat. I knew that night that I had to build my own rally car.”

It wasn’t until 2016 that Rice was ready to race a true rally car of his own. He went on to earn regional-competition podium finishes at the New England Forest Rally — he competed for the first time in 2017 — the New Jersey Rallysprint and the New Hampshire-based NER SCCA Team O’Neil Rallysprints.

He put his racing career on hold in 2019 to spend more time with his daughter, who was 4 years old at the time.

Ethan Rice chains down a rally car on the lift at Portland Performance in Lisbon Monday afternoon where he and his brother, Ryan Rice, were working on preparing it for a friend and longtime customer who will be racing in the upcoming New England Forest Rally. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“She was growing so fast and I didn’t want to miss a minute,” Rice said.

Still, he said “nothing beats going off the big Concord Pond jump at 90 mph, with the car 5-6 feet in the air.”

But for now, he’s going to stick with helping others get their cars ready for the New England Forest Rally, and then heading to the western Mountains to watch them turn corners at unbelievable speeds and get air on fast-approaching bumps. That rush of seeing that in person — and knowing how it feels — is hard to pry away from him.


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