Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Off-Road Warrior

Driving on twisty, unpaved roads at breakneck speeds, dodging boulders and cliffs--now that's what top rally racer Jamie Thomas calls fun

Jamie Thomas, who has a deep-blonde ponytail and looks as though she might weigh maybe 110 pounds in her helmet and fire suit, is explaining why she had air conditioning installed in her second rally race car. She's on a Seattle freeway, observing the speed limit, which irritates her. At the moment she's not in the race car, but since her street car is a throaty black Impreza five-speed with a massive spoiler, Thomas's general presence on Interstate 5 is having an interesting effect on certain other drivers, who feel that toying with her will be amusing. In this they are mistaken.

"Well, we were out there in the middle of nowhere," Thomas is saying, "and it was only my second or third time in my first race car, and in a Subaru when you take a jump and you hit the road really hard and land on a rock, the force of the impact can push the power-steering lines loose."

The pace of Thomas's speech is, as a rule, caffeinated. "So we're on a road in the middle of the desert, I don't have any power steering, it's a hundred degrees outside the car, I had no air conditioning because I had done what everybody tells you to do, which is take the AC out since it uses up power. It's the deepest, twistiest stage in the rally, just sand, and I could not control the car. I'm literally pushing on the steering wheel, using my back, my whole upper torso, just trying to turn it. I stall the car as the steering wheel snaps out of my hands. We hang one wheel over a cliff. I back up. I start to panic. I'm getting hot. I'm crying while I'm driving. I'm biting my tongue to keep from vomiting. I'm thinking, We're going to crash, we're going to die, that's all there is to it...."

The entire rear window suddenly fills with the nose end of a white Silverado pickup. "Oh, no, dude, no. Off my butt.No." Thomas downshifts, eyes on the rearview mirror, and without lifting her foot from the accelerator reaches down and yanks the emergency brake. "Usually if you slow down with no brake lights, and all of a sudden they realize you've slowed down, they back off," she says. "Like he's doing right now."

Uh, doesn't that rely, sort of perilously, on the reflexes of the tiny-brained tailgater?

Thomas shrugs. "If he got close enough to barrel into me, I'd just go right back on the throttle," she says. "So, anyway, when we get back to the service area, I'm shivering uncontrollably, I'm about a thousand degrees, I have huge goose bumps--I'd never seen anything like this on anybody--and I'm saying, This is stupid, this is dumb, I am done. Next thing I can remember, the doctor's there, poking and prodding, and he said I had heatstroke. But I started drinking water, people poured water on me, and I had a couple more drinks of Gatorade, and I go, 'Is the car ready yet?' There was no way I was going to quit. I didn't want them thinking, Oh, the cute little girl, she's going to quit. Somehow I convinced the doctor to give me clearance. As we left, I remember I was still shivering--it's like 90 degrees outside and I'm shivering. We were catching cars, I was jumping cars two at a time, but there was no place on the road to pass. It sucked. We came in third in our class."

The Silverado lunges around to Thomas's left, its solitary driver now illegal in the HOV diamond lane as he pulls up close and looms menacingly alongside. Her face registering no expression at all, Thomas darts into an invisible pocket between two cars on her right, waits for the Silverado to lurch back out of the diamond lane and then angles in front of him again. "So that's why"--agitated warning bleeps from the vicinity of her dashboard bring chuckles from Thomas as the radar detector sounds--"that's why I put air conditioning in my race car."

Here's Jamie Thomas's idea of a fun outing in rally season, which is in full throttle right now on closable back routes around the United States: Settle her two kids, ages 13 and 7, with friends or family. Load the race car onto a trailer if she can afford the tow; drive it herself on the freeways, decorative yellow flames and all, if she can't. Travel three or nine or 16 hours, spend the night in a budget motel, get up at 5:30 in the morning to root around inside the engine, checking on things that don't sound right. Breakfast on coffee and Red Bull. Strap into a six-point seat-belt harness. Proceed to a designated spot on some bucolic, twisty, unpaved mountain road with thick forest and inspiring views and so on. Drive this road at an absolutely insane speed, the right foot flooring the accelerator and the left foot working the brake while a fire-suited codriver strapped into the passenger seat barks out instructions like "In two tenths of a mile, 90-degree left at T! Cliff exposure! Double caution!" Post a faster time than anybody else, including assorted male drivers with cars a lot more amped than Thomas's two-year-old Subaru WRX wagon. Refrain from gloating--sometimes possible and sometimes not, given Thomas's overall personal wiring. (The yellow lettering across the back of her race car reads you just got beat by a wagon.)

Thomas likes to refer to NASCAR and Formula One racers, who drive on racetracks--paved racetracks, on which they're allowed practice runs and which lack sand, gravel, snow, mud, ruts, boulders, stream crossings, giant fir trees, hairpin curves atop unfenced cliffs and the occasional deer bounding out of the bushes--as "roundy-roundy guys." Thomas and her boyfriend, a driver named Gary Cavett, argue sometimes about roundy-roundy guys; like Thomas, Cavett is a serious weekend competitor in the unheralded but passionate world of American rally racing, and every time he points out that a good NASCAR driver can hold the pavement at 200-plus miles per hour, Thomas retorts that roundy-roundy bores her. "That's all they do, is go around in circles," she says. "I don't get it. We drive blind, on the absolute edge. You're pushing the car as fast as you can, on roads you've never seen before--real roads, not some track. I think rally drivers are the best race car drivers in the world."

Rally racing is one of the most popular spectator sports in the world, especially in Europe, where fans will tromp by the thousands onto Finnish snowfields or up hot Catalonian hillsides to watch lone cars roar by, every so often, going extremely fast and then disappearing around the next curve. The inherent gratification in this may be tough to convey to a NASCAR fan. "I've been to a rally in Scotland where there were people everywhere, people hiking out into the countryside when it's pouring down rain, like, Let's stand out here and watch cars go by," says Sue Robinson, who until this year ran a rally program for the Sports Car Club of America. "It's cultural. And people who come over here from Europe, they're like, God, don't these people get it? Don't they understand how much fun it is?"

There are several kinds of driving competitions that come under the rally heading--rally-raid style, for example, which is a multiday endurance event (motorcycles included) like the Baja 1,000; or time-speed-distance rallies, which reward drivers not for being fastest but for hitting timing marks most precisely. But the glamour event, the staple of the annual four-continent, 16-race World Rally Championship, is performance rally, in which two-person teams negotiate temporarily closed-off roadways as fast and aggressively as they can. The cars they drive are torqued-up factory models (lots of Subarus and Mitsubishis and, in Europe, Citroëns and Peugeots), and across the pond the best of the drivers are national heroes. Two-time world champion Carlos Sainz, who retired last year, was one of the highest-paid athletes in Spain; recent reports estimated his salary at between $5 million and $10 million a year, not counting endorsements. When Sainz drove a goodbye loop through Madrid last November, 100,000 Spaniards crowded into the plazas, climbing onto rooftops and signposts to catch a glimpse. (Sainz came out of retirement last month to compete in cross-country rally, which is strictly off-road competition.)

Rally terrain varies from region to region: snow in Sweden, rural asphalt in Ireland, slippery gravel in Australia. The inconsistency is the point: Cresting a mountain at 130 mph just as the dry road surface turns to sheet ice is the kind of thing a rally racer looks forward to. In the U.S. nearly all performance rally is staged on unpaved roads, Forest Service lands or other public property that's relatively easy to close for a couple of days. Subaru Rim of the World, one of the dozen American rallies big enough to draw racers from some distance every year, covers a wide swath of rocky Southern California in Angeles National Forest just north of Los Angeles. Susquehannock Trail twists around 125 miles of Pennsylvania State Forest roads. Sno-Drift, run every January in a reliably frigid corner of northeastern Michigan, is pretty much what it sounds like; the Sno-Drift website's write-up of this year's rally begins, cheerfully, "There was a solid base of ice on the roads with a layer or two of packed snow."

Getting a close look at U.S. performance rally is something of a challenge for newcomers. The World Rally Championship circuit at one point included an American race, but that was almost 20 years ago; in this country rally remains a sport of amateurs, the overlooked distant cousin to multiple forms of roundy-roundy. Cable and satellite channels throw the occasional half hour devoted to rally into their late-night programming, but it's perplexing entertainment for most American racing fans, who are accustomed both to nonstop action and, if they are going to take the trouble to show up in person, to comfortable stadium seating, preferably with a beer stand nearby. Rally enthusiasts regard this as prissy. A few of the stops on the domestic circuit now include small stretches of NASCAR-style spectator risers, but the proper way to watch performance rally is to pack a lunch, hike through the woods or drifting snow or whatever, and find a place the veterans say is safe. This is a very big deal, part of why rally races are so dauntingly expensive to insure in the litigious U.S., since the drivers have roll cages but the spectators don't. An alternate way, not recommended at all for anybody who's put off by the idea of chugging Dramamine--Red Bull cocktails at 7:30 in the morning, is to find oneself invited, by virtue of an old friendship with a California lawyer named Matt Gauger, who happens to be Jamie Thomas's codriver, to observe his sporting pastime by taking his place for a race day.

Inside the rally car, that is, and reading out navigational directions from an official route book while hurtling at viscera-compressing speeds through the piney mountain woods. The official route book looks like a midsize city's telephone book, except for the thick black lettering on the back cover: o.k. If you are, but you've crashed, you're supposed to prop the cover on your mangled car where the next drivers can see it. If you're not, there's printing on the cover's opposite side, too: a big, bright-red cross.

"jamie can't not race," Gauger says. He sounds aggravated but resigned. It's late autumn in Odell, Ore., which is a beautiful forested place near the base of Mount Hood, except that the weather is miserable right now, drizzling and cold. "I've told her: You've already won. Keep the car on the road, don't race. But she'll do it anyway."

Gauger rubs his hands together. He has a perfectly reasonable day job in Sacramento, but he discovered performance rally a few years ago, and now his idea of a good time involves flying all over the damn place, usually at his own expense, to help keep Jamie Thomas from driving her race car off cliffs. (At the end of each race day he phones his wife, by mutual agreement, to report that he is still intact.) Gauger's fire suit, which would normally be warming him up, is instead wrapped around his temporary replacement, who is lowering herself dubiously into the codriver seat of the WRX and watching Thomas tighten her own harness. On Thomas's website one of the photos is a glitzy head shot that shows her smiling in red lipstick, but out here she looks pale and fierce. She glances over. "Look, I can't tell you we'll back off, because if I don't drive how I drive, we'll have an accident," she says. "I'm not going to hand these guys anything. They all know you're here, and they're going 'Yes!' because I've been beating them all year. So I'll just drive what I see."

Translation of that last sentence: I know you took the daylong codriver-training course last month, and I'm guessing that as you sit there clutching the route book in your lap, all you remember is that some shorthand means "turn left at four-way intersection" and some other shorthand means "enormous slab of granite right in the middle of the 160-degree blind curve the car is about to rocket into," and that not only can you not call to mind which is which, you also have no flipping idea how fast I'm about to drive. So I'm not exactly relying on you for directional guidance, all right?

A race volunteer yells at Thomas as the WRX rumbles out of the service area, "Hey, Jamie! Don't scare her to death." No response. After a couple of minutes Thomas says, "Normally I don't get amped on the second day of a rally, like this. Day One, I get a little nervous, each and every time I'm out here. Because I don't want to crash. I've got my babies at home. I'm not being paid a hundred thousand dollars to do this. It's fun to do. But crashing sucks."

Thomas has 6.89 miles to cover, the route book says, from the service area at the county fairgrounds to the dirt-road turnoff where the first of the day's seven race stages starts. As Gauger has already pointed out, the outcome of the weekend's competition, one of the 50 or so regional performance rallies held every year around the country, will have no effect on Thomas's overall racing record, which is very good, especially for a relative newcomer to the circuit. She competes in Production GT class (that means she's allowed turbocharge but none of the meatier modifications available to drivers in the Open class), and she's already wrapped up three championship titles for 2004: Western States Rally PGT Driver, Nor Pac Region PGT Class Champion and NW Region Driver Class 2 Champion.

Indeed, she could drive every one of today's race stages at 30 miles per hour, which is faster than anybody ought to be skidding around rutted-out mountainside roads in the mud, and it wouldn't cost her a thing. There is no possibility that this reasoning will make any impression on her at all.

Thomas is 35, has been through two marriages, works for a Subaru dealership in suburban Seattle and had never heard of performance rally until she came upon a flyer five years ago for a race near Olympia. She and a friend decided to investigate. "We went out to this middle of the woods. Muddy. Mucky," she says. "No idea what we were doing. We were told, 'Stand here. Wait.' What are we waiting for? Then you hear this ... noise. Way off in the distance. Crack-bang! Crack-bang! Crack! Crack! Crack! And around the corner comes this car. And the dirt and rocks and dust are flying off the car, and this guy goes flying by, and the rocks are landing at my feet, and I go, 'Oh, dude. That is cool.' And right then I became a fan of the sport."

Thomas learned the way many new rally enthusiasts do, volunteering at races and then seeing what it was like to codrive. But she understood right away that she wanted to be behind the wheel and that she was weirdly suited for it. She has always been strong, coordinated and competitive; in Belfair, Wash., the Olympic Peninsula town where she grew up, she played nearly every sport the high school offered and was a star at soccer, which she still plays. Since she was a teenager she's had both a lead foot and a kind of obsessive, impatient intelligence that makes her tetchy and restless when information isn't bombarding her quickly or urgently enough. "My brain just never stops," Thomas says. "If you could put a microphone inside my head while I'm driving, it would be, 'Jamie, look as far ahead as you can. O.K., that's a corner. Look. Look. What did Matt just say? Oh, that's a hairpin. What's that car doing? Loosen hands. If we get a straightaway where we can hammer it, I'll just fly at 100 miles an hour. Oh, that sucks. Loosen hands. Look.' If we could record all this, it would be hilarious."

She's on a four-lane rural highway now, 2.35 miles to the start point, which she knows because hanging off the right side of the dashboard is a racing computer that displays many rapidly clicking numbers that the codriver is supposed to be reassessing constantly so as to keep the navigational instructions precise. (Gauger's expectations, in this regard, were not high. "Just don't get her lost," he said.) Thomas seems in good spirits. "Car smells like wet mud," she says. "Awesome! One of my favorite smells in the whole world is burning brakes. We've had them on fire, flames coming off the side, your rotors get so hot they're glowing bright red. You just keep driving. It's fantastic."

The biggish dent on the passenger-side door is remarked upon, uneasily. "Tree," Thomas says. "My fault. Every driver knows you will go where your eyes fixate. I was driving way too fast. Matt's calling, 'Turn!' and I'm looking at this tree, thinking, Wow, that's a big tree. I hit it hard enough to open the door. Matt screamed, 'Door's open! Stop the car!' I'm like, 'F--- you, I'm not stopping the car.' On the next curve I swung so hard to the right that the door slammed shut." She smiles and turns off the highway, past the road closed sign, bumping the WRX up onto the dirt.

Thomas calls her car Burnsie, which some people assume is an homage to a famous English rally driver named Richard Burns, whom Thomas admires greatly. In fact, though, the car's been on fire more than once, hence the name. Burnsie is brilliant blue under the road filth, and covered with decals that Thomas lays on and scrapes off as piecemeal sponsorships come and go: stongard transparent auto protection, smart service subaru care. Like nearly every other American driver she knows, she spends most of her disposable income on racing and is constantly trolling for backers; nobody in this country makes a living racing rally cars, which can cost from $5,000 for an old two-wheel-drive beater to more than $100,000 for a high-end all-wheel-drive with far more horsepower than Thomas wants to manage right now. Burnsie cost $13,000 before Thomas and her mechanic friends started upgrading. When the all-wheel-drive is working full-out on rough dirt roads, she estimates the car's horsepower at about 190, which is less than two thirds what a top-end car might deliver. "At my level of experience, adding a whole lot of horsepower is not a good idea," she says. "You see that all the time, these guys in their torqued-up cars, and they're upside-down, wrecked. And they've just destroyed $40,000."

The subject of wreckage comes up all the time among rally drivers, who say things like "nosing it" when they mean launching off a high bump and smashing the front end of the car onto the dirt, or "in the woods" when they mean steering a high-speed car that has just shot off the road and is now plowing out of control through the forest, or "stuffing the car" or "wadding it up" or "having an off" or "going over," all of which are things drivers usually, but not always, survive. During the 2003 season both members of a veteran driving team were killed instantly when their car hit a tree during a race in Oregon. Thomas has a small piece of paper with their surnames on it pasted to a back side window on her car; she was there, waiting for her turn on the stage, when they crashed. She says she learned that day that she could race her car immediately after crying so hard that she was unable to read the roadside timing clock. Naturally there was talk of canceling the rally on the spot, Thomas says, but no serious driver would want his own death to end a competition; like any high-speed adrenaline sport, rally racing is a risk undertaken deliberately, and the drivers who win races are the ones who have spent so much time thinking about that risk that they understand how to manage it even as it draws them in--how to push aggressiveness exactly to the limits of human control, and no further.

Once, early on, not yet acclimated to the vroom of Burnsie's turbo, Thomas spun the WRX backward over a cliff. A tree's root system caught her, teetering, just below the edge. She supposes tiny guardian angels held up the back of the car for a while. Five trucks and three jeeps pulled it out. Thomas recasts this story according to her mood: Sometimes it's intrepid blonde hothead cheats disaster, and sometimes it's yes, at certain moments we do resemble a road runner cartoon. But most of the time it's a cautionary tale about letting a powerful car outrun one's own abilities. In her first race car, she points out--this was the one without AC, the heatstroke car, which she likes to call her "little yellow putt-putt"--she hooked a ditch or two, but not at fast enough speeds to cause alarm. "You couldn't hurt yourself in that car," Thomas says. "I'd had it to the floor, going as fast as I could get it to go, and it just wouldn't go over 95. It wouldn't."

She puts on her helmet. The codriver does likewise, fumbling with the chin strap, and Thomas leans over to examine the fit, as though double-checking a child's shoelaces. The engine revs, loud and louder. Just outside the window a man in a thick jacket is repeatedly lowering his outstretched arm, fingers extended in signal: five, four, three....

Then the checkered flag snaps up and there's a roaring, space-shuttle-liftoff sort of noise, and spraying dirt and scenery rushing by and a steep uphill left-right turn sequence coming straight at the car quite a bit faster than the codriver is able to register in time to form the words "in point-one mile, left 90 degrees, then right 90 degrees," which is how the route book suggests phrasing the instruction for that first turn sequence, except that here comes the giant cliff on the right already and the tree in the middle of the road and the crest where the car lifts up in the air and then whomps down still going very, very fast, and very fast also around the sliding hairpin left where the road is full of jagged rocks, and from under the car comes a violent scraping sound, and Thomas cusses, richly, once. Thomas's head and shoulders appear to remain still, her breathing steady, her right arm darting back and forth between the gearshift and the steering wheel, and inside the helmet her face is mostly stony and set until the codriver ventures, "I think the flying finish might be coming up--oh, jeez--right here," and people are by the side of the road with stopwatches and Thomas sails the car past them at 80 or so and screeches down into the next curve and whoops.

"That was fun," she says.

She brakes gently. The car slows. Seven minutes have elapsed. A little later, when it seems likelier that there won't be an unfortunate digestive event on the codriver side, Thomas explains the scraping sound. "Did you see how big that one rock was?" she says. "Like 12 inches high, and right in the middle of the path I needed to take. The car before us must have kicked it out there."

She says she assessed her options during the two or three seconds between seeing the rock and reaching it: veer around the rock to the outside of the hairpin, which would push the car into the dangerous edge-of-the-road gravel shoved out by the previous racers and probably lead to a rollover in the ditch. Or aim for just inside the gravel, which would run the left front tire over the rock, probably blowing the tire and requiring five minutes' delay for a mid-race tire change. Or center the car right over the rock, ensuring a noisy direct hit to the underside, and keep going.

"Sounded like the exhaust pipe, at least," Thomas says. "I'm thinking maybe $1,400 in repairs."

She pulls her helmet off and stuffs it into the padded crate behind her seat. Maybe she can talk one of her sponsors into helping her out, she says. The car eases across some railroad tracks and back out toward the county highway, and then the next question comes, having taken some moments to take shape: Wait, you're saying you went for the $1,400 car repair over a five-minute tire-change delay during one stage of a race everybody knows you don't need to win?

Thomas looks startled, then interested. She will win her class today, but she doesn't know that yet; nor does she know that a few months later, in another Oregon rally, the car will flip at 60 mph on an even rockier mountain curve--Burnsie sailing off the road like a trampoline jumper and landing upside down in the brush. The roof will smash, the right side will cave in, the windshield will shatter, but Gauger and Thomas will crawl out pretty much intact, except that Thomas will be ferried down the hill on a stretcher, yelling that it's only a mild concussion, demanding that everybody stop fussing over her. She'll be fine. She'll end up rebuilding the engine and using salvaged body parts to replace the car's entire shell. None of this has happened yet, though, and now, for a moment, Thomas seems to be bouncing the $1,400 question around inside her head, considering. Finally she purses her lips and allows herself the smallest, fleeting visitation of a facial expression that might resemble helplessness. She purses her lips. She grins. "I'm a race car driver," she says.

"Jamie can't not race," says Gauger, who acts as Thomas's navigator. "I've told her, You've already won. Keep the car on the road, don't race. But SHE'LL DO IT ANYWAY."

Map shorthand can mean "turn left at four-way intersection" or "ENORMOUS SLAB OF GRANITE in middle of 160-degree blind curve that car is about to rocket into."

"I don't want to crash," says Thomas. "I've got my babies at home. I'm NOT BEING PAID A HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS to do this. It's fun to do. But crashing sucks."

"You're pushing the car as fast as you can, on roads you've never seen before," says Thomas. "I think rally drivers are THE BEST RACE CAR DRIVERS in the world."

"One of my favorite smells is burning brakes," says Thomas. "We've had them on fire, FLAMES COMING OFF THE SIDE, your rotors get so hot they're glowing bright red."


Photographs by Robert Beck




Thomas may not look the part of a race car driver, but put her behind the wheel and she's as fierce as they come.


Photographs by Robert Beck


Thomas relies on codriver Gauger, a lawyer by trade, to help her negotiate the perils of each stage.


Photographs by Robert Beck


When they attack a course, often sight unseen, Thomas and Gauger must rely on maps in the official route book.


Photographs by Robert Beck


Thomas souped up a two-year- old, $13,000 Subaru wagon, which she built not for comfort but for speed.


Photographs by Robert Beck


Thomas calls her car Burnsie, not to honor the famous rally driver but because it's been in flames more than once.


Photographs by Robert Beck


Thomas has Burnsie tuned to crank out 190 horses, which she says is enough for her at this stage of the game.