Vermont rally team’s message of inclusion seeks a more open, albeit bumpy road

Vermont rally team's message of inclusion seeks a more open, albeit bumpy road
Ken Best, the team mechanic, center, packs his truck for the trip to the New England Forest Rally with his son, driver Ed Best, left, and daughter-in-law Becky Best, right, in East Bethel on July 13. Photo by James M. Patterson/VTDigger

Editor’s Note: This Alex Hanson story was first published in the Valley News on July 16.

BETHEL — Although it has a worldwide following at the highest level, rallying has always been somewhat of a niche sport.

In a way, that’s part of its appeal. A driver and co-driver push a small, often wildly overwhelmed car through the woods on dirt roads, sometimes to glory, sometimes to spectacular catastrophe.

It can be a gripping spectacle, even if the noise and adrenaline aren’t for everyone.

But a small homegrown rally team from Bethel combines its passion for the sport with an inclusive message that the team’s close-knit members will make the rally less forbidding, more open, and not only tolerant but welcoming. Although Ed Best has been a rallying fan since he was 14, together he and his wife, Becky, have turned their rally car into a vehicle for more than two people. And maybe it’s good for rallying too.

“It’s not just in the car. We have a whole team culture,” Becky, the team’s wrangler and, for lack of a better title, spiritual leader, said during a recent interview at the Best family home in Bethel.

The car, a 1998 Subaru Impreza, for which Ed paid $450 when he was in his twenties, has been named UniCARn and is decorated with a unicorn on either side, the team’s totem animal. Next to the driver and co-driver names, Best and Heather Littlefield, are their personal pronouns (he/him, she/her, respectively). The grille of the car is painted like a rainbow flag.

Trained as a graphic designer, Becky has stickers printed and gives them away to people who stop their cars in the paddock.

The team stands for “inclusiveness, social responsibility and living up to the Best family name,” Becky said. Rallying uses a lot of resources for something that may seem frivolous, she added. “I feel like you have to find a way to use that to make the world a better place.”

Spectators regularly come to the Bests and hug them, they said.

“They see that rainbow and they know it,” Becky said.

Stage rallying, so called because there are timed stages meant for full-speed driving, may be, as Ed described it, “the most inclusive form of motorsport,” but speed is the draw. A typical stage rally, with timed stages on closed roads and transit sections on open roads in between, can cover 500 miles, with maybe 100 to 250 miles of special stages where the fastest car wins.

Last weekend, Best Rally Team attended the New England Forest Rally, the only national stage rally to be held in New England. It operates primarily on private roads through paper company land in the Maine woods, and is located at the Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, Maine.

In addition to Ed and Becky and Littlefield, the co-driver from Maine, the team includes Ed’s father, Ken Best, who worked as a mechanic while Ed was growing up and is now an operator; Eli Ferro, a Sharon Academy student who helps with the mechanical work, and another volunteer from Massachusetts.

Ed, 34, and Becky, 36, both grew up in Bethel and were in daycare together at one point. They live in Ed’s childhood home in East Bethel and work on the car in a garage near the house.

The Bests began rallies in 2019, after years of spectating and volunteering at rallies while also working on the Subaru. After repairing the bodywork, installing a roll cage and implementing other required safety features, including a full fire suppression system, Ed decided he needed to push forward, find a co-driver and attend an event.

“You can’t wait for the car to be ‘finished’ before racing, otherwise you’ll never race,” he said.

With a co-driver from Missouri, the team competed in rallies in Pennsylvania and Maine, and has continued to do so since the coronavirus pandemic curtailed the 2020 season.

Among rally cars, the UniCARn isn’t particularly powerful, but since stage rallies are run almost entirely on dirt and gravel, “it’s a momentum game,” said Ed Best. Last year the car reached a top speed of about 95 mph. With a transmission rebuilt over the winter, the car will be able to get more out of its limited horsepower and should hit 130mph on the faster stages of the New England Forest Rally.

It’s more important to have good notes for the co-driver to pass on to the driver as they race through the special stages than to have a powerful car, Best said. Before driving the special stages up to speed, Best and Littlefield spend hours going over it in Best’s daily driver, another Subaru, to fine-tune the comments Littlefield will follow to guide Best.

Ed Best pulls his rally car, the UniCARn, a 1998 Subary Impreza L, from his garage in East Bethel to load it onto a trailer for transport to the New England Forest Rally The Best Rally in Maine on July 13. The race, largely on rough dirt roads on paper company land, can see drivers reach speeds of over 100 miles per hour. Photo by James M. Patterson/VTDigger

In rally tempo notes, each turn is numbered from 1 to 6, with 1 being the sharpest and slowest and 6 being the most gradual and fastest.

The goal is as clean a ride as possible. The New England Forest Rally could have a 40 to 50% attrition. The question that characterizes someone as a seasoned rally fan is not, “Did you win?” but “Are you ready?” For a team that spends its own money and builds its own car, there is a financial incentive not to crash, although a crash is expected.

“There are people who have rolled and there are people who are going to roll,” said Ed Best, who built his car with sustainability in mind.

Few rally teams operate with substantial outside support. One of the most famous in the US is headquartered in Vermont, the Milton-based company Vermont SportsCar, which prepares rally and rallycross cars under the Subaru of America banner. Vermont is also home to John Buffum, who remains the nation’s most successful rally driver, winner of 11 national titles, mostly in the 1980s.

With so many dirt roads and the Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire, the Twin States may seem like fertile ground for rallying, but there are relatively few teams and events. A rally was held in the central city of Plymouth, Vermont, decades ago, but Buffum said he doubts such an event can be revived today.

“We’ve always had a bunch of rally drivers in Vermont,” he said in a phone interview. But “there are no demonstrations here because there are so many people living in the woods that you could never close the roads.”

The upper Midwest is a more fertile ground for rallying, he said, especially because there is more land of paper companies and private roads. There are four national rallies and 10 regional events within 500 miles of each other.

The Best are more optimistic. For starters, the economic impact of a rally can be huge. When last year’s Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally, in Pennsylvania, had trouble permitting the event that limited the size of the event, the business community began to cheer and cry over millions of lost revenue. And the Bests also noted that other motorized events use both public and private roads in Vermont, including hillclimb races in Ascutney and Okemo.

Becky Best, left, watches her husband Ed settle in for his biweekly Twitch stream of the video game Dirt Rally 2.0 at home in East Bethel on July 6. Streaming is a way for the Bests to build their fan base and bring in a small amount of money to support their racing hobby. Photo by James M. Patterson/VTDigger

“I would love to bring rallying back to Vermont,” said Becky Best.

That effort will have to wait for the time being. Becky has struggled for the past two years with a puzzling health problem, a leak of cerebrospinal fluid that doctors have been unable to pinpoint.

“It causes a whole roulette wheel of symptoms,” she said, including fatigue and headaches.

“I’m at a point,” she added, “where I can’t wait to get better,” but she’s “not sure it will happen.”

If she was healthy, Best said she made an effort to make it to Vermont a stage race, but “I don’t want to make a commitment that I can’t live up to,” she said.

In the meantime, just setting up a rally car is more than enough to keep them busy. Becky plans all the food for race weekends and will greet the spectators. She dyes her hair before every rally.

For Ed, the rally is also an escape. The nerves will set in, but as the timer counts down to start a stage, he relaxes. “When we get into the race car, everything goes away,” he said.

The UniCARn works for both of them and welcomes a wider audience to the sport they love.

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Tags: Becky Best, Bethel, Ed Best, Eli Ferro, Heather Littlefield, rally car

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