EAU CLAIRE — Engines roared from classic muscle cars, high-end modern performance cars and even some standard family vehicles as they spurted from the starting line Monday morning in Phoenix Park.
The eclectic mix of 85 motor vehicles in the 2021 Great Lakes Rally were off on a four-day competition spanning scenic roads of Wisconsin and Michigan.
But as noisy as the first few minutes of the rally were, it quickly went quiet as teams found nearby parking lots to stop and decipher clues about places they had to visit before reaching Marquette, Mich. that evening.
“The teams have no idea where they’re going to go that day,” said Scott Spielman, co-creator of the rally and president of Rally North America.
Instead of an all-out race to see who gets to the finish first on each day, the rally is more of a trivia contest and scavenger hunt to take pictures of roadside attractions and other sights along the way.
For example, the booklet handed out to racers as they left the start line at 8:30 a.m. Monday included a picture of the mythical Hodag creature, a sign saying “Welcome to Yooperland” and a written description of a large collection of concrete folk art.
Teams can search the internet to match the clues with locations, ask locals for directions or even put out a plea for help on Facebook. But since the clock is ticking, they must find the answers quickly and plan an efficient route.
“It’s challenging. It’s not an easy day,” Spielman said.
When the driving is done each day, the rally organizers scrutinize each team’s photos to determine prizes for first, second and third place based on reaching the correct checkpoints and other sights that have points assigned to them.
Teams can’t break the traffic laws though on their scramble to reach their destination by a deadline set each day.
“If you get a speeding ticket, reckless driving or any kind, we disqualify you from the event,” Spielman said.
This year’s rally will ultimately finish Thursday evening in Holland, Mich. with teams celebrating the end of their journey at the nearby GingerMan Raceway.
In addition to daily prizes, there are also awards for teams that show good sportsmanship, wear creative costumes, decorate their vehicles with decals, endure a breakdown on the journey or travel the farthest to participate.
One of the most coveted prizes though is a traveling trophy that recognizes the team that raises the most money for charity each year.
By the time cars began leaving Phoenix Park on Monday morning, the event had raised $220,000 for multiple sclerosis research that will go to the organization Race to Erase MS.
“To me this was really important to raise money,” said Aimee Hodorowski from the southeastern Wisconsin city of Port Washington.
As an occupational therapist, she has worked with many people with multiple sclerosis, so the charitable aspect of the event hit home with her.
She and her husband Dan had their green 1970 Plymouth AAR Cuda muscle car parked near the front of the pack, an honor they earned by raising over $6,700 in donations from friends, families and businesses.
They are first-time participants, first learning about the event when their DVR recorded a TV program made from a prior year’s rally.
Riding along with the Hodorowskis on Monday was a cameraman to get footage for what will become the third season of a TV show produced from the rally. The program will air on motorsports cable channels MAVTV in the U.S. and REV TV in Canada, as well as several streaming services.
The event has grown quickly from its roots just over a decade ago.
Spielman and Tony Intrieri organized their first road rally in 2009, starting small with a group of 11 vehicles. They had some money leftover from the event and decided to give it to charity, which became a major part of the event.
They do keep the entry fee fairly low — $650 per team — so it wouldn’t exclude car enthusiasts based on price.
“Ultimately we wanted to create an event that was family-friendly, affordable and it didn’t matter what kind of car you have,” Spielman said.
That accounts for the wide range of vehicles that have taken part. There are high-end supercars from Maserati, luxury models from Audi and Mercedes-Benz, 2000s-era remakes of iconic muscle cars and the originals they’re based on from the 1960s and ‘70s. But it’s also drawn typical road cars such as Honda and Chevy SUVs, Volvos and even an RV.
About 60% of teams return to compete the following year, Spielman said, which leaves room for newcomers to sign up.
“It’s mostly all word-of-mouth,” Spielman said, noting that the rally doesn’t need to advertise anymore to get registrants.
When registration opens in November, it takes about two weeks for the 85 slots to be reserved to be a part of the rally in the following summer. In case any teams withdraw, a wait list begins forming in January from those interested in taking any spots that open up.
Teams traveled from as far as California to Massachusetts and many states in between to start from Eau Claire.
The rally has had its eyes on Eau Claire as a starting point for about two years — initially planning to begin here in the 2020 rally that was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rally North America picks small communities with racetracks nearby — participants celebrated Sunday night at Rock Falls Raceway west of Eau Claire on Sunday night — that provide a picturesque backdrop and not the hassles of big-city traffic.
Rally organizers also like the event’s presence to make a difference in communities it visits.
“When you bring 85 cars to town that makes an impact,” Spielman said.
Benny Anderson, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, said he did hear from Eau Claire hotel operators who were surprised by an influx of guests who checked in on Sunday night.
Following a weekend that brought rock and country music fans to the Chippewa Valley, Anderson said that attracting car enthusiasts to Eau Claire shows how the area appeals to many different tastes.
“We’re a little bit for everybody,” he said.
Downtown Eau Claire had served as the starting point for a similar, but unrelated event in September 2017.
The Fireball Run, a show on Amazon’s streaming service, had 40 teams start here on a route to Rapid City, SD, where they participated in challenges and answered trivia questions along the way.