Subaru took most of the expected top positions at this year’s New England Forest Rally, but the usual reigning champions faced increased competition compared to previous years from some unexpected underdogs.
Two of those underdogs were amateurs Dan Downey and Tom Peplinski. The New Hampshire pair took top spot in their O2WD regional class with a time of 1:43:59.0. For Downey and Peplinski, the win was a pleasant surprise after a particularly difficult – and hot – race.
“Everything kind of went perfectly. Usually I have some kind of mechanical fault with the car from the rough terrain, but Tom and I actually managed to win our class this year, so that’s great, that’s pretty awesome,” Downey said of the win.
“We knew there were some guys that were kind of close to our times but we really were more concerned with finishing,” co-driver Peplinski said in a separate interview.
For Downey and Peplinski, the road to victory wasn’t a traditional one. At most major rallies, the best overall times are generally achieved by larger teams with big sponsors, and by drivers who dedicate much of their lives to racing professionally and perfecting their skills. For amateur racers like Downey and Peplinski, just finishing a race is often considered an achievement. Factor in that the pair were racing in Downey’s 1987 BMW 325is, as well as the fact that it was Peplinski’s first time ever co-driving, and the win seems even more impressive.
“Some of the regional competitors are just local guys like myself that don’t have a huge corporate sponsor or anything…[For me] it’s all been private tier, amateur, out of my own pocket racing. Just build your own car and go racing on the weekends and see how you do,” Downey said.
It may have been Peplinski’s first time participating in a big-scale competition, but his familiarity with the sport’s lingo can be traced back to his day job as a rally instructor at Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, NH. The school, founded in 1997 by driving enthusiast Tim O’Neil, teaches its students basic to advanced racing skills. Downey – who has also been an instructor at the school since 2017 – and Peplinski credit their time at Team O’Neil for their comfort on the course, as well as the easy rapport they have as a team.
“I’ve done co-driving at the school so I had a really good idea of how the notes work. It’s more like a code than words. Everything is shorthand. So me being there for six years, I’ve got a pretty good familiarization with it.” Peplinski said.
Downey added: “As you teach something to somebody else, you learn more in depth about it yourself. You learn about what you’re doing by seeing what someone else is doing and helping them change it.”
Pelinski agreed to be Downey’s co-driver for the New England Forest Rally when Downey’s usual co-driver was unavailable. In the days leading up to the final event, the two did the usual pre-race overview of the course where Pelinski had his first opportunity to see the roads they’d be driving on at top speed.
“Just seeing all the courses, it looked pretty aggressive. We were in Dan’s street car so everything was really bumpy. I was really nervous about that,” Peplinski said.
To the average person, the course – which runs through 115 miles of New England wilderness – can seem harsh and unforgiving. To trained teams it means that working together as a cohesive pair is crucial for both safety and success. Vehicle breakdowns are common, whether it be from rough terrain, extreme weather, or high speeds, and it’s essential for co-drivers to relay information to their partners about the road that lies ahead.
“I’m reading to Dan whatever he needs to hear. Some people can hear two corners ahead, some people can do one, some people just want to know what’s coming up next. It depends on their experience and their skill. If I were co-driver for someone else, my timing would be different than what it was for Dan,” Peplinski said.
Once they hit the course, it didn’t take long for Downey and Peplinski to find their rhythm.
“After a stage and a half we started to click and be where we needed to be,” Peplinski said.
Adding to the intense atmosphere, this year’s racing conditions were unusually hot, with temperatures nearing 95 degrees. Despite the intense heat, Downey’s car performed with minimal issues. According to Peplinski and Downey, the real test was for the drivers themselves.
“You’re basically in these sweatsuits, these fire-retardant race suits, that are not light. I have a lightweight one and it still weighs a lot. It’s sitting on you and it’s 90 degrees. There’s no air conditioning in a rally car. Not in Dan’s anyway,” Peplinski said.
Downey added: “It’s an endurance event for sure, to make it through the whole day like that.”
With such a big win under their belt, Peplinski and Downey proved that they’re a pair to watch.
“It was a lot of fun. It was also a lot of work though. I hadn’t realized how much work it was,” Peplinski said.
He added: “It’s funny, I was in the whole race and I don’t really remember much of the stages because I was reading [the race notes], telling Dan a story of the road while he was driving.”