Within a half hour of getting behind the wheel of the souped-up Mitsubishi Evo IV, I've ripped apart the turbo engine with my erratic over-revving, causing $1,500 worth of damage. But my instructor, Dale Perry, seems more concerned with the bacon-and-egg sandwiches we're about to have for lunch. After 10 years running Rally Drive New Zealand, the Southern Hemisphere's premier forest-rally racing school, he's seen it all: the 19-year-old speed devil who drove straight into a ditch (bill: $3,000); the business executive who slammed his car head-on into a tree at 120kph (bill: $8,500); and the millionaire Internet entrepreneur who sped past his turn, launching his car into several somersaults before crashing in a nearby hayfield (bill: more than you can imagine).
Rallying makes driving ovals around a track look like a bore. Racers pilot modified street cars over remote roads littered with natural obstacles. Knowing that you are often mere centimeters from flipping into a ditch, driving off a cliff, or—as it happened once on my course—smacking into a wild boar is a big part of the thrill.
While the sport has traditionally been popular mainly in Scandinavia and New Zealand, the growing notoriety of races like the Dakar Rally and the Gumball 3000, the not-exactly-legal round-the-world race run on public roads, has helped turn it into a favorite of adrenaline junkies all over the globe. Rally schools and stage races are popping up from Argentina to Japan. And because rally races are usually held over hundreds of kilometers of back-country gravel or dirt roads—and even sometimes on ice or snow—the sport turns out to be a novel way to get off the beaten tourist path, albeit at 150kph. "It's not the same old track every time," says Amy Gustafson, a pediatric nurse from Florida who flew to New Zealand recently to rally for the first time. "It's that much more thrilling to know this is going someplace new."
I've come to this 1,600-hectare rallying playground, nestled in the North Island's Maramarua Forest, to see if it's really worth $3,500 for a day of no-speed-limit fun ($30,000 for an all-inclusive weeklong trip including a private instructor; rallydrivenz.co.nz). Perry, who is 51 but looks 40, pulls up in his mobile office, a cargo truck, race car in tow. He immediately starts worrying about setting up a huge picnic tent to shield us from the sun during lunch. Never mind that I'm about to strap into a vehicle capable of topping 200kph. Never mind that the only time I've driven stick was in Costa Rica, where I got stuck in neutral on an incline.
Perry is unfazed. He returns with a waiver for me to sign, listing the usual disclaimers about the possibility of death or paralysis (though he assures me the last time someone died rallying in New Zealand was 20 years ago—a safety record made possible by the mandatory use of helmets, roll cages, body straps, and flame-retardant suits). The waiver also states I will be responsible for all damage, from cosmetic scratches to action-movie fireball explosions. No wonder he's not worried. He's even let a dozen teenage girls—one the daughter of software billionaire Larry Ellison—come here to race; they started the day learning how to drive stick and ended tearing down the corners.
The beauty of rally is that even amateurs can race after a couple of hours. Today Perry is playing the part of navigator, who sits in the passenger seat reading a crib sheet and yelling out warnings about upcoming obstacles. He's barking an endless string of orders: shift, turn, look straight ahead, speed up. Everything but my line of sight is a blur. I'm tempted to sneak a peek at the verdant forest I'm blazing through, but the few times my eyes stray, I nearly swerve off the road. If you're looking for a relaxing getaway, this is not it. I'm drenched in nervous sweat.
But there is nothing like the high-pitched vroom of the turbo engine on the straightaways or the feel of rounding a hairpin turn—much faster on low-traction gravel than on a tarmac track. Of course, I didn't experience any of this when I was driving. I was too busy worrying about that damage waiver.
So Perry lets me ride shotgun in the hot seat and shows me how the pros do it. (He spent 15 years learning the sport as a navigator and the last 17 as a semiprofessional rally driver.) The learning curve here is steep, relying on techniques that, if deployed on the streets, would probably land you in jail for reckless driving: handbrake turns, hill jumps, double declutching, and a drifting move called the Scandinavian flick.
The day is over too soon. I sink back into my dinky Nissan Pulsar rental. But for a brief, exhilarating moment, I consider pulling a screeching handbrake turn out of the parking lot.