Need for Speed: Local privateer races to find sponsorship that’ll keep him at head of the nation’s Rally Race circuit.

When the economic downturn claimed Travis Hanson, he did what others caught in similar straits did – he made a career detour. Only his was more literal.

Hanson, a 2003 graduate of Traverse City Central High School, decided to become … a race car driver.

Now, that's not quite as far-fetched as it might sound at first. After graduating from TCAPS, Hanson attended Kettering University in Flint, the former General Motors Institute, and then landed a job with a rally racing school in New Hampshire. He was involved in training and motivation, ultimately working under a grant from the Department of Defense.

But when the grant funding wasn't renewed, he found himself, like many others, out of a job. So he took his training and drove over hill, over dale, from New England to Washington, piloting his supercharged Subaru to the front of the field he knew best: rally racing.

Now Hanson finds himself among the leaders on the rally racing circuit – no mean feat, considering most of the drivers are sponsored by corporations. In fact, only one other driver – Bill Bacon – among the top six is what the racing community refers to as a "privateer."

Bacon currently is in third place, while Hanson is in sixth place nationally.

That's not bad for someone who does much of his own work on his car, sleeps on friends' couches, and sees his crew – his Dad and a few friends – only when they arrive just before the races.

The Sport

Rally racing is a different creature from circuit racing, which includes Indy car and NASCAR. Those involve cars racing around a defined track, competing directly against one another.

Rally racing, on the other hand, finds participants racing against the clock on a "track" that includes several different, unconventional sections, forest service roads or logging trails among them. The cars race over the trails, called stages, then proceed via conventional roads to the next stage. While the "real" roads are barricaded to regular traffic, the speed limits remain in effect, to the point where drivers are penalized for speeding.

"On the road, we obey the rules," Hanson says. "You get heavily penalized if you get caught speeding. We're given enough time to travel at normal speed plus three minutes. So if you have to change a tire or go to the bathroom, you've only got three minutes."

There is a 30-minute break midway for greater service, at which time the crews will change all the tires and perform any other maintenance needed. As you might expect, when racing over such rough terrain, there's usually plenty to do. Hanson said they try to tighten every nut, screw and bolt they can find.

Hanson said the difficulty of such a demanding sport without the benefit of sponsors means he will have to find another real job when the season ends in mid-July, following the New England Forest Rally in Bethel, Maine. Not only that, but without support he doubts whether he can return fulltime to the circuit next year.

"Right now I don't have a significant other, I'm young (25), and it's a perfect time to do this," he says. "But it's tough. I don't know if I want to keep using all my money for racing.

"We've shown we can compete and deserve some of those sponsorship dollars, but we have to come up with a plan (for attracting sponsors). Cherryland Subaru helps out with parts, but if we had sponsors we really could compete. We're actually competing right now, with a lesser car and a lesser budget."

But don't get the idea that Hanson is either whiny and ungrateful, or throwing in the towel. He says he's very thankful for the support of his friends and family, and he continues to push his car and himself as far and as fast as he can. He'd just like to continue doing so, with a little help from more than just his friends. BN