Cog rally halted by rollovers

Rally race driver Jeff Zwart and his navigator, David Epperson, grew up together in Southern California. In high school, Zwart often tried to scare the younger Epperson and other friends who rode in his car with his fast driving.

"We were scared to death because none of us knew anything about driving before," said Epperson, now of Steamboat Springs. "Jeff knew everything about driving before he had a license.

"But today is his biggest chance to scare me yet," Epperson said at 8 a.m. Saturday in downtown Steamboat before the 28-car 2003 Colorado Cog Rally began. The race included 10 stages with 78 miles of race course and 133 miles of transit roads.

Little did Epperson know that Zwart would give him one of the biggest scares of his life in the race, in which drivers reached 120 mph on Routt County's dirt roads.

In the first stage of the race, drivers made their way to Routt County Road 51D, a rocky, deep-rutted, dirt lane.

Just a short way down the road, after the first racers caught air on a lip created by the private driveway to the Seneca Coal Mines, Zwart and Epperson had advanced to first place. The two hit a straightaway at about 100 mph, Epperson said, when their 2003 Mitsubishi Evolution VIII went over a hill and made a sharp left turn.

The course notes indicated a turn there, but several drivers were later overheard saying that the angle of the turn was underestimated in the notes.

Zwart, who has 14 years experience driving rally cars, turned and began sliding.

"We weren't going to make it," he said.

They slid off the road, narrowly avoiding a rollover. But instead of rolling over, Zwart turned back to the right, driving straight off the course, more than 100 yards into a sagebrush field. As soon as the two got out of the car to assess the situation, another car, a Volkswagen Golf, came over the hill to meet the sharp turn. That vehicle also slid, and while attempting to stay on the course, it flipped about nine times, spectator Kyle Pethe of Denver said.

The hatchback, carrying racers Bill Malik and Christian Edstrom, probably flipped three times in the air before hitting the ground, Pethe said.

Zwart and Epperson sprinted to check on the drivers, when the next car came over the hill and suffered the same fate.

A Volvo 240, carrying racers Scott Fuller and Jeff Call, flipped, 1 1/2 times, landing on its side, said Zwart, who had to put out a small brush fire created by the Volvo.

Thanks to roll cages and specialty seats and seat belts, none of the drivers was seriously injured, West Routt Fire Chief Bryan Rickman said. Race officials canceled the rest of the first stage because of the accidents.

"We all made the same mistake, but we just got away with it," Zwart said.

"It's one thing to read (the race notes) on the couch," said Epperson of his navigation in his first rally race. "It's another to read it at 120 mph."

The two recovered from the incident and finished third overall.

Tanner Foust, another first-time racer from Steamboat, had hopes of simply finishing the race. Luckily, he was stopped before getting to the dangerous turn.

"We just want to have fun," said Foust, who later revealed that he wanted to place well so he could get a shot at the pro rally circuit. Placing in a club-level race is a prerequisite to entering a pro rally race.

However, Foust and his navigator Scott Crouch didn't finish the race, despite driving the newest car, a 300-horsepower 2002 Subaru WRX, the "ideal platform for a rally car," Foust said, thanks to his sponsor, Flatirons Subaru in Boulder.

The race wound its way through back roads that ventured slightly into Moffat County and back to the Routt County Fairgrounds in Hayden, the race's pit area. Though the race finished at the fairgrounds, the racers drove back on U.S. 40, where the winning team of Stephan Verdier and Allan Walker officially crossed the finish line at the Steamboat Sheraton Resort.

-- To reach Nick Foster call 871-4204

or e-mail nfoster@steamboatpilot.com

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