The drivers on the national PRO Rally circuit have a slogan that describes their peculiar brand of racing.
"Real cars on real roads going real fast."
As in 100 miles an hour along bumpy dirt trails.
"They'll come through a turn totally drifted sideways," said Dennis Chizma, a veteran racer from Newhall. "Just watching them come down the road on the verge of going over a cliff . . . it's kind of spectacular."
This weekend, the circuit makes its annual visit to Southern California for the Rim of the World Rally, a two-day event that combines the bone-jarring action of off-road racing with the precision navigation of car rallies.
More that 45 racing teams from the United States, Jamaica and Japan left the starting line at a Palmdale hotel at 6:45 p.m. Friday, winding their way into the mountains along the fire roads of the Angeles National Forest.
The first portion of the rally, which is run in stages, was expected to finish around 1:30 a.m.
Today, the drivers will resume at 1 p.m. and race through the final stages until 11:15 p.m.
"A lot of stamina is important," said Bill Malik, a Burbank racer who drives a Volvo 240. "And car control, of course."
This particular motor sport--also known as performance or stage rallying--is popular in Europe and Africa but attracts little attention in North America.
Although the Rim of the World Rally is scheduled to be televised on tape later this month, there is no prize money involved. A few of the top drivers have sponsors to cover their costs, but most competitors pay their own way.
"The sport has quite a lot of camaraderie because there's not a lot at stake," said Paul Choiniere, a seven-time national champion from Shelburne, Vt. "You don't find a lot of selfish people. Not a lot of cutthroat or cheating."
The vehicles look like normal sedans and pickups with fancy paint jobs and heavy-duty tires. Because they sometimes take public roads between stages, they must be street-legal. Thus the "real car" part of the slogan.
But there are crucial differences.
In the less-expensive production classes, racers spend as much as $10,000 to install roll cages and fire extinguishing systems. The open class is populated by $200,000 monsters with turbocharged engines, racing suspensions and specialized gear boxes.
They compete in an eight-race Michelin PRO Rally Championship sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America. The circuit includes stops in Maine, Michigan and Arizona.
Most courses are several hundred miles long, following fire roads, logging trials and desert tracks. The exact layout is not divulged until just before the start.
Cars leave at one-minute intervals and race against the clock. They go from stage to stage, with a few pit stops in between. Each vehicle is manned by a driver and a navigator who uses maps, an odometer and sometimes a computer to calculate directions.
Circuit spokesman Andy Schupack explained: "The guy will be barreling down the road and the co-driver will say 'There's going to be a turn in three . . . two . . . one."
But speed and navigation are only part of the equation in the Angeles National Forest.
"The roads run along the cliffs," said Chizma, who races a turbocharged Mitsubishi 3000GT in the Production GT class. "You've got drop-offs a couple hundred feet straight down. Most of the drivers . . . get kind of spooked."
On rough terrain, teams must nurse their cars from one stage to the next.
"If they get a flat tire near the end of a stage, they might just run on their rim until they get to a transition area," Schupack said. "But if it's at the beginning of a stage, they'll have to stop and change tires."
Last year, Choiniere hurriedly repaired the rear suspension on his Hyundai Tiburon during a transition, only to have the front suspension break later.
This year, he decided at the last moment to skip the rally because he is nursing a rib injury.
"The roads are very tight and twisty and there are these humongous bumps," Choiniere said. "It's like skiing the moguls."
All that banging and bumping raises an important question: Do PRO Rally events damage the public lands on which they are held?
"It's not an off-road race," said Cam Lockwood, a recreational planner for the U.S. Forest Service. "They stick to the roads. It is what we consider an event."
Because the promoters pay to have the fire roads graded afterward, Lockwood said the rally benefits the forest.
"They actually help us considerably because we don't have the money to grade those roads two or three times a year," he said. "They help us supplement the funds we have."
The forest service monitors the rally and subsequently examines the course. If a racer careens off the road into adjacent vegetation, the promoters pay to replant.
"They have a mandate to open the forest to public use," Schupack said. "We're in the same category as hunters and fishers."
It is a unexpected analogy, but perhaps fitting for a motor sport that claims to be closer to the common folk than the high-priced worlds of Formula I or NASCAR racing.
"We start out with a car that you can buy in the showroom, so you should be able to recognize it," Choiniere said. "We're running on a road that is a public road."
There is lots of dust and dirt.
"People can relate to that."
* WHAT: The Rim of the World Rally
* WHEN: Today. Charity rally from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Rim of the World Rally restarts at 1 p.m.
* WHERE: Spectators can get directions to viewing area from rally headquarters at the Holiday Inn, 38630 Fifth St. West, Palmdale.
* COST: Admission is free but spectators must purchase a $5 adventure pass to enter the Angeles National Forest.
* TV: ESPN 2 is scheduled to feature the rally on May 29 at 3:30 p.m.
* INFORMATION: (805) 947-8365.