Die-hards 'rallye' to a dwindling cause

Popular 40 years ago, a pastime that combines driving with puzzle solving still cruises the suburbs

Alyssa Duvel, left, of Buffalo Grove and teammate Laura Sachs of Chicago celebrate winning a challenge in the first leg of the Amazing Race 3 Road Rallye at Juniper Park in Hoffman Estates Sunday. (Heather Charles, Chicago Tribune / September 23, 2012)

They were college kids in the 1970s when they got hooked on road rallyes, driving their Mustangs and MGs around the Chicago suburbs in Saturday-night contests nobody wanted to miss.

Four decades later, young people seem to have better things to do than ride in a car for two hours following scavenger-hunt-like directions on plain white sheets of paper stapled together. Kids today have smartphones, Google, GPS.

Still, on a recent Thursday afternoon, Kathy Thomas, Dennis Dorner and other dedicated rallyists met in a far corner of the Woodfield Mall parking lot, where the rallyes have gathered for the last decade.

There was no way to know how many people would show up for the excursion, if any at all. In their prime, road rallyes in the Chicago area attracted 200 cars. Today planners consider themselves lucky if 20 cars participate.

Yet Thomas, Dorner and a core group of about 15 other dedicated "Grand Master Rallyists" around the Chicago area continue to spend countless hours and dollars to keep planning and hosting the rallyes. Mostly in their 60s and 70s now, the rallyists say they do it because, after all these years, they still love the pastime and don't want it to die.

"It reminds me of the drive-in movie theaters that are closing down," Thomas said. "It's an old thing that you just hate to not be able to go to anymore."

In the 1960s and 70s, road rallyes — rallyists like to spell it the old-fashioned way — were so popular in the Chicago area there were nearly a dozen clubs hosting two different styles. Time/speed rallies invited sports car drivers to, one-by-one, drive the speed limit through a suburban course, showcasing a driver and car's precision.

The second type was the "gimmick" rallye, in which a carload of participants worked together to follow driving directions riddled with tricks and brainteasers.

One instruction, for instance, might be to turn left at Clintan. A careless rallyist might turn left at Clinton, ignoring the typo in the directions. A skilled rallyist, however, would know to watch for a road sign with a similar misspelling.

If instructions are followed properly, participants are led from one stop to the next, depending on the rallye's theme. A Halloween rallye directs cars to elaborately decorated homes. A rallye styled after the TV show "The Amazing Race" sends participants to various parks where obstacle courses and games await. A Christmas light rallye offers people a tour of elaborate holiday displays.

Early in his career, Roy Coleman, a high school teacher on Chicago's Southwest Side for 40 years, began encouraging his students to go on road rallyes as an exercise in following precise directions.

Each weekend he'd be delighted when four or five carloads of his students met him at rallye starting points.

But over time, the number of road rallye clubs in the Chicago area dwindled to the three remaining today. Young people who once loved the pastime grew older and more focused on jobs and family. New young people had other ideas of fun.

"It's sad," said Coleman, who retired five years ago and now rarely sees students at rallyes. "I think gas prices have hurt. And to some extent, just the idea of being able to sit at home in front of a television and play video games rather than getting out."

The decline in attendance was heartbreaking for longtime rallyists like Diane Rosone, 62, of Schiller Park, who got her two sons hooked on rallyes even though she knows they're not the same as the ones she looked forward to every weekend as a student at DePaul University.

Back then, competition was so fierce that drivers purposely turned the wrong way in hopes that other participants would follow and get thrown off course. Crowds were so large that couples met and got married.

"We always talk about the old days," Rosone said. "Now it's just not happening."

While the Grand Master Rallyists understand that their beloved hobby might never attract the following it once had, they continue designing and hosting the events because they just can't imagine a time without them.

They spend months thinking up interesting themes and mapping out courses. They buy props — from edible ants to pitchers to pingpong balls — for the challenges staged at various checkpoints. And days before the races, old friends ask each other to do test runs to check for mistakes.

"To a large extent, the people that run them are the people who have always run them for 40 years," said William Wallace, 65, of Island Lake. "Every year we say, do we really want to keep doing this? But those of us who put them on enjoy that more than anything."

The Grand Master Rallyists see hope for the future. Certain rallyes, including a Holiday Christmas Light Tour and a "Puzzler" rallye with proceeds going to charity, still attract more than 50 cars. And while student participation has dropped off, the number of minivans with families out together seems to be growing, they said.

And with the Internet, rallyists say there's much potential for regained popularity. Each of the three remaining Chicago road rally teams — Wheels, Brand X and SCORE — has a reliable website.

Daren Walsh isn't ready to give up. More than a decade ago, his then-co-worker, Kathy Thomas, convinced him to try a road rallye. Today, at 40, he is among the youngest of the Grand Master Rallyists and last weekend co-hosted an "Amazing Race"-type event with Thomas.

"I'd never even heard of them before," Walsh said. "But it's just the kind of thing I like to do."