c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

ISLANDIA, N.Y. — One by one, the cars rolled out of the parking lot and onto the Long Island Expressway for the start of the 2013 Vintage Rally:

A Porsche 356C from the 1960s.

A Porsche 550 Spyder replica.

A Porsche 911 Turbo.

A 2012 Hyundai Elantra.

What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing, if you are the organizer of a road rally and would like to see this once-popular activity reverse its long decline, in part by changing the perception of these events as being strictly for the rich.

Granted, all those Porsches don’t help. The Vintage Rally was co-sponsored by the Metro New York Porsche Club of America. But as the presence of the Hyundai suggests, you do not have to drive a six-figure car to participate.

“We’ll take Volkswagens, too,” said Don Coburn of nearby Seaford, N.Y., the director of the rally, which has been held annually since 1978. “It’s open to anyone.”

Rallying — in which motorists, typically a driver and a navigator, follow a route following specific directions or challenges to achieve a point total or other goal — got its start in France around the turn of the 20th century. Compared with the multiday, highly publicized — and sometimes high-speed — affairs still staged in Europe, the Porsche club’s event is quite casual.

Likewise, September’s Vintage Rally was not one of what Rich Bireta, rally board chairman for the Sports Car Club of America, calls “high-end destination events” in which teams of well-heeled participants drive classic cars on scenic road trips while, as Bireta says, “visiting four-star hotels and restaurants, way beyond my budget!”

Those luxury tours, which can cost thousands of dollars for a package that includes several days of first-class meals, accommodations and even support vehicles with mechanics, are a far cry from the $30 registration fee for one of the rallies that Bireta organizes around Lawrence, Kan.

At the Long Island rally, the team in the Hyundai consisted of Nancy Hofsiss, 51, from Huntington Station, N.Y., and her mother, Margo Hopkins, 75, of Manhattan.

“We expect to win a trophy,” Hopkins declared.

“I’m hoping we just don’t get lost,” her daughter said.

Hofsiss, a business analyst for HBO, had never heard of rallying before a co-worker — Coburn’s wife, Barbara — suggested joining this event, in which participants drive a point-to-point route while answering questions about what they see along the way.

“I feel like it’s a scavenger hunt on wheels,” Hofsiss said.

But beyond the fact that they are not about high speeds, car rallies in the United States vary in focus. For years, the dominant form of the sport has been the Time-Speed-Distance, or TSD, rally, in which participants follow complex directions with the objective of arriving at checkpoints at exactly the correct time. “The goal of TSD is precision,” said Dave Teter, 76, a retired engineering professor at the University of Delaware. Like many rallyists of his generation, he started in his sports car — an Austin-Healey Sprite — in the early 1960s. Part of the appeal was that rallies challenged drivers’ skills while offering the opportunity to dash around in their European roadsters.

There are no statistics comparing participation now and then, but rally enthusiasts agree that the sport’s popularity peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. Reasons for its decline are unclear, but the aging of the baby boomers is often cited.

For example, Sasha Lanz of Richardson, Texas, north of Dallas, was an enthusiastic participant during rallying’s heyday. In the 1980s he stopped because of family and career commitments. After retiring from the computer business and with his children grown, he returned in the early 2000s to find a vastly changed sport. “In the 20 years I wasn’t doing rallies, they all disappeared,” said Lanz, now 74.

To help revive the sport, he began organizing events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that were less like a driving test and more like a game.

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“We ask them to find a certain sign and write down something about the sign,” he said. “So the route instructions will say something like, ‘Go left on Smith Road,’ and then it’ll say, ‘High school football score.’ They come across a directional sign that says, ‘Dublin 7, Comanche 14.’ Those are two towns in Texas with football teams, and that’s a score.”

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Lanz calls them “game-tours-adventure” events, but they are better known as “gimmick” rallies — and although most rallies nationwide are still TSD events, the new variations seem to be opening up a new audience. Lanz stages six such rallies a year; he has a mailing list of about 700 and an average attendance of about 45 cars per event — up from 15 when he started them in 2001.

The Vintage Rally on Long Island was for years a TSD rally. But when Coburn took over two years ago he changed it to a gimmick rally, in part, he said, to stem declining participation.

Two of those competing here, Brad and Susan Chesloff of New York found rallying after Brad, an information technology manager, bought his first Porsche in 2002. Looking for ways to enjoy the car together, Chesloff said, they joined the Porsche Club, went to shows, even raced on a track. Then they entered a rally.

“This is the most fun, the most social,” she said. “And we’ve explored places we never would have.”

Like the North Fork of Long Island, the destination of the Vintage Rally. After a team exits the expressway, the route snakes through nearly 60 miles of mostly back roads, past farms, woods and watery vistas. The Coburns spent days preparing for the rally, plotting the course, checking signs, noting landmarks and concocting questions intended to be read carefully — questions that assume as much command of written English as of a steering wheel.

When the Chesloffs read this question early on in the rally — “How many ‘... Litter Removal ...’ signs between here and the next instruction?” — the ellipses in the question put them on alert.

“Don is tricky,” said Chesloff, the navigator. Passing a sign that said “Litter Removal: Next 1 Mile,” they knew not to count it. “Because the ellipses mean that there’s a word before and after.”

Correct, Coburn said at the conclusion of the rally hours later, when he read the answers and announced the winners during an outdoor lunch at a winery.

Scores were based on the fewest wrong answers to the 27 questions on the route sheets. Not even the top teams got all of the answers right, although careful sign-reading (and attention paid in high school English classes) enabled the Chesloffs to finish fifth overall out of 23 teams, with only five wrong answers.

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The novice team in the Elantra finished next to last. Hofsiss admitted that while she and her mother did not get lost, they did not expect punctuation to be part of a driving event.

“The ellipsis thing,” said Hofsiss, who drove. “We kind of overlooked that.”