by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images via Jason Swoboda

Among the 60-plus entries signed up for the second annual Southern Ohio Forest Rally last month, Martin Spanhel was one of the most interesting stories. A former NHL player who scored the first goal in Columbus Blue Jackets history in a preseason game, the Czech Republic-born Spanhel has since traded in his jersey for a firesuit and one helmet for another in a new career as a rally driver.

After racing in a number of European tarmac events, Spanhel made his gravel rally debut at SOFR last month alongside experienced co-driver Zuzana Lieskovcova. In a high-attrition event that took out some of the sport’s top teams, the duo placed seventh in the Open Light class and cracked the top 15 overall. Spanhel reflects on his first SOFR experience as a driver, how the event compares to the races he’s run in Europe, and where we might see him again in a Rally America event:

First things first: being a professional hockey player and competing in rally have to be two of the biggest adrenaline rushes anyone can ever experience. Obviously the sports themselves are completely different, but is there anything similar about what it takes to be successful in both of them?

In my opinion both sports require you to be in a good shape—driving a race car is not easy and needs a lot of physical strength both for the driver and co-driver. For me personally, hockey is the easier sport as you can always go to the bench for rest, there’s no resting in the middle of a 12 mile stage! But the danger factor is very similar.

Coming in, you mentioned that Southern Ohio Forest Rally would be your first rally running on a full gravel setup, as your European experience came in tarmac rallies with only parts of some stages on gravel. With that in mind, how did you prepare for SOFR?

I tried to practice in my Evo X, but I don’t have gravel tires or brakes. So I guess if you can call that practice, on stock Evo 18inch wheels with winter tires on gravel roads, that was my only preparation. I know from my past experience I will need to have a practice car on gravel tires. It helps a lot to know the grip level. I was finding out the grip level and what can I do on the first stage. I only drove the car for five miles prior to the start and that was on tarmac! So it was very interesting the entire Friday loop.

We almost did not start as our car was getting done at the last second and the co-driver door was from an autocross car—the car did not pass tech. I was forced to call my friend Matt and he drove a new door to service park from Dublin, Ohio in his Mini Cooper (no idea how he fit the door in, I guess he took the glass down!). We made it to the start five minutes before our start time. The drive to start from service was my first time in the gravel rally car!

With all of the differences between the European rallies you’ve run and SOFR, what was the most challenging thing for you to adapt to? Did having a single pass at recce instead of two change your strategy entirely?

Yes, we used our own pace notes. The single pass recce was the most challenging as I was not sure about my own pace notes without the second pass and I was worried the first time running stages. We did make some adjustments to the pace notes during the first pass, thanks to my experienced co-driver Zuzana—she can read notes during the race stage and still make adjustments.

You mentioned before the event that your hometown of Zlin is the home of rallying in the Czech Republic. How does the passion of the fans and the involvement of the community at SOFR compare to the ERC event in Zlin, and the other events you’ve competed in over in Europe?

In my hometown we have a professional hockey team and soccer team, but rally racing is right up there with those 2 main sports. We have one major race—Barum Rally, with 80,000 spectators, which is part of the European Rally Championship—and six other races within 100 mile radius during the year. Rally is on the first page of the newspapers. Saying all that, the SOFR was very well organized and can compete with any races that I did in Europe. The stages down in Southern Ohio are some of the best in the world. I’d like to thank Pat Moro, Jeremiah Johnson, Justin Pritchard and others to make this possible, they did a great job to putting these amazing stages together. The event itself was great and I have to congratulate them.

Did you have a favorite stage at SOFR?

I’ve thought about this for a long time… I cannot say, all the stages were just amazing. Normally in Europe you have good stages, and some of them are not so good (boring) because the organizers need to get the mileage and are forced to add some not very interesting roads, but SOFR and the roads are just brilliant. Every stage has something different: some are technical, some fast and flowing, some narrow parts, and my favorite is when the rhythm is changing such as gravel to tarmac back to gravel or crests and then hairpins.

I have to say my co-driver Zuzana did not like the Saturday stage Outdoor Drama. She was scared due to the rain storm we got, so we joked about it during and after the race, I called her “Outdoor Drama Zuzana!” Zuzana mentioned to me that she wrote more corners over crest in one stage at SOFR than the entire year racing in Europe!

When all was said and done, not only did you finish the event, you also finished 15th overall—and seventh in the Open Light class, which has been extremely competitive all year. How satisfied are you with your times and where you finished?

I think we took it easy. My main goal was to finish the race, do all the stages, gain as much as experience possible and bring the car in one piece back to Bryan from BKR Autosport. We are happy with the stage times even though on Friday sometimes I felt like I was driving like my grandma coming home from the grocery store. But at the end, I was satisfied with the progress we made on Saturday, and especially with zero technical issues at all the entire weekend except the door before the race. The car was perfect.

Finally, now that you’ve got your first rally in the US out of the way, do you have any plans in mind for the future? You said you want to do SOFR again next year, but would you consider doing any additional events?

I will be doing the SOFR again next year, it is my home event. I’d like to do Barum Rally in Europe at the end of August and also Lake Superior in October, but we will see how the finances will come together.
I’d like to thank Pat Moro from PMR, Chad, Bryan and Blaze for making this happen. Without Pat I don’t think this would be possible for me and Zuzana to race, but what a great event and great memories. I’d also like to thank Sabelt and Cooper Tires for their support.