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

Of all the passionate racers in the Rally America National Championship, River City Rally’s Michael Hooper just might top the list. The Chattanooga, TN-based driver’s love for playing in the dirt goes back to well before he knew what the sport was, and has taken him from excited newcomer to one of the top 2WD racers in the nation. The driver of the series’ only Lexus IS350 stops to chat about his first event, his pre-race habits, and the hero that he now gets to battle on the stages:

What made you want to start rallying?

The first day I got my license, I loaded up my mountain bike in the S10 Blazer I had bought six months earlier and headed out to state land where some trails were. The trails were about five miles down a forest service road, but by the time I made it to the trail head I was having so much fun sliding my truck around I never stopped to ride. From then on, every chance I got I would head to the woods to play on gravel, dirt, mud, whatever I could find.

Two years later I learned what rally was from Ben's Rally Page and I knew I had to do it, although it seemed pretty far out of reach at the time. Doo Wops Rally happened to be the next weekend so my girlfriend and I went and spectated.  It was amazing. I was enamored with the idea of legally running a car on a closed road from that point on.

When was your first event and how did you do?

Sandblast, 2002ish in a AE86 Corolla GTS I had built? I had built my daily driver AE86 into a rally car and was living in a RV at the shop I worked for... Somebody gave me Stu's number as a potential co-driver.. I asked him if he'd sit with a newb and he said sure. My next question.. "Uhh... Do you have a truck to tow with?” ... "No, but I think I can probably borrow my father in law’s!" and we were off. It would be both of our first events.

At the end of Stage 3 I cut too deep at a T intersection and clipped the bank, jumping the car with a pretty big impact and landing in the road. We limped to the end with all sorts of noise coming from the left front. We had been running well and were both pretty bummed, but then as we sat waiting on the time control my brain processed what the feed back the car was giving me. Ecstatic, I started yelling “It's a flat, it’s a flat, it’s just a flat!!" We got our time card back and pulled to the side at the start of the transit. Sure enough, I had just debeaded the tire. We swapped it out, backed it down a notch, and finished the rally in second. It was an amazing race and a great time.

When was your first really memorable result—win or podium—and how did you get there?

Magnum Opus 2015. We had just finished a very slow, two-year rebuild of an E30 and had suffered a mechanical DNF in Stage 2 of the previous and first rally for the car. We had planned to run Rally West Virginia next, but then it was canceled. In a last minute decision, we committed to driving all the way to Michigan and ended up winning 2WD overall. It was extremely gratifying for the whole team to see the pace of the car and the fruits of our efforts. On the 13 hour drive home to Tennessee we were all glowing with elation.

Who is your usual co-driver, and when did you two start rallying together?

Claudia Barbera-Pullen. We started in 2015 and I have only had her since with exception of SOFR this year (thanks Alison LaRoza!). Claudia and I have developed so much in the last few years running back to back and even doing some training with OZ Rally Pro. She is the only one I have rallied with that tries as hard as I do. We may be racing for ninth place or racing for first but we are gonna give it our all. 

What’s your favorite event on the Rally America schedule?

LSPR! Fast, technical, fantastic crowds and beautiful scenery. I love the enthusiasm of the Michigan fans. They know how to live! 

Do you have any pre-event routines?

Day of I just try to clear my head and I always go over the car again to settle my nerves and put eyes and hands on as much of it as I can. We usually end up driving through the night on the way to recce so lack of sleep keeps me calmer than I might be otherwise. I typically have butterflies until Stage 1 is over, then I settle in.  

Which other drivers in your class do you respect the most?

Seamus Burke of course… not just for his current 2WD efforts but for his success and all out racing in the early to mid-2000s.  I was a huge fan back then and its an honor to be able to race against him now.  Back in the day he was my favorite driver because I knew he would crash, break, or win, but most often the latter. His style of pushing and ability to get away with it amazes me. Micah Nickelson and Tyler Ptacek in the Golf really impress me as well... their pace is nuts. When Micah gets his car sorted and reliable, we are all gonna be in trouble. You can always slow down a little but its hard to speed up. Micah doesn't need to go any faster, he is FAST.