Rally on Phantom Hill
The Fastest Cars in the West
SVPN Magazine, July 2015
Words & Images by David Concannon
The words evoke images of iconic places in the American West: Tombstone, Deadwood or Diablo Canyon – each with notorious reputations for danger and stories to tell about violence, scenic beauty and the pioneer spirit. You can almost hear the screams of the departed or the wailing of ghosts when you say their names.
Except here, on Phantom Hill, 13 miles north of Ketchum, Idaho on I-75, where one day each year the silence is broken by screams of another sort: the jet-engine whine of a Bugatti Veyron at top speed, roaring past the sagebrush at 246 mph; the throttling “Brap! Brap! Brap!” of a Steve McQueen-era McLaren racer, or the satisfying thrum of a vintage Porsche 356 roadster.
To fans of great cars, and for the freedom to drive them as man intended, Phantom Hill is quickly becoming synonymous with the names of other legendary places in automotive history: Watkins Glen, Lime Rock and Road America. But, while these are great road courses, “must drives” to the racing cognoscenti, Phantom Hill is something altogether different. This unique vantage point over a public road where, once each year, an unlikely partnership of governments, business and charity come together to bend the rules, to drop the speed limit signs and allow drivers to test the limits of their nerves and skill against the limits of their cars. In short: an unparalleled opportunity to drive as fast as one can possibly go, on a road that is normally home to only wildlife, epic scenery and silence.
“It’s not a race!” Dave Stone, co-founder of the Sun Valley Road Rally, is quick to point out. “It’s a rally, for charity.”
Sure it is, Dave.
In fact, Stone is right. To be perfectly accurate, the Sun Valley Road Rally is a no-speed-limit event on an open road, where drivers of precision or simply gorgeous automobiles can wind out their engines and spin the needles on their tachometers to their limits. Where, at the end of a 3.2-mile course, their speed is captured by a laser gun and displayed to hundreds of spectators, who have each paid a nominal fee to gather at the southern base of Phantom Hill to see their automotive fantasies fulfilled. For charity.
The story of the founding of the Sun Valley Road Rally has been told before: Stone and some friends who loved cars, and testing the limits of their cars, had discovered a place where they could drive fast. That place was Phantom Hill. It is a place of stunning beauty, with the Boulder Mountains rising dramatically to the north and the Smoky Mountains in the distance to the south and west. I-75 passes through a valley populated by antelope and other wildlife along the Big Wood River, following a sweeping left-hand curve that unfolds into a dead straightaway at the base of Phantom Hill, and continuing to a run-out where a car can lose speed before leaving the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and entering the northern limits of the town of Ketchum.
It is an area that is unpopulated, quiet, and, significantly to an automotive enthusiast, mostly unpatrolled by local law enforcement. Mostly.
As Stone tells it: “I had already known about Phantom Hill. It was my favorite place to drive fast. I would go out there and take my car to the limit, but I always had one eye out for the law and one eye on the speedometer, which kept me from focusing on what I needed to do to stay safe.”
So, Stone and some friends, including former Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, began looking for a place where they could drive their cars as fast as possible, as safely as possible, for just one day, and they were willing to donate money to charity for the opportunity. Friedman Airport in Hailey was the initial site of what would become the “Sun Valley Road Rally,” but final permission to use the runway could not be obtained. What followed, thanks to timely assistance from Idaho’s Governor, was an unlikely but successful partnership between the Blaine County Sheriff, the SNRA and the Blaine County Community Drug Coalition, to lift the speed limit from the public road north of town and hold the event at the base of Phantom Hill.
Since the Sun Valley Road Rally debuted in 2009, the event has grown exponentially in size and stature, with hundreds of thousands of dollars raised to fight substance abuse among youth in the Wood River Valley. Through the growth, the unique partnership has remained solid.
Current Sheriff Gene Ramsey, who inherited this partnership upon Femling’s retirement in 2011, says the partnership “took a bit of culturing, but we realized we had a common goal that was beneficial for all, so we put our heads together and figured it out.” Ramsey speaks enthusiastically about the rally (while echoing Stone’s observation that “it’s not a race!): “Once in a while you get to do something fun, that’s good for the community and good for kids. You do something really great that’s bigger than yourself.”
Similarly, Ed Cannady, head of Backcountry Recreation for the SNRA, says: “Anything we can do to get kids in the woods and keep kids off drugs, we are happy to do.” Cannady highlighted other, lesser-known, benefits of partnering with the Road Rally, like exposing the wilderness to visitors and fostering a fundamental connection to the natural world. “The Road Rally is really cooperative and very helpful,” says Cannady. “They donate money and volunteers to the SNRA’s weed eradication program and teach people about the importance of minimal impact. We really appreciate it.”
Now, Phantom Hill, an area previously unknown to those outside of Sun Valley except for the presence of a small wolf pack, is becoming famous for howling of a different sort: that of engines of Porsches, Bugattis, McLarens, Fords and Chevys stretched to their limits, and the raucous cheering of hundreds of spectators as each car crosses the finish line. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the quiet enthusiasm and satisfaction of the partners in this great event, for charity pays off in ways that are not readily apparent on a Saturday in the summer sun. To Dave Stone, Gene Ramsey and Ed Cannady, they know that their partnership pays off all over their community 365 days a year, long after the silence returns to Phantom Hill.