Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
A tiny nation that’s spawned multiple World Rally Championship and F1 legends, it’s said the locals learn to drive before they can even walk in Finland. But far from the limelight of the professional circuit, a handful of petrolheads have created a race with community and creativity at pole position.
I’m marooned in the middle of an enormous frozen lake in Saarijärvi, central Finland.
Through a thick haze of snow, you can just about make out the towering, white-topped pine trees surrounding one side of the lake, and a quaint, 19th-century wooden church on the other. It’s a bone-chilling 17.6° Fahrenheit (-8° Celsius), but otherwise, a peaceful, small-town Sunday afternoon.
Peaceful, that is, until the silence is shattered by a pack of ramshackle rally cars, battered engines screaming as they charge across the ice. Hurtling into the first corner and sliding on the frozen surface, four cars collide and come to rest in a tangle of twisted metal.
After all the drivers have climbed to safety, the last car towed off the track is an old Volkswagen Beetle, on which the front and rear bodywork has all caved in. From the state of the Beetle’s grossly-disfigured metalwork, it’s clear this isn’t the crushed car’s first smash.
I’m track-center (off-limits to regular spectators) at this winter’s penultimate Rokkiralli race, a DIY rally league which brings together passionate petrolheads and bizarre bodgers from all over rural Finland to battle with their bargain-bucket racing machines.
The Finns are a nation obsessed by motorsport. This is, after all, the home of World Rally Championship legends like Marcus Grönholm, Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen. Not to mention the Formula One greats—Valtteri Bottas, Kimi Räikkönen, Mika Häkkinen and others all hail from here too. But Rokkiralli is a chaotic, down-to-earth antidote to the stuffy, serious, money-driven rally leagues. The motto here is: Fewer rules, more fun. The amount competitors can spend on their cars is capped at €650 ($800 USD) to create a level playing field and open up racing to everyone, from spotty teenagers too young for drivers’ licenses, to outdoorsy folk from far-flung corners of this wild country. Not only that, but all drivers can influence the rules of Rokkiralli—no single entity can dictate the fun.
To find out more about this DIY racing community, I head to meet two of the co-founders of Rokkiralli, Mirtsu and Sirppi, on their farm in Tuusula (an hour’s drive from Helsinki) the day before the race. As Sirppi greets us on arrival, it’s impossible to ignore the kind eyes beaming out from between his wispy goatee and his Lada-branded trapper’s hat.
Sirppi has transformed this traditional Finnish farm into a mock Wild West village, inspired by his travels through the US and Mexico. There’s a cowboy-style saloon sign hanging on the wooden walkway around the garage, a big Chevy truck, and two plastic revolvers hanging on his porch.
“We’re a rally nation, motorsport is part of our history. They say that many Finns learn to drive before walking. It’s in our blood.”
Mirtsu, Rokkiralli co-founder
Sirppi leads us on a tour, past stables with wooden beams covered in old number plates (gravestones for all the cars he’s farewelled over the years), to a snow-covered line of old Russian Ladas.
“I love destroying Ladas,” he explains. “I’ve driven them for years. Even in Demolition Derby, people always mocked Ladas and nobody wanted to drive them. I made a point that it’s not about the make of car, it’s about your skill as a driver.”
In the garage, he holds aloft a giant metal sickle, like a junkyard grim reaper. To tie in with his penchant for destroying old, Communist-made cars—which would otherwise be destined for the scrapheap—he used to race with the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle logo, which is how he got the nickname ‘Sirppi’, which means ‘sickle’ in Finnish.
But the Ladas outside are safe—for this weekend, at least. Sirppi pulls out a blowtorch to weld a towing hook onto Mirtsu’s machine for tomorrow’s race. The spoiler on the roof can’t begin to compensate for the aerodynamics that must have been savaged by the DIY sheet metal fuselage, which makes it look more like a home-built, black-and-yellow tank than the Mazda hatchback we’re told it once was. With Rokkiralli budgets constrained, bodging ability matters far more than bank balance—something Mirtsu and Sirppi explain was always their plan.
“Rokkiralli is the cheapest possible rally series in Finland,” Mirtsu says, perched next to Sirppi on their living room couch. “Finland has long distances and bad dirt roads. We’re a rally nation, motorsport is part of our history. They say that many Finns learn to drive before walking. It’s in our blood.
“The Sheik [Kristian Sheikki Laakso] started Rokkiralli in 2000 with a cheap, do-it-yourself mentality that invites everyone to participate,” she adds. After The Sheik left the the scene, the remaining drivers—including Mirtsu and Sirppi—started a Rokkiralli trust to ensure the show, the race, would go on. “Youngsters can start racing from 15,” beams Mirtsu. “We don’t ask for licences: Turn up with a car and a helmet, and you can race!”
Every surface in their house is covered with car paraphernalia and kitsch Americana. There’s a bright yellow plastic toilet cover that looks like an enormous piece of mouse-gnawed cheese and a handmade trophy awarded to Sirppi: A tall wooden staff emerging from an old car wheel, with a terrifying three-horned wooden skull on top, a Pagan god of automotive chaos.
When they’re not racing, or dreaming about racing, Sirppi is a metalworker and Mirtsu is a psychological nurse. “You have to be comfortable with madness to be in the Rokkiralli crowd,” she says, letting a chuckle escape.
“We need her skills to help keep everyone’s heads together before the races,” Sirppi adds. While Mirtsu is usually a calming presence, behind the wheel she’s anything but—with a handful of ‘Most Reckless Driver’ awards to her name. “Yes, I have flipped the car a few times,” she says, smiling bashfully. “But the Mazda has a good roll cage, so I’m still alive.”
In the pits next morning, Mirtsu and Sirppi are looking a little weary after a 4am start, but spirits are high. As Mirtsu makes last-minute checks, a succession of badly-painted, crushed-metal contraptions splutter past, each looking less road-worthy than the last.
Ask any driver what they appreciate most about Rokkiralli and you’ll hear the same phrase over and over: “It feels like a family.”
A portable, wooden official’s cabin overlooks the start line and a line of loudspeakers throw the announcer’s sing-song notes out into the icy air. If they’re not working on their machines, rugged men, women and teenagers (who have their own competition for 15-18-year-olds) in high-vis jackets and grubby overalls are huddled in groups, sipping coffee to keep warm, while they survey the action on the track.
In the first heat of the women’s competition, Mirtsu’s Mazda strains to take off from the start line and wobbles awkwardly around each corner. After sliding all over the track on the bends, the car isn’t powerful enough to make up lost ground on the straights and she finishes near the back of the pack. Later, her brakes freeze, locking up the rear wheels. It’s not looking good.
Back in the pits, battered cars are limping home to lick their wounds before the next heats. If drivers need spare parts or a tool for an essential repair, there’s always another driver ready to lend a hand—especially to the younger racers, who everyone’s keen to show the ropes to.
In the more professional Finnish rally leagues, there are intense, competitive rivalries between drivers. It’s not a scene where you make friends. Finland might be a world-famous rally nation, but this dog-eat-dog mentality seems at odds with everyday Finns’ inclination towards understatement, modesty and self-deprecation.
The Rokkiralli crowd, on the other hand, may be self-identified odd-balls, but the infectious sense of camaraderie, anti-competitive ethos and the welcoming spirit to those from all backgrounds seems much more in step with the national character, which prizes fairness and equality above all things. Ask any Rokkiralli driver what they appreciate most about the community and you’ll hear the same phrase over and over again: “It feels like a family.”
After her final heat, we’re sitting in the back of Mirtsu and Sirppi’s racing van, sheltering from the cold and dissecting the day’s action with their son Jari. Mirtsu placed last. So, what’s her assessment? She grimaces, raises her arms and wobbles them to resemble a drunken swan coming in to land. “The track’s so slippery,” she says. “But I managed to stay on four wheels and didn’t flip the car, so that’s good.”
Once the racing ends, there’s prize-giving to wrap up. An oil-stained huddle of drivers is gathered around the judges, roaring with laughter at indecipherable Finnish jokes. Mirtsu missed out on a trophy this time, but then, that was never the goal. “Winning isn’t the most important thing about Rokkiralli,” she explains, visibly buzzing in the midst of the bedlam. “We don’t travel across the country for the competition. It’s about sitting around the fire after the races and listening to rock and roll. It’s about the atmosphere, the fun, and the sense of togetherness.”
Alex King is a British freelance journalist based between Athens and London. Before moving to Athens, he was staff writer at Huck Magazine. He now contributes regularly to Huck, Vice, Noisey, Dazed & Confused, VolteFace, If You Leave, Bikevibe Journal & more.