Jeep Drivers Take on Lake Ladoga Challenge
Published: June 5, 2001 (Issue # 675)
Seregy Grachev / The St. Petersburg Times
One competitor struggling with his vehicle on the first day of the course, as the drivers navigated the swamp and mud in the Vsevolozhsk district of the Leningrad Oblast.
Anyone sleeping in the vicinity of St. Isaac's Square last Sunday morning was awakened to the rude smell of truck exhaust, beer, and the sound of 107 engines roaring as drivers geared up for the Fifth Annual, Botchkarov Trophy, nine-day, off-road race.
The scruffy gathering of monster jeeps, camouflage-clad grease-monkeys toting tools, peering under hoods, and speaking in tongues about chassis, engine volume and piston compression, made an unlikely contrast to the sunny backdrop of St. Isaac's Cathedral and the surrounding square, the race's official starting line.
Announcers barked the names of drivers over a loudspeaker that struggled to be heard over the roaring engines. The drivers then drove their rigs onto a platform to be introduced to the increasingly deafened crowd.
The drivers came from near and far - from St. Petersburg to Kazakhstan to the Baltic States - to face the challenge of grinding their engines though the 1,270 kilometers of mud, swampland and bog that surround Lake Ladoga.
St. Petersburg's Off-Road and 4x4 Club, which has hosted the race for five years, was vague about what the prizes for the winners would be, specifying in the program only that there would be "Prizes and Certificates."
But that didn't seem to matter: the adventure of breaking an axle on a log or blowing out a tire on a rock seemed for the drivers reward enough in itself.
"We like going off road on weekends, but this is the first time we've ever taken part in an official competition," said Alexander Arkhipov, minutes before joining the rally with his wife Tatyana and his 12-year-old son Volodya.
"Of course we're in the Tourism category" he added, standing next to his diminutive white 1998 Niva.
The tourism category is the most forgiving of the three routes for the rally drivers. Second is the speed category, in which teams assemble to race souped-up jeeps of all descriptions through swamps in a race against the clock.
Arkhipov's Niva was a mere speck compared to the thundering pair of Mercedes 4x4s driven by a team from Almaty, Kazakhstan, decked out in camouflage with walkie-talkies hanging from their belts.
"We hope to drive from Dakar to Paris in a couple of years' time," said Aibek Omuraliyev, the team's navigator.
But they will have to make it around Ladoga first.
In the first day of the competition last year, only 13 of the 52 speed category racers even managed to finish the course, race official Olga Orlova states in the press release.
But the most demanding category is the raid category, a sudden death competition where the winner takes all. Drivers maneuver at high speeds through bogs, streams and mud pits. If you get stuck, good luck to you -you're out of the race for good.
The first leg of the rally on Sunday was through swampland near Vse vo lozhsk. Trucks up to their windshields in mud made their way across what was once a World War II front line, with barbed wire and trenches greeting the struggling teams the whole way.
The race will wrap up on June 12, and the drivers that make it will hose down and probably start preparing for next year's race. The rest had better call the tow trucks.