On May 17, a massive torfæra rally briefly turned Hella into one of the most action-packed corners of Iceland, attracting 18 drivers and some 3,000 spectators. Organisers used the event to raise money for the local search and rescue team; the drivers used it to raise a whole lot of hell.
The competition has just begun, but the machismo is already in overdrive. The soft shoulders of the black sand ravine, so typical of the landscape here in southern Iceland, are being churned up by vehicles that resemble the unholy spawn of go-karts and jeeps. A car called Gæran—which means “sheep pelt,” but is also an archaic term for a woman of ill repute, something akin to “hussy”—shoots up from the ravine’s depths. Conquering the last incline at the top of the hill forces the vehicle to go airborne. This it does effortlessly, leaving nothing but flying gravel and dust as proof of its struggle. At the top, Gæran’s driver Helgi Gunnarsson banks to the right, weaves through and occasionally runs over some post markers, descends a dozen metres over the lip of the gully and comes back for more. The crowd cheers as if it were a victory lap, but it’s actually the second ascent needed to clear this particular torfæra course.
Known in English as “formula off road,” torfæra is a motor sport like no other. Souped-up jeeps try to conquer courses on challenging terrains spotted with various natural and man-made obstacles. Completing a course in this particular competition, Sindra Torfæran Hellu, earns a driver 350 points, minus whatever is subtracted for violating the rules, such as when drivers run over post markers or drive in reverse. The hill climbing terrain is a classic torfæra course. However, the engines and tires on torfæra cars are so specialised that they can often drive through mud pits and on water as well, which represent two of the five total terrains that drivers will be attempting today in Hella. How much success they will have on the different courses is influenced by which of three classes their cars fall into: cars in the unlimited class, which tend to ride paddle tires and don’t have to resemble factory-made vehicles, have more success on water and in mud than cars in the street-legal and modified classes, which ride street-legal or non-paddled tires. At the end of the last event, the driver with the most points in his class is declared the winner.
Uphill And Downhill
Guðni Grímsson, driver of the undersized car Kubbur (“Cube”), takes his own stab at the hill that Gæran has just cleared. He approaches the top and gets stuck, tires dug down in the loose soil, so he reverses instead. He tries for the summit again and guns it at the wrong point of the ascent. With a paroxysm of acceleration, Kubbur breaks the dirt’s hold and goes vertical. The tires hang freely in the air, the engine block points momentarily toward the heavens. Then the car lands on its ass and flips over onto its back, sliding to a stop in the soil, driver nestled safely in the roll cage. Whiffs of gasoline float all around us on the breeze. There will be no victory lap for Kubbur, but the crowd cheers anyway. This mayhem, after all, is part of the point of torfæra.
Event co-organisers Sigurður Haukur Einarsson and Kári Rafn Þorbergsson both work for the search and rescue team in Hella. They tell me that Sindra Torfæran Hellu has been going on in some capacity since 1973—always as a volunteer-run fundraiser for the search and rescue squad. This, however, is the first major torfæra event in Hella in four years. Between 2010 and 2013, though, the event was cancelled. “The sport was going downhill for a bit,” Sigurður says. “We didn’t have that many competitors, so we didn’t make that much money off it.” It seems like the four-year hiatus did the trick to whet people’s appetites though. “Last time we held the event, we had five, six hundred people,” Kári tells me. “We sold 3,000 tickets for today.” That makes it one of the largest torfæra rallies in Iceland, according to Kári.
Indeed, as the crowd occupying the opposite bank of the ravine migrates 40 metres to the south to get a better view of the next course, it’s clear that a considerable chunk of the country’s population is here.
The drivers are on to a timed component, a roughly ichthus-shaped loop that runs down one side of the ravine and up and across the other before doubling back. The fastest driver will earn an additional 350 points, and it’s tempting to pick up speed on the initial descent, but dangers await any driver who goes too fast. Gæran, in keeping with its name’s double entendre, goes too fast. At the bottom of the hill it does a nosedive, losing precious seconds. Driver Helgi struggles to control his car as the two sloppily slide from left to right, running over post markers.
Other drivers are more careful, staying between the markers as they swing around the apogee. They mostly put up times around 35 seconds. One hellhound manages it in 30 flat. As Eðvald Orri Guðmundsson, driver of Pjakkurinn (“The Rascal”), revs the engine and begins down the hill, the announcer has a little fun. “Eddi, the ‘Cool Guy,’” he says. “I hear he’s fast in a lot of things.” It’s crude, but it gets the crowd laughing. Unfortunately, Eddi is not very fast on this course, and will eventually come in at the bottom of his class standings.
Flipping through the event’s info booklet, I see a possible reason why. Pjakkurinn is a modified Jeep Willys from 1966, one of the oldest models participating in the rally. And with only 400 horsepower, it’s on the lower end of the powertrain spectrum. What chance does it stand against a car like Zombie, driven by Aron Ingi Svansson, which was built in 2014 and has an 800 horsepower engine, plus an additional 250 horsepower when the nitro kicks in? Or Katla, driven by Guðbjörn “Bubbi” Grímsson, which will later use its 1600 horsepower engine to drive 80 km/h down the entire length of a metre-deep creek like a monstrous Jesus lizard? It’s not that simple though, as Sigurður tells me. “The overall winner is normally determined by a mixture of good car and good driver. Mostly it’s up to the driver.” Zombie will prove this point by finishing the day in the lower half of its class standings, despite its preternatural specs.
A True Victory Lap
Snáðinn (“Lad”), on the other hand, is at the top of its class standings at the end of the day. Driver Jón Vilberg Gunnarsson tells me he taught himself how to drive by watching his dad, who competed in the sport for 10 years and was once a champion in his own right. Jón is a precocious 31 year old—torfæra being something of an older man’s game—and has only been on the circuit for three seasons. The first two, he won the championship in the street-legal class. Presumably bored and in need of a challenge, he switched to modified this year and today in Hella he won first place by amassing roughly five times as many points as the next closest driver in his class. After the award ceremony I ask what he thought of the courses. “They were technical,” he says. “I had never driven on water or on mud, so that was new.” His car, parked next to us, is covered in more filth than a motorised pigpen. “At one point there was so much mud kicked up that I couldn’t see where I was going,” he says. “I suppose I guessed right.”
I wonder aloud if he’d be willing to take one last drive in Snáðinn today with me in tow. “Why not,” he shrugs. One of Jón’s crew team gives me an oversized jumpsuit to wear and I climb aboard like a deflated marshmallow, instantly absorbing the mud covering every inch of the vehicle’s interior. As he revs the engine, Jón gives me some ominous advice. “I’ll take it easy out there, but if anything happens, whatever you do, keep your arms inside the car.”
Before I can change my mind about all this, he floors the pedal and we shoot off from the car pit, past the few remaining fans and back toward the ravine. Jón is heading for the hill course. I start praying under my breath. Under the hood the engine is roaring, even though Jón is clearly following his promise to take it easy. These are not machines to be trifled with, I think to myself, and yet torfæra is about trifling with them to the limit. We approach a path that bears right, descending gradually down into the ravine. Instead of following it, Jón breaks slightly and drives dead ahead, over the lip. The nose of the car plunges, our angle of decline instantly dropping from almost nothing to 60°. Jón breaks, banks right and accelerates across the hill. We’re skidding along an open black gash in the earth at an impossible angle and no law of physics amenable to human logic is keeping us here—just a 600 horsepower engine (750 with nitro!) and a batshit crazy driver with a brand new trophy to his name.
After a few seconds in this precarious state, Jón hops us back up onto the path. We weave down to the bottom and begin the ascent up the other side. This is the real course, the hill that drivers were flipping their cars on earlier in the day. As the sheer lip of the ravine looms ahead of us, I think of Jón’s warning and impulsively cross my arms tightly across my chest. But my fears are misplaced. The engine heaves us over every outcropping and incline in our way, no matter how steep. With the give of the suspension, we rock and swerve to the top of the ravine. Then Jón loops back around to the lip in preparation for the descent and the return to the car pit. He glances my way. “Cool, right?” “Really cool,” I answer, pale as death, hands still clinched tight.
We pause for a brief moment on the edge. I look down at the black hill we’re about to brave—the steepest yet—and my stomach drops. Then I look up at the hill opposite, where the crowd of thousands had been mere hours earlier. The parking lot is almost empty now, but the torfæra drivers and their crews, along with the event organisers, are still hanging around in the pit. God bless those search and rescue professionals, I think to myself. I sure hope they raised some funds today.
And then Jón starts tapping the gas.
Torfæra is native to Iceland. It evolved out of the experimentation of off-road driving enthusiasts in the 1960s, who modified their vehicles to better suit them to the local landscapes. According to Guðbjörn “Bubbi” Grímsson, a veteran of torfæra rallies in both Iceland and Norway, the emerging sport was quickly seized upon by search and rescue teams, which saw them as a good opportunity to raise funds. The first rally was held in Reykjahlíð (Mosfellsdalur) on May 2, 1965. The rules of competition changed throughout the initial decades and were eventually codified in their present form in 1987. In 1992 a rally was held in Sweden, marking the first torfæra event outside of Iceland; the sport has since gained popularity throughout Scandinavia.