The Tom-Tom: Jeff Zurschmeide

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Freelance writer Jeff Zurschmeide drove in the recent Alcan 5000 Rally. Here is his assessment of how participating helped his growth as an auto writer.

The Value of Dirty Hands

This winter, I entered the Alcan 5000 Winter Rally as part of a team sponsored by Mitsubishi Motors North America. We drove from Seattle to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, competing in a time-speed-distance rally, ice racing, and the all-important “Don’t get pneumonia and die” challenge.

I arranged some story and photo assignments before I left, but beyond the simple benefit of the assignments I received, I believe Picture: Jeff Zurschmeideparticipating in the event made me a better automotive journalist.

There’s nothing wrong with covering an industry and events from the outside. That’s the traditional reporter’s role, and objectivity frequently demands that we not get too close to the people and events we’re covering. Yet there’s value in getting your hands dirty – particularly if you’re covering motorsports.

“The writer knows, from the seat of the pants experience, the challenges, the dangers, the joy, and the embarrassments of every mile, every curve, every funny sound from the engine (or was that the drive train?). Some of these can be harvested second hand each evening at the bar, but they are just that—second hand,” says veteran Alcan rallyist Jim Elder, who entered this year’s event with an assignment from AutoWeek.

But Elder is also quick to point out the other side: “being in the event constrains one’s field of view. An observer can pick the gnarly curve or scenic background for photos.”

Even if you simply use a competition event as an extended test drive, you’ll get a unique perspective on the car. I spent 12 days and about 6,000 miles in a Mitsubishi Outlander XLS, and came to know the car like it was my own. Driving under every condition from the L.A. freeways to the famous Canadian ice roads above the Arctic Circle, I put this car through the wringer. (And the Outlander did it all with grace and style, by the way.)

Just be sure to let the manufacturer know what you’re doing, and the risks involved to their car.

As automotive journalists, we have tremendous opportunities to tell stories that will mesmerize our readers – to bring them along on the grand journey that most of them will never see. I think the more we speak from personal experience, the better we can tell the story.

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