Eetu Tupala yells a stream of expletives as his home-built rally car slams violently into a snowbank. He’s been leading a race across a frozen lake, gunning his ramshackle engine to the limit only to fishtail into a corner. Now, after wrestling madly with the steering wheel to regain control, his car is wedged into the snow and facing the wrong direction.
“Vittu, vittu, vittu,” shouts the 16-year-old in Finnish (best translated as ‘fuck, fuck, fuck!’). He scrambles from his car only to see rival teenage drivers hurtling past, their battered cars hissing steam and throwing up flecks of grimy snow in their wake.
This is Rokkiralli: a Finnish DIY rally scene and a tight-knit community made up of passionate petrolheads, eccentric tinkerers and family teams. The cost of each car is capped at €650 in order to create a level playing field – one where creative ability, driving skills and an appetite for chaos are the only things that matter. What you’re left with is a competition that distils racing to its purest form.
In the junior series, 15-to-18-year-olds race on icy roads and frozen lakes around Finland each winter. Teenage car culture is deeply ingrained here, but for the pale and pimply teens who criss-cross the country each season, Rokkiralli stands out in a social calendar severely limited during the harsh winter months – especially in the isolated, rural towns that many of them call home.
On a frozen driveway in Korpilahti, Eetu is bashing the rusty front of his mangled blue Mazda with a mallet. He’s a gangly but striking blond teen in long blue overalls, often speaking with a wisdom beyond his years… That is, until he makes a point of kicking and throwing his tools around in frustration.
“It’s a liberating feeling to sit in your car on the starting line and forget everything else; whether it’s school or personal problems,” he says. “You don’t have to think, just drive.” As he talks, Eetu’s stepfather pulls up, puts down his metal-studded racing tyres and gets straight back into his car – driving away without looking anyone in the eyes or saying more than a word.
Eetu brushes off the awkward exchange and goes straight back to work on the car. But with the light fading, the temperature dropping, and plenty of work still to be done before the car is race-worthy, Eetu calls it a day and heads back inside the empty house to warm up. “People say I could have been good [as a student] in high school, but I chose to study to become a car mechanic,” he says, lounging under his bunk bed. “I’ll end up working in a garage one day. It doesn’t pay well, but at least it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Korpilahti has a population of just 5,000. The nearest entertainment for young people is the university town of Jyväskylä but, at 30km away, that remains out of reach unless you have transport. “Korpilahti is pretty dull,” Eetu admits. “When you get a moped licence at 15, that gives you freedom. It’s easy to tune your moped and do naughty stuff because there aren’t many police. I’m saving up for a Subaru Impreza when I turn 18. I’ll tune it, fix it when it breaks and spend all my spare money doing it up. That’s the culture here.”
Unlike Hollywood depictions of drag-racing teens, Eetu insists that having the dopest ride doesn’t make you more desirable. “It’s a fact that girls like the guys, not their cars… but if you’re not into four wheels and metal, find another boyfriend,” he adds, cockily.
There is one Rokkiralli racer, however, that the boys can’t stop gushing over. “She’s just… woooaah,” says Eetu. He’s talking about Taru Mikkonen, one of the best-known Rokkiralli drivers, who has gone from dominating the youth league to beating adults in the same car. “She’s easily the best-looking girl in the scene, but we haven’t dared tell her,” adds Eetu. “She would definitely beat us up for saying that. A big reason we’re all so obsessed is that she’s such a killer driver.”
It’s Friday evening in the village of Heinävesi in Eastern Finland, just over 100km from the Russian border. The temperature hovers around -10 Celsius, but feels even colder as an icy wind cuts close to the bone. Finland is the least densely populated country in Europe, stretching from the Baltic in the south to the Arctic Circle in the north, with a population of just 5.5 million. There’s little but forest, lakes and snow for hours in any direction.
Heinävesi itself is a no-stoplight town. Its population has dropped from 10,000 to around 3,500 today, with its young moving away in search of education, culture and job opportunities. Those who remain are mostly retired. The petrol station is one of the only signs of life; an island of light marooned in a melancholic darkness. Around the corner, next to the high school, three cars are parked alongside each other, their teenage drivers talking to one another through the open windows in a haze of cigarette smoke.
Suddenly a hefty Mercedes estate with blacked-out windows surges forward, its turbocharged engine whistling as the car spins into doughnuts, tearing up the snow. In the driver’s seat sits 19-year-old Taru, grinning proudly, her pale white skin glowing through the darkness.
“Heinävesi is a very safe place to grow up but there’s nothing to do,” she says. “Driving is a pretty significant part of teenage life here. It was really boring until I got my licence at 18, which finally gave me freedom.”
One of the few Friday night options for teens here and across Finland is an activity called Pilluralli – which translates as ‘Pussy Rally’. “There aren’t any hangout spots here so we jump in the car, everyone drinks beer in the back and sometimes people hook up,” explains Jonna Saukkonen, Taru’s dark-haired, standoffish friend.
“It’s pretty tame, really. I don’t know why we do it… mainly to leave the house, I guess. The craziest moments are drunk guys on scooters getting chased by the police. The worst thing is the gossip. I would never date a boy from here; everybody knows who did what with who.” She pauses, raising her voice over the Finnish hip hop reverberating through her tuned-up Toyota hatchback. “When I get accepted to university, I’m leaving.”
The following morning, on a frozen lake near Hiltulanlahti – an hour’s drive from Heinävesi – ice stretches for miles into the distance, disappearing into a milky expanse of nothingness. The silence is shattered by Taru and her older brother Ville Mikkonen, 21, gunning their engines and tearing around a home-built ice track. This is weekend family fun, Finnish style.
“Rally is a place where I can reset my head,” Taru explains. “The speed and the feeling of overcoming yourself is addictive, even if it’s terrifying at times.” She’s driving her black-and-red Mazda, which has been reinforced with sheet metal and fitted with a home-built roll cage. As she accelerates away from the line, the front wheels spin and the metal studs tear a deep gouge into the ice.
Learning from her older brother has been invaluable for Taru. Before joining the women’s series, she competed against 40 other boys and girls in the junior series, regularly claiming victory.
“Rally is a male-dominated sport and they say women can’t compete, but we’re often better than men,” she says with a cheeky grin. “Young girls in the crowd look up to me but many don’t dare to race. I’ve always tried to encourage them to be brave and show people what women can do. Boys are too hot-headed, so while they’re crashing into one-another, I overtake them all… and they get angry when they lose to girls, so that feels great. I’ve had a boyfriend for two years now. He always says he’d beat me but has never dared to challenge me.”
After winning the women’s league, it’s clear that Taru has the potential to follow her brother Ville into the rallycross leagues and maybe become a pro one day. But Taru remains unsure about her future. There are just two major sources of employment in her region: caring for the ageing population or forestry. Ville works 12-hour shifts in the family business, felling trees with an enormous mechanical logging machine.
“Since I was 15, I’ve been travelling across Finland to race almost every weekend,” says Taru. “While my friends were going to rock festivals, I was packing my driving gloves in my rucksack and getting ready to drive. Chasing the title was always the most important thing, but sometimes it did feel like a sacrifice. So now I’m taking time out to hang with friends, see some festivals and do things that ‘normal’ teens do.”
On a Sunday afternoon in Saarijärvi, central Finland, a quaint wooden church, surrounded by snow-topped fir trees, sits on the south-east corner of a frozen lake. The serene silence is broken by the sound of engines roaring amid an explosion of colour: homemade banners evoking the logo-emblazoned pro-rally scene. But these ones are satirical: silly slogans (‘Rubber and Condoms’) and made-up sponsors (‘Old Skool Shit Project Racing Team’) written in permanent marker.
One of the most absurd-looking vehicles is a beat-up pink machine with a fluffy pig strapped to an improvised grill. A penis has been scribbled, schoolboy-style, alongside the words ‘Pussyman Pasi’. Since Eetu’s Mazda wasn’t ready in time, this pink colossus is what he has borrowed for today’s race. When his youth heat begins, Eetu quickly takes the lead – even with the driver’s door shaking so hard that it threatens to fly open every time he takes a right-hand bend. Eventually he loses control altogether and plows the car head-first into a snowbank, failing to complete the necessary three laps.
“Winter racing is so much more challenging than summer,” he explains, pulling the hood of his blue overalls down to protect himself from the cold. “When you’re racing on ice, you have so much less control and so much less visibility. I was grabbing on for dear life on every corner out there, desperately trying not to spin out.”
In between races, Eetu jokes around with a gang of teen racers, too young to drive legally but still so motor-obsessed that they’re counting the days until they can get a licence. “I enjoy the whole ritual that comes with Rokkiralli,” he tells them. “We start prepping on Thursday, get to the track on Friday and my Kukkoracing team stays in a cottage somewhere, going to the sauna and just spending time together before the race.”
Once all the racing ends, cars that made the semi-finals are put up for auction. The pink monster is snapped up in a flurry of incomprehensible bidding but Eetu doesn’t seem sad to see it go. “That car has been passed around a few times and the clutch is totally destroyed – I drove the whole day in the same gear,” he says. “Swapping cars is part of the fun; you never know if you’ll get something great or an absolute shitbox. You can’t fall in love with junk metal.”
The teen racers themselves, however, forge strong bonds over their shared passion amid a backdrop of rural tedium. It’s part of what makes the oddball Rokkiralli crowd an itinerant, adoptive family where older racers offer younger ones spare parts, tools, advice and even transport to races. Rally, after all, is Finland’s national sport. It’s why the welcoming, anti-competitive vibes of the amateur leagues feel perfectly aligned with the understated and self- deprecating Finnish character.
Eetu’s mechanical difficulties may have prevented him from picking up a trophy today, but that’s the furthest thing from his mind. His only priorities now are hitting the sauna, downing some beers and hanging out with his Kukkoracing crew. “The crowd has grown a lot in the past few years – it seems like one big family,” he says, echoing a sentiment shared by all the other teen drivers. “I love racing. How can I stop driving? It’s my way to escape everyday life.”