I check my phone at 5:59am; like an eager kid on Christmas morning waiting to unwrap his Nintendo (said kid is me).
Can we just get going now??
I’ve never been this excited to do recce, or really all that excited at all to do recce. However, nothing seems to reinvigorate oneself like a newly found sense of purpose. Plus, the drive out I-84 to the stages is absolutely beautiful
For those of you not so familiar with the ins and outs of rallying, reconnaissance, or “recce” for short, is when we drive the roads at normal road going speeds, in normal road going cars, while the roads are still open to the public. The purpose is to create the arbitrary jargon I yell at the driver throughout the duration of the event, also known as “pace notes.” You should be vaguely familiar with these from just about any rally onboard video ever produced. The hard part about recce, particularly in the US where locals often times revoke road permits if we traverse their road at more than walking pace, is that you must make notes that you can rely on at 120mph at 20-30mph. If you make one mistake writing these pace notes, you will crash.
Also, driving around for an entire day at slow speeds, in an unspectacular car, analysing every last detail of a hundred miles of road takes an extraordinary amount of focus and discipline. Actually, it takes much more focus and discipline than the actual rally itself, which, quite naturally, completely demands your attention at all times. You’re not going to be hurdling down a dirt road sideways on the edge of a cliff at 100mph thinking about ponies, unless you’re a driving natural with a severe case of untreated ADHD like my driver, Chris Duplessis.
(While that last sentence might sound like a joke, it isn’t)
Chris decides he wants to make his own notes this time, for the first time since doing the WRC Academy in 2012. I remember how lost and intimidated I used to feel with the prospect. How will I navigate us the right way round splitting my attention with the route book, write down all the notes, and ensure they make sense? What if I miss something obvious from the routebook or guide him the wrong way around? How do I know whether the notes are more or less “correct” before I begin, particularly since they’re the driver’s personal notes?
Fortunately, after all this time over here in Europe and writing my notes on debatably the trickiest recce’s in the world, I realized just how much easier it is now. The move actually worked; I’ve actually gotten better. Plus, I had a few new little tricks to teach Chris too. It’s amazing how, when placed in such a demanding situation yet surrounded by so many of the world’s most experienced and talented co-drivers, you can so easily pick up little tricks all the time. I started to notice that quite common rally knowledge from Europe ends up being almost specialist rally knowledge back home.
(on the left is a page from my route book in the Ypres Rally in Belgium, which is all in kilometers and shows all the turns I need to make, often times on unnamed roads. If the road is named, often times the road sign is hiding in an overgrown ditch or two stories up a building. On the right is a page from the route book in Oregon, where I don’t need to do any actual navigation until 2.68 miles into the stage (circled and star’d) and the street sign is clearly and sensibly marked at the junction. The supplemental instructions #3-5 are of no use to us when making our own notes)
While the integrity of our itinerary was briefly compromised by one of Chris’s ill-timed emergency poops, we did manage to adhere to our bespoke recce schedule to comfortably get two passes over each stage, despite a bit of a late start, and have a set of notes that we were confident with.
Christopher did a really good job though, writing his own notes after being away from it for so long. I gave him a pat on the back on the drive home, and Chris called his wife like he just got a gold star from teacher that day
“…and I even wrote the notes from scratch all by myself.. and I even knew my lefts from the rights most of the time, and if I got it wrong, Alex would just repeat the correct direction back to me, but with a little bit of attitude..”
Like any co-driver that’s um, been around the block a few times, I can at least assure him, “If it makes you feel any better, Alex Parpottas is pretty bad at telling his lefts from his rights too.”
In fact, most drivers I’ve made notes with are so bad at it that I now just look up and write the direction of the corner before the driver even calls the note during recce. Then, I just fill in the dictated severity and additional details. Yes, it really is THAT bad. I also feel as though I should be much more disturbed by this casual dyslexia; that maybe I should start making notes “My way 3 long over crest” or “Your Way 1+,” but they always seem to get it right come game day, so whatever.
On to the rally then. The Oregon Trail is a unique event, where the three days of rallying are basically three different events (hence, this story is basically 3 separate stories to follow the theme). Day 1 is actually in Portland at the Portland International Raceway and features stages using bits of the road course, paddock, motocross track, and access roads in between. Day 2 heads east just past the line where Oregon switches climate from oceanic to arid, which means we race on wide open roads across the plains. Day 3 heads to the foothills of Mount Hood, where we run on twisty, technical forest roads. Overall, the event is the all-around portfolio builder every photographer wants and needs.
It’s not until the first stage in the rally that I get to experience Nameless Performance’s twisted take on the Subaru BRZ. The air scoops leading to the rear-mounted radiator makes the car resemble a spaceship, as well as give a previously front-heavy car a 50/50 weight distribution. However, I must correct myself and state that it’s actually rocket ship with what seems like unlimited adjustable power.
Nameless Performance: So, would you like 300 horsepower today Chris? How about 350? Or 400? What about 450? Well..if you need any more power, please just less us know, and we can easily sort something out. Oh, and would you like it to spit flames?
Chris:: Well…like 400 horsepower should be alright enough.. And flames? Just for day 1 is fine.
We launch off the line, and the acceleration and straight-line speed is certainly overwhelming, as well as the fact that it sounds more like a fully prepared GT3 car than a rally car. You can’t really bring this thing into the forests can you? Well God Bless America because here is the one country where you can.
On the first stage we spin in what looks like an intentional hoonin’/tire slaying attempt for The Hoonigan’s latest recruit, Chris Duplessis, but we really we just lost the rear end in a car that can do a doughnut on command. We don’t lose much time there and then, nor do we lose much time later not being able to see anything in the dark with only stock lights. Regardless, we end the day where we need to be, first in two wheel drive, so obviously we could see just enough.
As we leave Portland and head 60 miles east to Hood River to setup camp for the next two days of rallying, Chris suddenly interrupts the conversation within the car.
Chris: “OH shit we forgot to get gas!”
Me: “Oh, when should we stop?”
Chris: “Like 30 miles ago”
Chris darts of the next exit as the poor Subaru Forester begins to putter and sputter. We roll through the stop sign and coast down the hill to the gas station as the attendant shuts down one of the lights and throws the bucket of windshield washer out. According to my rally watch (which is on atomic time) it’s 10:59pm. We roll into the gas station
Chris: “Hey – you guys still pumping gas?!”
Gas Station Attendant: “We close at 11, but if you got a card, then yep!”
Chris: “Oh thank god – fill her up please!”
Gas Station Attendant: “Good thing you made it here in time – ain’t no other gas station open for another 20 miles”
I think Chris’s wife, Sarah, once said something to the effect of “Well, nothing bad ever happens to Chris.” I think I get it now..He always does seem to do everything JUST in time.
Day 2 starts fairly far east, in the wide open plains near Dufur, Oregon. It might look like a Midwest, Main Street America kind of town, but a quick trip into the general store quickly confirms that you’re definitely still in Oregon, with an interior decked out in Starbucks colors and enough organic, free-range, grass-fed whatever to compete with Whole Foods. I appreciate it though. It’s nice to go to a rally in the middle of nowhere and not have to eat crap.
My dad arrives, who is most famously known by the team for flying to Rally Finland from Philadelphia, staying 3 hours and buying a shirt, then promptly flying home. It’s comforting to see some family during these times. I tell him I’m feeling quite good, but I don’t want the rest of the team to know until after we’re done, understandably.
We finally set off on the first proper stage, and given our road position near the front, we are sliding from side to side in this rear wheel drive monster on all the ball-bearing gravel. The time for the first 1.5 mile test is good, however, and we can start settling into our rhythm once again.
The following stage is the longest of the rally at over 15 miles, and unfortunately, less than 3 miles in, a watersplash rips only the bottom tabs of the front bumper while leaving the upper tabs intact.
This means the bumper flips inside out and covers nearly the entirety of the screen. We press on not being able to see shit, and as Chris pushes the car to over 100mph with his eyes closed essentially; the visibility is even worse as the wind resistance pushes the bumper up even more. We go as quickly as we can, then brake as hard as we can, in hopes that it will rip off the pesky remaining tabs but it doesn’t. We have to stop. Chris quickly rips the bumper away and climbs back in, but our competitor in two wheel drive, Troy Miller, has already squeaked past us before we get going again. Now we’re stuck in his dust and cannot get close enough to pass and lose over a minute and half.
As we head out in the second loop of the stage, now in a bumper-less BRZ, we again catch dust. We sit behind George Plsek, who’s sitting behind a struggling Lauchlin O’Sullivan. We try aggressively to get close, and may have barrelled into a few chicanes that appeared to magically arise from the dust.
Lauchlin sees George on the tarmac section of the stage, the only place where it’s possible to get close enough to pass with the heavy dust, but he doesn’t see us. While George gets past, we don’t, and we annoyingly sit in dust again to drop yet another minute. We managed to have the longest stage of the rally be our most disastrous, both passes.
photo courtesy of Lars Gange - rally.subaru.com
However, we still have half a day left during this leg of the rally, with its wide, open roads greatly favoring the Subaru BRZ versus the Ford Fiesta R2 currently leading. We consider taking over a minute and a half over the next 33 miles of stages to be “plausible” to retake the lead, so that’s what we set out to do. No time for being pansies now. Let’s see what this beast can do.
Ah yes – now we have a reason to be going at that on-the-limit international pace that unfortunately is often missed from US rallying in most situations. We realize the brakes, well, may not be quite enough for this car as we absolutely demolish yet another chicane, and I can’t help myself from literally laughing out loud over the sound of us crashing through it. Shortly after, we have a 4th gear spin, trying to brake from 120mph and not quite being able to get the car slowed down in time. I think Chris carried at least second gear the whole way through the spin – we couldn’t have dipped below 30mph the whole way spinning around – and much to the amazement of one enthusiastic worker who witnessed the whole thing. The Subaru chopper also followed us with some spectacular low-level flight for the remainder of the stage. We take 25 seconds back in 9 miles. That’ll do.
Then another 25 seconds back on the following stage, which is shorter, and another 27 seconds the stage after. Going into the last stage of the day, we’re confident that we’ll be back where we should be by the end of Day 2 – in the lead.
photo courtesy of Lars Gange - rally.subaru.com
Halfway through the last stage, however, the engine makes a few sputters that sound not quite right, and Chris backs off the pace. As we head past the watersplash, the car briefly comes to life again, then dies on the way up the last hill, just half a mile from the finish. Game Over.
That’s rallying, and for once, I refuse to say, “That’s life.”
Still, I’m very happy and very proud that I was able to get myself into a position mentally to do the rally, and that Chris and I were able to enjoy ourselves the whole ride while it lasted.
We eventually get retrieved, and Austin eventually changes the tire in his van after an hour and a half of confusion. We watch the sun go down on the Oregon countryside. It’s pretty. I’m glad I could see it.
photo courtesy of Lars Gange - rally.subaru.com
We meet up with my dad back in Hood River, who’s been holding down a table by himself for the past 3 hours, and have some tasty pizza and fancy craft beers not available on the other side of the Atlantic. I am tired from all that jet-lag and rallying and such, but 6-7 hours is still all I can manage with my perplexed body clock.
We have an absolutely beautiful Sunday to hang around and catch up with old rally friends, and even share a beer with a few locals, now that we’re out of the rally. However, I also realize how long I’ve been away. There’s so many people I don’t recognize, and there’s a lot of people that just assumed I left the sport like so much of the rally community does in the US. The cycle and turnover of rallyists throughout my 12 year career is troubling, and leaving for a while then coming back really makes it more obvious than before.
We head back to the house of John Hoyenga (the Nameless Performance owner who so kindly let us stay in his beautiful home) in Camas, Washington, I realize that, for the first time this week, it was night time, and I was actually sleepy. I went on to have, finally, a wonderful night of natural, uninterrupted sleep.
Of course, when I awoke, I grabbed my bags and headed to the airport for my second journey across 8 time zones this week. I never really liked you anyway Mr. Body Clock, always telling me when I should go to sleep and wake up. I know how to use an alarm clark, so I can take care of it myself, you know. Now just reverse 8 hours and don’t inconvenience me again while you do it!
Before I leave, the Nameless Performance owners, John and Jason, ask me about plans for Olympus and unfortunately, I need to give them the somber news about my recent leukemia diagnosis. I tell Chris and his wife Sarah and get a well-deserved hug and sympathy. All I can muster is a sigh.
I then say quite viciously, “well, at least I’m in the UK where prescriptions and care for oncology patients is free, so it won’t cost me like, a million dollars.”
Little did I know, what I believed to be hyperbole with a touch of sarcasm, is disturbingly more accurate than I initially believed. Read on to Part 3 if you’d like a few shocking statistics. I really am one lucky boy..