Rally Co-Driving Behind the Scenes, Part 4: Press on Regardless

For many teams a movement schedule is considered a critical element in rally preparation. Some teams swear by these and will create a packet even thicker than the rally supplimental regulations. They're especially useful for larger teams with many people doing many tasks and/or coming from multiple starting points. The only drawback to a movement schedule is that a single unforseen problem can render it useless. For the 100 Acre Wood Rally we might as well have set our movement schedule on fire.

Behind the Scenes, Part 1: Intro
Behind the Scenes, Part 2: The Bag
Behind The Scenes, Part 3: Advice for the Rally/Co-Driving Virgin

Those who read the previous installments know my driver Rory and I were excited for the roads of 100 Acre Wood. You also know the various team elements were coming from different points. Rory, team manager Alan, and the rally car were coming from Denver. Tracey, usually driving one of the team cars but this time trying her hand as service crew, was coming from New York City. I meanwhile was riding out from Massachusetts with Team O'Neil. We had coordinated so all three of us would arrive in Salem, Missouri on Wednesday evening. Tracey and I made it. Rory, Alan, and the car didn't. Why? Did Rory get lost without my expert navigation to guide him? Not quite. As it turns out Mother Nature is a cruel and heartless mistress.

Rally Co-Driving Behind the Scenes, Part 4: Press on Regardless

Halfway through Kansas the TAG Rally Sport rig found itself in the worst winter storm the state had experienced in decades. The governor declared a state of emergency and all roads were officially shut down, including the interstate. Rory and Alan were forced to find a hotel and wait it out. And wait. And wait. And wait. And put up with my constant texts asking if the roads were open yet. And wait.

Despite the storm and the trapped truck Tracey and I continued to prepare for the rally, because rally racers are stubborn and hate to consider defeat. I was supposed to go out on recce (reconnaissance) of the stages with Rory at 8 AM Thursday. With him stuck in Kansas I had to find a different team to ride with. Fortunately it's not unheard of for an orphan co-driver to be looking for a ride during recce and I managed to find a ride with Aaron Hargis and his promising rookie co-driver Alyssa Dattilio. As it turns out this was a benefit to me. On a typical recce with Jemba notes the driver and co-driver drive the course slowly, the co-driver reads the notes (provided to the competitors by the organizers prior to the start of recce), and the driver tells the co-driver any changes he wants in the notes. With Alyssa calling the notes in our car I was able to focus entirely on examining the stages for any potential gotchas or straights/corners I thought Rory would want called differently. I was also able to experiment with note creation, changing some of the corners, shortening long calls, adding new calls, and removing some of the small crests from the notes. Additionally, when Alyssa had to take the time to make a note change I was able to keep track of the road with my notes and tell her where we were once she was ready to resume notecalling.

...Buuut nothing in this rally was destined to be simple, and three stages into the recce (of seventeen stages total) the storm that had shut down Kansas began to hit Salem. By this point the snowstorm had changed primarily to freezing rain, the stages progressively went from fast and grippy to slippy to coated in over an inch of tiny ice marbles. Halfway through the recce the stages became so slippery many of the 2 wheel drive cars weren't able to climb the hill on one of the stages and had to turn back (fortunately we were in an AWD car). A few stages later the radio car that was leading our recce group ran out of gas mid-stage, leaving us to our own devices to make it to and through the remaining stages. Fortunately teams are given printed directions as a precaution for scenarios like this. At last, eleven hours after going out on recce we were finished. Unfortunately with the changing road conditions due to the weather there was now a level of uncertainty to the notes. Despite this I felt I had made my best-prepared notes to date.

When I returned to rally headquarters around 7 PM the roads in Kansas were still closed, as was rally scrutineering (pre-race vehicle inspection). Despite this we made plans for starting the rally on Friday. Tracey called the rally stewards, setting it up to have the car inspected during parc expose (the pre-race gathering/showing of all the cars at the rally's official start point), I tidied up my notes, and one state over Rory began shoveling out the tow rig. At 11 PM the highways in Kansas finally opened and the Alan and Rory show hit the road, ready to drive all night to make the start of the rally.

An hour later Rory texted me saying the highway was so slick they'd only managed 20 miles in the hour they'd been driving and the authorities were going to shut things down again. They pulled off the highway, found another hotel, and promplty got the truck and trailer stuck in the unplowed parking lot. Competing on Friday was now out of the question. It was either call it quits now, not having to go through with the further expense of towing the rest of the way out, or hope for improved weather, push on, and shoot for competing Saturday only (in regional competition each day is considered its own event). If anyone had any doubts about which course to take I didn't hear them voiced.

Rally Co-Driving Behind the Scenes, Part 4: Press on Regardless

Friday came and Tracey and I went out to the rally start. I strolled through parc expose checking what teams were running for tires, receiving sympathetic comments from racers who knew of our plight and inquiring questions from those who hadn't yet heard. One by one we watched the cars leave the expose, both of us frustrated and wishing we were in one of them. After expose it was over to service to ask every driver and co-driver we could find about stage conditions. Is it melting? Is it improving? Snow tires? Gravel tires? Predictions for tomorrow? Opinions of the stages varied, most calling them "consistently inconsistent" and "completely unpredictable." Everyone agreed the roads weren't ready for gravel tires yet, though some had hope for the second and third loops on Saturday.

At long last our car (and the two layabouts who had been bringing it) arrived in town around 7PM. We went through standard pre-race prep. I adjusted my belts, familiarized myself with the location of the emergency triangles, jack, fire extinguishers, first aid kit, spill kit, tool kit, and impact gun, and installed my Ram mount (see part 2). Rory and I spent an hour going through the notes with me describing the stages and stage conditions, explaining the points that I felt would require the most attention. Despite our experience and knowledge we weren't optimistic. The excellent roads (the whole reason we decided to run this rally) were covered in ice, we were in a new car that Rory hadn't yet had the chance to test, and Rory had zero experience running snow/ice rallies. But again, like all good rally competitors, we're stubborn (and perhaps a tad foolish), we were going to go for it.

Rally Co-Driving Behind the Scenes, Part 4: Press on Regardless

Saturday dawned and at "way-too-damn-early-o'clock" we were suited up, in the rally car, and on our way to parc expose. We were guided to our starting position-40th of 56 cars-and waited for the day's festivities. After an hour of chatting with the locals and fans, followed by the shortest driver's meeting ever ("Thanks everyone for not hitting any chicanes yesterday. That's all I've got, bye!") the rally began, the cars leaving expose one at a time, a minute apart. On our minute we left the start and transited to the first stage.

Once we started that first stage we knew we were in trouble. It was like driving on pure ice and despite having winter tires we had no confidence in the corners. Rory said he also had zero brake pedal feel, having no idea if the brakes were locking up or not. We tiptoed through the stage with an average speed barely over 40. The following stage brought additional woes as we learned that, thanks to a missing fender splash guard, every time we hit a water crossing at speed it was splashing water onto the air intake, causing a loss of power that would last a couple minutes. The car behind us managed to catch and pass us on stage and, upon completion of the stage we discovered we also had a flat tire. After clearing the time control we pulled over to change it, but even this went awry. The car's usual jack, which has a nut welded on the end so it can be used with the impact gun, had broken just before the rally and a standard hand crank jack had been thrown in at the last second. Unfortunately the jack had about as much interest in lifting the car as I have interest in feeding my right hand to a starving lion. It took minutes of aggressively taking turns at the jack, putting our full weight into it, and aggressively swearing to finally lift the car and change the tire. We clocked into the time control at the start of the next stage seven minutes late, incurring a 70 second time penalty.

Rally Co-Driving Behind the Scenes, Part 4: Press on Regardless

It was at this point that we decided to take on a new strategy. Forget stage times, forget trying to beat anyone, just have fun and take the rest as a learning experience, both in terms of learning the car and learning how to find and read the grip on snowy/icy roads. With our new outlook came new terms added to our vocabulary and more than a little silliness. Instead of ending the countdown at the start of stages with the usual "3-2-1-GO" I began saying things like "NACHOS" or "I like sushi." I also introduced the term "[more] cowbell" on long straights when I wanted Rory to keep it floored. The remaining two stages of the day's first loop still came with a few issues, with us sliding off into a snowbank on the third stage and the car mysteriously deciding to try and roll itself over on an embankment on the fourth stage, but we were finally starting to have fun.

After inspecting the car and binging on shamrock cookies during service we went out on the second loop of stages, which included one of the biggest reasons we were at this rally in the first place, the famed cattle guard jump on Camelback. We had already worked the notes in an attempt to maximize speed for the jump, with me calling it as "Flat Jump" (as in flat-out jump) instead of "Big Jump" as it was originally written, and "runway" added to the notes on the approach so Rory would know to try and maintain as much speed as he could. After working our way through stage five we finally found ourselves on Camelback and, after ten minutes of winding our way through the now muddy stage, on approach to the jump. I improvisationally added "floor it DON'T LIFT DON'T LIFT DON'T LIFT DON'T LIFT!" to the notes. We hit the jump doing more that 65 mph and sailed for what felt like a much longer distance than it appears to be in the videos. Jumps always seem to work that way.

Rally Co-Driving Behind the Scenes, Part 4: Press on Regardless

Returning to the service park for the final loop of stages we had a decision to make: gravel tires or snows? The stages in the second loop had been almost entirely wet gravel, with just a few snowy patches in the shady, evergreen-laden areas, and all three stages in the third loop would be variations of stages run earlier in the day. Each tire had a drawback, making the decision difficult. The snow tires are not only less grippy on gravel but are very prone to punctures, particularly ours, which were ordinary street snow tires. The gravel tires on the other hand can take more abuse than Nick Cage's acting career but are worse than touring tires when there's any snow or ice around. We deliberated for a few moments but with the sun down and temperatures falling we ultimately decided to stick with the snows. We added the light pod, had a few more cookies, and headed out for what would be Rory's introduction to night stages.

If you ever want to feel small and alone in the world, running a rally night stage is the perfect way to do it. The entire world becomes whatever the light touches, a world born anew every second. Everything beyond the light is the inside of Schrodinger's box, a pitch black void that simultaneously houses everything and nothing. A driver can only drive as fast as his lights can illuminate the road ahead of him, or if he's brave and experienced as fast as he can process the notes coming from his co-driver. In our case, with Rory running his first ever night stage, the new car, and uncertain conditions, we went with the first option.

Keeping the snow tires was, as it turned out, an excellent call. The standing water that had been on the road during the middle of the day had already frozen in the tracks, making much of the stages even slipperier than it had been in the morning. When I called "cowbell" on a straight and Rory put his foot down we got wheelspin from all four tires, despite already traveling at over 40, and having a simple N/A motor. Our final loop ended up being much like our opening loop, frustratingly slow, frustratingly cautious, and, thanks once again to the frustrating water splashes, culminating in a frustrating 38 mph average speed on the final stage. Despite this we passed the finish boards of the final stage elated. We'd faced the toughest rally conditions we'd encountered to date and survived, with nothing worse than a flat tire and a little cosmetic damage from our morning slide. We were painfully slow, finishing seventh in class when we're usually fighting for podiums, but we didn't care.

"Press on regardless" is a term commonly heard in rally (so common in fact there's a rally named for it) and is considered by many to be the unofficial motto of the sport. In essence it means in rally you don't give in regardless of the hardship. Whether you missed the first day of the event because of a snowstorm and are now driving an untested car in difficult, unfamilier conditions, you've rolled and are now using your rear windshield as a replacement for your shattered front windshield, you've snapped your throttle cable and had to replace it with the co-driver's shoelace, you tore the wheel off the car on stage and now have to try to drive your "rally tricycle" back to service, or your driver lost his license in a traffic violation and the co-driver has to drive the final stage. Press on regardless is the spirit of rally and it was this spirit pushing us all weekend. Ultimately it's hard to be truly unhappy at the end of a rally if you lived up to this spirit.

We'll see you next year, 100 Acre. Here's to hoping for dry conditions.

If you survived this long winded storytime installment of Co-Driving Behind the Scenes then congratulations and thank you. Part 5 will return to the technical side of things as I talk about recce, how I prepare my pace notes, and how to set up the pace note book and route book. You can follow Dusty Ventures on Twitter at @DVMSteve and TAG Rally Sport at@Tagrallysport1

Photo/video credits:
Photos 1 & 2 by Alan Gardiner
Photo 3 by Steven Harrell (Dusty Ventures)
Photos 4 & 5 by GotCone.com
Video (rally night stage) is of Chris Greenhouse

Special thanks to all you Jalops who came out to the rally and found me during parc expose! It was great talking with all of you!