I love me some dirt racing. I love the way the road changes as competitors go through, I love the sideways nature that comes with racing on dirt, I love the need to read the road and figure out what line has the most grip, I even love the challenge of battling through the dust that often comes with dirt racing. That said, after running the Empire State Performance Rally in April, the only all-tarmac stage rally left in the United States, I gotta say the black stuff is pretty special as well, and holy hell is it ever fast.
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The weekend began with our first ever "open recce." At most events recce (which, as mentioned before, is short for reconnaissance) is done in parade form. There is a lead car, driven by an event official, and all the competitors parade behind him through the stages, going through them all once before returning to headquarters. A parade recce allows little more than the opportunity to get a feel for road conditions and some minor note modification. In an open recce teams can visit the stages at any time they wish (within the day's permitted recce window) in any order the team chooses, and the team can go through a stage however many times they feel is necessary to perfect their notes. While open recce is better for creating good notes, and is just plain more fun, it takes advanced planning and mapping to figure out your route and stage order, so the night before recce we sat down with experienced rally driver and swearing enthusiast (and our main class rival) Brian "Kermit" McNamara to create our route. After a half hour of pouring over area maps, conferring, and trying to comprehend Kermit through his thick Irish accent and habit of using the word "fooking" as a substitute for any and all punctuation, we had our recce planned.
Our recce began at 8 and for Rory and me it was the standard fare; remove the odd crest, make sure the notes don't mention the tree of death he absolutely most not hit on the exit of the R3, add "past camels" to the notes when we go past the camel farm (because camels), and so on. By early afternoon we were done with our notes and went back to rally headquarters for registration, tech, and shakedown. The day ended with a ceremonial start, a run down the town's main street with the simple instructions of "drive whatever speed you want and make as much noise as possible." Few words are more beautiful than this.
Friday evening's rain left us with a tough decision at the start of the rally Saturday morning. Most of the tarmac had dried overnight and in the dawn's wee hours, but there were still wet patches in shady and low-lying places. Our primary tarmac tires were incredible for feel and grip but, being little more than grooved slicks, they can get a bit sketchy on slick, wet, or loose surfaces. We did have some rain tires with us for the weekend, but they were small tires mounted on 15 inch rims and with softer sidewalls, providing less grip and stability and lowering the top speed of the car (and just plain ). With our weather frustrations from 100 Acre Wood still fresh in our minds we decided to play it safe and run the rain tires.
Sitting at the start line of the first stage we were feeling good about our tire decision. The tarmac surrounding us was still dark with moisture. But after just a few corners we knew we had a problem. We ran a shakedown on the dry tarmac tires the evening before (before the rains came) and had a good feel for the handling and feel of those, but we never tested on the rain tires. When we cornered on the rain tires we could feel the sidewall rolling and the entire car leaning, something the stronger dry tires didn't do. When Rory ran this race the year before he de-beaded a similar tire by cornering harder than the tire could handle. Feeling the rain tires roll over brought memories of the failed tire back, causing him to back off in the harder corners. Straights were problematic as well, as the smaller tires forced earlier shifting, fourth and fifth gear came about ten miles an hour sooner, and on the long straight on the second stage the car ran out of puff short of 100 mph. Rory was getting more comfortable cornering on the rain tires and was beginning to attack the corners, but stages two and three were disappointingly slow, and when we came into service at the end of the first loop we had lost over a minute to class leader Kermit (47 seconds to second place Kevin Allen), more than three seconds slower per mile.
We swapped to the tarmac tires and headed back out. Unfortunately the second loop was a short run of two stages totaling less than six miles, barely enough to warm the tires, let alone reacclimate to the feel of them. We lost another five seconds to Kermit on stage 4, but on stage 5 it started coming together and we only lost a second. We went from losing three seconds a mile to just one second a mile, and we were getting faster. We felt ready to mount a challenge.
To end the day we had two runs of the longest stage of the rally, the 17.8 mile Frog's Leap stage. Finally feeling comfortable with the car Rory was on the attack, ditch-hooking corners and hitting 107 on the straight alongside the highway, the fastest speed I'd ever experienced in a rally car (fun fact, rally stages in the U.S. are designed to keep the average speed of the fastest car below 80 mph). At the end we covered the near 18 miles in 15:10, averaging 71 mph and finishing on the back bumper of the Focus of J. Tyler Rohrer. With Kermit finishing the stage in 15:14 we also earned our first ever class stage win. On our second run through we were even faster, shaving two seconds off our time despite blowing a L2. Unfortunately Kermit was faster as well, blitzing the stage in 14:59.
At the finish of the final stage Rory revealed he had almost no brakes for the final mile. This was nothing new as we'd experienced brake loss due to overheating on longer stages in the previous car. When we returned to service at the end of the day we discovered the problem was more than just overheating. The rear brake pads were worn down to the metal plates and the plates themselves had begun to warp from the heat. We swapped the rear pads and left the car in parc ferme for the night. A check of the results showed we finished the day third in class, 1:14 behind day's winner Kermit and 1:10 behind second place Kevin Allen. It was a disappointing result, but we took solace in the fact that after losing 63 seconds to Kermit in the first three stages (19 miles) with the rain tires we only lost 11 seconds in the subsequent four stages (42 miles).
Day two dawned with a loop of three short stages, measuring a total of 8 miles. Right off the bat it was clear the battle for the day 2 crown would be a good one. Kevin Allen won the opening stage with a time of 2:01, but Kermit was close behind at 2:05 and we were hot on his heels at 2:07. The rest of the loop continued in the same fashion and when we returned to rally HQ for service we were just 9 seconds behind Kermit and 15 seconds behind class leader Kevin. With fourth place Simon Wright sitting 18 seconds behind us the two final stages (two more runs of Frog's Leap) would determine the podium.
...Or so we thought. We transited to the start of Frog's Leap for the penultimate run, but it became nothing more than a new location to hang around and chat with the other competitors. When the course open car went through the stage it encountered one of the residents washing his car in a dangerous location and steadfastly refusing to move. After a discussion with course marshals and law enforcement the rally stewards decided to cancel the stage and send us back to service while they went in to clear the course.
After what felt like an eternity we went back to Frog's Leap to run the final, deciding stage. For Rory and me the primary goal was to get below the 15 minute mark. The universe on the other hand seemed determined to keep us from reaching that mark. A little over four minutes into the stage we came around a L4 and found three dear standing in the road. Rory was forced to get hard on the brakes before the deer turned and ran back into the woods. Rory pushed hard to make up for lost time, carrying more speed through the corners and over the jumps, taking deeper cuts through the ditches. From my seat I could easily tell it was a faster run than the day prior. In the 14th mile though he carried too much speed into a R1, understeering off and putting the driver's side in a ditch. Rory drove out of it quickly, but it was a three second mistake and put our 15 minute goal in Jeopardy.
Upon crossing the line Rory was frustrated and pessimistic. Between the dear and the ditch he thought we'd lost too much time. I waited to receive the time card from the finish control. 14:57, we'd hit our goal. Kermit ran a 14:48 and Kevin an incredible 14:26, so we remained in third, but we'd set a goal and achieved it. It wasn't that still elusive win, but it still felt pretty damn good. It was an excellent way to end a brilliant and fast rally. Can't wait to do it again next year.
Speaking of brilliant rallies, I'm currently on the road headed for Wellsboro, Pennsylvania for the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally, part of the Rally America National Championship. I will be co-driving for Troy Miller, car #22, in his 1992 VW Golf GTI. This will be my first time riding with Troy and my first rally in a FWD car since May 2011, so it will be a fun change of pace. Rory is sitting this one out so I'm a free agent. STPR is one of my favorite events, with fast but very technical and very unforgiving roads. It challenges both car and driver/co-driver. If you can make it to this one you really need to get yourself to Wellsboro. Top Tip: there's a difficult off camber corner over a crest at the Lebo spectator area (referred to as the "Twelve Mile Spectator Point" in the spectator guide), it tends to induce a lot of sideways action and is a great place to watch.
Photo Credits: Lead: Pete Kuncis/On A Limb Rally Photography
Photo 2, 11: ThirstyFish.com
Photo 3, 8, 9: DaggerSLADE Media
Photo 4: Justin Hughes
Photo 5: Jake Peters
Photo 6: Black Box Rally Team
Photo 7: Steven Harrell
Photo 10: Andy Casson/HelloFish.net