Photo credit: Craig with a Camera

Rally fans love watching cars drift and fly down dirt roads at speeds well beyond any posted limits. When pushing that hard, mistakes and mechanical failures will inevitably happen. This can lead to a simple breakdown, or a spectacular crash like this.

First and foremost, as wild as this crash was, driver Jeff Berlin and co-driver Zachary Skipper walked away completely unharmed, thanks to the extensive safety equipment required for rally. The car, obviously, didn’t fare so well. So what happens after the video ends? My wife and I were part of the sweep team at the Empire State Performance Rally this past weekend where this crash took place, and we handled this incident personally. Here’s what happened next.

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Help Each Other Out

There were at least two videographers at the scene of the crash. It happened close to a spectator area. Naturally, as decent human beings, they ran to make sure the car’s occupants were all right. They were, and quickly set up the required warning triangles on the road to warn approaching competitors of their wreck. They also displayed the “OK” sign they are provided in the road book as a fast confirmation to other competitors that they were unharmed. (If there had been injuries, they would’ve shown a red cross instead. The stage would stop running, and the ambulance waiting at the starting line would respond.) If the car was safely off the road, such as a mechanical failure where they pulled over at a safe location, this is all that would happen. Other competitors behind them would know they were there, did not require assistance, and carefully speed on by. But the twice smashed car was blocking the road.

The cars that started behind them started to arrive on the scene about a minute later. Stage marshals and spectators up the road warned approaching cars that there was a problem ahead and to slow down so nobody added to the carnage. Since the road was completely blocked, they all helped push the wrecked car off the road so that they and other competitors could get through to the finish. The extra time this took got wiped out by the timing and scoring people afterward. Helping competitors in need is more important than the competition itself, and although rally is full of time penalties, they don’t get penalized for situations like this.

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Meanwhile, the amateur radio operator stationed at the spectator area reported the situation to net control. Aside from their fellow competitors, ham radio is their lifeline. This is how the ambulance would have been dispatched to the scene if it was needed. In this case, everyone listening to the radio learned what had happened, that the occupants were OK, and that we could finish running the stage, but the sweep team would have to move the crashed car afterward. That’s where we came in.

The Sweep Team

Despite being the weekend before Halloween, we weren’t flying broomsticks wearing pointy hats or chasing the Golden Snitch. We were a team of four off-road vehicles (we had a Toyota 4Runner for the occasion - full review coming soon) tasked with cleaning up the mess that sometimes remains after a stage. The sweep captain, Ron, took the lead with his Jeep Wrangler. This was the Checkered Flag car, indicating that the stage was complete. Two sweep trucks followed him. Sweep 1 was Bill and his modified Toyota Tacoma. Our stock 4Runner was Sweep 2. At the end of the line was Data Sweep, another Tacoma. His job was to pick up not cars, but timing data from the start and finish of each stage for scoring purposes. All of the event results and data you see on the NASA Rally Sport web site went through them to get there.

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About a minute after the final competitor started their run, we would begin to drive through the stage ourselves. Our pace was brisk, but rally officials restricted us to a top speed of 40mph. This was no fast run like we did in the Mustang at Black River Stages last year, or the Penalty Box Jeep Compass the year before. Ron, in the lead, would stop for each disabled car he found, then radio back to the rest of us that they were OK where they were, or dispatch one of us to drop out of formation to help move the car while he moved on to assess the rest of the stage.

We were waiting at the start of the stage, and heard the story of this incident unfold over the radio. The sweep team was using a separate radio frequency to talk amongst ourselves, and Ron hopped on the air to ask who wanted to handle it. As the last heavy sweep vehicle, it made sense for us to take it. This way, Checkered Flag and Sweep 1 could pass the wreck and handle anything farther down the stage, since we knew this was going to take a while to clean up. We also let Data Sweep go ahead of us so that he wouldn’t be delayed to the next stage while we handled the wreck.

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The gravel version of ESPR is known for its rough roads. This stage was particularly rough, certainly one of the most challenging of the rally. I was rarely able to reach our 40mph speed limit in those conditions, between staying in control and not damaging the 4Runner on the bumps. I slowed even more as I approached the wreck location, and there it was, on the side of the road but still partially blocking it. Ron had instructed us to pull it 50 feet up the road to a clearing, where we would leave it to be recovered by the team later. At that clearing, we would hook up Bruce Turk’s Saab 96, which had broken down there, and flat tow him to the end of the stage. We were going to be quite busy.

Not According To Plan

Almost immediately, the plan fell apart. We got out our tow rope and hooked up the wrecked Subaru. We used a receiver hitch tow hook we’d bought for our Ford Flex rather than risk damaging the 4Runner’s built-in tow hooks, since it wasn’t our truck. Rolling down the back window made communication between me and those outside the car quite easy - a feature most other SUVs don’t have. I switched to 4WD low range, pulled the slack out of the rope, and gently added power. The Subaru’s right rear and left front wheels were locked due to crash damage, so we were literally dragging it up the road. Only one of the front wheels was still connected to the steering wheel, so we didn’t have much directional control. But the main problem was that “up” part - a small hill between the crash site and the clearing where Ron told us to leave the car. At each attempt I’d start dragging the car, only for all four wheels to start spinning and digging themselves into the road. Bruce had walked down the hill to help us, and everyone tried pushing the car while I dragged it, but it didn’t do any good. We tried one quick yank-and-drag and got a tiny bit further, but it was clear that we needed a new plan before we broke something.

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We decided to try pulling the car backwards across the bridge it hit and leave it off the side of the road there instead. There was much more room there than where they had pushed it themselves, and we could get it completely off the road. The problem was that despite our efforts to hold them back, spectators trying to leave the stage had driven right up behind the Subaru, leaving us no room to work in the other direction. The line of stopped traffic extended around the corner and out of sight, making it impossible for us to get everyone to back up. Normally they’re not supposed to pass sweep, but in this case it was easier to let them by to clear the road than try to convince everyone to back up, especially when they’d ignored our previous commands to stay out of the way.

I turned around and drove backwards up the stage. It was now an open road, not a hot rally stage, so this was safe. We hooked up to the other end of the Subaru, and had an easier time dragging it the other direction as we’d hoped. Slowly but deliberately, we pulled and guided the car down and off the side of the road just as we’d planned - at least, on Plan B.

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This had all taken so much time that I was pretty sure there was no way we were going to catch up to the rest of our team before they entered the next stage. There was a service stop scheduled afterward, so I radioed Ron and asked permission to skip that stage, head straight back to service, and rejoin the team there. He agreed that this was a good idea.

The Clown Car

It turns out that Jeff and Zach had no service crew. They needed a ride back to the service area to fetch their truck and trailer to retrieve their broken car. We already had a lost bumper in the back that we’d picked up on a previous stage, so it was going to be a tight fit. Fortunately, it was a 4Runner, not a Tacoma, so we crammed people and gear and made it work.

Photo credit: Saab World

I turned around again, went back to the top of the hill, and we hooked up Bruce’s classic Saab. Since his issue was a mechanical failure rather than a crash, the car still rolled perfectly well, and was easy to flat tow compared to the broken Subaru. The rope unhooked once, but other than that we had no issues towing him to the end of the stage and leaving the car safely out of the way.

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Like Jeff, Bruce had no service crew. He wasn’t competing, but volunteering like us, so normally he’d have no need for a crew. He and his co-driver also needed a ride back to service. Our 4Runner normally seats a maximum of five, and we had part of the back seat folded down to make room for the bumper we’d picked up. So we stuffed them in the rear cargo area with the bumper. I shut the hatch and locked them in for their uncomfortable ride back to service. It’s a good thing we’d already planned to head straight there - we were already overloaded with parts and people!

Photo credit: Tim Fields

My wife/co-driver gave me directions on public roads back to the service area. I drove as smoothly and conservatively as I could for the benefit of our excessive number of passengers. We made it without incident.

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As we were looking for a place to drop off our passengers, I spotted Paddy Brennan’s Mitsubishi Evo in service with a missing rear bumper. The license plate, removed from the front and slapped on the back, matched the plate on the bumper we’d picked up earlier. I stopped there, and our unloading process was like the car at the circus that 20 clowns climb out of. Once the clowns people were out, I pulled out the bumper and gave it to the team. Though they were thrilled to get it back, it remained off the car through the rest of the weekend on their way to a national AWD championship win.

Paddy wouldn’t let us leave without shoving a few bucks in our hands, presumably for a round of beers on him. It was completely unnecessary - we volunteer to do this for free - but he was so insistent that it would’ve been rude to refuse. This is how much competitors appreciate the work we do. I suppose we did save him the cost of a replacement bumper and license plate!

The Rest Of The Story

We rejoined the rest of the sweep crew and continued through the rest of the rally. At the next service stop we saw Jeff’s wrecked Subaru parked on a trailer. I was quite relieved. They’d been worried about how they were going to load the car, since they had no winch or any way to do it with the car as immobile as it was. So I was glad to see that they managed.

Through the rest of the day, we moved a lost exhaust out of the road, picked up a missing headlight that we later returned to Gary DeMasi, and towed Ryan Symancek’s (you might know him from My Life as a Rallyist) broken BMW off the side of the road before competitors ran the stage a second time. That’s right, folks - Right Foot Down towed The Drive off a rally stage. We then put our right foot down to get out of the stage with the course opening cars for the next stage breathing down our necks.

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Day two of ESPR was much simpler for us. It was a shorter day, and our only recovery turned out to be pushing a competitor’s disabled car off the side of the road by hand, not even with the 4Runner. There was one difficult tow, but this time Sweep 1 handled it.

We passed them, and barely got to the following stage in time to run directly behind Ron without them. Just like what happened to us the previous day, Sweep 1's recovery took so long that they skipped the next stage and we caught up with them at the following one. Conveniently, was the same road they were already on.

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It rained for the afternoon stages. I knew this could go one of two ways. Either competitors would realize it would be extremely slippery and drive conservatively to survive to the finish, or they wouldn’t realize how slippery it was and crash. Fortunately, everyone took it easy, and we didn’t have to get out of the car at all in the rain. The puddles and mud were quite impressive, turning all of our trucks the same reddish-brown as the road no matter what color the paint was. It was quite slippery, and the tighter turns had deep ruts that steered the 4Runner for me regardless of what I did with the steering wheel. But the Toyota handled everything we threw at it with ease all weekend. Like I said earlier, keep your scanners peeled for a full review of it soon.

Volunteering at a rally, in any capacity, is the next best thing to competing yourself. We make it possible for the event to even happen in the first place, something the competitors very much appreciate. In the case of sweep, nobody actually wants to be in need of our services. But at the same time, they also appreciate that we’re there to help when the chips are down and they really need it. It’s not as glamorous a job as course opening - trust me, I’ve done that too - but in many ways I actually find sweep more fun. They’re all important jobs, but I like being able to help people out when the excrement impacts the rotational circulation device. I also know that if I ever get the opportunity to compete in a rally myself, someone else in a sweep vehicle will have my back.

Follow @justinhughes54