Ever since I was a kid I, like most of you, wanted to drive race cars. Two years ago in the Nevada desert I finally got to realize that dream, and it was far greater than anything I could have ever imagined. Battling the brutal terrain, chasing down and overtaking my opponents, getting to drive as hard and as fast as I dared for hours, it was amazing. But along the way to realizing this dream I discovered co-driving. And as it turns out co-driving has proven to be nearly as great.
Co-drivers rarely get the spotlight. They're not the ones behind the wheel, so their contributions tend to be somewhat marginalized by those outside the car. In fact from 2004-2010 the World Rally Championship stopped putting the co-drivers' names on the car. Ask any driver about the importance of co-drivers, however, and they will all tell you that not only is it impossible to win without one, but having a co-driver calling the notes is paramount to driving the roads safely. When you're barreling toward a blind crest at 80 miles an hour it's nice to know if the road on the other side goes straight or turns hard right to avoid plunging 50 feet into a river.
So what exactly is so great about being a co-driver? You're not going to become famous (how many co-drivers can you name without first thinking of the driver they're paired with?), it's a difficult job where making a single mistake can have dire consequences, and at the end of the day you're not the one behind the wheel. So what's the upside? For starters, the adrenaline rush of going balls out on the stages, the intense focus, and the drive (and pressure) to give everything you've got is there for the co-driver just as much as it is for the driver. But beyond that as a co-driver you'll go faster, you'll race more, you'll experience more, and it will make you a better rally driver.
Let's start with "you'll go faster." Now I'm not trying to marginalize your mad driving skills here, brah, but statistically speaking odds are you'll never be considered one of the 10 fastest drivers in the country. But as a co-driver you've got a decent chance of riding with one of the 10 fastest in the country. Typically over the course of a rally career a driver will have 3-6 co-drivers. Which means while there may only be 10 drivers in that "10 fastest" category, 30-60 co-drivers will get to ride with them.
Next, let's cover "you'll experience more." Most co-drivers jump from open seat to open seat, getting to try all kinds of makes, models, and drivetrain layout. In my three years of racing I've been in five different cars, with front, rear, and all wheel drive layouts. Alex Kihurani, who did a live session on Monday, has been in over 30 rally cars in a decade. Unless you're writing off cars every rally odds are you won't even drive 1/5th that number in a decade. Come to think of it, if you are writing off cars every rally odds are you still won't drive 1/5th that number in a decade, because odds are you won't still be driving in a decade.
Now for "you'll race more." This one is about money and therefore tends to be a bit of a sensitive subject to discuss, but it's one of the strongest points in favor of co-driving. Motorsport, as almost anyone will tell you, is very expensive. Entry fee alone for a rally often approaches $1,000. Between travel, lodging, fuel, food, and consumables you can expect most events to cost at least twice that much when all is said and done. When starting off as a co-driver it's considered proper to at least cover your own expenses, and maybe chip in on the entry fee (or at least cover the cost of the pace notes). Once you have some experience under your belt however, the team/driver typically covers most if not all of the co-driver's weekend expenses. Drivers want to go as fast as possible, and much like good tires or a good suspension a good co-driver is considered a solid investment to help get that speed. There are ALWAYS at least a few drivers looking for a co-driver with some experience to fill the seat at the next rally (once you've been around for a while drivers will actually call/email you asking if you're available). As a result of all this a co-driver with a season or two under their belt can go racing for little more than the cost of keeping their safety gear up to date, and possibly whatever travel costs are accrued getting from the co-driver's home to the team headquarters/meeting location. This reduced cost means you'll likely be able to attend far more events.
And lastly, "it will make you a better driver." In your time co-driving you'll learn the protocol, rules, and details of rallying (there's a lot), you'll get to talk to dozens of co-drivers and drivers, and from being in the car you'll learn how different cars behave, how to find the grip, how fast corners can be taken, and by observing the drivers you ride with how to (and how not to) properly drive a rally car quickly. So when you decide to make that switch from the right seat to the left seat you'll be far more knowledgeable and more experienced than most new rally drivers. And, as an added bonus, you won't need to worry about buying safety gear because you covered that base when you started co-driving.
So, if you're looking to get into motorsport, and especially if you're looking to get into rallying, grab yourself a starter firesuit, a decent priced helmet, check out the Safe Drives rent-to-own neck restraint program, and jump into that right seat. I'll see you out on the stages.