Friday, January 10, 2014

I'm An Old Man

Yep that’s right. I’m 27 today, and rest assured, I didn’t predict that my 27th birthday would be spent wrapping up a client in Italy then flying back home to my little flat in central London on a Friday night. It all feels pretty standard yet sounds oh so glamorous when written on the interwebs. I am, however, happy to be going about my life in uniquely my own way at this point, and I always thought doing that would be cool. I’ll also credit years of rally co-driving to being able to stay calm and focused when you’d rather throw down the pace notes and just enjoy the view (or just as often, unstrap your belts and eject!).

The past 2.5 months have been busy though – with some epic Wales Rally GB spectating at possibly the best spectating spot I’ve ever found, a rally through Grizedale Forest, working back and forth between the UK and Italy, stopping back home in PA for Christmas, and doing a little snowboarding in the Swiss & Austrian Alps after the new year. Not bad for an old man, even if I’m still sore..

(the epic 25 second view from Dyfi at Wales Rally GB - first corner is where Kubica rolled the 2nd time)
The last week of November, Alex and I (also Alex ftw) decided to enter the Grizedale Stages Rally for some fun and a little extra seat time together before the more serious stuff in 2014. It’s a small 1 day event up in the Lakes District, making the most of the legendary Grizedale stages from the classic RAC Rally. Still, Matthew Wilson and Chris Patterson showed up to compete in a Ford Fiesta R5 for a bit of fun as well.

For both of us it had been a while since we had done an event with no recce – and the sheer terror of dealing with seemingly every other corner not being quite right when you’re used to committing 100% all the time, is just a tad..unsettling, and despite good stage times from the start, it took us until the penultimate stage to really get in the groove and feel comfortable. Coupled with Alex’s man-flu (always nice to see your driver with his head down hacking out a lung while flat in 5th gear) and dealing with blinding morning sun up until noon (with blinding evening sun from 2pm onward - thanks latitude), it wasn’t easy day of casual fun and testing. However, the last Grizedale stage, 16.4 miles of proper Lakes District forestry all combined into one treacherous, ditch-lined joy of a stage at least left us feeling good at the end of it. 7th Overall with Matt Wilson’s R5 being the winner, first in 2wd (against some proper non-historic Mk2 Escorts) by over a minute, and not a scratch on the car is more than one can ever hope for, but my god was that little event stressful. I can see why McRae put the car on its roof here, more than once if I recall.
(Neither of us remember this corner - just standard to be on the edge of the ditch/cliff in Grizedale)
(Onboard on the last stage at Grizedale)

Since last time I wrote, it’s already become very busy on this side of pond, but I like it. I feel as though I get a lot more out of the time and effort I spend working, whether it’s for rallying, my job, or merely my personal life. It’s a ton of new rallies, it’s working in new countries, it’s coming to grips with new people from new cultures.. it’s a new attitude, in general. I know I’m somewhat biased in thinking, the choices I made are best (or else why would I make them!?), but I truly believe that living and working in a new country with no definite end in sight yields tremendous personal the extent it almost frightens me to think of how close I came to NOT deciding to move, or that it’s not something most people seriously consider doing.

On that note, now that it’s the New Year, it’s time for me to put a little extra time into the budgeting for next year, start coming up with a solid ROI for doing more than *just* the British Rally Championship, and putting in a little extra time at work for some brownie points when my all too busy rally schedule becomes borderline unreasonable this Spring. It’s all off-season kind of stuff until April hits, but I’ll keep you all updated along the way!


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Well That Was Quick...

I promised my next post would have more ACTUAL rally content; however, I didn't expect it to involve me competing already!

Last weekend there was a WHOLE lotta rallying going on, including the last round of the Rally America Championship, the last round of the UK BTRDA gravel championship, the last round of the UK MSA Tarmac Championship, AND the last round of the British Rally Championship (BRC). My hope all along was to somehow secure a ride, or multiple adhoc rides, for the BRC for 2014 if possible. I didn't think I'd get the chance to compete at that level as soon as I got here.

As a bit of background, the BRC has been the national championship I've loved since I was a kid. I still have my old VHS tapes of the BRC from the late 90s when those awesome F2 cars dominated the 2wd-only championship with the likes of Martin Rowe, Jarmo Kytolehto, Alistair McRae, and Mark Higgins going flat out all the time in some screaming Renaults, VWs, and Vauxhalls. It really was the best, most cost-effective, stepping stone into the World Rally Championship which unfortunately gave way to domination by rich dudes with insanely expensive world rally cars in the 2000's along with some foot and mouth disease driven cancellations (remember that!?). However, now the BRC is back to a 2wd only championship, and while the cars aren't as cool as the old F2 cars, the championship is "affordable" (in competitive rally terms) and EXTREMELY competitive.

Earlier this year, I watched some onboard Martin Brady posted of himself co-driving for one of the young Irish aces, 18 year old Jon Armstrong. I was astounded by how hard he was able to push at such a young age, how aggressive he was driving, and how much he fought to keep the car as straight and flat-out as possible. I thought, "he must be murdering everyone else in the R2 category by a mile" but then I check the times and he was like, 2nd or 3rd..and the difference to first is like, 2 seconds, and the difference to 5th is just another 2 seconds, and everyone else setting those times is only a year or two older as well. That's awesome! I thought, I HAVE to be doing that as my standard national championship rally. I want to run a stage absolutely flat-out and nearly to perfection, and then still get beat. That's how you get better, and that's really my only specific end goal of my rallying, to get better. As Chris Duplessis' program for the year fell through and Joseph Burke's program for the year started retracting as well, I realized if I was going to get better, I had to come here, and this was definitely the championship for me to do it in..if I could just find my way into the championship and into the country...

Fast forward 5 months later and oddly enough, as soon as I arrive, Jamie Edwards, one of the top British co-drivers I had connected with 5 years ago last time I was here, already sent me a message, asking if I was available for Rallye Sunseeker, the last round of the BRC. To give you a sense of how small the rally world really is, we had connected 5 years ago since he's also good friends with US co-driver Ben Bradley, who has known me since my pre-teen days and also hosted my rally videos. Anyway, I get the offer, find out it's with last round's BRC Pirelli Star Driver Alex Parpottas, and realize two weeks in I've just been handed the ride I came over here looking for. I was expecting a struggle; I was expecting to go down to Rallye Sunseeker and network my ass off rather than compete; I was expecting to be sending out messages to everyone and their grandma looking for the right ride; and then slowly maybe I'd be able to build up to where I wanted to be; but instead, it took no effort whatsoever. If anything, I was being treated as if I was doing him a favor! It's like, sometimes, you bust your ass and get nowhere, and other times, you don't do shit and opportunity falls in your lap. I'm certainly appreciative of any bout of luck I get, since I've been in this sport long enough to understand the constant struggle, and getting a break here and there REALLY helps.

I do my best research/internet stalking to get a feel for his driving style and the way he's used to hearing pace notes. I realize he's on the British 1-6 (6 fastest) system, which seems closer to the Jemba system we use here in the US than it really is. Yes, a 6 in both systems is the same flat-out bend, but a 1 is very different. A '1' in the British 1-6 system is slightly faster than a 90 degree corner, whereas in our system, a '1' would be an acute hairpin. Obviously, when you start getting to 3's and 4's, you end up with corner gradings that are similar yet definitely not the same. It takes some mental discipline to not visualize the road ahead or time your calls like you would in the US, and instead, really make the effort to reprogram yourself to think of it as an entirely seperate system. I order the Patterson notes and DVD and give the whole thing a read through twice to switch my brain around, and it seems to work. It's much easier to switch back and forth these days after having done it 5 years ago at least.

We get to the event and get on quite well from the start. Alex has a couple Chris-like elements that actually make co-driving a bit easier at times (i.e. as we're driving along the road after leaving registration..Me: "Do you know where you're going or are you just driving?" Alex: "Nah I'm just drivin mate!") It's a bit of an element of, "I'm just gonna go and not think about it until you tell me what to do." Which is good. If you're going to go fast down a stage, you shouldn't be thinking about anything other than what your co-driver tells you to think about. Rally driving is really hard, REALLY REALLY hard, and takes every ounce of concentration and ability you got, so you need to be able to utilize the guy next to you as much as you possibly can or else it's really hard to be fast. Having said that, going through the recce DVD and the recce itself, there was an intellect I was impressed by as far as analyzing the roads, remembering them, and really trying to figure out the fastest line through it all. During recce, his notes were good. They had a lot more detail than previous incars and conversations with previous co-drivers led me to believe. They were quite technical and detailed while still being within the realm of what he could comprehend on stage. My input was limited to helping him find the right terminology for certain nuances and getting him to think more about really critical pieces of road with no hand-holding required.

After a very nice welcoming reception along Poole Quay complete with palm trees in a English autumn, hundreds of fans, autograph signings, and official Spearmint Rhino girls (ROFL), it was an early-ish start Saturday morning after an evening of rain. I certainly had a bit of nerves going into my first British rally in a long time, and no odometer/rally computer (story of my life) meant I was a tad nervous on the first transit, inevitably leading to me second guess myself while we drove around in circles in one roundabout. Granted, I sorted everything out after then!

As what generally happens whenever I'm nervous going into a rally, as soon as I count down 5,4, 3, 2, 1, GO and we're away on stage, it all just melts away; and I'm happy reading my pace notes, blasting down some awesome roads particularly in a car that screams beauifully like the Fiesta R2. Reading pace notes always seems to reassure me that I still, in fact, know what I'm doing, and that my competency goes beyond the realm of GMT -8 to GMT -5. With no shakedown or practice, we're third fastest on the first stage, and we settle into a rhythmn right away. We continue to consistently place third while struggling with a bit of an oversteering car which was caused by a very bent rear beam. We change the beam, win the next stage, and start reeling in BRC Rally 2 championship winner and Pirelli Star Drive shoot-out winner, Daniel McKenna. Going into the last stage after a drama free rally, we're 3 seconds behind him and will catch him if we maintain our pace, but a VERY rutted road after some AWD cars passed through for the national event means we hit a huge rut over heavy braking, bounce past our braking point, and go off into the grass stopping just before a log. Restarting takes forever, getting into reverse takes even longer, and then we're back on our way with 2nd place long gone. Still, we reach the finish by the stately home in Somerly Park in a comfortable 3rd place, giving Alex 3rd place in the championship behind McKenna and event winner (and 2nd in the championship) Steve Rokland, both drivers of whom have some years on Alex as well as years of rally experience. Not bad eh?! The rally honestly was as straight-forward as the above paragraph.

We head back to the Quay for the ceremonial finish, and I'm quite elated to spray some champagne in front of a nice crowd my first time out in the UK. It's quite the relief to already be here, doing what I set out to do, just a couple weeks after arriving. Of course, it's also a huge confidence boost to be accepted so quickly into British rallying after appearing out of nowhere really. Being an American and being a co-driver have been pretty mutually exclusive in international rallying with the exception of a few dual citizens/multiple passport holders (some of which have been quite famous!). Coming over here on my own, I'm definitely trying something different, which is a bit nerve-racking since, you would have thought someone else would have at least *tried* it by now or that there must be some reason no one has tried it. However, for me the fear of never giving it a go has always far outweighed the fear of never getting it to work. Fortunately, I've been pleasantly surprised that just a few weeks in, I've gotten it to work a bit already, and going through a tough move to leave everything from home behind has yielded some unexpected instant gratification.

Of course the rest of the gratificiation I'm sure won't be so instant!

For now - enjoy a little bit of Alex & myself (aka Alex) blasting through some English forests before my GoPro dies. We did this stage on a bent beam and were quicker later in the day..but we're still setting top times here!

And of course, shout out to Jillian, Mel, and Laura for having an Easier Said Than Done viewing partyafter I left. It's nice to know I got to leave the US in indie-film semi-stardom ;)

Until next time...


Sunday, October 6, 2013


Ah yes - good to be back! Where did I leave off? Oh right..

"I was born dreaming that one day, I would get to rally, and now every time I strap into the car, I live that dream, and I won't stop pushing until the day I've fulfilled every ounce of my potential." - December 2008

So long story short - 5 years later and I'm back here, still trying to chase that dream - albeit a little older, much much wiser, more experienced rally wise (but not as exceptionally well experienced as my peer group here back when I was 21), and with a few extra responsibilities. Regardless, it's good to be back, and I'm proud that I was able to figure out a way back that allowed me to stay for as long as I need.

Moving in here has been - well a bit of a reality check although I don't mean that pejoratively.  Over the past few months, I never really comprehended what I was doing, since it has been hectic as fucking hell, trying to wrap up a project with a deadline conveniently on my last day of work, taking care of all the little details of going about the move, some of which seemed like they wouldn't be that hard (i.e. selling the car, finding a flat), but ended up costing me countless weeks of frustration; not to mention the awesome time consumers like Easier Said Than Done movie premieres, visiting friends and family, partying one last time with friends, and moving all my stuff (ok the last part probably isn't that fun). I've been here and finally 5 days later I'm finally starting to comprehend where I am. It's odd waking up and everything that once seemed so far away is now so close. I mean that literally, as in physical distance. I walk out of my house and it's friggin the Tower of London! but I guess there's some truth to it figuratively as well ;-)

You know - when you tell everyone back home you're moving here, they're like "OMG THATS AWESOME!! ITS GOING TO BE AMAZING!!" and when you get here, people are like "WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT!?" The grass is always greener on the other side I guess, but what's difficult is, for first time in a long time you're confronted with being critical about your decision, and it's coming from people who know more than you about where you live (although maybe not so much about where you're from). It's almost a negative conversation to justify it (almost like, "it really is that bad!"). However, I had an awesome time in Philly and a great time in America. I had so many of the most greatest friends anyone could ask for, and I never had the time to dedicate enough time as I wanted to any of them. I went to work everyday with some of my best friends. I went home to my neighbors that were some of my best friends, my landlords that were some of my best friends, my boss that was one of my best friends, all the drivers I raced with over the past 2 years were my best friends, then I'd come into service and have the car taken care of by my best friends, I was filmed extensively and subsequently shamelessly promoted by one of my best friends, and watched the best rally film ever with my best friends. While I certainly have it good here - it's tough when you realize, you left all of that. I rarely had to do anything with people I didn't love, and now I start all over again.

Honestly, sometimes I do wonder why I keep putting myself through constant distress and discomfort just as soon as my life gets comfortable, but it's because I love this sport. As many others have said - this sport is my life, and it's created a methodology of going about life that has pushed me to see so much more of the world and people. Throwing yourself into a knowingly terrifying situation, when mixed with passion and determination to not only succeed but to fully experience both the highs and the lows, always yields results, always yields experiences, always yields growth. Everyone has problems. In fact, I probably have more problems now than I ever had at any other time during my life. But they're GOOD problems - and that's what I've finally come to realize. If you do better you won't eliminate problems, you'll just add more good problems! Moving to London to give myself a better shot of becoming a better and more successful co-driver all while trying to work a fairly serious weekday career and maintain the relationships I care about? Those are some good problems, but it's all Easier Said Than Done - for real.

I'm going to be so friggin busy, and writing blogs takes A LOT of time when you're not a natural writer I suppose. If only I was better at this, I could write something meaningful from the top of my head and post it here instantly, but to say anything meaningful, it takes me a LOT of work and re-work. Still, my goal is the same as Petter Solberg's as said quite simply in his last line of Easier Said Than Done, "I do this sport with a lot of passion, with a lot of love. I try to share everything with everybody, so you can see what we're doing yeah?"

I'll try to do the same for all of you and hopefully it's a good read.

Also hopefully more ACTUAL rally content soon!


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

My apologies for long time, no update. I've been extremely busy the past month and wanted to post a picture thread of my adventures, but I seemed to not find the time to even do that!

My last rally was on the 1st of November at the Cambrian Rally in North Wales. This rally used the stages north of the Dyfi forest and included classic old RAC Rally stages such as Penmachno and Clacaenog. I was entered with Andy Williams in a more or less old school GC8 Impreza, so no active diffs and nothing too fancy as far as suspension is concerned, but surely, some sideways fun. We were entered in the B13 class, basically the equivalent of our Open class with 34mm restrictors and no requirement for homologated parts.

Andy is a bit more of a casual clubman rallyist, still very competitive, but he's out there for fun and doesn't worry himself too much with the details. As such, I ordered the notes and the recce DVD and had them shipped to my school address. He uses the 1-9 note system, so for the 3rd time in as many rallies, I have a completely new notes system to learn. The corner grading is done by the approximate angle of the turn, so a R9 is a 90 degree right, and L4 is a 40 degree left, etc. As I finished my homework during the week, I could go through the DVD twice at slow speed to make any fixes and properly note the tricky sections, and then once at double speed to get a feel for how the stages flowed. Before I even arrived at the event, I had the notes fixed and fully marked up/highlighted and knew the roads well. Quite a relief!

I took the train to the host town of Llandudno on the north coast of Wales, and it was surprisingly pretty. All the nice hotels are built along the beach line and surrounding cliffs, and the town itself was quite large and lively. Andy picked me up and we went through signing on and scrutineering no problem. (I'm finally getting a hang of the procedures over here) Then he dropped me off at my hotel which was 29 pounds for the night and provided an absolutely spectacular view of the town as well as a location just walking distance from the start line...not too shabby.

After getting dropped off, I realized it was only 6:30pm and I had all my co-driver homework done, so I decided I'd finally take the opportunity to network with the rally community over here a little bit. In the UK, all rallies are within a few hours drive (going from the south coast in Brighton to the north of Scotland in Inverness is only 700 miles!), so most everyone just heads home after the event. Also, there's so many competitors, many times it's hard to really make connections or find people. I headed back over to registration, and came across some people I knew including Patrick Walsh, who accompanied Andrew Pinker to victory at the Oregon Trail Rally in 2007. He was entered with Steve Simpson in a Hyundai Accent WRC. I tagged along with them to dinner, and then, as common in UK rallying, we went out in the town to a pub for a drink before going to bed, or at least that's what I thought.

Since the rally was on November 1st, the night before the rally was Halloween night, so of course all the pubs were having big Halloween parties. Good entertainment. As we arrived with the crew, they were all quite nice and bought me a pint, and then bought me another pint, and another...and well...I looked at my watch and realized it was past midnight and I needed to wake up at 7:30 in the morning...and I wasn't sober. Neither were any of they, or all the other competitors racing the next day whom I was around. I politely excused myself to bed while everyone else continued drinking. At that time I realized how much more of a drinking culture the UK really is, and why my last two rounds the team sort of looked at me funny for just having a drink or two before heading off to bed. Crazy! Sure, it was a good time, but it's certainly not what I'm used to in the US and probably not the best performance enhancement for the following day of rallying!

I woke up the following morning and felt alright. I remembered to drink lots of water of course. We headed down to the start line for the start along the course, then headed out for the 35 mile transit to Clacaenog forest. Again, I didn't have a rally computer, these transits were a lot more complicated and I was not at all familiar with them. Fortunately, by this time I was a lot more familiar with the road system, my Welsh pronunciations were becoming at least barely passable, and the transits had good signage for all the tricky portions.

We strap in for the first stage, and I seem to have found my little “place” for 100% focus last rally and was able to replicate it. The lights go down, and I begin the countdown. We launch, and it feels relatively strong and good. We hit the first bump on the straightaway and I realize that I've been quite spoiled with all the Ohlins, Reigers, and SRTUSA rally suspension I've been spoiled with. We start hitting the bends and the cornering speeds are slower without the active diff bits, but still quite fun. The roads here are even twistier than the Mid-Wales roads and we're quite spectacular and sideways through the many hairpins and junctions. His car control and experience were evident. He likes to jokingly cite his 1990 performance at the Cambrian when he finished just behind Richard Burns and Colin McRae at the same age as them! However, he doesn't commit to the fast stuff or anything he can't see. He has no need to for his objectives, but I enjoy the flattery of absolute commitment to every one of my calls. We finish the first two stages smoothly, and we're in 25th place out of 110 starters, not bad for the old car and we're keeping pace and beating most of the new machinery.

After service we head to Penmachno. It hasn't been used in years in the RAC Rally since it's become so cut up. The stage is absolutely legendary and one of the toughest stages in the world, surely. We pushed hard as we slammed the car through all the rough ruts and quick corners over sharp crests as we passed broken and crashed cars left and right. Parts of the stage I simply don't remember because I was just reading as quickly as I could. Not even Rim of the World gets this busy. We feel good about our performance, but we're actually a bit slow. Guess a good suspension would help us over all those nasty bits! Our closest rival, Keith Parry, figured out the issues with his car from the first Leg and just squeaked ahead of us into third in the B13 class.

Generally, we're having quite a smooth day, and we're looking to take back third on the last two stages if we can muster it. After a long transit from service, we arrive to a delay on Clacaenog and even start feeling sleepy! I try to get Andy hyped up from his yawning state, and appropriately, his experience tells him to push right away to get refocused. We take to the stage quite hard and get on winning pace. We power on through the junctions sideways and lined with spectators as all the flashes going off give me a nostalgic moment of watching the old rally video, Rally Experience, chronicling incar videos from British Rallying in the late 80's. However, a little over-exuberance into a square right means we swap ends and stall. A quick reverse and we're on away again, but the 5-10 seconds lost add to the deficit.

We take to the last stage seeing if it's still possible to take 3rd place. It's 4:30pm and the near-Winter sun is extremely low on this end to a sunny day at our high latitude in Wales. I can't see anything as we go through water splashes that further increasse the glare and Andy drives with one hand as a visor ala Vatanen in the Climb Dance documentary. However, halfway through the stage, Andy loses third gear and we're forced to cruise out of the stage with the chances of our last push dashed. We lose third by less than 20 seconds, but we finished the rally this time, and finished well in 21st out of 110 even with our last leg dramas.

I feel quite good about the event. It wasn't a spectacular finish, but a good, solid finish to say the least and generally a pretty pleasant day in the “office.” After the rally, I got the chance to meet some more of the British rallyists I had contacted before I came over as well as have a few drinks with my driver from Bulldog, Tom Naughton. He came up and was extremely apologetic, and I didn't understand why. He said in the Mitsubishi Challenge press release for the Bulldog, they reporters strongly misinterpreted him and more or less made up their own story for our off. He told me the press release said he was having trouble understanding my American accent all day, when actually he told them he had thought it might be an issue but everything came through loud and clear. I certainly didn't make too big of an issue of it because he also told me from the first time I sat with him that he could understand me clearly. I've never had a problem with my accent with any of my drivers here in the UK.

When I got home, I finally read the press release, and it stated, “Also retiring in the same stage was Tom Naughton who admitted he was struggling to understand the pace notes, his American co-driver’s accent proving to strong on occasions. He too left the road and was unable to continue ” So I was quite upset once I realized the press release was everywhere and even came up by the 2nd page of Google results when I looked myself up. It kinda made the ride that was supposed to launch me forward in the UK taint my name, even though I had probably my best performance and focus in the car. I had a wonderful opportunity handed to me, seized it, performed, and then moved backward. Something tells me that's not fair. Not to mention, the only piece of press about American co-drivers getting outside their safety shell of American rallying more or less paints them as undesirable, so it even undermines those who come after me even when I did well. I know it's simply one press release, but still, it's my only mention here, it was my biggest ride, and it blamed myself as well as my nationality for the off. It's just frustrating.

After my time here, I'd say now I'm much more “psychologically flexible” to make up terms. It's no problem for me to switch to a different road system on transits, to abide by an entirely different rules system on short notice, to switch to a new notes system and preparer overnight, or to co-drive on the “wrong side” of the car. Any demands made from me, in any country, I feel quite confident in being able to perform my duties, and perform them well. While I may have prematurely gotten the shaft a bit while over here, I can still go home. I don't really need to clean my name or fret about it; I have a reputation in the US; I went abroad and got good, international rally experience; and now I get to come home one step up on the rest. I left last year as a co-driver in the “myriad” of mid-pack US rallying, and leave this year near the top.

I certainly have my fair share of issues to work towards in 2009. I need to make sure Dave and I have a good deal and a deal together for next year, and I need to make sure I find a way to keep pushing my rally career forward as I start full-time work in August. However, I've had an amazing year, including working with the two best teams in the US, meeting and helping one of my childhood celebrity heroes, Dave Mirra, learn how to rally and become fast, winning an X Games medal, and going abroad to rally on far off lands on stages I've only dreamed I could ever run. I've certainly enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame and finally feeling I've achieved some success/recognition in my rally career; however, this isn't the end of me. I have every intention of continuing to move forward, and I don't want this to be my best year. I'm not reaching my peak at 21 years of age. I have the skills, I have the experience, I have the focus. Now I just need to continue to take advantage of any opportunity that comes my way. I was born dreaming that one day, I would get to rally, and now every time I strap into the car, I live that dream, and I won't stop pushing until the day I've fulfilled every ounce of my potential.

...and on that roundabout note, I'm out! I'll try to provide an update from Wales Rally GB this weekend (only spectating tho!)


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Bulldog Rally

Not seeing the end of a rally is one of the worst feelings in the world to me. As far as I'm concerned, getting to the finish is success in and of itself (guess I'm old school) and your position at the end of the day is just bonus. However, despite not getting to the end of this past weekend's Bulldog Rally, I came away feeling quite fulfilled and generally, just feeling really good.

Tom picked me up Friday midday and we sped down to the host town of Oswestry a whole 70 miles away from Manchester (I could get used to this...). There, we met our team, Pro-Tec, who had the car cleaned, tech'd, and ready ago before we even arrived. Class job. They even had my name on the side of the car complete with American flag and all 26 stars representing each state of the union ;). Pennsylvania is one of the original 13, so I guess it all works out.

The usual signing on procedure went relatively smoothly, and I started feeling more comfortable, confident, and in control rallying in this country. We headed back to the hotel rather early and began going through the recce DVD again. In the Patterson Notes, I realized finally that they don't include any notations for short corners, which was a big reason why my timing felt OK at the Plains Rally, but not absolutely perfect. You assume the corner will be of a normal duration and hold the next call, then suddenly you're right on top of the next corner; therefore, the following time you don't hold the call, so your a bit too far ahead and lack rhythmn. Tom let me add in any "short" I wanted to, and we discussed each one briefly. It really helped a ton and made the notes much more accurate in my opinion.

We grabbed dinner, then I went back to my room and marked up all the notes for raceday and ran through the recce DVD once more on double speed with my laptop, as suggested by Mark Higgins. Now, the recce is being done around 60mph, race speed, rather than 30mph. It was truely a magnificant tip. I could go through all my notes, get my timing down, and figure out precisely where I needed to speed up or what sections I should possibly write differently so that every call was clear. I got to bed a bit late, but I never felt so prepared for the following day of rallying. Tom's 1 to 6 system, 1 being fastest, 6 being slowest, now feels natural to me now and I feel quite confident my brain is completely wrapped around a corner grading the exact opposite to the one in the US.

Rally morning comes and surprise, surprise, driver starts making us run late and won't get out of bed in time! Typical...I feel confident and prepared, but I am quite anxious, and that horrible feeling you get as a co-driver when you're running a bit late doesn't help. This really is my big opportunity here and an absolute gift. If I expect to be a reputable co-driver at the top end of UK rallying before I go back home, I need to be flawless today.

None the less, we arrive at the start line to the car warming up. I briefly chat to David Bogie and Kevin Rae, and Bogie's mom points out I look a bit anxious the way I keep pacing around! I run to get my time card and quickly say hi to Patrick Walsh and then Martin Brady, who gives me a few tips as for places to watch out for. Apparently, the little American flag on the car creates quite a stir, so the Motorsport News and TV people are quite interested in us as we move up to the start line. We start at 8:20am, between 2 world rally cars, out of a field of 150+ cars. They'll be starting rally cars until 11:00am

The rally car doesn't have an odo, which makes me slightly uncomfortable because I'm not too familiar with the UK road system yet and many roads are unmarked. I try my best to keep 110% absolute focus on every part of the rally, even the transits, so I write down approx. arrival times to each routebook instruction as we pass. We get through the initial 30 mile transit, no turn arounds, no confusion, we're ready to go.

As we pull up to the start line, I start to feel relaxed, focused, and back at home. My seat is low and far back, I'm confident in the notes, my start line procedure, including turning on the camera, is just the same as in my Vermont SportsCar rally car with Dave. I get the timecard, double check the start minute, warn him of 30 seconds, begin recording, warn him of 15 seconds, switch the stopwatch mode, remind him of first two corners, 10 seconds and the lights go on, count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO! and this time around the launch feels quite good. With two hard corners right away, we're right into the stage. The surface is quite greasy and it feels a little timid for the first mile or so, but we get on with the pace. I feel focused and every call is more or less how I want it. We have one little moment and tap a bank in a hard right hander that was a bit slippy, but we're doing just fine. The roads are twisty and technical, and almost a bit maze like as we take hairpins and square corners at junctions what seems like several times a mile. Tom, however, comprehends every note and gets the car cleanly through the stage. We finish the technical challenge of Dyfnant in 9:42 on a 9 mile stage. Not bad. We're 12th OA from 150 starters and 8 positions up from our seeding, and even 2 seconds quicker than Mitsubishi Challenge champion and teammate David Bogie.

We find our chase car at the end of the stage for our emergency service. Everything is going well. Tom is happy with the notes and all he asks is that I speak a bit more loudly (guess I'm *too* calm) and we carry on with our day. Stage 2 is Dyfi in a 13 mile configuration. Much of the transit mimmicks that of the Plains, so I know where to go to get to the stage, odo or not. We take a good, clean run through the stage, but know we're losing some time due to our tire situation and the greasy mud on the road surface. We finish a stage a bit further back in 16th, but we're still up from our seeding order, still beating the WRC car ahead of us, and still very much in touch for a top 10 finish.

Service is back in Dolgellau (pronounced Doll-geth-y), same as the Plains, and it's still the only Welsh town name I don't absolutely butcher. I speak to the Motorsport News guys some more who seem quite interested, Tom is saying good things about me, and we go into service quite happy. David Bogie's mom points out my big "cheesy" smile after the first two stages as compared to my anxiousness of the morning. Hah!

We go out to Stage 3, Big Ray, usually known as Gatheiniog, and it's configured into nearly 17 miles of greatness. There's a few tricky sections during the stage, including the spot where Tom's replacement navigator last year got one note behind and called an easy right on a deceptive hard right tightens with a big drop on the outside. It absolutely destroyed Tom's EVO last year.

We pull up to the start line and are stopped as 2nd place Cronin just rolled 2/3rds of the way through the stage and was somewhat blocking the road, so they're just stopping the stage for a few minutes to get the car completely cleared. No problem. At least we won't be slowed.

We start off on the stage, and now the road surface is just lovely. Slightly damp, very grippy, very consistent, and Tom starts to push a bit harder as we really begin to enjoy ourselves. We approach the hard right he went off on last year, I call it correctly, and he quite bravely commits to the call and we power through perfectly just on the edge of the cliff to many camera flashes coming out of the forest. Brilliant. We continue down the stage and get into a great rhythmn. We approach a some hard corners at the end of straights with deceptive drop offs where Martin Brady had given me some good tips to slow him down. I slow him down for the corners, and we nail each one. We continue down the following straightaway to a hard right. Tom gets on the brakes a bit late, but it seems ok. Then, the brakes lock as he can't seem to get the car over to the inside of the turn and we slide straight off into a ditch and head on into the bank rather hard. Spectators run down from seemingly knowhere and push the car out, but the front left suspension is pushed back and the car is billowing with smoke from puncturing the radiatior. We limp the car to the intersection at the following turn, but it's Game Over on a seemingly innocent turn.

I get out of the car, and as my American rally up-bringing has taught me, I grab a safety triangle and set it up before the right hander to warn the following cars. However, since the car is completely clear, I'm instructed by the marshalls to put away the triangle. In the UK, you only need to set up a triangle if the car isn't cleared or there's a possibility someone could run into it, more or less. I then start to appreciate our triangle rules as I see Cronin's 2nd place rolled EVO pushed back behind the banner tape. This was the corner he also ended his rally at. Then a Fiesta comes down the road, slides into the ditch, but gets pushed out and keeps going. Next, a BMW comes down the road, hits the ditch and the bank, and wrecks the front suspension and he gets pushed back in front of Cronin's car. 3 cars all ended their rally on the same corner, and 3 or 4 went off there but kept going (including the car in front of us). I think our triangle rules definitely would have prevented our rally ending accident as well as the car behind us.

Cronin's rolled EVO

The BMW sliding off into our ditchAt least Tom is not too bummed, and neither am I. I got to do most of the rally and we were really enjoying ourselves. From my perspective, my performance was precisely how I wanted it to be and precisely how it needed to be, flawless. I was really proud of my focus and calm, and was really pleased I managed to truley enjoy every stage even with the pressure.

We waited as 100+ cars made their way by before our crew could come retrieve us. The spectating was quite good actually as we were at a crossroads (so we could see the same car twice on the stage) *and* an infamous corner for cars going off as well as at the highest point of Dyfi forest. Not bad.

The crew got us back to the host down, and I went and said goodbye to the team. The managers at Pro-Tec openly discussed that they were impressed with me and would like to have me back to run an event with them before I head back to the States.

So, even though we didn't finish, it was certainly mission accomplished from my point of view and should help to facilitate a few more big things happening before the end of the year. I felt I did do American co-drivers proud, and despite not being much of a nationalist, I was very proud of that little American flag next to my name. Hopefully, I was able to add some more legitmacy to our rallying, even if in a very small way, and I hope little positive experiences like this for American co-drivers will make it easier for those after me to hit the international stage.

Next weekend (Nov 1) is the Cambrian Rally in North Wales with some new classic stages for me such as Penmachno and Clocaenog. I won't be with a professional team for this one, but at least I'll be in a reasonably quick GC8 Impreza STi and will continue to learn. As always, I'm certainly looking forward to it!


Our poor broken car and my attempt to be artistic

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My Big Week

After finding out I wouldn't be running with Dave at Lake Superior, I realized I still had some time left to find a ride for the Bulldog, a National A level rally (and next year part of the BRC) using many of the same Mid/North Wales stages as Plains, but about 50% longer in length. I originally had a ride in a Clubman Subaru GC8 STi, but decided to risk instead going for a ride with Pro-Tec Motorsport in a professionally prepared Gr. N EVO, all expenses paid, in one of the top 15-20 cars and drivers in the UK. There was a huge response to the posting as to be expected, and I figured I probably wouldn't get it as any capable, available co-driver (for which in the UK there's many) would want this ride. Again, I think I'm over my head...and again, things work out just when I need it to, so I get the ride.

The usual co-driver simply had a conflict during the event weekend and was asked to go through the interested co-drivers. He liked my website, liked my experience back in the US and realized I had some in the UK, liked the incar, and liked that I was geographically close to them in Manchester so that we could go over notes, the DVD, and go test. Perfect. I would get to run with Tom Naughton alongside teammate David Bogie, both in identical GN EVO IX's.

They arrange to pick me up this past Sunday to head down to Sweet Lamb rally complex to go test. We get to the hotel relatively early, get out the notes DVD, and start going through the stages. This driver uses a 1-6 system, but it's 1 fastest, 6 the exact opposite of back home and something to get used to but actually not as difficult as it seems. I think the British 1-6 system with 6 being fastest was more confusing to me because a 1 was just faster than a 90 degree corner, rather than being a sometimes my timing would be off because I was expecting the corner gradings to be similar. Anyway, it didn't matter much in a little 1600cc Mk2 Escort! But now in the EVO it does...

Before bed, we had a couple pints at the pub...well actually quite a lot of pints for testing the next day but no worries! At least we got to know each other better...

Monday morning is the test at Sweet Lamb, and I'm skipping a lecture and 2 seminars to do it...still not bad considering I haven't missed any school yet and no classes on Fridays means I don't miss school going to rallies. Quite nice. I have a "proper English breakfast" again, and we set out to Sweet Lamb for a day of testing and private lessons from Mark Higgins. Nice surprise!

Pro-Tec Motorsport unloads the beautiful EVO IX, full Gr. N spec and really no costs spared in preparation. Mark Higgins arrives, looks at me with a slight grin and says, "hey long time no see...looks like you got a bit taller since last time!" Last time I saw Mark was when he came to run the US Championship in 2002...I was 15 years old. Yet somehow he remembered me. It definitely made me feel quite good and the team was rather impressed.

Around the shop inside the complex are all pictures and posters from big teams and drivers coming to test on the legendary complex and the legendary Rally GB stage (where they are finally returning this year!). This includes a picture of Pastrana jumping his bike over Lovell's 2001 Impreza WRC after his first drive in a rally car, ever, which is what started it all for him. Quite cool.

Mark tells Tom and me to go out on the rally stage, pace note it, and then bring the notes back to him so that he can critique Tom's driving. We do 2 passes in the rally car, and I rewrite the notes for the 3 time British champion. Hopefully he doesn't think they're shit. Mark is just hoping he doesn't get sick. Guess that's why (among many other reasons!) he's a driver.

They work on the driving and setup, and I take the time to go over the DVD some more. Not too much is happening from my end, but apparently Tom is making some huge improvements driving the car and getting it to a setting that's fast and appropriate for his style. Horace (his usual co-driver) rides with him and then rides with Mark. Apparently they're getting close to the same speed on the course now as Tom gets to driving the car smoother and more quickly.

After several hours and tea breaks it's finally my turn to get a ride through the course at full speed. We get out the notes I made earlier and also do a quick 1-pass recce of a new stretch of road. Tom is quite familiar with the road by now, but I'm certainly not, so he's using this opportunity to test my timing and voice, see if he likes it, and suggest any changes so that we're ready for race day. We go around the new direction at full speed, and I ask if the notes are right. He cheerfully admits he knew that direction too well and wasn't really listening! hah! So we change directions and he focuses on driving to my notes. We do 2 laps around, I ask for some feedback, and he says the timing is right for the course, my voice is loud and clear, and he could follow along just mission accomplishe,d and rather simple.

Mark tells us to change a couple diff settings in the car and go drive it again together so we keep getting used to each other. Mark and Horace come up the hill to watch, and this setting is a bit looser and dodgier. On the first easy left coming over a big crest we get the rear wheel just about hanging off the outside of a 200ft drop as Tom comes to grips with the setting...all to the big applause and cheers of Mark and Horace, haha...well at least I wasn't scared so that had to look good :-P. As we keep lapping around, I start to memorize the notes and watch the driving more. We're going quite quick, very committed, catching some good air on the jumps, and a little sideways but not too sideways. The Gr. N car is surprisingly quick and everything feels good. Very productive day.

We start 17th on the road Saturday out of an entry of 150 cars, and with his setup and driving help we may even be faster than our seeding. His goal is top 10 if he's comfortable with the new driving style and me, so it's going to be fast, and it's definitely going to be yet another big opportunity for me to impove myself and prove myself.

Riding on the way home I started to realize just how lucky I've been this year. Somehow in a sport so cruel, when I've really needed something to happen for me this season, it has happened. I started out the season deciding I needed to move on from Amy, so I took a risk and dropped a great, free ride I had with the nicest driver, and ended up getting an offer to co-drive for Mirra or Will Corry. When I made a bit of a controversial decision to pick Will and then he ran out of money, the very next day I had Vermont SportsCar calling me saying they wanted me to fill in for Alan at Olympus...and then I ended up keeping that seat. When Dave and I really needed a finish for our last real rally of the year at Maine, we got it despite a stuck throttle and no brakes, and when we needed a spectacular performance at X Games to give a chance for funding in 2009, we made a story more ridiculous than you could make up. When I needed a ride for my first rally with no experience in the UK and only arriving two days prior, I got a ride with someone who is a great driver, a great guy, a friend of Robbie Durant, and let me ask all the questions I needed to while appreciating me being there...and now for my second rally I wanted to move up and suddenly I find myself in a one-off ride at the top.

I know the old saying goes, "luck is when opportunity meets preparation," and no doubt I've been putting my time in to make sure I'm prepared and in position to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. However, sometimes you have to wonder how all these opportunities seem to keep coming about, and I certainly don't want to lose them now that I'm becoming used to big things happening!

Anyway, for now, it's time to go to school and keep focused for the weekend. There's so many things I'd like to do to absolutely ensure success...that every note is called perfectly, that I never get lost, every piece of advice is right on for finishing as high as possible, every transit and service is completed with ample time to do all work and be settled and prepared...but of course, the essence of rallying is going into the unknown. Despite how I'd like to prepare, I can't really do any more. My performance is at the whilm of my experience, my talent, my focus, and my judgement as I make split second decisions on my feet that determine whether or not we on that note, all I can do is wait and hope that my experiences and ability allow me to do a flawless job come race day.

Wish me luck!


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

McRae Stages

This past weekend I made it up to my second rally, the McRae stages in Scotland...not competing, but getting a chance to watch my rally heroes from my childhood dust of the old helmets (or leathers for the really old ones ;)), bring back their old cars, and have one last go at rallying in honor of Colin McRae.

My local motor club came to my rescue as far as getting to the event. Two of the members were going up to marshall the rally, and they were happy to bring me along to help them marshall and pay for fuel. We embarked on what is a "long" journey for the English from Manchester to Perth, Scotland. During our journey, we drove up nearly half the country north-south, and across the entire country east-west through areas such as the Lakes District, Lancaster, Glasgow, and Edinburgh...and through this epic journey, we travelled a total of 270 miles, hah! That's like going to my backyard in the US!

We arrived at Perth Racecourse, and immediately I was greeted by American (and Canadian) rallyists who had all made the trip. Kyle Sarasin came to spectate with Whiskers, and then I ran into Antoine L'Estage and Nathalie before finally finding Travis, Ken, and the rest of the team signing autographs for eager fans. I was really blown away by how excited the spectators were to meet my team members from the US...I really didn't think they paid that much attention to what we do over here as far as rallying is concerned.

We didn't have tickets for the interviewing session Friday night, so we watched on the big screen outside. It was a bit drawn out taking about 2 hours to interview all the celebrities with me standing outside in the cold, BUT all the interviews were top notch and gave fantastic insight into the rally legends that came out to run. I was just delighted to be there to see it happen.

While Perth was booked as far as hotels were concerned, we found a decent place out in Dundee to stay. In classic rally form, we went to bed at midnight and woke up before the sun came up to make it our to our marshall point, Junction 11 on Stage 2. Despite the stage not being started until 10:45am, we still saw thousands of spectators walking their way onto the stage at 7:30am. In classic, old-school rally style, people walked their way in from the finish, found their corner, and camped out until all the cars made it through.

We blocked our intersection about 9 miles into the Errochty stage, and made out our own little spectating area. In our marshall goodie bag, they printed us genuine McRae Stages 2008 T-Shirts and yellow marshall vests with McRae Stage 2008 on the back. Certainly, a proud piece of memorabilia I will hang on the wall for as long as I live.

I scoped out my spot near the intersection. The cars came up a medium left, up over the crest to the medium right I was standing at, and then down the straight away to a hard right. First on the road was Ari Vatanen in a Mk2 Escort all done up in Rothman's livery. Spectacular. Vatanen was obviously not quite the same mad man he once was, but he was still going on all right. Buffum comes by in a beautiful Porsche and looks right on par with all the former world rally champs. Not bad for an old man! Then Alister McRae and Meeke come through and really show how these cars were meant to be driven. I'm a converted RWD rallying fan now. Seeing those cars powering through every corner, absolutely on the limit and completely sideways was something you just don't see these days. Truely a showcase in skill, car control, and speed.

We stayed at our position and watched the locals go by who were actually quite spectacular themselves...then waited for the long gap to the 4wd cars where Matthew Wilson was completely on it in the older Focus WRC. Braking ungodly late, sideways, and on the limit...if only the world rally cars this year were as spectacular!

We returned to Perth for the ceremonial finish, which really had the feel of an old WRC event with all the classic drivers and cars lined up inside the gates along the crowded street. Buffum was still on a high from his performance, and Ken and Travis got their cars to the end and had a great time. I wanted to get my marshall's vest signed by the legends, but I ended up only getting my team as Vatanen and Waldegard were already leaving by the time I found a marker...oh, and they all signed it upside down! Still a piece of memorabilia I will keep, muddy with upside down signatures and all...

Even though I couldn't compete in the rally, I was very grateful to have haphazardly ended up marshalling it. This will certainly be a rally everyone will remember for ages, and at least I know I got to be a part of its running, not just a by-stander. It's always nice to see some people from home again, and get to see a little more of the country I'm new to. In the end, this was a priceless opportunity, and I couldn't have asked for anything more than maybe some more sunshine during the rally!

We drove all the way back to Manchester that night, just as soon as everyone was making their way out...*again* Classes have started for real this week, so everything has at least calmed down a bit, I'm getting a bit more settled in, and feeling ready to regroup to challenge myself with some faster rides in the next coming weeks. I won't be coming back to the US for Lake Superior, but fortunately, everything looks set for me to run Bulldog in 2 weeks! Wish me luck, and I guess I won't be seeing you all until Sno*Drift!