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!


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Getting it Done

I arrived early Wednesday morning in London, a bit sleepy and out of it, having to make an hour twenty connection, AND get through immigration in that period of time. Oddly enough, I got to my plane on the departure minute, and the held the flight from London to Manchester for me and a few other late travelers. Whew. When I arrived in Manchester, one bag didn't make it and neither did the airport collection service for my University...oh, and my US phone didn't work at all. So now my little adventure starts as I realize I'm in someplace new and feel like I've somewhat fallen off the face of the earth. I asked some people from other Universities if they saw Univ. of Manchester people anywhere, and it turned out I just needed to take the bus to a different terminal. No problem. I found them, told them who I was, and hopped on the bus.

I got to my dorm, paid for my room, and started moving in. I still didn't have phone or internet, so I had no way of letting my family know I had gotten in ok. I asked some more locals questions and found out how to use public transport and get to the mall so that I could get a prepaid phone. Now I could call my parents (at 1GBP per min!) and British Airways so that they could update me on the status of my luggage. I found the computer lab at the downtown campus, checked my email, started sorting out my travel arrangements to get to Wales Friday, and contacted the MSA since my license hadn't shown up at my school mailbox. Came home, found the grocery store, picked up some food, got my lost luggage, found the one friend I met on the bus (neither of us had phones yet so we couldn't call each other!), and went to dinner, contacted the local motor club, and after dinner they swung by my residence and got me my club card. Now it's about 9:00pm; I haven't really slept, I'm exhausted, I don't really know anyone, but I'm relatively happy I've more or less settled in and accomplished everything I wanted to the first day. I have two choices; call it a night and get some well-deserved rest, or head across the street to the bar that looks quite popular and mingle a bit. I chose the latter.

I head across the cheap to the bar that looks busy and popular, and find out it's pound night for drinks. That's even cheap in the US! I go up to the bar and ask a question to a couple of "blokes" that seemed alright to see if I was at the right place. They immiediately picked up on my accent and started showing me around and buying me drinks. The one guy tells me he had studied abroad at Univ. of Florida and gives me the same advice everyone gave him when he came to the US...just lay on the accent as heavily as possible! Haha. I then met a nice group of girls and a few other friends, so now my phone has some cool people on it that want to hang out whenever. I look at my phone in the US that has over 250 numbers on it, and I look at my phone in the UK and see 8 numbers. It really is like starting all over again. Anyway, I got a great first impression this time and met some really good all in all a great first day. .

Day 2 more people move in, including my flat mates and most of the "Freshers." We go out in the same bar in Fallowfield, just across from the residence halls. Day 3 I wake up a bit late with a slight hangover and realize I need to get packing quickly if I'm going to get the train to Chester by 3pm. Packing for rallies are a habit by now, so no problem, but I feel a little out of my element since the extensive supplemental regulations we get online in the US are sent with the routebooks a week prior to the event. I wasn't in the country a week prior, so I don't have enough information to make a movement schedule and I'm a bit clueless as to the organization of the event.

Surprisingly, transportation to Piccadilly Train Station is quite simple. Just hop on the bus to the last stop, and then hop on the free tram to the last spot. Ticket ordering is done by computerized teller booths and trains to chester leave every 20-30 minutes, precisely on the minute (something that my nerdy co-driver self finds oddly pleasurable). Trains are quite and smooth, and yet again I have a beautiful day to get my first taste of the English country side. Chester is definitely a classic town with perfectly preserved old architecture and a few Roman ruins throughout the city. On my taxi ride from the train station I pass the city race track where Colin McRae clinched the 95 World Rally Championship. Very cool.

I arrive at Richard Ceen's office in North Wales near Chester, and he's running late due to some last minute emergencies with the business. Richard is a competitor with a Ford Focus WRC who has helped me immensely in the past few months as I began preparing to come over to the UK. While he's busy, his secretary hooks me up with some coffee and internet as well as the notes for the rally so that I can look them over. I finally get the opportunity to reply to some emails and let people know where I am. I'm extremely impressed by the hospitality of the rallyists from another country whom I've never met. The rally spirit I grew up with in America clearly carries on throughout the world.

Richard then informs me his car isn't completely ready and he has too many emergencies at work to tend to to run, so he has to withdraw. His son comes by then, who's an avid skater and rallyist that knows all about our team in the US, and picks me up and takes me into town. Very cool.

I get dropped off in a tiny town in Mid-Wales called Welshpool, with one main street and one hotel in the middle of town. I wonder around a bit and can't get in touch with my driver. I go to sign on and get a lot of confused looks. I guess I rely on people just knowing me in the US and that's clearly not the same here with thousands of rallyists rather than the little handful we have back home.

Geoff, my driver, finally gets into town and finds me. The car is teched and ready to go...all they need is to see my suit and we're cleared to start the rally.

We go get the rally car, and it's a little Mk2 Escort, loud and noisy and fully equipped with a dog box. I climb into the co-drivers seat, on the left side of the car, and start to get used to my surroundings. Still, the intercom is a Peltor, the rally computer is a Terratrip, it's all the same here I'm just sitting on the wrong side. I drive the service vehicle back to the bed and breakfast, on the wrongside again, and honestly it was rather daunting!

Saturday morning I wake up early to get to work on the notes. The notes look much simpler and less detailed than the ones in the US, but look a little over cautioned to me. I rewrite a few sections just to make sure I get everything right. While Geoff uses a 1-6 system, with 6 being the fastest, their 1 is slightly faster than a square corner, and then they use the descriptive terms square, acute, and hairpin for the tighter turns. This makes note reading a bit off, since a Right 6 in the UK and the US are the same, a Right 5 is similar, but a Right 1 is completely different. I would have to adjust my reading accordingly.

With a "small" field of 96 entries (they're allowed to cancel the event if there are less than 120 entries!) and the 1400cc cars starting first, we start way in the back in our little 1.6L Escort. Interestingly enough, they don't do large Parc Expose's, or have the space for them, so you just show up to the MTC 15-20 minutes before your start time and start the rally...and the whole rally I never saw the first 30 cars.

We head out on the first stage to some classic Mid-Wales stages. It's sunny, again...actually every day has been sunny oddly enough. The intercom battery goes flat on the transit, but luckily I'm a good co-driver today and have a spare. The transit gets confusing towards the end with tons of quick turns with less than a tenth of a mile between them and no road signage. However, the organizers put arrows up and make it nearly dummy-proof.

We get into the forests, and all I can think of his how precisely this looks like the real Olympus Rally run outside Shelton, WA. The trees, the surface, the corners, the terrain, it's all nearly identical...I feel almost at home.
We suit up and pull up to the line. The stage starts out with a long straight, then a big crest into a 4R tightens to 1R with a big drop on the outside (like a R5- lg tigtens 3- in the US). I warn Geoff with 15 seconds to go, and realize the timing light system is identical to I'm glad I did Rocky Mountain in Calgary at this point.

10 seconds...5 seconds and the red lights go out, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO! And after the 400+hp AWD launch control starts at X Games I swear we will get caught in the next 5 seconds as the poor little 150hp Mk2 Escort putters off the line! Geoff is quite safe, listens to the notes easily, and pedals the thing along rather well...but there's definitely a little more time to think in this peace of machinery vs. the monster that is the SRTUSA car. I start getting acclimated to the notes. Some corners are a bit shorter than I expected and therefore some calls feel a bit later than I wanted, some corners are quite a bit longer and I call the next note what I feel is a hair too early...but all in all, the notes get out in time and reasonably delivered. And Geoff just seems happy he has a co-driver he can trust to tell him where to go. The car doesn't require each note delivered precisely at the right tenth of a second, so I don't think Geoff even notices. Still, I'm learning and trying to get everything right.

Geoff is happy with the notes after the first stage, he can understand my voice/accent clearly, and most importantly of all, I feel comfortable with the new notes system. It's not nearly as precise as our Jemba notes as they're human-made rather than computer generated, but they're fairly easy to follow along.

We up the pace a tad on the last stage before service and catch the car ahead. We discover we have a puncture but it's no problem since our chase car is there. We get auxilary service after nearly every stage, which is quite convenient just to check the car over and keep the service crew engaged. We head back to service and find we're 2nd out of 8 in the B10 class. Not bad.

We start the second leg a little timid but the car seems to be running a bit better. We're sideways a lot and it's definitely a good bit of fun, but we're about 2 seconds off the pace of our previous running, possibly because of road conditions, and then we drop off the pace a bit further on the next. Going into the last forest stage, Dyfi, there's a big delay to start, so from the top of the mountain we can see the start of the stage, the midpoint, and an area about 1 mile from the end...all in the setting sun. It's a beautiful view and equally spectacular seeing Dodd in the Hyundai Accent WRC or Higgins in the N4 Sti slide through the logging roads from up high.
Finally, it's our turn to start and we go at the beginning of the stage a bit harder. However, it's extremely rough, so we puncture a tire, spin, and stall the car. All this costs about a minute and drops us to third going into the last stage.

The last stage runs on one of the sponsors private ranch and is probably the most ridiculous thing I've ever run on in my life. The stage is a bunch of narrow roads and gates going into tight square junctions and even has a loop on it where the first time you turn right up the hill and then the second time around you turn left at the same junction! We had no idea about this and just followed the notes somewhat confused but getting on with it. Geoff started asking if we were even going the right way at one point! (luckily we were!) We got to the finish, mission accomplished, third in class, and even got a little nice piece of silverware to boot, which I lost in the bar afterwards. Shit!

We went to the awards ceremony and got a little recognition for being "That American co-driver that competed in X Games" and they were all quite supportive of me. I met a few new people, but most of the co-drivers I was in contact with before coming over had already packed up and headed home. We all headed to the local pub, and it filled up with lively rallyists and locals. Actually, it got absolutely packed and turned into a big party. I made some more new friends somehow and we headed across the street as the party spilled over to the local nightclub. Apparently it's quite common to small town UK to have a local night club complete with loud music, live DJ's, and a closing time of 3am! Absolutely hilarious. It gave me a good laugh and a good time. It's certainly something I'd never see on Main St. USA, and that's why I am here to experience it.

I got a lift home from my new friends, somehow (and quite fortunately or else I would have been screwed!) and had a "proper English breakfast" in the morning, although I've been informed most places are much better. My crew guys drove me back to Manchester on their way back to Sheffield, and I was home in two hours. England really is a tiny place.

So now I'm back at "Uni" doing the student thing and orientation for the week. I'm quite pleased with myself for having the focus to get here, get settled, figure out my surroundings, and make that initial hurdle to become an established co-driver in the UK right away. I was already a freshman once at a big school, so making friends hasn't been too difficult second time around. The social life is good, and I'm not feeling much in the way of homesickness, although I do miss my friends and family, seeing at least the occasional familiar face, and hip hop being played in the clubs rather than the 80 genres of techno I don't really understand :-P. Regardless, I'm having a fantastic time and I'm really looking forward to getting to see the legends come out for McRae stages this coming weekend. It should be epic!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Off to the UK

In a few hours I make my journey across the pond for the next few months. It should be fairly obvious I’m excited! Everything is sitting here all packed up in my 2 suitcases with my racing stuff in a duffel bag and hopefully I’m all ready to go.

I’m also a little bit anxious. I really am completely on my own out there; I don’t actually know anyone, which is appealing to my adventurous side, but I’m definitely relying upon the good-will of fellow rallyists and my ability to master an unfamiliar surrounding quickly and with ease (if I have that ability!). There’s a lot of things my sleep deprived, jet-lagged self will need to figure out right away and get done tomorrow, and no one is going to come save me if I get into trouble.

It really feels like being a freshman all over again, except now it’s a new country, a new educational system, and no mom and dad to help move you in...and did I mention I’m rallying right away? I always feel like I’ve bitten off a bit more than I can chew, but I’ve always been able to make it work...somehow, so next time I always try to do something a little bit bigger, push myself a little bit more, and see if it works out...and every time when it’s too late to back out, I’m always thinking, “this time, I really am going in over my head!”

Plains is this weekend. Final regulations and schedules, along with the route book, are sent out to the teams a week prior to the event, which means my driver has all the stuff and I don’t have enough information to make even a small movement schedule. In the US, most of the information is online 2 weeks before the event, and I make my schedule and then I’m given the route book at the event. I think I’ll be alright, but I’d like to be more prepared.

Second weekend is Rally Yorkshire and McRae Stages. I decided to opt out of running Yorkshire to go watch the once in a lifetime opportunity that is McRae Stages. The whole team with Ken, Travis, Alex, Derek, Lance, and Buffum will be there running old 2wd cars in addition to the likes of Bjorn Waldegard, Jimmy McRae, Ari Vatanen, Hannu Mikkola, Malcom Wilson, Matthew Wilson, and Nicky Grist just to name a few. I really can’t pass up the opportunity to witness the true memorial to a rally legend from some of the greatest rally drivers to have ever lived, and from whom never I believed I would get to see drive. All accomodation in the area is booked, and I need to find a ride up, but I’m not too concerned. I’ll get there; I’ll go; and maybe I’ll sleep!

Short entry for today. I’m sure I’ll have lots more to say soon...


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

1 Week to Go...

...until I move to Manchester, England, and a week and a half until my first rally. All summer I’ve been spending every minute not dedicated to working or rallying with my driver, Dave Mirra, to preparing for this trip to the UK.

For years I have wanted to go rally internationally, particularly in the UK, but I could never figure out a practical way to do it. Should I try to get a ride in the British Rally Championship and fly over for each event? Unlikely I’d get the spot and too expensive. Should I just take off of school and live out there? Immigration is a bitch and how would I support myself? Should I go to college there? Possibly, but 4 years away from the US means I lose my connections back home. After some thought, I figured out the perfect solution, I’d study abroad at a university in England for a fall semester. That way, I could live over there for the (relative) same price as a semester over here, and only miss or have to fly back for one round of the Rally-America championship.

So why is it such a big deal for me to go? Well, when I decided I wanted to start co-driving when I was around 14-15 years old, it was the era of huge entry fields and big manufacturer involvement (2001 and 2002)...and when any American driver got their big factory drive, they ditched their American co-driver. Ramana Lagemann began using Michael Orr, Paul Choiniere began using John Bennie, etc. Even at the lower levels, I remember Craig Peeper flying Ian Bevan over for every rally. When Travis Pastrana was given the opportunity to run PWRC, he had pressure to let go of his Swedish-American co-driver, Christian Edstrom, in favor of someone with more international rally and recce experience. No one at home or abroad takes American co-drivers very seriously or gives them much attention; however, whenever an up and coming driver needs to take their driving to the next level, suddenly there’s a big scramble because there’s no one around who can do the job. There’s no model, there’s no methodology, there’s no precedent, there’s no example for an aspiring American co-driver to reach world class level, and without equally magnificent co-drivers alongside their drivers, no American team will be successful outside of the tiny sandbox of US Rally.

Am I that magnificent co-driver? I have no clue, but I need to give myself the opportunity to realize my potential when no one else has really tried. Also, I need to make headway for aspiring co-drivers after me so that they have some sort of model to follow and so that they will be valued on an international level. Going to the UK for three months certainly does not complete all these lofty goals, but it’s certainly a start in the right direction. Hopefully, after I go, a few other co-drivers down the line will give it a shot too, and when our next big driver rises through the ranks, their American co-driver will be ready.

My first rally is the Plains Rally, next Saturday in Mid-Wales. It uses much of the legendary Rally GB/RAC Rally stages I’ve only seen in videos since I was a little kid (Gartheiniog, Dyfi, Pantperthog). Surprisingly, I got quite good responses from British drivers and some thinking I was over qualified to sit with them! After two offers in Gr. N Imprezas that didn’t work out due to personal and mechanical issues, I decided to take a ride in a clubman’s Mk2 Escort. RWD, old school, and should be a FUN opportunity for me to work out the little nuances between the US and UK rallying before I go for bigger rides. Luckily, they use stage notes very similar to ours at this event (no recce, organizer supplied), so my skill set should transfer well.

Even though I’ve felt like I’ve prepared quite well, with one week before flying out to Manchester, UK, I still don’t feel completely ready, and I don’t think I ever will be. The day I arrive I’ll be going to my local motor club meeting, getting my membership card (need that to rally!), finding a UK pre-paid phone, and hopefully moving in. The following day I will most likely be making phone calls to tie up any loose ends since I haven’t been in the UK and have no clue what materials made it to my mailbox, and the next day (Friday) I need to get the train from Manchester to Chester to get picked up to go to the rally. It’s quite an ambitious schedule, but hopefully I’ve covered everything in my research.

I realize I have a lot to learn and a lot to do, and I’m more than willing to start out in slower rides and pay my dues so that I can do a proper job in a more serious effort. It’s certainly a tight time schedule and won’t be easy, but I need to start now if I expect accomplish anything and press on for the duration. That’s what rallying is about isn’t it!?