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!?