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 slowest...so 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 hairpin...so 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 fine...so 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 prepare...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 succeed...so 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!