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!