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!)