Whenever I do things that are out of my "comfort zone", I usually have bad dreams about them. When I used to act on the amateur stage, I had bad dreams about the performances. The same with all my rallies to date. There's always been some sort of bad dream one of the nights leading up to the event. Whenever I've had the dream things have invariably gone well at the events. So when I had a dream about the rally that involved taking a left three and instead of making the turn we drifted off through a forest for miles and miles not hitting a single tree. I took it as a good sign. So I was feeling good about the forthcoming event. But more of that later...
It's a long drive from the middle of Minnesota to the UP of Michigan. Very beautiful with all the trees that were at peak fall colours, but after six hours of them you're pretty bored with the oranges and yellows and reds. So I was glad to reach Houghton, Michigan, headquarters for the LSPR. I picked up my paperwork and headed to my hotel to wait for my driver for the weekend, Bill Marenich with his car. He was traveling up from Auburn, Michigan, another long drive. His was compounded by having to get some new rally tyres balanced on the cars wheels. However, he stopped by my motel on his way past so we could meet face to face for the first time and I could see the car.
It was a chilly Saturday morning as I arrived to see the car up on jacks with our crew of Dexter Clark and Fady Kais hard at work. The brakes were being bled in preparation for the day.
I sat in the car for the first time. I've noticed that all seats and safety harnesses feel different. This was a quite comfortable seat probably because it was a large sized one. The harness looked new and was easy to adjust.
The set up was very comfortable. The ARM rally computer was easy to reach and clear to read. I was looking forward to using this as I have the set up on my iPad mini and have been learning how to program and use it. This is a serious bit of kit. Properly programmed this app will do everything from counting you down to the stage start and recording the times to keeping track of the time you spend in service and letting you know your average speed to get you to the stage starts in time. For this event I was only using it to record stage times.
With the wheels back on the car we had to take it to get checked over at scrutineering to make sure we were safe to compete. The car passed, but problems starting it led Bill to get a new battery and fit it with a few minutes to spare before we headed up to Parc Expose.
What an impressive sight it was as we arrived at Parc. Almost 80 cars registered for the event and there were hundreds of people milling around to look at them all. Pretty hectic. Most interest was centered on the cars of Travis Pastrana and David Higgins, the "stars" of rally in the USA. But our little Volkswagen garnered some interest from the rally fans.
Nerves began to set in and a visit to the bathroom was in order. I stood in a long line next to a guy in a white race suit. He saw the Goodwood Racing sweatshirt I was wearing.
"Goodwood" he said.
"Yes" I replied. "My wife and I were at the Revival a couple of years ago"
"I've never been to Revival, I did race one of my Lola's up the hill at the Festival of Speed a few years ago"
Wow! I wanted to press the guy for more information, but as is the case with bathroom lines, one became free and he disappeared and I didn't see him again.
A bit of research and I discovered that this was Rick Knoop a very experienced race driver with a class win at Le Mans under his belt (Group 5 Porsche in 1978). He was here trying out Rallying for the first time. He was driving the Rally America B spec Honda Fit "Star Car"
Start time came and the cars left at 1 minute intervals to head to the first stage at the Houghton county fairground. A very short, (less than half a mile) spectator stage. Crowds ringed the amphitheater that was the stage. It consisted of a short downhill dash to a square left hander another dash to a hairpin left, to a straight and a hairpin right then a dash to the finish line. The sharp curves made for lots of mud being thrown up for the crowds enjoyment.
Five... our countdown began, Four, Three, Two, One, GO! We were off.
The downhill dash to the first corner was rough, So rough that the iPad running the rally computer bounced out of its mount and into my lap! I fumbled with it to check it was still running as we bounced and slid through the stage that by that time we were running had turned into a quagmire . I got everything in order in time to cross the finish line as we posted a time of 45.2 seconds. Stage 1 in the books we were happy.
"I'll zip tie that clip on the iPad to keep it shut when we get to service" Said Bill.
Service was 60 miles away in Sidnaw. We raced a third of a mile stage to drive 60 miles to a service.
We got to Sidnaw and the first thing we did was take the wheels off to remove the mud that was caked on around the wheel arches as a result of stage 1.
The short 30 minute service was over before we knew it and we were off out onto stage 2. Getting there was an experience in itself. Bill was asking me a question about the distance to the stage start and with my head buried in the notes I missed a turn and we had to turn around and go back. In fairness the turn was also hidden behind a building and was difficult to see anyway. Then on top of that, as we drove the last half mile to the stage start we came across an older guy in a truck towing a fifth wheel trailer trying to turn it around in the middle of the forest trail! How he got there I don't know, but he managed to turn the trailer around and allow us to get to the start on time. He yelled something about how the event should do some "proper advertising"as we drove on.
We were excited for the start of stage 2, a proper stage to tackle. But we didn't last very long for two corners in to the stage, the car began a violent fishtailing and dived into a ditch. So much for my dreams meaning everything would be OK.
We collected our thoughts, got out and went through the crash procedures. We set out the warning triangles, I held the OK sign out for passing cars to see while Bill stood there offering the end of the tow strap to the passing cars hoping for someone to pull us out. Car 881 of Geoff Weide and Derric Throne obliged. It was easy to get us on the road again. It was then we saw a problem, we had no steering. We could have been towed to the end of the stage by sweep but that meant that we would have been out of the rally. So we limped to the end of the stage at about 25 miles an hour, fighting our non existent steering. It took a long time to get to the stage end. Thirty-five minutes in fact. Thirty five long minutes, with the sweep truck right behind us. I imagined that David Higgins and Travis Pastrana and the others were waiting at the start for us to clear the stage.
Once at the end of the stage we could see that things weren't all bad. It turned out we had lost the pinch bolt that held the passenger side lower control arm ball joint to the knuckle. A member of the sweep crew had a suitably sized bolt to get us back on the road. But we missed stage three and four. We were out of the event. But all was not lost. It was suggested we have a word with officials at service. They might let us back in to run the stages even though we were out of the running. So a huge thanks to Steve Gingras for allowing us to run the four stages after service.
Another long wait ensued. We'd got back to service a long time before everyone else. Dexter and Fady checked the car over to make sure there was no further damage. But the car was running well. Bill's wife Jennifer and Dexter's wife Michelle kept us fed. Though to be honest, I wasn't hungry. I felt empty and lost. Cold too, it was a chilly evening. Perhaps, it sunk in that we'd just had a crash that had the potential to have been a lot worse than it was, mixed with the realization that we were out of the rally. Anyway, there was a part of me that didn't want to carry on. Remembering that at Ojibwe I'd thrown up in the night time stages was also to the front of my thoughts.
I pulled myself together and we set out. There was no pressure.
The night time stages went very well. The lack of pressure meant we could concentrate on communicating and working together. I didn't miss a beat calling the notes and Bill quickly found that he could trust my note calling and could go faster. The stages were a blast! Bill had fun executing some handbrake turns on a couple of sharp lefts, they felt great in the co-drivers seat too. We had an excellent time. The positive experiences made us feel confident for Saturdays stages as we all headed off to bed in the early hours of the morning
Though I do have to make mention of the one down point. In the break between stages someone who can only be described as an idiot put some large rocks in the middle of the road at a corner on the Bob Lake stage. There were no stage workers near enough to move them before the start, so we were told of the rocks location at ATC for the stage so we knew where they were and could take avoiding action. Even so it was still a shock to see them in the road when we got to the corner.
The stupidity exhibited by the person placing the boulders there is unbelievable. The damage that could be done to a rally car hitting one of the boulders doesn't bear thinking about. It could rip and axle off a car, it could roll a car, who knows?
But through the magic of the internet and social media the person who placed the boulders in the road has been identified and the authorities informed. Hopefully he'll face the consequences of his actions.