Duquette, MN the base for the Nemadji trail rally is only 90 minutes drive from home, so my wife and I arose early for a Saturday to make the trip up there. It's a small town, all you can see from the main road is a store, the community center and a bar, all of which were "Rally Headquarters". When we arrived, activity was just starting, but pretty soon the place was teeming with car transporters and rally cars with workers busying themselves with all kinds of tasks.
My co-drivers tasks will eventually include supervising the set up of our service area, but as it's my first rally and I have novice entrants briefings to go to, coupled with the fact it's a small regional rally and there's not much to do I was excused that.
Novice briefing is important. Lets face it I'm about to do something dangerous.
Very dangerous. If we have a serious "off" it's not like NASCAR where aid would be there to us in seconds. Here, in the middle of a forest in the winter it might be as much as an hour before medical assistance could arrive. Procedures are in place to make sure aid gets to incidents as soon as possible and it's every entrants duty to know them. I will have to attend mandatory novice safety briefings for at least the whole of next year to make sure I'm familiar with them.
With the all important safety out of the way Dan and I clambered into his F-150 and went out on recce to check the stages. We had been given course notes, but it was important to get out there and see if we agreed with them and make our own notes, we certainly felt the need to make changes. Seeing the course for the first time was a shock. I had watched some in car videos of the course and I immediately notice that the course looked nothing like the videos. We might as well have been on a different set of roads.
The Monday before the event had seen about 4" of snow fall on the stage route, but unseasonably warm conditions during the day and some nighttime freezing during the week had left the course in a mess. Frozen sections covered in snow, and muddy, slushy sections with no traction. In some places the inside of a curve was frozen and the outside a slushy mess or vice versa. Some of the more experienced drivers said these were some if the worst conditions they'd seen.
One particular short section mid course caused me some problems, for no matter how hard I tried I just could not say the instruction.
"Left 5 short, Right 6 over crest short, Left 6 short into Right 3 into Left 3 into Right 3". So Dan decided on. "Entering complex, Right 3 into Left 3 into Right 3." I could say that. If the car was lined up right it was almost a straight shot through the fives and sixes, so calling them was almost a moot point.
With that tongue-twister conquered we headed back to service for lunch and some pre-race reflection.
I strolled around the service area looking at the other cars, wondering what it would be like when I got nervous, for I had been so busy doing things I hadn't had a chance to dwell on it. I didn't eat much for lunch for I had been cautioned that perhaps I should take some dramamine for motion sickness just in case. But I'd left it at home, so I wasn't going to give my stomach an excuse to deposit its contents all over the inside of the car. It turned out I needn't have worried.
I chatted with a few other crews, everyone was very friendly. Even more so when they found out it was my first event.
The appointed hour grew near, and we changed into our race gear. Still no nerves.
I was strapped fully into the car for the first time. The belts were awkward to find, the central catch seemed too far away. Nothing seemed to fit properly. It was a good job crew chief Ben Anderson was on hand to adjust the belts to fit.
I'm in. The HANS is strapped down. Head movement is more than I thought it would be. Arm and body movement is almost non existent.
"I can't reach to turn the GoPro on." I told Dan. He knew where to find the on/off button so our efforts would be recorded.
With that, the engine fired up and we were on our way. Pulling up at MTC 1 on time and heading out to the stage.
It was only a short transit to the stage start and we were soon lined up at the arrival control with everyone else I handed my scorecard in for the first of many times.
"Hello." Said the control worker. I knew that voice. It was Dave Fuss, Twin City Rally Club member whom I knew well. It felt good to see someone I knew just as I was about to set out. I remarked to him that it was nice to see a friendly face.
One by one the cars departed.
"Look at that." Dan muttered to himself as he watched a car leave. "No traction. It's taken over 20 seconds to do that 300 yards to the first corner."
The start line. The starter counted us down.
"Ten seconds!" His voice was clear despite the burbling engine note of the car and my crash helmet blocking other sounds out.
"Shit Dan! We've not turned the GoPro on!"
He calmly reached back and it beeped into life.
"...Four, Three, Two, One, GO!"
I'm not going to bore you with a blow by blow account of the runs, you can watch the videos when I have finished the editing and posted them.
I wasn't nervous, not at all. The level of concentration it took to keep one eye on the notes and the other on the road obliterated everything else from my thoughts. I was peripherally aware of Dan working the steering wheel hard and at times I felt the back end slide around. It wasn't until I saw the in car camera footage that I saw how incredibly busy Dan was at the wheel. Occasionally I glanced up to see where we were and would catch a glimpse of one of the many snowmen the course workers had made along the route.
Just over 12 and a half minutes later we crossed the finish line. Stage 1 done. I've done something I never ever thought I'd do.
We were exhilarated. The conditions had been dire but SS1 was in the bag.
We were all allowed about half an hours respite before turning around and heading back. It was a chance for everyone to laugh and joke and compare experiences out there.
Back at rally HQ in between runs.
Then it was back in the car to head the other way. The course looked totally different coming from the other direction. The abbreviated instructions to get us through "the complex" worked and I was now relaxed enough by the end of the stage to wave to my wife who was a stage worker on the last corner. In a smidge over 12 minutes after we left stage 2 start we were at the finish line. Our scorecard was marked and we headed to the mid event service. Even though we had completed two clean runs Dan wondered if perhaps we hadn't flattened a tire.Ben was on hand at the service to check things over. No puncture, no damage. Perhaps a fender was a bit loose. I want to put out a big thanks to Ben for being there for the car on a Saturday afternoon in December in the middle of Minnesota.
A handful of trail mix and a Gatorade and we were off back to the stage. This time it was dark. The course once again would be totally different.
It was an eerie sensation watching the car headlights sweep across our field of view illuminating the way, sometimes things were a little indistinct, but my calling of the route helped to find the way. All to soon SS3 was over and there was another half hour break to chat and compare notes.
We pulled up to the start of stage 4.
The final stage.
We had 8 miles to go to finish our first rally together. Crashing off now is not an option. Not on the last stage. We had no idea how we were doing. If we had known we might have pushed harder and had an accident. The most important thing was to get to the finish. It was a cautious start, but after a while we were up to speed and Dan was in his groove. I'd seen his confidence grow in the last run. He went from repeating my instructions to him early in the run to asking for them by the end.
We weren't heroes entering the final corner but we sure as heck did gun it down the final 300 to the finish.
Now we were ecstatic! First bumps all round! We had finished our first rally together!
Heading back to the final control there were mixed feelings, we were happy that we had finished but the conditions had put paid to any fast times. We had enjoyed ourselves and had a good time overall.
The car was trailered and everyone gathered around for a final time to discuss the goings on. Cigars were passed around because I had completed my first rally. The camaraderie amongst the crews is something else. Everyone laughs and jokes together afterwards. Even during the service break there was sharing of tools and bits, everyone is everyones friend and we're are all out to have a good time. I was made to feel very welcome every step of the way, so a big thank you to all my fellow competitors, both drivers and co-drivers for that.
With cigars smoked and the world put to rights, we headed into the awards ceremony. I had no expectations of winning anything. This was a good competitive in class G2 so fourth or fifth would be very good according to Dan. So imagine my shock when after checking the results Dan walked over to me, shook my hand and said.
"Congratulations partner. Third in class. We scored a podium."
I was amazed. I wasn't prepared for that. Those conditions that were bad for us were just as bad for everyone else. We had made good decisions, worked well together and ultimately it paid off.
There we are. I fulfilled a lifelong ambition and found that I was quite passable as a co-driver. I am eagerly looking forward to a second time.