"Good luck!" My wife Lorrie said as she handed over our timing card as we left MTC at the end of Washington Avenue in Detroit Lakes, MN. We were waved through the barriers and my Ojibwe Forests Rally adventure with Adam Van Damme was on.
Transit to the start of the first stage was a lengthy 63 miles and we were allowed 98 minutes to get there. Every minute of which was needed. There was some major road construction going on outside of town that involved cars being taken through the construction zone behind a pilot vehicle.
The line of traffic waiting was already fairly long when we arrived.
"Good." Said Adam. "A long line. We shouldn't have to wait long."
Famous last words. 15 minutes later we were still there. The 15 minutes early we had been let go from MTC had evaporated and we were still only three miles out of town.
"F**k!" shouted Adam. He unbuckled his belts and flew out of his seat to the back of the car. I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Were we overheating? We'd been sat with the engine running for quite a while. Had that running motor caused something else? He got back in the car, clearly more relieved than a moment ago. Looking in the wing mirror he'd seen gas spilling on the road. He'd jumped out to see if we had a leaking gas tank or fuel line. The fuel had just overflowed in the heat because the fuel tank was topped up to the maximum. No problems. We carried on waiting.
There was still ample time to get to the first ATC as we drove through the construction zone and onwards. As we passed Nevis, I pointed out Lake Belle Taine where my brother-in-law puts on his stunning 4th July fireworks display. Then before we knew it we were in Akeley making a quick stop for fuel before making our way to the start of stage 1. Crossroads.
Before we get started, a quick reminder that this is our first time together and we also have no comms. Shouting and hand signals only. We had no idea how we were going to get through the rally. We'd give it our best shot and as long as we made it to the end we were fine.
"I'll take it easy, no big jumps." Were Adam's words as he put on his crash helmet at ATC for stage 1.
Our countdown began. "5...4...3...2...1 GO!"
We were on our way. A smooth start as we powered away over the first 200 yards into a right three. It was there that I realized that Adams idea of 'taking it easy" was a little different to mine. No worries. That just took a few corners to get used to. Like I said before, it was our first time together. I think I felt much the same on the first corner I took alongside Dan Little, my regular driver.
The next mile was lots of smooth fives and sixes, then we rounded a long right four and there it was. The famous Red Bull jump. The inflatable arch seemed to shine in the sunlight as we approached it and about 80 yards out I realized that Adam's claim for "no big jumps" was out the window too. We hit the crest perfectly and we flew for what seemed like an age. It was like slow motion in a way. I can vividly remember seeing the view in front of me change from trees and sky in the distance to the road as the nose of the car dropped and we landed relatively smoothly. For more by luck than judgment we were close to the optimal speed for a smooth landing and we allowed ourselves to shout "That was awesome" as we sped on our way.
Calling the pace notes when you can only use signs is very difficult. I was wanting to give as much instruction as if I was reading the notes but at times this resulted in just a blur of hand signals in Adam's peripheral vision. It took us into the next day to get to a situation we were happy with.
Blurry hand signals or not, we were third fastest in class on the stage. So things were going well.
As we arrived at stage two it was clear that there was a problem. The cars were starting to back up and I actually had to get out of the car and walk our time card into the control. Piotr Fetela's new Subaru had a transmission failure right around the first corner no more than 20 yards from the start. Add to that an extra minute between cars due to the dust and a traffic jam had formed. Piotr was gutted as this was his first race back since his crash at 100 Acre wood. We chatted for a while about it and he seemed genuinely interested in my rallying story too. An all round nice guy.
A good thirty minutes late and in fading light we started stage two. We were beginning to wish we had put our rally lights on at the start by now. The dust minute helped visibility a bit but we dropped to fourth fastest through that stage. Perhaps if we'd had rally lights on we would have made third who knows.
Stage three was to be quite eventful for us and many others. At the start line we were alerted to at least two, perhaps three cars off the road that we needed to keep an eye out for. We definitely needed rally lights now but we sped on, keeping a wary eye out for the cars off the road. Then about half way through the stage we hit a bird. A small one. It appeared in our headlights and smacked into the grille. Feathers went everywhere. Thanks to the open quarter light windows on the Rabbit, many found their way inside. I spat feathers out of my mouth for a while. Despite this we sped on regardless.
Stage three was a very tough stage on the stomach. Lots of crests, sharp curves, crests followed by curves, the car would go light, then heavy. All this in the dark with lights dancing off the trees flickering them as if illuminated by a flashing strobe light. Couple this with looking between the pace notes and the road ahead and motion sickness set in. Things did get quite bad for me and by the end of the stage I had to get out of the car just to catch my breath and calm down.
Then we made the easy on my stomach drive back to refueling and service in Akeley, where conversation among co-drivers quickly turned to the previous stage. Brandon Snyder, co-driver in the other Tower City racing car had been sick and he offered me a sick bag for the next time around. I gladly accepted, just in case. I also decided not to eat anything. Just in case.
Refuelled and lights attached, we headed out to do the previous three stages again in the dark. A totally different experience to the first time. We found this out at the jump. With no inflatable arch to judge the distance we hit it at the wrong speed. Too slow. We didn't fly as far as previously and we hit the ground hard. Very hard. We did some damage to the car as we would find out over the next 12 hours.
Within a few minutes of the impact Adam noted we had a drivers side flat.
"How far to stage end?" he asked.
I checked the instructions. "Four miles!" I shouted over the engine noise.
"We'll keep going!" He shouted back. With only 4 miles to stage end we would loose more time stopping to change the tyre than if we just kept going and waited to the end. After a few miles the tyre started to shred. Lumps of rubber appeared in our headlights, tyre dust found its way inside the car, getting all over my stage notes and iPhone running the RallyTripMeter app. The drivers side front wing (fender) flapped around loudly. We made it to the stage end in one piece and made our tyre change and bent the fender back. What was left of the wheel looked a lot like Al Dantes' wheel at the end of Headwaters. Sure, we had lost some time, but not as much as if we had stopped in stage. It was easier to pop a new wheel on by the road side too, and we made a quick change and made it to ATC at the next stage on time.
Stage five was as unremarkable as it was when it was stage two. We got through it with no problems and like when it was stage two we were fourth fastest again.
Onto stage six, the final stage of the day's rally. It was midnight when we left the start line and headed into the darkness. There were a couple of cars off the road in places, we noted them carefully but it still didn't stop us going into a downhill right three rather hot and running off the road. Luckily Adam threw the car into reverse and we got out of there and carried on. The stage went on and I started to feel much the same way that I did the first time around. Except this time the stage went on longer, two miles longer and I felt worse and worse, then I knew that throwing up was not far away. I reached for the sick bag Brandon had given me. It was in the door map pocket. I pulled at it.
It wouldn't move.
It was trapped behind the roll cage.
I tugged and tugged, it still wouldn't move.
The feeling in my stomach got worse and worse. I didn't want to throw up in the car over my race suit, crash helmet, pace notes and time card. There was only one thing for it. Speeding along a narrow forest trail, I opened the door, pulled the sick bag out of the map pocket, shut the door, put the sick bag to my mouth and threw up. After that the end of the stage came up quickly and I was able to hand a clean card to the control worker.
After that I felt fine, and we were able to make it to MTC outside of Nevis without any problems. There we met up with Al and Brandon to compare notes before heading home. We all had a laugh when we saw the remnants of the tyre that we had shredded on stage four. I also found out that as many as 9 other co-drivers had experienced problems with sickness and nausea. I had been in good company. I had taken Dramamine before the start of the rally and and at the service break in Akeley. The conditions out there were too extreme for that. Some co-drivers swear by ginger, others Scopolamine patches perhaps I'll see if my doctor can prescribe them for me.
It was getting late, or rather early. It was about 2am when we got back to the hotel in Detroit Lakes. So there was little interest in how we had finished. So imagine our surprise when we found out the following morning that we had finished 4th in class and 10th overall! We were just a scant 22 seconds behind team mates Al and Brandon. Twenty two seconds. If only we hadn't had that flat. We could have been third.
But that didn't matter. It had been a good day. We had certainly had some highs and lows, and we were most definitely looking forward to what tomorrow had to offer.