Rally is Brutal

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After Erin Kelly (who I didn’t know) died doing it last weekend, I’ve spent some time considering the risk/reward ratio for rally, and it’s unclear to me that the reward is worth the risk. I’ve spent even more time considering the effort/reward ratio, and the results are more confusing. I don’t want to tally the number of weekends I’ve spent in the garage since I bought this car, but it’s an awfully large number of them. Thanks to sneakattackrally.com, it’s pretty easy to tally the amount of time I’ve spent driving it on stage: slightly more than 2 hours.

There’s probably a reason that everyone I knew in rally before I started was in Formula Vee. It’s not particularly easy to campaign a Formula Vee around a track, but it’s super easy compared to rally. My co-driver, Jack, drives a Formula Vee much better than I do and has been co-driving for a long time. I’d never have gotten into it without him, and he conveniently failed to mention how ridiculously hard it is. I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention if he had, though. My crew chief, Dan, worked for Sterling Chase (aka the Frobell) has been crew for hire for Rally, Pike’s Peak Hill Climb, and Formula Vee for the past decade. Also a fellow Formula Vee racer was working a radio checkpoint as a volunteer, and I ran into a long time vintage racing volunteer working ATC. All of you are crazy.

Rally Colorado is centered around Rangely, CO which is a small oil and gas town that’s most of the way to Utah. It’s in the desert, and as we headed out for recce on Friday, I was struck at how it only takes a few miles from the town center until you lose mobile phone reception and you can safely say, “Yup, here I am in the middle of the nowhere.”

I’m not sure if the porta-potty on the side of a desolate road is a national symbol of rally, but it’s absolutely a beacon for Rally Colorado. It took us the entire day to day to write notes and do 2 passes on all 6 stages. I’m pretty confident about all my calls for 1,2 and 6. But any 3 might have been a 4, and any 4 might have been a 3 or a 5, and any 5 might have been a 4. Such decisions started pretty rough, got better as I got into a groove, and worse as I got tired. Jack questioned some of them, and unilaterally corrected the worst offenders. None of our notes from last year were of any use–either we did the stages the opposite direction, or they were completely new. I should probably try the tape on the steering wheel thing. We got through it with about half an hour to spare. Thankfully, Dan was able to take the car through tech for us, otherwise we’d never have finished.

I’m not sure about this whole 30mph recce speed limit. I was, at times, cruising along at 50mph only to have to pull over for folks doing recce in pickup trucks at speeds that were probably above my rally pace. I will say that doing the second pass a bit faster helps a lot to see if the notes are any good.

Taken on its face, recce is absurd. “What did you do today?” “We drove 150 miles on some godforsaken roads writing down a bad textual description of them. And then we drove another 150 miles across the same roads to validate that our textual descriptions were, in fact, bad.”

We headed off to Parc Exposé which was in the parking lot of the Rangely Automotive Museum, and which would have been a little more pleasant had there been any shade. A bunch of people said that they thought my car was awesome, or their favorite, or that they were rooting for me. Most of them were shocked to find out that the hood was concealing 1.8l of stock BMW fury.

After exposé, we were to parade up and then down (unless it was down and then up) Main Street on penalty of $100. I remembered to bring some candy for Jack to throw at the kids this time.

Day 1 started with Dragon’s Trail, 12 miles of tight turns, a ton of elevation gain and loss, and a few gnarly exposures without much in the way of big speed sections. I drove conservatively, trying to get the hang of processing the notes, the feel of the car, and remembering how this whole thing works from my whopping 2 previous stages of experience.

As we got to the section of gnarly switchbacks where a mistake meant rolling hundreds of feet down a mountain, I backed off from slow and was immediately passed by the only car who started behind me. He never should have been behind me, in a STI and with a ton of experience, but no ARA-relevant times so they put him at the back. Since there were only 24 entries, the organizers used a 2 minute gap for dust at all stages–this means that over about 8 minutes, this guy passed me after starting 2 minutes behind me.

And it was terrifying. I, of course, had no idea he was back there with the dust until he got next to me. I braked hard to let him by quickly as we both charged toward a pretty impressive void. As he passed me, he got seriously sideways and it looked like he was going to slide right off the mountain. Somehow he managed to keep the car on the road, and I came to a complete stop for 30 seconds or so because I couldn’t see anything. I have no idea how he successfully passed me, and I’m pretty annoyed at the organizers for having him start behind me, even after he’d asked to be moved up.

I was driving slowly, and the car is really slow on the big uphill sections. I was still pretty crushed to find out that I was more than a minute slower than lateness on the first stage. I felt bad for Jack, who’s co-driven for some fast drivers. I still cannot fathom what it’s like to drive that section at the 14:03 pace the leader managed. I did it that first time in 19:02. The Jetta in front of me was also just over lateness, but was still a minute faster than me!

Still, my first stage, I finished, didn’t crash, and the car didn’t break. I resolved to push harder. But, uhhh…. not on the next stage. Which was Cathedral–4 miles of terrifying exposures with a super slick silt-covered surface that might give you pause at tourist speeds.

While waiting for ATC on the next stage, we talked to the Subaru driver who passed us because, of course, his arrival time was still a minute ahead of ours. There was clearly no room to let him around between ATC and the start, so we decided that Jack would walk our timecard in ahead of him on our minute. Unfortunately, he misunderstood, and arrived early even for our minute and wound up with a penalty. I felt bad about that, but at least he started in front of us. I crawled through the next stage, and was not at all surprised that I was still slowest. By a lot. But at least I beat lateness, so I didn’t feel nearly as worthless.

The third stage, Presser, was a mile long, probably flat out for those with confidence. After the finish is a a left 3 without a lot of grip and a huge drop-off on the outside. During recce, I told Jack to be sure to get my attention, because it would be all too easy to go straight off the mountain and wind up on top of the oil well at the bottom of the mountain. I’m scared of big speed on dirt (at 80mph, I just feel like keeping the car straight is too hard), so I knew this would be another big loser for me.

While waiting for the start behind the Subaru we’d let in front of us the stage before, a volunteer suddenly demanded that we pull into the shrubbery to let Sweep onto the course in front of us. Clearly not a good sign. After half an hour, we were cleared to transit the stage and warned that medical was on scene at the finish and go slowly.

As we crossed the finish, I told Jack that I didn’t see medical or any car off, and he wondered if they’d cleared it already. And then, as we came around that tight left we saw it, a green Jetta on its side at the bottom of the mountain, leaning up against the oil rig, surrounded by lots of people.

I felt terrible. I didn’t get a good look at it, but the car looked obliterated and it had dropped a long way at what must have been pretty high speed. It was pretty clear that they hadn’t gotten anyone out of it in half an hour, and that just seemed like it meant the worst. I remembered seeing on Facebook that the co-driver was super excited about getting a ride at her first rally. I wondered what it would mean for rally if we killed someone 2 weekends in a row. As we headed back to service, we passed a firetruck screaming out of town at full speed.

It put a pretty big damper on any excitement I might have felt at getting back to service for the first time in a rally. Dan checked over the car and couldn’t find anything wrong with it, so we headed back out. We had to drive the car out of service, but were instructed to leave there and walk back with an estimated hour delay while they got medical in position for the next stage after handling the incident.

The next 3 stages were a repeat of the first 3. Dragon’s Trail went slightly faster (I at least made the lateness minute), and I was starting to feel like I was getting in a groove. I drove like a grampa through Presser, basically coming to a stop at the flying finish. The remains of the Jetta was on its feet, its occupants having been transported the hospital.

There was supposed to be a second service, followed by another run through Dragon’s Trail, but the medical delay meant that was canceled. When we got back to the service park, Sterling (who’d been volunteered for Sweep after only having signed up for tech) informed us that the driver and co-driver were alive and were expected to be transferred to Grand Junction for care. The driver suffered multiple fractured vertebrae and the co-driver broke her pelvis, but both were expected to recover.

Much beer that night, a pretty good sleep, and we headed out for day 2.

The first transit greeted me with a terrible vibration starting around 40mph. It got worse until about 55mph, and disappeared by 65mph. It only did it under acceleration, so it was clear it was something in the drivetrain. Driveshaft, differential, or axles. I wanted to go back to service and figure it out–as a track driver, you don’t set out to drive at speed in a car that has something wrong. Jack said we could do that, and he’d be fine with that call, but thought I should understand that meant we’d be done with the rally. You can’t just go back, check stuff out and continue with a penalty.

So I decided to press on.

We started out with Earl’s Bad Day, which we ran last year in the opposite direction as Earl’s Revenge. It’s a bit less scary in this direction, but only a bit. I felt more comfortable in the car, pushed a bit harder, and Jack said he felt like I was doing a lot better as a driver. The car did not explode, though the vibration got worse. The second stage, Quest for Darwin, had a bunch of technical stuff with some super fast sections. I bailed around 85mph on the super fast stuff, because it was also covered with a bunch of super slick silt that just made it unpredictable.

There was some delay getting ready for the final stage. Something about the 0 car. I’m not sure if this true about rally in general, but at least with Rally Colorado the volunteers are terrible about communicating what’s actually going on. All we knew was a delay.

While waiting, we ran into a fellow Formula Vee driver who was spectating, which was completely unexpected. Lots of folks wanted to know about rallying an E30 and were super supportive, kind and encouraging. Spectators were gathered for the start, and you could see the first few stages. I made a mental note to drive the L1 in plain view sideways, albeit slow. As long as you’re sideways, kicking up dirt, and making a ton of noise, they can’t tell how slow you’re going, right?

I think I did a pretty good job of it, making good use of my hydro brake. The stage felt good, though the vibration had turned into full on clunking–it was clear some part of the drivetrain was hitting the underbody under power.

As we cruised through it, we came upon the completely destroyed Subaru of David Peretz and Cora Masson just sitting on its side We’d met Cora the night before–she was a first time co-driver with zero experience or training but a ton of energy and excitement. They were holding the OK sign and a tow strap.

I was last. I had absolutely nothing to lose. But this seemed like a crazy plan to me. “Is this a thing?” I asked Jack as I came to a stop. “Sure!” he said, like he did this every Tuesday. David hooked up the tow strap, and I tried to create as much of a lateral angle between my car and his, even though mostly the tow strap angle seemed like it’d just drag the car on its side at best. As the tow strap got tight, I gave it the beans as the mighty M42 spun the rear wheels and we inched forward. I watched in my rearview mirror as the Subaru amazingly tumbled on to its wheels like something in a movie, kicking out a giant cloud of dust as it landed. I reversed a bit for some tow strap slack, and David got us unhooked immediately and smacked the rear window to let us know we were good. The whole thing probably took less than 15 seconds.

As we got to the end of the stage, I told Jack, “That feels like the most rally thing I’ve done all day.” “No,” Jack said, “You drove a rally car all day. That’s way more rally.”

David and Cora passed us on the next transit while I was pulling off my helmet and getting a drink of water on the side of the road. They were producing a truly extraordinary amount of foul-smelling smoke, but they were moving under their own power!

We got to service, and Dan quickly diagnosed the problem as a trashed CSB. The rubber surrounding the bearing was non-existent, so the center of the driveshaft was just flailing around and smacking into the now-deformed metal that used to hold the rubber. He tried shoving some carefully-formed beer cans in there, but I don’t think it made any difference.

Additionally, the trunk latch seems to have lost the C clip that holds it closed, because BMW. Some zip ties to the rescue…

The final 3 stages were a repeat of the previous 3. At this point, it came to pass that I was 13th overall, and 2nd in class. Despite being the absolute slowest by a truly stupid amount of time. Jack pointed out that all I had to do to podium was finish. I had lost track of the number of upside down and destroyed cars that I’d passed on stage. My feeling at this point was a not-very-rally, “You know, if they didn’t drive so fast, maybe they’d finish.”

The second run of Earl’s Bad Day went great. The notes were on, the sun was behind some clouds, and it was like only 95 degrees. I was feeling good. We headed into Quest for Darwin with a, “let’s just finish,” resolve. The stage went great. We passed a disabled car on one of the fast sections, and I cautiously motored past.

And then we crashed. It was a right 4. It looked fine, I turned in, the turn tightened, I turned more, and nothing happened. I hit the brakes, and it felt like sped up as we smashed into the side of Colorado. It seemed like too hard a hit to continue from, and sure enough, the car wouldn’t go anywhere.

Sweep dragged us closer to the finish where it’d be easier to get the car on the trailer.

Fortunately, my Formula Vee friend Jared who was working one of the radio points had enough phone service to get in touch with Joanna and Dan who came and got us. The top of the shock and the control arm were snapped. Getting it on the trailer was a ton of fun–we actually managed to balance the wheel assembly in place and brace it with ratchet straps and zip ties to winch it on.

Fixing this is going to suck. The wheel smashing into the fender well moved my dead pedal about six inches and ripped a hole in the sheet metal under the clutch. The hotbits strut is welded in to the knuckle, because BMW. I have to somehow cut the old one out, and weld a new one in. First, I have to find a new one, which you can’t just order on a website because hot bits is some random thing in Malaysia so I have to fill out a web form and figure out how to order it. Not that I know what to order, since the part number was scribbled on it in sharpie 20 years ago and isn’t legible now.

But, I guess I’ll order a welder and figure out how to fix things, because I’m not very good at doing the math on either effort/reward or risk/reward ratios.

Crash Video

Quest for Darwin (full video that leads to crash)

Cathedral (scary, so slow)

Earl’s Bad Day

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