Monday, July 14, 2008

You never forget your first.....(long)

I know I never will. Moonlight Monte, 1970. 1964 Corvair Fitch Sprint. DNF with a dozen stories I still tell.

About three weeks ago Andrew Havas from Havspeed texted me inquiring of my availability for the New England Forest Rally. I’ve always (not so) secretly wanted to tackle some nice smooth Cherokee – like roads (where I first heard, then saw the RX-7 at Cherokee in 2001) with Andrew. I checked with Heath (Nunnemacher) to make totally certain that our engine woes at STPR were going to preclude entry at NEFR and texted back to Andrew, “let’s talk."

He called and informed me that unfortunately he had little funds and less time for driving these days, but was finishing up some cage work on the ex-Brian Goss (the human version) now Eric Hansen (no, not the one from Team O’Neil) ’95 Neon and would I be willing to break in a newbie.

I had to think about that one a bit. All of my rides have had Rally or Racing experience, understood the game and most of its nuances, and had exhibited strong tendencies for self (and consequently MY) preservation! But a good chat with Eric convinced me that his short years on this planet was an unfair estimate of his reasonable maturity and a deal was struck.

Then it hit me. No notes! In Rally America events, drivers are not allowed to have high powered 4WD cars or race on organizer supplied Jemba notes. They’re supposed to putter through the courses without enough power to hurt themselves and not enough information to abandon driving what they see. It had been 2002 since I had co-driven a stage off the route book. What had I gotten myself into?

But like a good co-driver I checked the rules (and not in an area I’d normally be concerned with) and it would be LEGAL for us to use course notes since the co-driver (moi!) has at least 20 coefficients (oh, yeah… LEAST!!!).

Andrew advised Eric that this would be an incredible boost to his learning curve (since without these notes we would run with just the tulip instructions about every ½ mile or so). With one exception of an instructor at Team O’Neil (Wyatt I think) who already had great car handling ability, no R-A driver had begun his career using notes. This was going to be a great experiment.

I met up with Eric the first time Thursday morning (he’d arrived at the condo at Sunday River at some ridiculous hour of the night before that only twenty-somethings recognize) and we headed off for a cup of coffee and the recce route in Berlin, New Hampshire.

The plan was that Eric would drive my Dodge Journey rental and I would read the Jemba notes so he could put together the visual observation with the audible one and start to make a connection. As with any driver, I was editing on the fly mostly just explaining the direction and nature of each approaching driving action. He was a serious student and was going to get his money’s worth out of his investment. Within a couple of hours, he was beginning to make the connection. By the end of the day, we were both convinced he at least INTELLECTUALLY understood the link. What would happen the next day….at speed….on real stages….would be a different matter!

Eric is a rallycrosser, so the first Mickey Mouse stage behind our condo at Brookside was little more than a shot at one of his RallyX runs. In a disappointed tone he informed me he hadn’t heard a thing I said in the first 48 seconds of his rally career. But one thing was certain. This was gonna be fun! He wasn’t shy about throwing the Neon around.

We then transited over to Mexico rather silently. Eric’s an interesting dichotomy. As gregarious and schmoozy as he can be in a crowd, he’s totally opposite in the rally car. Focused and quiet. That’s a good sign. It was a silent ride to the Mexico Rec area while we both pondered what was ahead.

We did talk about how to handle the infamous jump at this well known and well attended Super Special. It’s notorious for suckering competitors into breaking their cars (and it did not disappoint this weekend….ask little Burke), and we decided potentially ending his seat time with under a mile of stage was not a good idea. With apologies to the crowd we pooched the jump on purpose. Reports from other spectators, however, are that the sweeping right up onto pavement at the finish looked terrific. And our time pretty well confirmed it. To my surprise this time he told me he not only heard everything I’d said, but he “felt” it all fit together.

We ran the three more real stages into the evening ending up on super fun Concord Pond. Again I wouldn’t let him fly the jumps (well, OK…we did get some air over the “Big Crest” drop off about a mile from the finish), and put the first Regional Rally in the books.

Back to the barn with his first rally under his belt and his first win. It’s not our fault there was only one Prod car entrant in the Regionals. A win’s a win and he drove well enough to deserve it.

I’m not sure Eric understood the Friday stages were just a warm-up, but he had a pretty stern look on his face when it finally sunk in that Saturday’s stages would be three times the mileage of Friday’s.

Feeling pretty cocky with his first place trophy rattling around in his head, he set out Saturday as if to challenge our Havspeed stable mates, the PGT entry of Scott Wilburn and Aaron Crescenti. Now these guys WON one of the Regionals at STPR outright!

Question. How many offs can you have in one 15 mile stage and still be running? At least 3! We’re calling this one Eric’s Red Mist Stage. The first one occurred in a sweeping left hander which had the whole car off (on my side, of course….he’s got that part right) and very lucky to be able to jostle the car back and forth and finally drive out. Well, thought I, that should be a lesson that would get his head in the game.

But critiquing on the fly just doesn’t work. The co-driver loses his place in the notes. The driver loses concentration. And someone’s feelings usually get hurt. So we were going to discuss what happened over the hour or so we had at the turn-around.

Not 4 miles later, I was calling him into an 80 L4/Cr>. About half way to the crest I got the unmistakable feeling that he was thinking this was about a 5+ and setting the car up under full throttle with my bellowing “this is a L4, 4, 4!"

In hindsight, that was pretty dumb of me. What right did I have thinking he would translate my urgent “4’s” as useful? My words should have been “Slow the hell down!!!!!” But I’m a co-driver and I was teaching a driver. You don’t immerse yourself in Hispanic culture to learn Spanish and then speak English, do you?

This time we landed hard. I thought at first we were going over, but he managed to keep it on the wheels and we were hung up on rocks and not moving. I grabbed the detestable symbol of defeat (the triangle) and headed back up the road to the crest. I was about to place the warning when a big ruckus down at the car informed me that the media types on the hill had swept down and helped the car off the rocks. I ran back down off the crest and jumped in the car suggesting we move to the inside of this little L4/Cr> so we wouldn’t get collected by Rick Spaulding who was behind us. We settled down a bit and took our time getting buckled in. Rick passed us and the car of Conor Malone and Glenna Chestnutt pulled up along side us. The rule says if you don’t see an “OK” sign or a “Red Cross” or a triangle, you ASSUME it to be a Red Cross situation which requires you to stop. They did exactly the right thing. I just had my head down trying to get the damned buckles to snap. It took us a while to convince Malone/Chestnutt we were OK and off we both went. It would behoove R-A to work out some procedure for what to do after a triangled incident while a team is buckling up getting ready to re-enter the course. I vote for flashers indicating everything’s OK, but who am I.

All buckled up and back on the road, I’m just CERTAIN he’s learned his lesson by now. How silly of me! Just to add insult to injury (and balance the damage on both sides of the car) we took a quick ditch visit on the outside of a R3 (said ditch being full of melon sized boulders) ripping the left rear tire off the rim with about 4 miles to go. It’s a rear, so we drove it to the finish, but it wasn’t pretty. I’d had this type of experience up here with Matthew Johnson two years ago and it cost us the win in PGT.

In 15 miles we’d probably done $1500 worth of damage. I hate to think what percentage of the purchase price that represents!

Question 2. Did you ever have one of those incidents like maybe playing baseball at lunch and sliding into home in school and you tore your pants? Then you had to parade into your next class with your pink plaid boxer shorts hanging out? That’s how we felt after the finish control driving past all the earlier cars who were turned around waiting to run the stage in reverse. Destroyed tire carcass. Rim all bent up and busted. Fender lining hanging out and dragging and noisy. You don’t sneak around with car in this condition! Eric was a tad dejected to say the least.

Then Travis Pastrana saw us and gave us a big grin and a thumbs up…then Chris….and Matthew and others. You’re in the fraternity now, Eric!

Tire changed (and another spare borrowed from Alan Moody in another ’95 Neon) and we set out on that same treacherous stage backwards.

To say that Eric had been humbled would be an understatement. My right foot kept mashing down that imaginary gas peal all us co-drivers have on our side of the car! He came back out on that road about 6/10 the pace he went in on. He’d learned a lesson. That’s what he was here for. It was going to be a long day.

Back in Berlin, our service crew had a lot of “stuff” to deal with in 30 minutes from our multiple excursions, and ended up doing triage figuring some things weren’t going to get done in time. We had bent spindles and arms, a huge poke in the gas tank which put the pickup so high in the tank that we only had the effective use of about 5 gallons (even thought the tank was full). We had a small gas tank leak (not terminal) and a dragging skip plate.

To make along story loud, we drove the 54 mile transit, the 17 ½ mile stage and the other 9 mile transit to the next service dragging the skip plate. Mostly it sounded like a snow plow on dry pavement. We did finally realize that it was aerodynamic, because over 60 mph it actually picked up off the pavement and gave us a break! This was REALLY going to be a long day!

In the middle of the 54 mile transit we were watching the fuel gauge start to drop precipitously. We’d been following ACP’s monster service crew trucks at speeds so slow it was jeopardizing our ability to get to the start control on time….and we were running out of effective usable fuel. We made the decision to stop at a gas station (allowed at this event as “emergency fuel”) and top off the tank. We put almost two gallons in. Yeah…I know….late to a control for two gallons. But better a couple of minutes late than dead in the water with a faulty pickup that won’t yield more than 5 gallons.

Fuel maximized we set out to try to make the start control with minimal time penalties. This is an obsession with me. It actually got Heath and I kicked out of the 100AW for trying to get to an MTC on time and speeding to do so. I HATE road points. I REFUSE to allow road points to enter my score card. Rallies are lost by co-drivers who get their teams road points. And this trip took some creative driving, although we were never more than 5 mph over the allowed speed (that’s the margin before an official will start awarding penalties). And we got some strange looks as this white Neon snow plow snarled past slower vehicles, but we made the ATC with about 1-1/2 minutes in hand. The South Mountain stage was long and noisy, but otherwise uneventful…..oh…except my intercom microphone finally failed and I had to yell over the car noise and the skid plate noise to give Eric the notes. It came back a bit for us on the next stage, but failed by the end. For the last stage we swapped helmets. Drivers don’t have anything useful to say at speed. They’re supposed to be concentrating! I offered to swap seats, and Eric actually offered, but that’s not what I was here for.

So the kid won the first two rallies he entered. He’s now a rock star! He’s already developed a nice flair with the Sharpies on adoring fan’s posters. He’s on a first name basis with Travis and Ken and Matthew and Andy. He does the post rally bar scene like a pro!

Do I think notes with a novice works? I’ll answer with a qualified ‘yes.’ Qualified because the current rule calls for 20 coefficients in the right seat. That’s not enough for the job I did this past weekend. Minimally that would be the Regionals associated with 4 National rallies…possibly less than a half a season.

Doing this with a beginner is 50% more difficult than jumping in with an experienced driver. With the experienced driver each can count on some basic understanding of each other’s roles…or at least have the language to sort them out. With the total novice (even a talented one like Eric and they all won’t be that competent off the shelf), the experienced co-driver takes the responsibility for the whole enchilada….like not using Jemba language to save the 2nd off… bad.

Actually the thought of a part-time co-driver with 20 coefficients doing what I did last weekend scares the hell out of me. I’ve got a lot of years in this game (and many other forms of rally) and I didn’t get it all correct this weekend by a long shot. I’m sure there are others who would make better teachers. But they’re a Marc Goldfarb, or a Jimmy Brandt (oh, I'll pay for that one), or a Martin Headland, or a Doug Woods, or a Cindy Krolikowski, or a Keith Morison, or a Rob Bohm,..….not a sophomore with 20 coefficients.

Eric will recognize the full impact of his Red Mist Stage as he invests in band-aids and transplants to bring his Neon back up to fighting trim. But that won’t deter him. He’s hooked. You never forget your first.

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