As I wrote previously, my other half and I will be driving Car 0, the course opening car, at the Black River Stages rally on September 19-20. Upon hearing that I get to basically drive the rally in a non-competitive role, people often ask me how I got such an awesome job. Well, I’ll tell you.
Like many rally fans, I got hooked when I happened to find it on TV and the internet, since media coverage in the US is slim to none. Eventually I heard about the New England Forest Rally (then known as the Maine Forest Rally, since it didn’t cross the New Hampshire border as it does now), which took place just a couple of hours away from where I lived in Maine at the time. Anyone can go spectate, but then I learned that they were looking for amateur radio operators to run the communications net for the rally. I’ve been licensed since long before I even heard about rally, and had done similar communications work at walk-a-thons, running races, bicycle races, etc. So I signed up to volunteer. I was assigned to a marshal position that had a great view of a long downhill into a sharp right turn over a bridge and onto a long straightaway. It was a far better view than any spectator area! My job was simple – block the side road, listen on the radio for the start announcing car numbers when they started, and check them off my list when they passed me. Also, if someone blew the turn and drove off the bridge near me, I could call for help on the radio if needed. Fortunately, everything went smoothly, and all I had to do was watch cars go by.
I did this for a few years, and became a regular volunteer. At some point I got assigned to work radio at the start and finish, being the person calling out the car numbers on the air. Eventually, a fellow rally fan and volunteer I knew from general chit-chat on the ham radio became Chief of Communications for NEFR. Knowing that I had autocross and track experience plus a couple of days at Team O’Neil Rally School under my belt, he asked if I would like to be the radio operator for the Medical Sweep vehicle (driven by his wife, the Chief of Medical). He knew I had radio skills, and that the fast driving on stage wouldn’t spook me. Of course I jumped at the opportunity. What I didn’t realize at first was that I would also be her co-driver! We had no stage notes, just the route book with basic directions. Having done a few TSD rallies I quickly picked up on the tulips, and my driver was very patient with me learning them. We drove at a brisk pace, but not super fast, being in a Ford Explorer instead of a rally car, and also because we were constantly keeping our eyes open for crashed or disabled cars along the stages, stopping frequently to check on them and give rides back to the finish or service area. Eventually the medical team was doubled up with Fast Sweep, eliminating my now redundant job since the Fast Sweep driver also had a radio license. I continued volunteering as a regular radio operator as my schedule permitted.
The first time I went to Black River Stages was as part of Dirty Rallysport’s service crew, not as an event volunteer. We borrowed a welder from another team at midnight and tried to repair a split strut tower until 3:00am when driver Eric Wages gave his “do not resuscitate” order, fearing that a desperate repair now might make a proper repair later more difficult. I’d planned to rejoin the team the following year, but then Facebook posts started flying among the rally community seeking a co-driver for Car 0, since his driver’s regular co-driver couldn’t make it. I wrote back, explaining my experience and offering my services. They asked a lot of questions about my skills, which was quite fair since they needed someone they knew would be competent for the job. Typically, you don’t get a job in a course car unless the organizers know you, like you, and know that you can do it safely. In the end, I got the job.
Car 0 is seriously next level compared to sweep. Basically, we are the final look at the stage immediately before the competitors run it. Because everyone is waiting on us to declare the stage open for competition, we run the stage fast. Quite fast. Not competition fast since we don’t have stage notes, but we run it as fast as safely possible. There are no competitors to stop for like sweep does – we only stop if we see a problem along the stage that needs to be fixed before competition, which usually is not the case. Due to the higher speeds, my job as co-driver became even more important than before. It went well, with only one major mistake that sent us airborne off a big jump that I didn’t expect until a few tenths of a mile later. In the end, we figured out that the mileage in the road book was wrong, not my co-driving. We finished successfully with nothing more than a new dent in his skidplate – a memento of a good time. Car 0 is the closest you can get to competing in a rally without actually competing.
The Empire State Performance Rally restarted the former Rally New York (the only all tarmac rally in the US) under NASA Rally Sport sanction in 2013. It was even closer to home for me than Black River Stages, so I volunteered for course or sweep car duty. I ended up co-driving an old full size Blazer in the sweep team with a driver who had never been to a rally before. He did great, and we had a wonderful time. Though strangers at first, we worked so well together that we planned to team up again the following year. Then I met Elana, who, in addition to becoming my girlfriend, is also a rally fan. We volunteered the two of us and her Jeep Liberty as a complete sweep team and vehicle, and our offer was accepted. The best part, for me, was that she wanted me to drive her Jeep because I had the experience. Yes, she’s a keeper.
I taught her everything I’d learned about co-driving, and we figured out a system that would work for us. We even watched in-car video from the previous year’s event so she could see some of the stages and I could explain what’s involved. It was a bit of a leap for her to go from never having been to a rally to sitting in the “silly seat” of a sweep vehicle, but she did wonderfully. My driving didn’t scare her, and her directions never led me astray. Like I said, a keeper.
Our success at ESPR led us to volunteer for Black River Stages together. Rather than sweep, we were assigned the job of Combo Car. BRS is also a RallyMoto event, which is basically stage rally for dual sport motorcycles. Combo Car is a combination of sweep for the motorcycles, who run first, and course opening for the cars, who only run after the Combo Car confirms that all of the bikes are clear. You can read all about it here, but to summarize, it went quite well, and we discovered that the only thing a Jeep Compass does decently is being a rally course car.
This year, they want to try to assign people with medical training to be Combo Car. It’s a smart decision – the bikers can easily get hurt because they don’t have roll cages, and the Combo Car is the first responder if someone crashes and can’t keep going. After some discussion, due to our experience and current lack of a vehicle appropriate for sweep duty, we were assigned Car 0. Considering how we did in the Combo Car role last year, it’s a small leap, but a big honor, to get to wear the single goose egg on our doors this time around.
So how do you do what I did?
- Start at the bottom, as a stage marshal. Don’t feel bad – it’s the best seat in the house, one that I still enjoy working when I can’t drive.
- Work a lot of rallies. Gain some experience.
- Work start/finish controls to see how they work. I’m working finish for an SCCA RallySprint this weekend.
- Listen to the radio net with your friendly neighborhood amateur radio operator.
- Get an amateur radio license. Technician class (the bottom of the three levels) is all you need for rally.
- Get a mobile radio and magnetic mount antenna for the 2 meter (144-148MHz) band that you can install in any vehicle, not just your own.
- If you have no performance driving experience, get some. Rallycross is good because it’s on dirt, but autocross and HPDE are fine too.
- Volunteer for sweep. If you don’t have a truck or SUV, talk a friend who does into doing sweep with you.
- Be willing to co-drive if they already have all the drivers they need. The amateur radio license and equipment can make the difference here if the driver isn’t licensed.
- Get to know people. Build a good reputation for yourself. Obey Wheaton’s Law.
- Volunteer for course opening. Usually the same people do this every year, but people drop out on occasion and need replacement.
- Don’t crash. Seriously, it’s happened.
If your services aren’t needed for course opening or sweep, volunteer anyway. According to Anders Green, Director of NASA Rally Sport East, half of the volunteers at Black River Stages the past two years are people who have never worked a rally before. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does make the experienced people that much more valuable. Plus, being willing to help where help is needed, whether it’s in a car or not, keeps you in the event organizers’ good graces. When an opportunity does arise, they’ll be more likely to keep you in mind.