The last time I raced rally cars in America was two years ago at Oregon Trail Rally (OTR), where the Wheels Of Teal™ had it’s best finish ever: 4th overall. One small step and about a minute off the podium in a National Rally Championship event. It was a great result. And strangely, it made me not want to race for a little while. If you’re only as good as your last result, I was content to be judged by that one for a while.
“Honestly, I’m not really planning on it.” That was my response when Rage Films called me a couple of months ago and asked if I was going to race the OTR in May. And I honestly wasn’t. At my last Rally America event, I’d had three days of trouble-free racing and finished among teams that were spending 30x my race budget. If the payback to privateer racers isn’t money or celebrity, it must be pride in a job well done. So why not rest on my laurels for a spell after the best performance of my life?
“Why are you asking?” I queried the caller from Rage. He replied they wanted to feature me as the privateer counterpoint to returning Pro, Travis Pastrana for the NBC Sports program they were filming. I knew that having Rage around would complicate further an always-complicated race weekend. But I also new that the race’s dynamic might change too. Maybe we’d make asses of ourselves on national television. Or maybe we’d find something new about ourselves or each other in the crucible of racing in plain view of a sizable public. Either way, I figured it would make for a memorable weekend. All the better if we could relive it on NBC. I told him we were in.
Oregon Trail is the first rally race I ever saw in person. In 2002, my Dad and I drove his new WRX to the coast hills to watch Subaru battle it out with all-comers. I remember helicopters following the lead cars. I remember seeing brake-lights flashing on race cars in places on the road that made no sense at all. I remember the amazing roads and the hardened spectators. And the noise. And the speed.
People start rally racing for the speed. The sound of anti-lag popping and chirping, the champagne smell of burnt race gas, the jumps, the gravel roost, the close calls–they’re all quite alluring. A driver starts to race rally for all of these reasons. I think racers stay–despite the danger, and the expense–for the teamwork and the comradery that comes from doing battle together.
I think well-made and well-read pace notes are the closest thing there is to magic. Approaching a blind crest in 6th gear, every self-preserving cell in my being says to lift. To brake. The words “Mid-right, flat-over-crest” mean I will jump a blind crest on a gravel road without lifting the throttle from the floorboard. And a car and two people will land perfectly on the other side of that hill, going very, very fast. At that moment, a car and a driver and a co-driver are more than the sum of their parts. As trust in the notes builds, commitment to them, despite devastating consequences if wrong, becomes all-encompassing. Our race, our car, our lives depend on the notes. And the person reading them. And the person hearing them. It’s stressful. And sometimes scary. And it’s deeply satisfying when everything is working.
OTR is the only three-day rally event in the Championship. A night of super-special stages at PIR in Portland, followed by two long days of proper gravel roads near Hood River and Dufur. The crowds are big and the stages are awkward at PIR (here’s one of the corners there–we’re at 4:57–https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F18jUTqTNfk). Every team has to remind themselves that there are very few seconds to be gained at PIR–and that totaling your car in the first 5 minutes of a 3 day race is dumb. And every year, a few people throw it away there. Adam and I lost a few seconds. And we didn’t throw it away. Shakedown done, we headed to Hood River to get some sleep.
Day two this year was in Dufur, the usual final day of OTR. Dufur stages are FAST!!! So fast that they have to put chicanes into most stages to keep the average speed below the 85mph maximum allowed by Rally America. The stages started out well and we were getting pretty comfortable. On the first long stage, Big Boyd, we saw David Higgins’ tire tread lying limp in the road only a few miles into the 15 mile stage. Turns out he punctured almost right away, and drove on it for 14 of 15 miles. Unbelievably, he still beat us by a minute on that stage, despite our clean run! So the Subaru Rally Team cars were pulling pretty hard on the long straights then!!
On the second pass of that long stage, the defining moment of the weekend came for AC and I. Several miles into the stage, I saw a black mushroom cloud on the horizon. I pointed it out to Adam, and hoped that it was a spectator burning something, but knowing that it was a car on fire. For 30 seconds, I drove at race pace and steeled myself for the reality to unfold around the corner. A car is on fire. Are there people in that car? Will we be able to get to them? How badly are they going to be burned? How badly will we be burned trying to get to them?
100+ mph, brake into a right 5+ into another long straight. Exiting the corner we can see that the car is completely engulfed in flame. In the foreground are two helmeted people. In the background: Nick Robert’s new STI race car is a fire ball. Nick started this stage 1 minute ahead of us. In one minute, he’d lost his eyelashes, his codriver had sustained burns to her hands and face, and their car was essentially gone.
Rhianon Gelsomino was in pain. She was begging for water to pour over her badly blistered hands and face. We had none. And we were alone. Right or wrong, I made the decision that I would drive her to help along the stage. Protocol is to assist the victims and send the next race car along to alert radio who will send medics to the site of the incident. Much to the chagrin of some EMTs, Rhianon and I drove at 60% along the stage, taking people’s water and looking for radio and medical assistance. It was a long stage, so it took a while, but we found the medics and they attended to Rhi’s burns. The dusty blankets I have in the trunk of my race car for keeping my bicycles from rubbing on each other came in handy. They helped keep a burned up and soaking wet co-driver warm while I kicked at stones in the road and called my Dad and Tina to let them know we were alright.
Upon returning to the service area, I could feel emotion welling up inside me. I’m usually pretty Cool-Hand-Luke about things, so this was going to be interesting. When the Rage Films guys came by for an interview, I held it together for a little while, but eventually had a total loss of composure on camera. I think the stress of those moments before we saw that Nick and Rhi were out of the car weighed heavily on me. I had to go for a walk. Adam came and sat next to me by the creek that flows through town and said that we could load up the car and head home if I wanted to–no worries. I said I’d be fine–just give me a moment. I returned to our pits and had a sandwich and a soda and composed myself.
The rest of the day was a little surreal, with updates about Rhi coming organically through the rally community at the event. Adam’s seat and our notes were soaked from Rhi’s water for a little while, but they dried out, and we were driving and co-driving well. Word was that Rhi was at hospital and would make a full recovery. Additionally, we were still kinda hauling-ass for two cyclists in a 21-year-old Subaru. Everything was right with the world again. At the close of the day, we checked the “scores” as rally people call the results. Turns out AC had made a rare clerical error with our time card, netting us several minutes in penalties. He was pissed! I was a little pissed and told him I wasn’t. I told him that at the end of the weekend, there was a good chance it wouldn’t matter. I was being magnanimous, but it was also true.
The day 3 stages around Hood River are awesome. Slower, more technical, and intensely beautiful, these roads are where AC and I usually do our best work. And where other teams are often caught out. The first two stages were great. We were 6th or 7th on the road, which is the sweet spot. There are enough cars in front of you to sweep the roads and turn up the grippier wet earth underneath. And you can see the lines and the braking marks of the top drivers–something to learn from and sometimes aspire to. Occasionally–every once in a while–we leave tracks where nobody else has. And I know our line is better than everyone ahead of us. More often, I’m on my own line and it’s crap. But occasionally, I do something better than the best guys. I cherish the rare instances this happens.
On the third stage of the day, I told Adam I was going to commit more over a fast crest into a technical section. We’d already run this stage earlier in the day and I felt I’d left a second or two on the table at that crest. There was room to brake after it. I could take it flat. And that’s what I did. I was a man of my word. I kept the long pedal pinned over the crest. And wow, were we committed! Overcommitted even! I braked hard and had the car rotating left and (possibly?) ready to flick into a right hander at the bottom of a narrow hill. And then the grip went. And we went. Off the road and into the bushes at about 10mph. I tried to drive back to the road–and left some impressive tracks!–but we were stuck, and the race was over. (see the in-car at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=psw-5OwdImU)
After the last of the back-markers had raced past, we were yanked out of the woods by a pickup truck. That’s when I noticed that the brakes didn’t work! Instead of the surface getting “slipperier than it looked” it was the brakes that had let us down. We’d coasted into the woods instead of skidding into the woods. Ahha! It wasn’t the fault of the driver after all! (Except that the driver had mis-routed the right front brake line and it had touched the inside of the wheel, thus cutting it) Let’s call it the fault of the mechanic. Same person. Just makes me feel better.
AC and I were able to drive back to service with the handbrake, where we loaded the Wheels of Teal™ back on the trailer. Considering we’d just retired for the second time ever from a rally, we were in pretty good spirits. Adam possibly because his clerical error the day before had been washed away by our DNF. I was personally excited that it was the car’s fault rather than the driver’s (tenuous, I know). We were both tickled pink that the brake line hadn’t failed 5 seconds earlier when we were doing 100+ Mph. And the car was unscathed, or lightly scathed, anyway. At the end of the weekend, both of us had made a small mistake. So we were even and we were lucky. Not a bad way to end up.
At the front of the race, Higgins came from behind to beat Pastrana in the final stages to claim the win. Just as he had twelve years ago when I was standing along the stages of Oregon Trail as a spectator.
If my greatest rally success had left me apathetic about racing over the last year or two, this year, OTR left me wanting more. I’m hungry to race and wondering why. Just as a boxer has less to fight for when he’s wearing a championship belt, I was reluctant to make the sacrifice after a great race. But now, having been beaten by foolish errors and oversights–and even after 2 pretty intense brushes with the dangers involved–I’m excited to race again. It’s funny that struggling and ultimately failing has strengthened my resolve to race again, and soon. Perhaps there’s something wrong with me.
Or maybe there isn’t. It’s just that I have a growing thing for Type II fun. Type II fun is delayed onset fun. Something that is challenging or even miserable in real time becomes fun in hindsight. Type II fun is made from testing your mettle and digging deep within yourself physically, emotionally, intellectually. The fun that you see in a Rally on TV–the speed, the noise, the fury–that’s all Type I fun. Kid stuff. Easy to see, and something everyone can appreciate. And I love all that. But I’m finding I love overcoming obstacles and pressing on regardless more. Doing more in a 20 minute service with a roll of duct tape and a handful of zip-ties than we could do in an hour in my garage at home. Limiting losses with an ailing car. And finishing well despite laughable resources.
So with a healthy dose of Type II fun in my system from Oregon Trail, I’m eager to fix and improve the Wheels of Teal™. And I’m excited to return to maximum attack on stage as soon as possible. In the mean time, I’ll have to settle for pushing my limits on the best bicycles in the World and watching myself on NBC Sports this Sunday (6 ET). Join me from your couch and watch the Teal Car with a Heart of Gold™ do battle with the top cars and drivers in the land. And when it’s over, do as I will, and go for a bike ride.
Thanks for coming along,
Giant AC/CD Rally Team
Giant Factory Off-Road Team