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Rally adventureI took a deep breath as the car groaned and clunked to a final stop. The metallic screeching of the rocks jammed in the brake pads always left me wondering how much it was going to cost to put the car back together again, but in reality the odd cacophony of sounds was normal.

The Bruised Banana!

It had been a fast ride. The acrid smell of burning brakes filled the air and as I looked over to the passenger seat, all I could see was a big smile on my wife’s face underneath her helmet. It was a slightly frosty morning in the Okanagan and some local rally enthusiasts had worked hard to get access permissions on a section of forestry road so we could safely do some testing. For me, it was an opportunity to fulfill some promises to winners of tickets for a ride along, allowing our charity to earn some extra money from time to time.

Today I had taken a few guys for a ride along in my rally car. At some point in it’s life, the car had been appropriately named the Bruised Banana by the volunteer service crew who assembled on these odd weekends to try and get us to the end of a test day or even a full rally event. The name initially came from a yellow and black colour scheme although Jennifer, my co-driver and me had put the car through it’s paces and at one point nearly pitch poled the car end over end, resulting in a very severe stop and a bent chassis somewhat akin to the shape of a banana. I guess in the end the name might simply have been a self fulfilling prophecy.

My intercom system, which was critical in the actual rally events as the co-driver reads notes back to me, attempting to help us as a team to go faster and faster, served another purpose when I did ride alongs… I could hear every squeak and whimper and I had already heard plenty of them from the guys on this particular morning. Mind you, I almost took out a bridge abutment just in front of a police officer with one of my passengers in the car and as I wrestled to straighten out the car just as we squared up for the single car track over the bridge, an “oh my God” from my passenger took some of my attention away. Some of the guys just about leaped out of the car when I came to a stop and I could see the surprise on Jackie’s face as the slightly ashen guys removed their helmets and staggered over to the spectator area.

Rallying should have been invented in Canada. Although, we probably share a lot in common with the Scandinavian countries which turn out so many good drivers. Fast sweeping gravel roads, scenic lakes, good winter weather and enjoyable summers. Rally is a unique sport for a privileged few. There is nothing else which can replicate being so close to out of control in real time, and just as you feel you have it all together, the next unpredictable corner lies ahead! The sport really allowed me to put trust in someone else completely for each event. Rally is without a doubt a team event. You cannot drive a car to win as a driver. If anything, the co-driver is the secret to a fast event. At the beginning of a rally in Canada we do two passes of each stage, which vary in length from typically 5-6kms up to around 35kms. We are allowed to drive through the stages at speeds of no more than 60kph and write a cryptic set of notes which to be delivered perfectly and be accurate when we travel through the next day at speeds of up to 200kph. The reaction of the car on the road at 200kph compared to 60kph is remarkably different and if you make a mistake in the notes, you will likely go out of the event in a massive cloud of dust.

As we do the “recce” passes, I call out the notes to my co-driver verbally. I need to have those same notes read back to me and the co-driver’s job is to use their own personal shorthand to write the notes and then somehow read them back the next day at a perfect pace.

Co-drivers are a breed apart. They think rally drivers are somewhat insane and yet they get a kick out of sitting in the next seat as an almost helpless spectator yet confined to the seat with a 5 point harness and helmet… small consolation when something goes wrong at over 100kph on a single track forest stage. Despite the fear and unpredictability of each and every turn, typically, very tight relationships form between co-drivers and drivers and it is absolutely true that in some measure, each partner agrees to put their life in to the hands of the other.

The point is, you can’t drive fast enough by looking at the road. What we need to know as drivers is, what is next on the road, but beyond our vision, a sort of 2 dimensional description of the road using standard notes and modifiers. The ability to set the car up for what is around the corner, while negotiating the current corner creates that hundredths of seconds advantage you need, to do well in the event. It is a very fine balance to have a co-driver deliver the right amount of notes at the right pace with the right stress, without giving the driver too much or too little information. As soon as something is not perfect, the driver is back to driving “on-sight” which is without a doubt slower. It really is the ultimate test in faith.

That is precisely why I was surprised when my wife Jackie said she wanted to jump in the car with me and then announced she was going to read the notes. The problem was she did not know what a note was, and more importantly how Jennifer, my co-driver at the time actually wrote her notes with a secret type of shorthand.

In the back of my head, I just resigned myself to the fact that this would be a slow run but I knew I could make it fun for Jackie. After a few minutes of instruction on what R6/Sm Cr –> L3- >  meant we inched our way noisily up to the start line. The car at the time had been swapped with a stand alone engine management system and had a few bells and whistles which made it a crowd pleaser (it was noisy!!!)

The starter counted down from 5 and started us, we were out of the gate. I had a close ratio gear box on the car, which meant I could accelerate quickly from the start line and combined with the effects of the anti-lag engine management system, it meant our heads were pushed pretty firmly into the back of the seats… it truly was exhilarating. I was holding back as I drove on sight. Then, after about the third turn I heard Jackie’s voice on the intercom “right 6 minus in to left over small crest 100”. It was at that moment I realised, she was on target, with perfect timing in her delivery… time to have some fun.

We were on the westside of Okanagan Lake on a closed forestry road and the scenery was stunning. We were racing uphill for about 8 kilometres and it was “game on”.

Jackie kept her head down, something which is really difficult to do since your frame of reference for pacing of the notes then comes from the feeling your butt gets in the seat, and not from what your eyes see. An occasional glimpse up will show you quickly what is ahead, but can also lead to you losing your place in the notes. She rattled off the notes in near perfect fashion and I felt totally in the groove, the bruised banana was dancing and there was no feeling like it… ditch to ditch with the rear wheels just kissing the loose rocks on the outside of the racing line and the nose tucked in on the corners, this was rally, and I loved it.

My head loves rally, it pushes me. It might be somewhat similar to flying a helicopter. Moving the rudders, cyclic, collective and power all at the same time, is like, driving full tilt through a corner, keeping the car just on the road while going as fast as possible and listening to a co driver who has just read you all the notes for the next 200m of the road you have not yet driven and while you continue, so does the constant onslaught of co-drivers notes. It is a mental puzzle and one you cannot over think! You bizarrely need to relax. I don’t find it possible to intently listen to every note, which is why a co-driver needs to stress the “critical” calls. Instead, your head files away the data almost without you realising and it, hopefully, comes out in the right order. If the co-driver calls a left 4 and the road looks as though it goes to the right, you will find that you turn left as a driver. We drive what we hear, not what we see. It can take a while, but when it clicks, you can feel it!

The new Evo IV

After a sharp right hander, an open hairpin, we drift into an uphill left open hairpin and what faces us is a fast uphill straight section… time to let the car breathe! As we travel over the crown of the last crest, I suddenly realise there is an obstacle in our way. That is when I remember another note… this one from the organisers of the event… watch out for cows, there is a range lease in the area!

Cows are a rally drivers worst nightmare. They feel somehow superior to a rally car, so whenever you see them at a closing speed of 200kph, they simply stare you down and they are very immovable!

In this instance, we were probably running at around 150kph and the cows were about 100m ahead. Time to stamp on the brakes. That is when a co-driver knows something has gone wrong, we are no longer driving to the notes.

The car ground to a final stop with my front bumper tickling the cows leg, and she just stood there and stared us down through the windshield with some slimy slobber dripping on my hood. Out of all corners of her mouth came half chewed pieces of the local wild grasses which she mundanely continued to chew as she stared us down and steadfastly refused to move. I am not sure if she was anxious or stoned on wild mushrooms. Her actions would indicate the latter. A quick honk on the horn pulled her out of a weird trippy space that cows appear live in, in the face of obvious adversity and she walked into the bush and left us to thankfully continue on our way again.

Unfazed, Jackie settled straight back in to the notes. By now, there was steam coming out of my helmet and sweat pouring down my face… this was fun.

After another 3 or 4 kilometres, I heard Jackie’s concerned voice in the intercom.. “There are no more notes, what do I do now?” she questioned. I could sense an annoyance in her voice, as if she had messed up and turned too many pages or confused something. Instead she looked out of the window and said “Oh, is that it, I was really enjoying it” She had stayed focussed for an 8 kilometre stage, did not get distracted when we nearly turned a stoned cow into beef and was disappointed when we got to the end because there were no more notes… perhaps she is a natural. I was impressed.

In November last year I sold my 2004 STi rally car, which had been a great car for us, it had been on the podium several times and was feeling comfortable, but I needed more funds for the Australian Guinness World Record trip and so, needs must.

Yesterday, however, I saw for the first time a rally car I had purchased a few months ago and has been sitting just south of the border close to Abbotsford… a Mitsubishi Evo IV.

The new office!

The Evo IV is one of the most classic iconic rally cars. It is light, nimble and can be fast. From a technology point of view, I can’t keep up with the spending of the front runners. If we had a one design series in Canada, I feel confident I would do very well, however, rally goes through phases where the person with the most money can go fast and that is certainly the case in the UK and Ireland where you can show up at an event with a lot of talent and a reasonable car only to see an ex factory WRC car on the start line ahead of you and you know it will be a challenge to keep up!

So the EvoIV does not have anywhere close to the technology of today’s front runners, is a good 15 years older than those cars, but we should be able to “shoe horn” it on to the podium at an event or two.

So we have a new car, it needs some work and a few bits and pieces, like a fancy rally computer which is really a sophisticated odometer, it is already quite bruised and then I need a co-driver. It will boast the livery of Valley Mitsubishi, a local Kelowna Mitsubishi dealer, who were, in fact, my first ever sponsors when I started rallying. Rick Wright, the owner of Valley Mitsubishi has been a big supporter of the sport locally and knows that we will do whatever we can to promote his business and add value to his brand. It will be an exciting campaign.

I was starting to think about co-drivers a few weeks ago and I had sent out a few emails and chatted to a few people. The fit is so important, my first co-driver, Wynne had been such an amazing help in getting me started properly and together we won a couple of championships. Then I got settled in with Jennifer Daly, who helped us get another championship and several podiums and in between, a few guest co-drivers that I have really enjoyed working with.

Then a few days ago, Jackie heard me thinking out loud about what to do for a co-driver and said, “I would like to do that”. I dismissed it at first. Jackie is a self professed bookworm, she tolerates adventure, but something is changing. I think she sees what we can do from a publicity point of view for the charity if we can create interesting stories and I think she genuinely enjoyed the co-drivers experience.

I questioned her for a few minutes about the commitment, the process, and a few other important things, but all I could see in my head was a wonderful smile from my lovely guest co-driver on that test day a few years back and I remember thinking that it would be cool to see that at the end of each stage!

Please welcome the Rally4Life teams new bookworm, co-driver… Jackie Jennings-Bates. Now lets rally!

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