By Jon Rood
Where to begin? It’s been nearly three years since I last competed in a rally, Prescott in 2008. I took the 2009 season off due to the economy and then 2010 off for surgery (again, money mostly), and I’ve waited this year to run my favorite rally, Gorman Ridge Rally, since I only plan on running just the one event.
I had forgotten just how long it takes to prep a car for racing, or maybe it’s just because it’s been so long. I started about 90 days ago, poking at small tasks on the car, avoiding the big one, a new clutch. Working in the garage during an Arizona summer isn’t much fun, but about a week ago, everything on my list was completed. I took it for a few test drives, got an alignment to my specs, etc.; it was as ready as I could get
My old co-driver/friend Jen had called a few days earlier, asking if I would have room in the truck for her, to go along for recce; sure, no problem at all. The Expedition does very well with carrying a lot of people and cargo while off-roading, maybe that’s why they named it Expedition. Jen’s co-driver couldn’t make it up in time, so it was just the four of us.
My co-driver Brent had notes from running the same stages as last year, which helped us all out. We didn’t have to write all new stage notes, just fine tune the ones he had for changes conditions or things I saw differently. Two passes on each stage, both directions while taking notes took us the entire allotted time, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. I think a good part of our results can be attributed to the time spent taking great notes.
Friday afternoon/evening, all we had to do was wash the windows, check the tires and harnesses on the co-drivers. We walked the car right through tech inspection as usual, nothing mentioned, nothing questioned.
Afterwards, we were able to sit down to a decent meal at the Mexican place within walking distance to the hotel, chat a bit with friends before heading to bed at a reasonable hour. After only getting about five or six hours of sleep the night before and Laura only getting four hours as she had to get up and do some work before we hit the road.
Brent and I needed a good night’s rest, Saturday was going to be a LONG one.
Saturday morning started out very relaxed, we all got up in time to meet for breakfast in the lobby, plan the day ahead and do final organizing for the rally and service. First car out wasn’t going to be until 11 a.m., so we had hours to socialize.
By the time the cars started leaving, the day was warming up, making it a lot less fun to climb into a three-layer driving suit. All that was forgotten once the engine started and the helmet put on your head. We started the rally in 11th out of the 20 cars starting, right behind Chuck Wilson in one of his two Escort rally cars.
As we pulled up to the first stage, the first DNF of the day was making itself known. The one car I felt would be my strong competition for the day was having fuel pump issues. We watched him try to start the stage twice, both with the same results, being pushed back out of the way. It was sad to see, as a rally competitor, you want to win by skill not through the bad luck of others.
Oh well, we had a rally to run, we’ll just keep an eye on our other CRS-2 competition. When we finally pulled up to the start, everything went calm for me, I had a job to do, drive as fast and cleanly as I could down a dirt road for about 3.5 miles. My plan was to push hard early on in the rally, which we did. The first stage we ended up eighth fastest, sure didn’t feel like it, room for improvement for sure.
I spent most of the first leg of the day bouncing around 8th to 10th on each stage. The second pass through Badger, Stage 1 and 3, we knocked off 3.6 seconds. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but every second adds up.
Right before Stage 4, we got word that I was leading the two-wheel-drive pack by six seconds, and this is where the competition changed from watching CRS-2 to having to keep an eye on Tony Chavez in his Production VW Golf. While waiting in line, I went up to chat with Tony, rib him a bit about me beating him. I should have just kept to myself. After that he started pushing a lot harder, meaning we had to as well, a bit, to keep up. Stage 4 he beat me by 9.6 seconds. I wouldn’t beat his stage time again until stage 11 (and 12, 15 and 16).
Going into the first service break of the day I was leading CRS-2 by over a minute. As it usually goes with my car, we washed the windows, checked tire pressures, checked all the lug nuts and made a small adjustment to the rear dampening to try and get a bit more grip. We had been having a blast, but Stage 2 and 4, Maxey, was a bit softer ground and the car was all over the place. The roads were pretty smooth, recently bladed but still bumpy enough. The backend of the car was tossing left to right, occasionally bouncing of the berms, un-nerving when you are in third or fourth gear at 50-70 mph. The changes helped out a bit, and the next five stages went without incident.
What the next five stages did bring was the chance to run my favorite stage, North Boundary, three times, and in the direction I like. I’ve talked about the incredibly fun jumps before, two in a row, out in a field, this is the place. As an added bonus, the down hill section shortly before it had four rolling jumps which use to be sharp kickers that had to be slowed down for. This year, we threw caution to the wind and hit those at a decent clip too. Although the last one kept turning back into a kicker as the day went on. Apparently some people chickened out and kept slamming on their brakes right before it, digging a rut on the approach.
When we made our notes the day before, Brent called them as cautions. I told him to take out the cautions, just call them as jumps.
“Why?” Brent inquired.
“Because we are going to take them flat out!!,” I replied.
I don’t think anyone in the car during recce believed me. After the first run through the stage Brent and I couldn’t stop smiling, those jumps are what make Gorman so much fun for me.
By the next service, our two-hour dinner break, I had lost one minute to Tony, but gained another 30 seconds on the rest of my competition.
The question of the day was do we play it safe, keep an eye on our class only, or do we try and reel Tony back in during the night? Two hours to think it over. In the meantime, we had a great lunch prepared by a Boy Scout Troop from nearby Palmdale, washed the windows, kicked the tires and bolted the extra lights onto the front of the car, ready for the last seven stages, to be run mostly in the dark.
The break was nice, we had time to rest up, tell the stories of the day, see who had fallen out of the rally, etc. By the time we got going again, only 13 cars had gotten through without DNFing. A couple of cars restarted the rally, after having missed a few stages, for FUN runs.
The night stages would show what we normally expect out of Gorman. The roads got incredibly rough and the wind died down making it rather dusty. The roads would take a few more victims. One of which was my old co-driver Jen, she would have slow rollover on stage 10, after having worked so hard at service to replace a failing axle. I was so sorry to hear of and eventually see the rolled car. No worries, looks fixable to me, it’ll be back to rally again.
For Brent and I, no serious incidents, mostly taking a decent pace without pushing the edge, so I thought. Maybe relaxing made me even smoother. I ended up beating Tony on three stages and matching speed to the 100th on another. In the end, we came out with first place in CRS-2, first place in USRC Open2wd and were the fastest 2WD-car in the event.
My best finish yet. Three times at Gorman in the Escort and I’ve earned a third, second, and finally first; seems it was meant to be.
As usual, the after-party in the hotel parking lot was fantastic, but the big thing for me was having my car on the podium, standing on the hood, spraying champagne with the other three winning cars!
Big thanks go out to everyone who helped me leading up to the rally and at the rally: Laura for the help prepping the car, organizing the service, keeping us in fluids and food and helping with service. Brent for the awesome co-driving and encouragement through out the weekend. Jim Pierce for the tubular front control arms that let us push so hard and for the service help. Jeff Rados and Tom Laeng for the service help and my family for the continued encouragement over the years.