Bounding over loose gravel

This took me quite a while to write. But the rally was fun and epic, and so I took (a lot) of my time to write out something that could pass as a short story.

Two weeks ago on March 29th, I ran Jerry’s “Nocturnal 1/2 Returns” rally. The rally, to put it bluntly, is quite epic. To fully appreciate how epic this rally is, we need to learn a little bit about the history of these “Nocturnal” rallies. Back in the day, when the rally regulars were all young and spunky, they ran TSD rallies that ran from 8 in the evening until 8 in the morning. Nowadays, we only have “Nocturnal 1/2” rallies, which run from roughly 8 in the evening until 2 in the morning, decidedly less intense than the all night rallies of yesteryear. But even then, I found that the “Nocturnal 1/2 Returns” rally was way too much for me to handle.

My navigator for the night was my buddy Eric, a decidedly non-car person that came along only because there was nothing to do on a Saturday a mere week after Spring Break. Normally, I’ve never had a problem with navigators being non-car people — in fact, the best navigators I’ve had were Stephanie and Erica, two people who were not interested in flinging a car around cones at an autocross, but were excited about TSD rallies and good enough navigationally to never get ridiculously off course. (I’ve always thought that a TSD rally would be perfect for a date, if I could only get a date in the first place.) Unfortunately, a series of minor mistakes by Eric snowballed into a major mistake on the first leg of the rally, and my stupidity compounded the whole thing until we had to write off the entire first half of the rally.

Now that I think about it, I think I can attribute our mistake to a simple fact: me and Eric are engineers. And everyone knows that engineers don’t read instructions. So we completely missed the details on the first page of the rally instructions that would have told us that the Oops Mileage for the first leg was only 24 miles, that the mid-rally break would take place in Georgetown, and that the Main Road Rule was “straight as possible.”

Jerry was a bit late to the start of his own rally. He was busily rerouting some of the legs of his rally, and had corrected rally instructions for everyone. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the time to recalculate the ideal leg times due to the changed mileages, so everyone would have to wait until the CCSCC club meeting the following Wednesday to learn the results of the rally.

Reading over the first page of the rally instructions was far from the first thing on our minds. At the drivers meeting, most of the attention was paid to certain instructions that noted things like “this is the place where so-and-so flipped his Mercury Capri many moons ago.” Jon told us that we would know the intersection when we saw it — the intersection was always covered with skid marks thanks to nervous drivers. Jerry also noted that earlier that day when he was retracing his rally route, one of the roads was rough enough to knock the muffler off his van. Uh oh.

I thought that I had done a good job with preparations for the rally. I fabricated a light bar using an aluminum bar and some steel brackets and bolted the thing to the mounting points for the license plate holder on the front of the car. I then added a set of driving lights I got from another fellow club member, wired the lights, and added a bungee cord to make sure that the light bar was stable. I also replaced the stock headlamps with some lights with replaceable H3 light bulbs. I was confident that I would have enough light. I was so excited about my newfound lighting that I neglected to think about my tire choice. I ran the rally on my nice 16 inch wheels wearing 45-series rubber, and in hindsight, it would have been a good idea to switch back to the stock 14 inch wheels wearing worn 60-series all seasons, but I wasn’t expecting so much gravel and potholes beforehand.

The problems for Eric and me started right out of the gate. We were originally car #4, but that got changed during the driver’s meeting, and Jerry told Eric about the change and told him to make sure that I knew this too. Well, he forgot to tell me, and as a result, we left the start as car #4 and not car #5. We fumbled our way to the end of the Odometer section shortly after we watched the #1 car, Russ and Joe’s Cadillac CTS-V, get a jump-start while the other cars left the start. Not really the way you want to start a rally! The Cadillac eventually started, and Russ and Joe wasted no time getting to the end of the Odometer section, and I’m sure that they started the first leg of the rally at the correct time.

Believing we were still car #4, we started the first leg a minute too early. We started chugging along and hit a huge pothole barely a minute into the rally, sending a heavy shock wave through the car, into the seats, and into our backs. After my back settled back into the seat, I noticed something strange in my rear view mirror. There was another car just 20 seconds behind us. They eventually caught up to us, and I pulled to the side and let them pass. I initially thought that we were just being really, really slow, as after the first hit with the pothole, I had been pretty ginger with the throttle and doing my best to get acclimated to driving quickly on twisty, hilly gravel roads. I eventually pulled over to the side and let the Subaru Impreza following us by, and then just tailed them for a while.

We followed them until we made our first major mistake of the night. At one of the roads, we made a left turn. That’s funny, we thought, the Subaru in front of us didn’t turn onto our road. They must be off course! So we blithely go our own way.

A bad feeling started to sink in when the rally instructions demanded that we go over 50mph down the road, which was covered in loose gravel and had potholes all over the place. I told my navigator that something didn’t seem right, but we decided that we would just keep going for a little bit and see if we could execute the next instruction.

So we kept going. And going. We eventually executed the next rally instruction, but I still had a bad vibe about the whole thing. My navigator, Eric, had no such bad vibes and, as a result, was oblivious to the potential of getting horribly, horribly lost. We turned onto a major two-lane road and were instructed to change our average speed to 53 mph, so all seemed well until we couldn’t execute the next instruction for a couple of miles.

The problem was that we couldn’t find the right road to turn onto. I finally pulled the car over when we pulled into the town of Sidell. I figured that there was no way Jerry would ask us to maintain an average speed of 53 mph through a town where the speed limit dropped to 30 mph. Fortunately for us, I had the Gazetteer in the trunk of my car, which I had just bought a week before so that I could plot the rally for my own rally. The Gazetteer is 100 pages of just Illinois, and includes more road and geographical information than almost anyone could possibly want to know about this state. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the road that we were supposed to turn onto anywhere near our current location. Rats.

So now we had to find a way back onto the rally course, which proved to be near impossible because we had already gone 10 miles off course. When it’s dark outside, everything looks the same, so retracing your steps is really hard. We eventually decided that the first half of the rally was a lost cause and that we would just meet up with everyone else at the midpoint break. With the help of some friendly locals, we got directions back to Oakwood. Once back in Oakwood, Eric and I stopped by the McDonald’s and took a quick break.

While munching on some fries, I got a call back from Jim, and he told us that most of the rallyists were finally at the midpoint break, which was not in Oakwood but located in Georgetown. He gave us directions to the gas station in Georgetown, and I asked that he let Jerry know that Eric and I were on our way to the checkpoint. We scramble into the Miata and drive off to Georgetown, making it there just in time to see the last of the other rally cars pulling out of the stop.

Jerry was kind enough to give us an out time that was two minutes behind the previous car in order to allow us to get our bearings before stumbling onto the next half of the rally. We left the midpoint break and started the next legs of the rally, which thankfully we managed to follow correctly, if a bit slow.

There was one point in the rally where the sinking feeling that one was lost started creeping back in. There was a set of instructions that we found unclear in that it asked us to “follow arrows.” We were to follow the first arrow, but not the second. What did that mean?

While Eric was scratching his head, doing his best not to lead us down the wrong route again, I kept driving at high speed down a two-lane paved road that twisted through the countryside. Every time that the road would curve, there would be arrows on the side of the road to let dimwitted drivers such as myself know which way to go. I started counting arrows by the side of the road and found the “second arrow” that the instructions mentioned. This arrow was pointing to the right, and the road curved off to the right with a side road branching off from the road straight in front of us. Now we were asked to turn left at the stop sign.

So I keep driving, looking for another stop sign. But this time, I was acutely aware of the possibility of driving 10 miles in the wrong direction down a major road before realizing something wrong. I had driven barely a mile when doubt set in. I pulled the car over to the side of the road. “Give me the directions,” I told Eric. He handed me the directions and I flipped to the front page. Main road rule was “as straight as possible.” I turned the car back around and headed back to the second arrow and where the side road was. I turned onto the side road, and just 200 hundred feet in front of us was a stop sign. Whew, dodged a bullet there. It would have really sucked to get completely lost on the second half of the rally.

The last legs of the rally were almost run completely on gravel roads. There was a short reprieve from the endless straight gravel roads that punted the Miata onto small dirt and sandy roads going up and down hills in the midst of trees. At the bottom of one of these hills was a small ford.

Crossing the ford in my Miata was not a problem. The rushing water was barely two inches deep. What did prove to be a little difficult was climbing up the hill after crossing the ford. Thanks to lots and lots of rain the days before the rally, the dirt road was nice and soft, and water had cut little channels into the road. With the car in first gear and the tachometer pegged at 4000 rpm, I spun my tires flinging dirt all over the place as I slowly climbed up the hill. Silly me, summer tires aren’t supposed to be used off-road!

The rally was originally supposed to contain two more fords, but because of the heavy rains, these fords were deemed uncrossable by low vehicles such as my Miata. This was the primary reason why the rally route had changed; Jerry rerouted the legs so that the route bypassed the two fords.

The rest of the rally consisted of maintaining high speeds on lots of gravel roads. I couldn’t believe that these roads actually showed up on maps; they were 1.5 lanes wide and looked more like ox cart trails. Most of the instructions were now a series of turns from one straight gravel road to another straight gravel road — there were so many similar turns in quick succession that I started using the turns for heel-and-toe practice and made believe that I was a rally driver, drifting around turns. After the first two “oopsie” turns where I let the rear end of the car hang loose, my navigator got wise and said to me, “You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?” Guilty as charged.

We reached the end of the rally in Oakwood at 2 in the morning. Some of the rallyists were at the truck stop having breakfast, but we decided to head home. We wouldn’t know the results of the rally until Jerry had calculated the ideal leg times anyway, so we didn’t bother sticking around for food when sleep was the more pertinent issue at hand.

Once Wednesday came, I learned how Eric and I had fared. For each of the seven legs, we scored the maximum of 100 points for a total of 700, which truth be told, vastly underestimates how slow we were. It also meant that we were dead last in the rally.

But that’s okay. The rally was a hoot, despite all of the problems and hair-tearing moments that I had faced. Just a note to self: if Jerry puts on another epic night rally over diverse roads, keep the 45-series tires at home.