As a competitor in the SCCA Performance Rally series, I'm often asked two things—"Isn't it dangerous?" and "How can I get involved?" In this article, I'll answer the second question.
As for the first question, I can only say that "danger" is a relative term—being in a car, whether your street machine or a safety-prepared rally car, is inherently more dangerous than sitting on a couch, but rallying is not necessarily more dangerous than most other sports, thanks in part to contemporary safety equipment and in part to safer venues. I personally know more people who have been injured in softball and skiing than in auto racing—but I digress....
There are several paths that lead to a ride in a rally car; I'll enumerate a few.
If you are starting with a limited budget, as I did, I recommend you move up in the order listed above.
Van Williams once described the joy of working a rally as "a camping trip with race cars." Working checkpoints in the forest is a wonderfully serene experience, interjected with blasts of horsepower. Since many rally stages are run at night, there's a bonus dramatic light show as the high intensity headlights splash across the landscape. Your encounters with the drivers and co-drivers, while usually brief, are pleasant, and chances are good that you might hook up with one of them when you decide it's time to climb behind the wheel or odometer. As a side note, be sure to make friends with road racers and rallyists both. When the time comes, you can usually find someone who'll loan you a helmet and driver's suit to start out. I raced over a year with borrowed gear. Thanks, Don! Thanks, Van!
The easiest way to actually get into a car is to either co-drive for somebody, or rent a rally ride for a weekend. Perhaps I'm a rare animal, but I enjoy co-driving and have no burning desire to sit behind the wheel. (Okay, I confess.... I enjoy racing my daily driver in Rally Cross events!) Even if you want to play Jean Rally Driver, however, you'll find it helpful to sit on the passenger side for a race or two. Not only will it your team by having a second person understand the procedures and rules, it also helps you understand the tulips and what the co-driver is trying to say. You're able to communicate more effectively with your navigator if you speak the same language—you're better able to express to him what you'd like to hear for the various instructions you'll encounter.
When the time comes for you to take control of a rally car, you should consider renting a racer. Renting a ride has several advantages: a knowledgeable crew is usually provided; the car is properly prepared, so you can focus on your driving and not the car; you can "try before you buy" in case you discover that (perish the thought) racing a rally car isn't for you after all; initial cost is lower; the rental may have better equipment (like seats) than you could initially afford in your own car. The disadvantages include: it might not be the kind of car you like or the class you want; "you break it, you buy it" clauses in the rental contract (though this might moderate your style a bit so you don't go crashing through the underbrush your first time out); some details may not be exactly as you like them (type of seatbelt buckles, odometer brand, etc). The rental car guys should ensure that you're comfortable in the car, especially as regards seating position, controls, and belts.
Let's say you KNOW you want to buy a rally car.... no problem. You can get a decent car for a few thousand dollars, already prepared. It may not be the fastest car in the world, but learn to drive a slow car well and you'll be fast in any car. You'll also discover the things you like in a race car and the things you'd do differently. Horsepower covers up a lot of mistakes... get a slower car and learn to drive WITHOUT mistakes. Too much horsepower can also get a rookie in trouble. Allow me to quote Tom Grossman, a club racer with a positive attitude, a limited budget, and a car that's—ahem—somewhat uncompetitive. Still, he describes his ride this way: "It's faster than a set of bleachers." If your first rally car is at least this fast, you'll be grinning for weeks, and having fun is what rallying is really all about.
After you've raced a season or two, and identified the kind of car you want, the class you prefer, and the budget you can afford, you can choose to "kick it up a notch" and either race at more events (perhaps even the full National circuit), or buy a faster/better/more reliable car, or get better support equipment, or all of the above.
The rest of this story describes my own progress from rookie to National competitor.
Since 1988, I'd been an active corner worker for SCCA club races, supporting events all around the country with hundreds of other volunteers like myself. In 1993 I was invited to assist Andy Schupack, SCCA's media liason, at Rim of the World by gathering interviews and news from the field and calling them in to race headquarters. Up to that point the only thing I knew about rally was that it happened "off in the wilderness" somewhere.
In 1994 I rejoined Andy as liason, and this time I rode in the "lead car" driven by Michael O'Sullivan. (The lead car is the first car on the stage and is driven by one of the officials to confirm that the road is safe and ready for racing.) We would "sweep the course" in the lead car, then wait for the first dozen competitors to cross the finish line. I'd interview the teams still sweating from a hot run or brake problems and call in with "news from the front." Then we'd jump back in the lead car and boogy on to the next stage. While in the car, Michael taught me rally basics, like how to count down the corners, describe the upcoming turns, and so on. Man, I had a blast!
Those first two events were eye-openers and introduced me to the wonderful sport I enjoy today—and I was not alone. A fellow corner worker and low-bucks road racer, Chris Bradshaw, fell in love with the sport around the same time. It was natural, then, that Chris would invite me to co-drive for him in his first rally. He rented a car from Dave Turner Motorsports in Hemet, California, and we showed up at the East of Indio Rally in November 1995.
Remember how I stressed "attend a rally school" when you get started? Every rally has a rally school prior to the event, typically lasting about an hour. While it's not a full-tilt blow-your-doors-off National school (which you should attend when you get the chance), you definitely learn enough about rallying to stay on course, handle timecards and checkpoints, race safe, and have fun.
Once we completed our introductory school, we strapped on our borrowed helmets for the first time. Four stages later we were leading in Stock Class... Walter Mitty, eat your heart out! However, this story is not a fairy tale, nor has a fairy tale ending, so when the final scores were tallied we'd dropped to fifth place—but we knew we wanted to rally on!
Major life changes kept me away from rally in 1996, but in 1997 I hooked up with two exceptional drivers, Steve Winter and Fred Ronn. Steve's job precluded his regular attendance so we only raced together twice, but his heavy right foot and nimble Mazda 323 kept us running near the top. Fred's foot is just as heavy, so I rounded out the season, and most of 1998, racing in his Toyota Celica.
The advantage of being a co-driver is the ability to be flexible—when Fred wadded up the race car in Prescott, I joined Bill Nation in a Mazda RX7 for a December race. It was my first race in the snow, and great fun (despite the cold!)
This year I campaigned most of the full National season with Kendall Russell in a Dodge Shadow, racing in places like Montesano, Washington, Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, and Rumford, Maine. We're shooting for the national championship in Production GT, and with some dedicated effort, a heavy right foot, a great crew, and smart thinking from both of us in the car, we've got a good chance at achieving these goals. Even if we don't claim a victory this year, the fun of the racing will remain, and the satisfaction of a job well done will not disappear.
I've certainly come a long way from the East of Indio desert in 1995, and I've been smiling every event. As you can see, It was an easy climb from worker, to rental car co-driver, to part time divisional racer, to full time competitor in the hunt for a national championship.
You can do it too, and there's no reason to wait.
If you'd like more information, send a note to John @ WidgetRacing.com