(Jalopnik is particularly psyched to introduce Rally Blog, an ongoing series by rally driver Matthew Johnson, 29, pilot of a bright-orange Subaru WRX in the PGT rally, for team Carolina Rallysport. "I've been rallying in an actual car since 2000, I've been rallying in my heart since I was born," he says. "I enjoy sharing some of the details of the sport of rally and what it's like as a competitor trying to figure out how to make a living out of his dreams." Johnson will be writing on the joys and heartbreaks of being an aspiring driver in a sport that's just recently been included in the X Games, giving it a modicum of recognition (and vindication) in the US. He's from Apex, North Carolina and has a degree in international business from UNC Charlotte.)
We're gunning it through the dark woods of north central Pennsylvania, on a narrow road edged by large trees — monster PIAA lights blazing — committing to corners with near maximum attack. It's about 10 pm.
I hold the hammer down and steer back out on the stage, wondering where the damn bank I'd just smacked into (and drove up the side of) came from.
We continue down the stage, a loud rubbing sound coming from the right front side. It's spewing blue smoke that smells of burning rubber. The steering wheel tugs sharply. I'm taking inventory. Do we have a flat? Will the car still turn to the right? The left? What about the brakes?
A new noise, getting louder... Oh. It's the voice of my co-driver, Kim. He's likely communicating something about the corner coming up fast. How fast are we going? I'm thinking our speed could be an indication as to the car's health after clobbering that bank (I've had the throttle pinned since the hit). Ninety. Guess the car is going to keep running. Time to see how those brakes do, as we plunge into the Right 4 tightens 3 that Kim is screaming about.
It was the second significant bank encounter we had last Saturday in the Susquehannock Trail Pro Rally (STPR) based in Wellsboro, PA. This season, STPR was the fourth round of the Rally America National Rally Championship, which criss-crosses the country a few times starting in late January in the snow of Michigan and ending this year in Reno, NV in December. Nice off-season eh?
Coming in to the STPR rally, I was pushing a bit harder than usual, trying to figure out if I've got it or not. As many know already, rallying is being included in the 2006 Summer X Games. This is huge news for the sport, considering rallying has existed for 35 years in the US, mostly under the radar of the masses, and the sponsors trying to reach them. For us rallists, adding rally to the X Games is like throwing a couple of chocolate sprinkles on a desert anthill. Everybody wants a piece of the new sweetness, only there's not nearly enough to go around.
It doesn't look like I'm going.
For a while I thought I would get to the X Games; all the signs were pointing to yes. But by now, the drivers have been picked. Around 12 current rally drivers are going to compete, along with a few other stars and extras, like Colin McRae, Rhys Millen and such. I can get behind every one of them and I wish them the best. For me, it's back to STPR. If I really hoped to get into the X Games, then I should be confident I'm fast enough for the honor. Am I? I dunno. I went to STPR to find that out.
At the end of the second stage of the day (SS2), the tachometer's buzzing on the rev limiter as we pass the finish board. "Crap, looks like we've lost third gear," I yell to Kim. On the next stage I decide, third gear or no, we're not slowing down. I plan to go into some of these babies in 4th and carry more speed. It works beautifully for a couple miles. Then, BAM! We smack a bank on the left side, bending a control arm and forcing the tire into the bodywork. It takes a bit to get out of the ditch we've landed in, but soon we're underway again. It's a costly mistake that puts us 1 min 25 sec down to my closest PGT competitors, Eric and Tanner, right early in the rally.
The next special stage is cancelled because of a creek that's become a river. We've got extra time at service we hadn't expected. We gamble it's enough to attempt a control arm swap and a gearbox change, which would keep us in the rally and get us back into top form. We run out of time at the service and have to do the rest of the work in town, at the "parc expose," where the public can check out the cars and meet drivers and such. My competitor, Eric (nickname: "Bang Bang") gives Kim and I a flat tow to the green at the expose so we can finish the repairs and get back in business. We pull the drive shaft, rear guard and assorted parts out of the trunk to finish putting it all back together.
With 80 miles of the rally remaining, anything can still happen. I'm on a charge to make up the lost time and get back into contention for my class win. We do just that on the next few stages, a 21 miler, 15 miler and 7 miler leading up to the last service of the event before the final three stages, which are repeats of those three.
Five miles from the end of the second running of the 21 miler was where I had the bank altercation that began the story. When it all shook out I ended up pulling off the win somehow. Tanner had a bump-up that turned out worse than either of mine, and he lost his lead as a result. Eric had a couple of super hairy high-speed moments that had him turn down the attack level a bit and somehow I scooted back through to win Production GT.
So, do I have it? If the "it" is determination, aggression and passion, then yeah. Am I fast enough to compete at the X Games? We'll have to wait until 2007 to find out... This time I was just happy to finish the bloody rally.
Until next time,
#46 - Matthew Johnson, Carolina RallySport
[Twenty nine year old Matthew Johnson began his racing career by autocrossing and attending track schools. In 1996, he moved to England, where he attended the RallyDrive school and the Forest Experience rally school in Wales. Upon his return to the states in 1997, his VW GTI began to morph into a rally machine. Over the past three years, Johnson has gained recognition by beating veteran drivers in a car with less horsepower and front wheel drive. He's recently switched to a more powerful Subaru WRX running in the PGT class. He's now on the heels of some of the top drivers in the sport.]