I guess I understand why they did it. Forbid us from finishing the rally, I mean. Our axle had fallen out, after all.
Sure, we were running with one-wheel drive. Yes, all of the suspension hooked up to the back left wheel was busted, everything from the knuckle in.
Notice anything missing? Yeah, there should be a driveshaft in there.
But we had run 45 miles on the wheel. It looked bent in when parked, sagging with Stancenation-grade camber at a standstill. When driving, the wheel stood up straight, trying to stay flat against the road. Every time we took a right turn, the car heaved left as the wheel wobbled.
This was this weekend at the New England Forest Rally, up in the woods stretching from northern New Hampshire up nearly to Maine’s border with Canada. Our race ended the way a lot of rallies do — with near-complete mechanical failure.
I blame myself for it all.
It was a right turn, not exactly sharp, but reasonably tight. Right after another left. I quickly called that it was a right three, I wanted to be sure my driver would slow down enough before the corner. But I called the direction and the severity of the turn first. I paused for a breath before I added the rest of what was written in my notes: “stay in, rocks outside.”
Well, my driver Billy, he didn’t stay in. And he hit a rock on the outside. See how I think it was all my fault?
He blames himself for it all.
It was the second time we were running that stage. The first time around, the dirt was tacky. There was lots of grip on the dirt logging road we were driving.
The second time we ran the stage, dozens of cars had torn up the dirt. We might have been at the perfect speed for the first pass through this corner, but the second time we slid completely wide. What made things particularly bad was that the road was heavily crowned, so as we slid, the road started to suck us out to its edge, and that’s where the rock sat.
Bam, clipped it dead on the back driver’s side wheel. We raced like that for another mile an a half, soaring over crests at 90 miles an hour. Not shitting you on that. We were flying. How we survived I do not know.
On the transit after the stage, the driveshaft fell out. The wobble actually got a lot better after that. I think the diff must have calmed down when it only had one wheel to spin.
We doddled through the transit, overheated, then refilled the steaming radiator at the start of the next special stage. We cruised through there, the inimitable Fish Pond, lined with fans cheering us on for trying to reach the finish even as our car fell apart around us.
We made it all the way back to service where we realized we didn’t have any spare parts to fix the problem. You never break a knuckle for a wheel. You never expect a driveshaft to just fall out.
We buttoned the car back up and went to fill up with more gas to finish the final two stages.
As we pulled up to the refueling area, the chief tech inspector for Rally America spotted us and refused to allow us to continue. Our time card, our official link to our running in the rally, was ceremoniously pulled from my hands.
We argued that we only wanted to limp to the finish. We explained that we’d had mechanical failures dropping us out of our last rally and all we wanted was to finish this one. We asserted that we were safe to drive at low speed. We protested that we were following the spirit of rally, to Press On Regardless in the face of automotive adversity.
But the officials (probably quite rightly) deemed us unsafe to go any further. More than that, they argued, if they didn’t pull us from finishing the rally, the sheriff parked just outside service would probably impound the car himself. It didn’t exactly look like we’d pass inspection.
We loaded our Nissan 240SX into another team’s trailer and our rally was over.
It had been so good when it was all working. It took a little while to catch out rhythm but we were working so well together. As a co-driver I had a sense of how he wanted to hear his notes called. As a driver, he had full confidence in the car. The rear struts were blown, the hot turbo was pulling its bolts away from the exhaust and losing us boost, but the way were were wheeling the car through the turns was incredible. I remember calling two turns ahead — a sharp right, then a faster left and an even faster right after that.
Leading into that first right, he heaved the car all the way to the left. Our nose was pointed at the trees, then Billy threw the car back into the turn, completely sideways. It was trust alone at that point. Trust on my part that Billy knew what he was doing, trust on Billy’s part that the car would do what he asked of it.
And it all worked. The sideways lead into the first turn perfectly set us up to straighten through the next two. He knew exactly what was coming up thanks to my notes, and he knew exactly how to handle it thanks to over half a decade of rally driving.
But then we fucked up. We hit that rock. I called my notes too late, he misread the road, and it was all over.
In rally, that’s all it takes. And much as that clouds my mind now and over the past few days since we DNF’d, that’s part of what draws me to sign up again.
I’ll be kicking myself over that feeling when I sign another couple hundred bucks away for an entry fee. I’m sure Billy will be kicking himself too, when he ends up sleepless another night fixing the car.
Fuck rallying. See you at the next event.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove
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