Time-speed-distance rallies seem simple enough: maintain a constant speed over a certain distance on open public roads, and stop every so often at checkpoints to prove you’re on time. Many consider it an introduction to stage rally. Introduction! Ha. Let me explain how this was the hardest thing ever.
A couple months ago, I decided to do an event I don’t get anywhere near me in Texas: a time-speed-distance (commonly referred to as a TSD) rally. There was one being put on by the Finger Lakes Region SCCA in upstate New York, and that meant that I might encounter something else I don’t usually get in Texas: snow. Thus, this was the only time I’ve ever gone prepared for a driving event by buying snow-worthy hiking boots.
The premise sounded easy enough: drive at an average speed over a certain distance on open, public roads, and make it to each checkpoint on time. Not early. Not late. But on time.
I’d have a co-driver, Matt (not Jalopnik’s Hardibro, but my boyfriend, a different Matt), to bark out upcoming turns, hazards and directions, which were marked on the route notes. Because he had run too many of these events to qualify us for novice class anyway, we also ran with a rally computer in Equipped class, too. That computer could tell me in real time how on- or off-time I was, down to the second.
The goal was to arrive at each randomly positioned checkpoint exactly on time. After a checkpoint, you were free to drive as fast or as slow as you needed to get to the start of the next stage.
Despite the fact that this was considered a “brisk” event, all the stage speeds were under the speed limits for the roads chosen. Fall behind? You could speed back up, or use one of a handful of time allowances if it was a bigger screw-up or setback. You didn’t want to blow through your allowances too early, in case you got held up by other traffic on the stage, a hazard on the road, or an adorably slow waddling family of geese.
The entire event is designed around the fact that these weren’t closed rally stages, but rather, public roads. The goal was to drive all of these roads safely without being a danger to others or doing anything so dumb that it merits negative exposure to the event. (Read: an actual competition that you don’t want to lose or get banned. Not Gumball.)
Back-up systems to double-check the computer’s figures.
There were several speeds to choose from (45, 40 and 36 mph), with different multipliers to get them all sort of on the same page. I didn’t handle this math. My job was to drive a bunch of roads in a part of the country I’d never driven before and not kill the car.
Our car for the event was the beater: a WRX-swapped Forester that had been lowered down to resemble a normal wagon instead of being at its usual tipsy proto-crossover height. Confession time: most of my manual driving experience has been on a racetrack, not on a public road. The concept of shifting before you’re out of a car’s powerband sometimes gets lost on me, I still often fumble hill starts in a cloud of clutch smoke, and I get really irritated at cars like the Forester whose pedal box is just awkwardly laid out enough that you can’t heel-toe without whacking into the stupid transmission tunnel first. Point being, it’s a modified, heavy all-wheel-drive car that’s way harder to drive my LeMons 944.
All I have to do in the 944 is get it started once on a relatively flat surface, and then go drive around in funny-shaped circles ‘til I’m done. There is no starting and stopping unless something goes catastrophically wrong. There are no other gears than third or fourth for most of the time. Road driving in comparison is some kind of horrifying voodoo magic surrounded by other people who want to stop too close behind you on hills.
It mostly sounded easy. Snow, schmoe. I’d just been traipsing around frozen-over north Texas in a truck that wasn’t mine without binning it or getting stuck. Having all four wheels drive a car is magic. Don’t be an idiot, and you won’t get stuck. Much of upstate New York’s snow had melted and refrozen to the point where it had a crunchy layer of ice on it, too. Pfft! I just drove on ice. Ice and I are totally cool. I just can’t be a moron about it. Besides, New York actually maintains most of its roads during wintry blasts, unlike Texas, which is completely unprepared for anything of the sort.
Most of the roads up to the starting point in Lakeville were clear, with the only exceptions being corners of parking lots. There was an unusual amount of snow on the ground for this time of year, but it wasn’t really stuck to the road. I could, however, still make snowballs.
Snowballs are great.
Upon arrival, we checked in and started marking up the route notes. Where were the free zones that weren’t timed? Where were the short legs that meant you had multiple turns, one right after the other? What about hazards?
Route notes listed both the overall distance driven up to a certain point in the notes as well as the distance of each section, making it easy to pick out where potentially confusing sections of turns would be. Hazardous road conditions were sometimes marked as well.
The notes included a test run to be done before the event officially started. This was a good time to ensure that the rally computer was working and dialed in correctly as well as to get some basic reminders about shifting way before redline and remembering to downshift before steep hills (because you’re not redlining the car everywhere like a madwoman, and the car will die).
Surprise! This was no mere jaunt through Spain with a supermodel. This was going to be... hard?
Thing is, you never understand how much you fluctuate your speed in normal road driving until you’ve got a counter with the differences in speed staring you in the face. It turns out I’m not all that consistent with mine on a daily basis. I’m good enough at staying out of trouble, but having to keep everything at one average speed required a lot more concentration than usual.
I started out driving the test stage too fast for our assigned speed, which was fun, but then I got a crash course in how to slow down to get to the checkpoint on time. That was the grueling part. The test run was on a tame, paved section, so I felt bored keeping it to the speed we picked on the test run. It would have been much easier to drive it like a madwoman than it was to have to think this much about how fast I’m going.
Either way, once the computer was dialed in, we got back to the drivers’ meeting. They pointed out a few of the significant hazards, including the seasonal road. I had heard a little about the seasonal road when we were going through the notes, but I still wasn’t entirely sure what it was. We only have year-round roads, unless some kind of natural disaster wipes ‘em out. Apparently seasonal roads aren’t maintained over the winter, so whatever this one was could be a mixed bag of unmelted snow and/or gross mud. It’s a mystery! I guess I might be driving on snow after all.
After the meeting, we made sure that everything was in order in the car. We brought along a couple of CamelBaks
because I had to pee like a racehorse when we stopped for dinner to make sure there was water within reach, some caffeine slightly further out of reach (for emergencies only), my sunglasses case out for when the sun went down, extra layers of warmth in the backseat for when it got colder in the evening, and a couple of Puffalumps securely belted into the back seat.
Peeing is good, though, so long as you make it to a bathroom on time. Peeing means you’re not dehydrated, which is way worse than just having to pee. If your pee is the color of Rally Chicken, you should drink more water. I thought the CamelBak idea was a bit overkill at first, but given the amount of time between breaks, that was way easier than having a million dumb little bottles strewn everywhere in the car.
From there, we went to the start, which was a pre-chosen spot along one of the area roads, and lined up with the other cars.
We had settled on going 40 mph at first, and then adjusting the speed up or down depending on how much I borked the following stages.
We were next to one of the lakes for the start, which was still pretty icy, especially considering that this was the end of March.
Everyone lined up in a predetermined starting order and was sent off at set intervals.
There were several other cars of novices, so we ended up leaving relatively early in the pack since we were running in Equipped class instead. Whenever we got caught by a faster car, it was just like on track: we moved over safely and let them by.
The first stage started smoothly. The paved section of road was really easy until we reached actual dirt. Some of the dirt was extremely rutted, far worse than most of the gravel roads I’m used to. This was just like driving on Play-Doh. Anything that ran through it was bound to leave its tracks deep into the soft soil. I felt like I was tiptoeing through turns, if snails could tiptoe. Not only was I not used to this car, but I wasn’t used to the surface, either.
It wasn’t just the mud, either. These were squirrely little roads through the hills, built into the side of hills, sometimes without guardrails and often with butt-jarring bumps and holes. The surface was typically rough in the good spots. Texas does not really have these kinds of roads. We barely have hills, for Pete’s sake.
Worse yet, if the rough road was noted as a hazard in the notes, you might as well have been on “Ow, My Balls.” I only have massive, all-consuming balls of steel (as opposed to the squishy meat-pod variety), but I still uttered “Ow, my balls!” several times on this rally. What the Forester lost in height it also lost in softness, but fortunately, it was the Forester. Don’t destroy it completely, and meh.
I fell behind. We took a half-minute time allowance to catch up. The first random checkpoint was earlier than expected, and took me by surprise. Matt told me to gun it as soon as we saw the checkpoint to try and make up more time. I ended the stage somehow with only a single-digit overage. Not bad for a first stage ever!
By the second stage, I was getting more and more used to the rutted dirt that we kept having to run through. We needed another time allowance for me to catch up, but this time I posted only a 3-second overage. The next stage, I didn’t even need the time allowance, and ended up being only 5 seconds over, anyway. I was starting to hedge my bets against there being more turns on the course, speeding up on straights where I could to make up for lower speed corners.
Nothing could have prepared me for the seasonal road on stage 4, though. The seasonal road started off innocently enough, with a mild grade and some extra mud. I couldn’t figure out what all the hubbub was about. This was just a road with a gate at the entrance.
Then I found out what the problem was: a steep hill, where the road was lined in trees. Because it stayed mostly shaded all winter long, the road had quite a bit of snow left on it. Apparently it had gotten warmer, melted a little and re-freezed, so this hill was quite icy as well, particularly where traffic ahead of us had packed down horrible ice-ruts.
Texas’ garbage winter blast roads could not have prepared me for this. For one, I was going too slow when I reached the bottom of the hill, forcing the car to claw my way up much slower than usual. I didn’t have the momentum for such an unexpectedly steep hill. I wasn’t sure if I should travel in or out of the ruts at first, either, but out of the ruts was the ultimate winner. Even on fresh, unpacked, ice-coated snow, moving up the hill was a crawl.
Before anyone goes off on a snooty “I drive this kind of thing every day, uphill, both ways, so that’s no big deal at all” tangent, I should point out that even the locals got tripped up by this hill. Of course, the checkpoint was right over the crest of the hill, where no one had time to speed up and make up the difference in time lost.
We took a half-minute time allowance and were still a whopping 21 seconds off the pace. Two other cars, however, didn’t finish in any time at all, earning them a 200 overage by default. Other cars scored somewhere around 30 seconds off the mark. Nearly everyone had to take a time allowance on this leg of the rally, and even then, about half the cars had a double-digit or higher time difference on this stage.
All things considered, I didn’t do too bad on that stage given that this was my first time doing one of these events in weather I’m not used to, on roads I don’t know, and in a car I don’t know. Still, I was kind of mad after that. The next few stages, I pulled off time differences of 1 second behind, -1 second (which meant that I’m early—twice), and finally, a much coveted 0. 0, of course, meant that we were exactly on time, and did the stage perfectly.
I couldn’t spend too much time on scenery, but there were a lot of forests and farmland. At times, it felt as if we were driving in circles. One landmark stood out, though: I couldn’t tell if it was a school or some kind of camp, but it was definitely closed, covered in bizarre motivational murals, and a little creepy in its current state. Turns out, it was a little bit of both: the Monterey Shock Correctional Facility, which was once the home of 50 Cent. It’s isolated in the New York woods, so you could easily film a horror movie there as it is now.
Of course, I had no idea where I even was for most of this rally, either. I’ve never driven these roads. They’re so twisty that I’m not sure I could even tell you what direction I was headed or what I was even near, aside from maybe “trees?” We were truly lost in the wilderness of upstate New York.
Once we hit the dinner break, though, I finally saw a landmark I recognized: Watkins Glen.
“Wait, we’re here?” I asked, somehow not expecting to recognize anything whatsoever on the rally path. “I KNOW WHERE I AM! I’m not lost!”
My requests to add Watkins Glen to the rally and drop the speed limit for that section were (sadly) denied.
I soon learned of another peril in the world of rally: the dinner break. I really, really needed to pee. I couldn’t just hop out and relieve myself on the side of the road like some people in the car, nor did I want to hold up the actual rally part of it long enough to find a bathroom on a transit section between two stages.
Our dinner spot was the Watkins Glen Burger King, which had one really usable stall in the ladies’ room. There was a second stall, but the door opened into the toilet at such an angle that we really couldn’t figure out how we were supposed to get in there without just climbing over stuff. The stall was too small for the door.
One toilet to rule them all.
When I finally got through taking a whiz, I found something easily inhalable in a short period of time, had my dinner and talked among the other teams. I hate inhaling my food, but I was tired, hungry and this was here. This, like track food, is the real cause for concern: don’t eat anything at the midway point that will cause you to feel gross the rest of the way. Of course, rallies tend to pick fast food as a meeting place, which I’ve largely avoided on lardy, preservative-laden principle for quite a while. The upside is that it’s cheap and quick. The downside is that the heavier items tend to sit in your gut like a rock, and given that paying that much attention to my speed for hours upon end was mentally exhausting, I tried to eat just enough so as not to get even drowsier after dinner. I eat, I nap. It’s what I do.
The halfway point was a good gathering point to see how everyone else was doing, too. It was here where I found out that the seasonal was a beast for everyone, and that chicken nuggets will, in fact, still give you the poots. Matt and I both agreed that the 0 stage (or any good runs whatsoever) wasn’t worth mentioning, just to mess with people. We’re doing terribly! I’m a total n00b! There’s no reason to consider us a threat. This was, after all, a completely new thing. As long as I beat someone else, I’d consider that pretty good.
Dinner was only about the halfway mark, and from here on out, it felt more like a feat of endurance than a drive through the woods. It was getting harder to see, so we dropped down to running 36 mph in case road conditions were worse and I got lost in the squinty rage of bad night vision. The first few stages after dinner pointed out yet another thing that Subaru just does wrong: the light stalk. The light stalk makes no sense. Brights and dims were in a different location than what I’m used to, so while the usual custom is to dim your lights before reaching a checkpoint, I couldn’t seem to figure out the stupid light stalk and mind my speed at the same time. I soon gave up on dimming the lights when I came in to check in. Sorry. I think Matt started cutting the power to the lights from his side of the car after several botched attempts where I accidentally blinded the checkpoint volunteers.
It was at this post-dinner point of sleepiness and madness that I had my big major oops of the trip. I’d dealt with hill starts just fine up until now, albeit leaving behind a cloud of clutch smoke. This, however, was a confusingly marked turn that we and several other competitors almost missed. I wasn’t in the right gear to make a turn, so the engine just stalled on me, right in the middle of turning onto the road. I could not get the car going, either. I was tired. I was groggy. We were losing time. This, more than anything else in the car, was what I sucked at the most: getting the stupid thing going. I was parked in the middle of this road, well into the lane of oncoming traffic, with a stalled car that I couldn’t start up again. Finally, I made it before any oncoming traffic reached us, but to say that wasn’t the sketchiest moment of the trip would be a huge lie.
My codriver had a fumble, too, with another intersection that tripped up a lot of cars. We were supposed to turn at a Y in the road, and he saw one before the one we needed to take. This made us question the distances on the computer. Was this it? Were we off? Nope. Just tired, and dumb.
Needless to say, we took time allowances for both of those whoopses. Despite the exhaustion, my post-dinner times were off only 3 seconds at the most, with a couple other 0 stages. I think I got even more determined to finish out the rally once I started to feel the effects of being in the car all afternoon. I even started to try to predict where checkpoints might be, in tricky places that were around a bend or over the crest of a hill.
The scenery got better at night, even though neither of us could take a photo of it. One transit stage took us through a lakeside town, right along the water. Another checkpoint was on top of an eerie plateau, lit up bright with moonlight and covered in powdery snow. The snow had shifted like desert sand onto the road in waves with the wind. I’d never seen anything like it.
Given that we’d driven for the entire afternoon on through to the evening, though, I was pooped. We met back in the same hotel as we’d started and waited for everyone to trickle in. I bolted for the bathroom and later took a few pictures of how dirty everyone’s car was in the parking lot.
Back inside, they whipped out the map of where we’d been. Sure enough, we made one huge figure-8 around the wilderness of upstate New York.
Finally, the results were announced. We got third in class, and more importantly, weren’t last!
That was good enough for some trophy glassware, which was unexpected.
Would I do one again? Probably. I was exhausted, but I had a ton of fun. Next time, I need to get more sleep.
More importantly, when someone brings up a TSD rally again, though, I’m not going to shrug it off like it’s an event for the speed averse. Like the speed limit signs on the twisty, windy Avenue of the Giants through the redwoods in California, the speed limit on these rallies seems like it’s there to taunt you, and actually doing it takes a bit of madness. Going 40 or 36 on an unpaved cow path made out of tortilla soup and phlegm is nuts, plain and simple.
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