It’s taken me a couple of weeks to decompress. We popped Ze’Neon off the tow dolly and parked it when we got home from Washington. I’ve only started it once after that, and still have a load of spares sloshing around the back of the Blazer. We have some time to do repairs and testing before Gorman Ridge in August. A little bit of a summer break before we continue the USRC season with Prescott and Laughlin.
Just before Olympus everything came together smoothly. A complete departure from the frantic last minute ‘oh crap we’re out of it’ Rim of the World in April. Struts were back on the car and tested. The subframe mounts got welded. The oil pressure sender failed in the parking lot and not on stage. Blazer packed up with the Neon on the tow dolly ready to go for the morning. We packed our clothes, got about 3 hours of sleep, and took off Wednesday morning at 4:00AM.
We split the trip to Washington up into two sections. Top of CA – Yreka on Wednesday and into Olympia, WA in the afternoon on Thursday. A 640 mile day followed by a 460 mile day. We quickly realized that the $650 spent on tuning up the Blazer for it’s 90K mile service was paying for itself. An unbelievable 20+ miles to the gallon towing! Our budget was expecting 15. Out of LA and the grapevine behind us, headed towards Sacramento, I handed the ship over to Christine. A little nervous at first she started to steer into the wagging of the dolly. ‘Turn off your countersteer program…’ I strongly suggested. ‘Drive straight – small moves.’ I slept for about an hour and when I awoke she was working her way through some trucks comfortable at 65.
I took the helm again and we worked our way through Sacramento in afternoon traffic. Someone in a Land Rover pulled up beside us and gave a huge thumbs-up. We found out later that was Nick (he posted a comment on the site). It was really cool to have a fan contact us like that. It made our afternoon go a little quicker. We made reservations for a hotel in Yreka sight unseen. It’s worked for us in the past – but this time we got stung. Christine specifically confirmed they had trailer parking when we booked the hotel. We get to the Comfort Inn in Yreka and it’s on the end of a dead end parking lot. Add to that the new Taco Bell that’s being constructed RIGHT in front of it. So, any ‘turn around’ space was filled with large construction vehicles. Awesome… We had to leave the Blazer + dolly + Neon – on a side street near the hotel.
Thursday was slow going at first with the up and down hills past Mt. Shasta. When it got flat in Oregon, Christine took over once again and I was able to get even more sleep. We looked at the map and saw that we would be going through Portland right after lunch time – so I figured – why not see Portland. Slow, slower, stopped. Bumper to bumper traffic all the way into Washington. If you’re not stopping in Portland, OR – take the 205 around it. It’s about as exciting as Providence, RI from the highway. ‘Ooh look – bridges!’ The last 30 miles of this trip I’d have to say felt like the longest of any trip. After covering 1000 miles you just want to BE there. How much further is it?!
After checking into the Red Lion, we headed out to the press stage. This was a great chance to show off the Dodge Rally Neon and get a taste of what the roads are going to be like. We gave about four or five rides and enjoyed putting smiles on faces. I love the surprise people have when they find the Neon is no slouch over rough terrain.
Friday was recce` – Reconnaissance through the 8 different stages. We gathered at the Casino in the morning. As soon as Christine opened the notes done by Pat Richard – all I needed was the look on her face to know we had a lot of work to do. Let me break this down a little so you know what Christine had to go through when we got back to the hotel. The Route Book is a list of marked instructions for the whole course. This is all that was used up until a few years ago. It’s a series of tulip notes and mileages for the whole rally, transits, stages, etc. So an eleven mile stage may have 10-12 instructions for it in the Route Book. The rest is ‘drive it as you see it.’ Stage Notes came about in the US with the use of a computer packed with accelerometers driven down the course at an average speed. Jemba notes (as they are sometimes called) make a non-biased decision of all the corners on the course. They tell you what is there, not how to race it. The format is standard and what Christine and I have completed our first 3 rallies with. Pace Notes are what you would write if you were doing recce`. Pace notes are written fresh or added to the stage notes. So instead of just a R4 > 3/Cr 100 (right four tightens to three over crest one hundred) You can note that the entry into the R4 is a ‘slippy keep left’ to avoid some loose stuff and set the car up for a fast right hander. Now I’ll explain what happened at Olympus.
Stage notes were not done by a computer this time, but by Pat Richard – who is a multi-time national and Canadian rally champion. He made it crystal clear in his notes that 1. He assumed you would be, and SHOULD be doing recce`. 2. He tried to make these as accurate as possible. and 3. They may not work for you. Pat warned us, but I don’t think the organizers were totally clear as to what ‘jemba style’ notes were. These were not like Jemba notes at all. The book was hand written and then photocopied. They looked and drove like pace notes. The notations and format were totally not what we were used to. A big difference right off the bat was the corner markings. sh 6Lent 4R >> 3 /Cr 100 (short six left entry into four right double tightens to three over crest one hundred) I thought I would be okay. I thought I could adapt to calling the degree of corner before the direction of the corner. Nope… Plus every time Christine said “double tightens,” all I heard was “DOUBLE CAUTION!!” which would cause me to panic and slow down even more. Instead of starting fresh we went along marking Pat’s notes.
After 7 stages of Recce` we had enough. We were only transiting the stage at 15 miles an hour. Covered in dust – as everyone quickly caught up with the lead car that was hell bent on staying at 15. (not 25 as we were originally told) The crew called and we had to bail out of the last stage. At this point we had made the decision to have Christine re-write the notes from scratch. That meant getting out a clean notebook and writing just the stuff that was left in the notations, in the order and format we were used to. Another big issue was that Jemba notes have mileages and deltas. This makes adding key information from the route book easy (and it’s much easier to get back “on the notes” if a co-driver gets lost within them). Pat’s notes had a scant few mileages and that rendered the Brantz tripmeter useless if Christine got lost. This took Christine hours to do, but in our opinion was faster and safer then re-marking the existing stage notes. We both learned a lot about recce` and how we would do it differently when we do it in the future.
We begin the rally in downtown Olympia. This was our first Parc Expose` and it was pretty cool being downtown and the center of attention. We started with two rougher stages – Summit Loop and Maxwell Loop, followed by the ORV spectator stage. I was really focused on staying on the road and going as fast and smooth as I could. I knew we were going into service right after the ORV ‘Jump’ stage, so I hit the spectator jump flat out. The Bilstein shocks made that look easy from the outside.
At out first service the crew noticed that there was something not right about the front subframe. The rear control arm bolt was loose and the K-frame was flexing BAD. I had 15 minutes to find a welder. I went right over to Pete Morris who was helping out with the Kosmides crew. “I need my subframe welded…” I explained to Pete. He motioned to a few of the guys and next thing I knew, I was pulling the Neon over to their welder. They made a quick fix with two plates attaching the mount back to the subframe. With literally seconds to spare we made it out of the service control on time. This graciousness in service was unexpected, but proves how awesome this sport is.
Everything seemed to hang together for two more rough stages of Summit and Maxwell. The second time over the ORV jump I decided to slow the car and take it easier. I was able to make up the time lost on the back of the course. Part of the last minute welding was starting to give way and I knew we’d have to go back to the welder. The crew swapped the tires and everything else on the car was fine. I told the crew that we only had one more ‘real service’ before Sunday – so anything that we had to do to fix it further would need to be done the next time we came in. “Find metal!” I shouted as we headed off to the Wildcat and Skookum stages.
We’re finishing off the last few miles of Skookum SS8 and the car gets wild trying to slow for a hard left hander. I dig on the brakes and the car dives to the right. I set the car up for the left hander and throttle up at the apex. The car dives left. So hard left that I was brushing trees and still turning right – out of a left hand corner… I realize that the subframe mount is gone and it takes me about 2 more corners to learn to drive with it. We crest a hill and I brake into a hairpin. The *BuZZZRRRAAApppp of the tire against the mudflap under braking is evident. “What the hell is that?!” Christine says after calling the next turn. “The boys are ready to weld it in service. How much more do we have?” I calmly ask – knowing that the right subframe and control arm of the car is no longer attached to the chassis. “Last page!” Christine assures me. “Good…” I mumble.
We pull into the third service of the day and the crew is ready to go to work. I pull right over to the generator and welder the team has procured. Car up, wheels off, let’s do it! Jason manages to get the bolt back in – as it’s dropped out, and on the skidplate while Erik stops the cracking on the left hand side by pouring some metal in. When he moves over to the right side a large 3/8″ bar is produced and welded in place. Tying the subframe, the cracked mount and the chassis together. The control arm bolt is welded up on the skidplate bracket to keep it in place when I break everything else. Car feels 100 times more solid transiting out to the last 2 stages of the day.
One more trip down Wildcat and Skookum we notice that a lot of other teams have dropped back with issues or problems. We look to do well in the Production regional if we maintain on these last two stages. We better our first time through each repeat stage by almost 20 seconds. I was certainly pumped to see us in second in Production on day 1. We pull into a quick and final 10 minute service stop for the day and Erik, Matt, Jason and Jordan are waiting for us on the side of the road. “So – how did the Bar-B-Q pit hold up?” “What?!” I’m baffled as to where this is going. “Were did you think we got the metal?” “WHAT?!” Now I’m laughing and dying to hear the story. Basically – I said ‘find metal’ – so these resourceful chaps went around and stumbled upon an old Bar-B-Q pit with a rusted grate at the ORV Park. They managed to wrangle off one of the bars and clean it up – all ready for welding to the Neon! I laughed for a good 5 minutes on that one. That Bar-B-Q grate bar and the amazing help we got in service is what made our 2nd place in Production for the day.
Our competition in the national class dropped out on Saturday, which meant that USRC stock prize would be waiting for us as long as we finished. Easy as that, right? Unlike the regional rally, the national rally has a Parc Ferme` at the end of Saturday. So that night we drove the car up to the top of the casino parking lot where the car was locked and we can’t touch it – until the next service on Sunday. Conversely, all those competing in the regional rallies can work on their machines all night. Rallies are often won on survival, and having to do 16 stages without an overnight service break is a good test of that survival.
Sunday was a clear fresh day and was a little warmer then Saturday. We started by heading up to another Parc Expose`, this time in downtown Shelton. Two 6 mile stages, Stillwater & Cougar Meadow, followed by Nahwatzel – the 19 mile stage. That’s right… A 19 MILE stage! This stage has everything to offer and a lot to take back. I pushed the car hard on the first pass through Nahwatzel. A little too hard as halfway through the stage I missed second gear and rammed the scenery trying to slow the car for a hairpin. After that the subframe issues returned and I had to be careful how hard I braked and how hard I drove the car out of corners.
In service we looked over the front right. Erik zapped it again with the welder and Christine looked at the standings. We were 4th in Production for the Sunday regional and no where near the times needed to go for another regional win. We made the decision to take it easy and bring the car in for its fourth finish and second National win. Now for me ‘take it easy’ is a relative term. I sat back and relaxed myself into 32 more miles of pretty tricky stages. We were still moving pretty good, but I added 30 seconds to both 6 mile stages and a minute and a half to Nahwatzel. Even after all that easy driving we missed 4th by only 4 seconds! Okay – maybe I wasn’t driving THAT easy.
The car was creaking and rubbing on the right front when we got back to the casino. We were called down from the parking lot to have the car washed and we pulled her into the winners circle once again! Both Christine and I had a great time at Olympus! We had a great time with all the competitors! – specifically Kristen & Janice Tabor, Garth Ankeny & Russ Kraushaar with the beautiful SAAB ‘DE luxe’, Ryan Barker & Kevin Laase, Doug Heredos & Gabe West, Chris Blakely & Ian Pinter and all the other RED cars stuck in the back of the pack Sunday! We could not have done it without the help of our volunteer crew: Erik VanDyke, Matt Laverty, Jason Sampson, and Jordan Luzader! We also could not have done it without Ralph Kosmides helpful crew – who went on to win the “Star of Service” Award! Check out the video from the awards ceremony.