Inside the Life of a Rally Team
Mention stage rally to any motorsports fanatic and they would tell you that it is one of the toughest forms of racing there is. From snow, rain, dust, and mud, the various conditions of the stages can be extremely stressful on the driver, co-driver, and car. Shouldering even more stress are the crew members of those rally teams - the unsung heroes who pull all-nighters changing entire motors, bending body panels back into place, and transforming wrecked racecars into race-ready form overnight. It is the crew who has to be prepared for anything thrown at them once the car arrives for service - whether the task is as simple as rotating tires and wiping down the windshield or a transmission change while also welding the rear beam back together in the snow, this unpredictability is what they thrive off of. Having covered the Scion Racing Rally xD team for the past two seasons in the Rally America Series, I have witnessed and documented the highs of back-to-back 1st place finishes to the lows of loading pieces of a car into a trailer alongside a stage road. Join me for a look inside what it's like to be part of a rally team.... It is Thursday morning and most of the team have already arrived to begin preparations for the weekend. The Oregon Trail Rally is different from the other events on the circuit in that it is a three day rally, with the first day of stages right in the middle of Portland at the Portland International Raceway. While driver Matthew Johnson and co-driver Jeremy Wimpey had an early wake up call to hit the stage roads to prepare their recce notes, the Rally xD team enjoys a rare morning off to take a quick stroll around downtown Portland. It has also become a team tradition to have lunch at one of Portland's many food carts. The Oregon Trail Rally is a special event for the team in that they made their first podium finish here. Another Portland tradition for Rally xD is hosting the "Scion Racing Special Stage" which is a kick-off party for all rally competitors and spectators. Rally fans are greeted with food and drinks as well as a close-up look of the car throughout the evening. At the team house on the morning of race day, co-driver Jeremy Wimpey goes over driving notes from recce in preparations for the weekend. Driver Matthew Johnson goes over suspension settings for the mixture of gravel and tarmac conditions at Portland International Raceway with crew chief Philip Chase. Philip calls a quick meeting in the team trailer prior to tech inspection to go over the schedule of events at the raceway. Engine specialist Kenji Sumino and tech Brian Almondia wait in the team's service area while the car is at tech inspection. Clean asphalt service areas are a rare luxury at rallies, the norm is pitching tent on a grassy field or snowy trail. A problem has already occurred on the short drive back to the service area from tech inspection and the crew are quick to assess the problem. As with most issues in rally, the problem is a 'phantom' one in which the issue appears randomly and the team is not quite sure if they have fixed it or not. In this case, the issue was that the car randomly pops out of 2nd gear. After taking the car around the service area without having the 2nd gear issue, the team tells Matthew to prepare in case the issue occurs again on the track. The parade lap yielded no problems and the car is now parked at Parc Expose with drivers next to their cars before the race begins. Coming through the first spectator point where the gravel meets tarmac, the Rally xD looked fluid on the transition and quick on the track. It's not long before another issue occurs, leaving the xD stuck on the stage - Co-driver Jeremy calls to the team on radio saying he believes it may be an axle issue. Disaster strikes early! Following a tow back to the service area, the crew takes over to check out the axle and prepare for a fast repair - trying to salvage the last 2 stages and minimize penalties. They soon discovered the break in the axle was a result of increased power and tire grip. Having incurred penalties for not completing the stages, the team decides to enter competition again on Saturday under Super Rally rules. They now pack up for the night and drive to Hood River as soon as the last car finishes. Rally xD leaves Portland International Raceway with a 14 minute deficit behind 2WD leader Ramana Lagemann. Tomorrow will be a new day with a new set of challenges and techs Philip, Kenji, and Ben get some rest in for the evening. With the disaster at PIR behind them, the possibility of a first place finish is no longer an option - but the team can still finish on the podium by making up time on the fast stages in Dufur. The early morning Parc Expose and drive to Dufur from Hood River demands proper nutrition for an even earlier start to the day. Already prepped from the night before, the Rally xD rolls off the trailer to head to Parc Expose on Main St. in Dufur. The team is in high spirits and looking forward to making up time throughout the day. Today the the cars will come in for service 3 times. Luckily the services are all at the same location. The wide open stage roads in the fields of Dufur favored the Rally xD considerably. Although taking a couple of stage wins over 2WD leader Ramana Lagemann was great, it wasn't enough to get the team closer to a podium finish. They would need to continue to press harder on the other drivers hoping they would gain a lead. Until then, the entire team heads back to Hood River for an upbeat team dinner. On almost all of the rallies, the Rally xD team chooses to rent a house for the entire team. In addition to comradery generated by being under one roof, having access to a garage makes prepping and working on the car much easier - especially on those long engine swap nights. Tonight they lucked out and all Philip needed to use was the water hose to get the xD ready. Drivers prepare for the third and final day at a drivers meeting in Hood River. An incident regarding a car fire on stage the previous day prompted officials to go over emergency procedures once more. Day 3 featured the twisty and technical mountain roads near Mt. Hood. The Rally xD started off the morning without problems but quickly developed transmission issues resulting in a loss of both 2nd and 3rd gear. While servicing a car in the middle of a rally is a lot of excitement, the team usually has a lot of down time while the car is out on the stages. The guys get a chance to relax and regroup once the car leaves the service area. That down time is short lived once the first cars come back in for service. The anticipation of waiting for a radio call from the driver can be a little nerve wracking in that the crew has no idea what condition the car is in, if any repairs are needed, or if the car even made it out of a stage. Luck changes for the worse for the Rally xD crew. After seeing cars behind them in running order come in for the final service, they realize something is wrong. It has been over half an hour past the time the car is due in for service. Instead of a radio call signaling that the car is near, they receive a phone call from the co-driver saying that they are being towed out of a stage. Finishing the rally now looks grim, but the priority now is to recover the car somewhere in transit between the stage road and service. With limited cell phone signal, co-driver Jeremy managed to send a pin of the general location of the car. Packed with some tools and now on the road to the stage, the team hears the stage captain on the radio saying that car 46 has decided to coast down the mountain road. It was not long after that radio transmission when our car rolled right by. As the team works to figure out the problem on the side of the road, both Matthew and Jeremy realize their day is done. Not being able to finish a rally is always a tough thing to swallow - especially for a team who has only one DNF ever and have been on each podium throughout the first two rounds of this and all of the previous season. This just gives the team more reason to push their hardest in the next one - we'll rally on, we know we have the team for it!