Strike that. I drove a rally car once, which is a totally different thing. In the course of my job, I’ve sampled many rally cars, in both amateur and professional spec, including three amateur cars that I helped build. All were loud, obnoxious machines with roll cages, five-point harnesses, and long-travel suspension. At least two and a half of them (you do the math on which) were total pieces of shit. And all had one thing in common.
Under normal circumstances, they appeared to be driven by lunatics.
Rally drivers race on closed-off public roads. They run against the clock, one car at a time, on dirt, pavement, and anything in between. They run in all weather, in virtually every country on the planet. The sport is a glorious, lovely thing, all noise and violence and sliding sideways between trees at 100 mph. There is real, palpable risk and skill on display. You stand next to a closed-off rally road—they’re called “stages”—during competition, and it’s instantly obvious why people do this sort of thing.
Reason 1: They enjoy getting off the couch and having adventures.
Reason 2: They are moderately attracted to risk.
Reason 3: They think BASE jumping is for narcotized children.
It’s also clear why the pastime’s apex, the FIA-sanctioned World Rally Championship, is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world.
If you are not now interested, feel free to leave the room. Or perhaps continue rotting in your casket/urn/final resting place, because you are most likely dead.
Several years ago, I embarked upon a brief career as an amateur stage-rally co-driver. That’s the guy or gal who rides shotgun, wearing full fire gear and a helmet, and helps the driver go quickly by shouting out instructions. Co-driving taught me much about the sport’s process and genius—these people are some of the most talented hotshots on the planet, and rally is a highly organized matrix of processes. Their driving is less insanity and more a highly developed skill. Call it part art, part science, part unknowable risk. It’s like doing calculus while simultaneously painting a still life and falling out of a plane.
In a nutshell, a rally driver’s magic is rooted in four things:
- Setting Up the Car
Race vehicles are purpose-built to go racing, to be durable and capable in their given environment, withstanding stresses that would rip most road cars to pieces. Road-racing cars are set up for intense forces under braking and cornering. Motocross bikes are designed to take the pounding and lumps of a dirt course without slowing down. And oval machines, like NASCAR stockers or Indy Cars, have to push through the air at ridiculous velocity, but also be ready to hit things at that velocity while maintaining a semblance of driver safety. So they’re generally overbuilt.
Rally cars do all of that at once. They are also—and this is key—set up to rotate at the drop of a hat.
“Rally driving is the most exciting form of motorsport because it encompasses the best aspects of all the others,” says Wyatt Knox, special projects director for New Hampshire’s world-renowned Team O’Neil Rally School. Knox is an accomplished rally driver, a part-time co-driver, a great teacher, and just the best kind of multi-talented New England woodland weirdo you’d ever want to meet. (Disclosure: He’s also a friend.)
“To succeed,” he says, “you need to be a drag racer, a mechanic, an ice racer, a tarmac ace, a navigation expert, a drifter, an endurance racer, and more … all at the same time.”
Note that he said “drifter.” Rally cars are constantly sliding, partly because that gives the driver the most options: When a car is sliding in rally, it’s generally tail-first, a condition known as oversteer. (Most people know this from snow driving, where most rear-drive street cars will “fishtail” when given too much gas.) Rally cars have suspensions set up to oversteer at the slightest provocation. You turn in sharply, they oversteer. You trail the brakes into a corner, they oversteer. You give them too much throttle in the right conditions, they oversteer.
Oversteer is inherently unstable, and can lead to a spin. It’s yaw, and yaw in a four-wheeled vehicle generally means the driver has applied a control input—brakes, throttle, steering, a combination of all three—that unsettled the car and broke traction. But it also means a ready change in direction—the instability that comes from a car already up and sliding can be used to quickly change heading. (Remember how that fishtailing car would swing its nose around suddenly if you didn’t use a careful right foot?)
And that hints at the crucial part of rally: You don’t always know what’s around the next bend, so you have to be able to adjust the car on the fly. Contrast that with a road-racing car, which doesn’t necessarily have an adjustable attitude while sliding at the limit.
Your grandmother would hop into a pro-grade rally car, drive it down a dirt road, and end up off a cliff in the first five minutes. Other people do astonishing things. Hooray for God-given talent.
- The Co-Driver
A rally driver’s job would be possible without a co-driver, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as compelling. Or, in most circumstances, as fast.
“The co-driver is essentially just telling the driver what is coming up so that he can plan what to do with the car,” Knox says. “A rally typically covers over a hundred miles of road, often without ever seeing the same turn twice. The co-driver tells the driver about the turns coming up, as well as the lengths of straights, any crests, surface changes, jumps, etc. That information comes from a reconnaissance run, or ‘recce,’ made by teams just before the race, when they have their only chance to see the route.”
The co-driver calls these notes ahead of time, depending on speed and the driver’s preference. Some drivers want as much information as they can hold in their heads, as far as five turns ahead. Others want as little information as necessary, in just enough time to react.
- The Pace Notes
Pace notes are a spoken code. The co-driver narrates them during a rally as the driver runs flat-out down what is usually a tight and winding single-lane road. These notes let the driver haul into blind corners at speed, knowing roughly how fast to go and how much to pivot the car.
Call this the rally analogue for going to a permanent race track you’ve seen before. Most road-racing drivers are faster on a given race track once they’ve got a few laps there. This is the equivalent, only these guys have never seen or can’t possibly remember the whole race course, and they might never see it again.
Pace notes can be hard to follow if you don’t know the language, but they’re based in logic, and they make sense. Corner types are numbered to correspond with their radius, landscape features are called out. (A typical line might be “Right 5 tightens over crest,” for example, which means a relatively fast right that decreases in radius over a hill.)
Notes remove an element of the unpredictable. Only you can’t predict everything in rally, because you’re not on a track, you’re in the real world. Real roads have animals, changing pavement and weather, and boulders in the road that weren’t there a week ago.
Which brings us to …
- Reacting to the Unknown
At its core, this sport is about the unknown. You don’t know what’s in that forest, but you have to race through it. You don’t know what the weather’s going to be—nasty mud? blinding snow? draining heat?—but you have to get through it. All of this, at the limit of your talent and the car’s ability to go quickly. The car will break. You will race over long days and into the night. You will come close to losing your mind from stress and exertion. And many, many things will go wrong, because when you are hauling ass through the woods in the middle of nowhere, there is a lot to go wrong.
A short list of the things I’ve seen, in less than a decade of spectating and participating: Wheels fall off when you hit things. Windshields come apart when you hit things. (I once saw a team use its car’s rear window, removed and duct-taped into place up front, as a new windshield.) Anything on a car that can blow up, blows up, and you don’t always have the right stuff to fix it. Drivers get sick, co-drivers get sick. Cars roll over and fall off cliffs. They end up in trees.
“The key to rally driving is simply humility and perseverance,” Knox says, “hopefully coupled with a sense of humor. It’s a long, very complex road to the top and there will be many failures along the way. The key is to learn as much as possible from each and always keep moving forward.
“The best rally drivers are also typically very humble. They’ll usually blame themselves for any troubles or failures at a race, because that’s how they learn and improve. Drivers who blame their equipment, the conditions, or simple circumstance for their problems usually don’t last long or make it far.”
And nine times out of ten, the teams, the mechanics, and the drivers find a way to go on. Which is part of what makes the sport great.
Like any sport, rally is easier to love when you know what’s going on. The above is a good primer, and should help you start watching. If you want more, hit up a school, read, or simply go watch a local NASA, Rally America, or WRC event.
“The easiest way to get involved is to show up and spectate an event.” Knox says. “Or better yet, volunteer to help the organizers. A rally takes hundreds of volunteers to function, doing everything from HAM radio operation to running time controls and supervising spectator locations. Volunteering also gets you access to a lot of places and people that you’d never get just spectating, and it’s typically a lot of fun.”
“Rally driving simply changes your entire outlook on life. After sliding through the forest sideways at 90 mph, you realize that most day-to-day problems are pretty insignificant.”