As many of you already know, I’m a car nut and a performance rally fan. Though I’ve done plenty of autocross and some track driving, I find the idea of taking real cars and racing them on real roads much more exciting. It’s not a perfectly manicured track, but an actual road, with all of the imperfections you expect. Nearly all performance rallies use dirt roads rather than paved, which adds to the challenge. You don’t get to practice hitting the apex of turn 3 perfectly over and over again. Often you’re racing without even seeing the road first. And even if you have, such as when repeating a stage from earlier in the day, the road conditions are different than before. There are also transits, on open roads at normal speeds, to get from one special stage to the next. Precise timing is required at each arrival and departure, and you get penalties for being early or late. Rally cars get a co-driver to handle much of this bookkeeping, the general navigation between stages, and to read notes to the driver during the special stages detailing exactly what’s coming up next.
What does this have to do with motorcycles? NASA Rally Sport also has a series called RallyMoto, which allows motorcycles to run stage rally as well. There is no co-driver in RallyMoto – it’s all up to the rider to do their own navigation, both on stage and on transits, and their own timing. They run separately from the cars, so there is no risk of a rally car meeting up with a bike on a stage. In addition to the usual course opening cars and sweep teams, there is a special course vehicle called the Combo Car that runs between the bikes (who run first) and the cars. This vehicle serves two purposes. Primarily it’s sweep for the motorcycles, making sure no one has crashed, is hurt, has broken down, and basically accounting for every bike that started before letting the cars run. Secondarily, it’s a final look at each stage to make sure it’s still ready for cars to run.
What does this have to do with me? Thanks to my previous car racing experience, having volunteered to work many rallies over the years, a couple of days at Team O’Neil Rally School, and an amateur radio background, I am uniquely qualified for course car duties, despite never having competed in a rally myself. I’ve mainly worked in a sweep team, either as a driver or co-driver, though in 2012 I had the opportunity to co-drive for car 0, the course opening car that does the final fast run through each stage and declares it open for competition. Elana is also a rally enthusiast, and earlier this year we volunteered as a pre-fab sweep team for the Empire State Performance Rally. When we volunteered for Black River Stages, we were assigned the job of Combo Car. This kept us close to the bikes, and gave us plenty of time to hang out with them during the final preparations to run each stage, providing me the opportunity to learn a whole lot more about RallyMoto.
Rally cars require extensive modifications, even for the stock classes. At minimum, all of the required safety equipment – roll cages, seats, harnesses, fire extinguishers, rally computers – must be installed before they can even run. If the car is going to survive for long, the tires, wheels, suspension, and brakes need to be beefed up as well. It’s a seemingly endless cycle of upgrading, maintaining, breaking, fixing, and upgrading the car again. For RallyMoto, the requirements are simply that the bike must be street legal, not a two-stroke, and have a safety triangle and first aid kit on board. You’ll also want a scroll reader for directions on transits. That’s maybe $50 worth of equipment above and beyond the bike itself. As far as personal safety gear, you’ll obviously need a helmet, body armor, solid motocross boots, and all that fun stuff, but you probably already have that if you’re doing any off road riding anyway, and even if you don’t, the cost to equip yourself is comparable to what you’d spend on safety equipment as a rally car driver or co-driver anyway. I used to think that a dual sport motorcycle was required, but Max BMW brought a squad of classic BMW /5s to run. They had knobby tires, better shocks, and extra lighting for the night stages, but they certainly weren’t wild Dakar machines by any means. They were my favorite bikes there.
Driving a course car is great fun. Because we were essentially the first responders, with my ham radio to call for additional help or the ambulance if needed, we booked it down each stage pretty darn quick. We’re not competitors, and we didn’t have detailed stage notes like they do, but we did have the road book, and Elana juggled that, an odometer app on her phone, and sometimes her TomTom GPS to tell me that we were approaching major turns, bridges, or jumps before I could see them so that I could slow down appropriately. I would also slow down before every crest, every berm, and anywhere there might be a bike or rider down until I could see that it was clear.
Fortunately, at no point during the entire event did we arrive at the scene of a crashed rider. That’s not to say there weren’t some spills – there were. We would wait a minute or two after the last rider left before setting off ourselves, and however fast we were driving, the bikes were going faster, so they had time to gather themselves, pick up their bikes, and keep going before we caught up to them. I had one brief scare on one of the night stages. In addition to the bike lighting, each rider wore a couple of LED lights on their jackets, so that if they were thrown from their bikes at night we’d see them if they were still in the road. On one stage, we came around a corner and saw one of these lights on the ground. Fortunately, it was only the light, with no rider attached – it must’ve fallen off. We saw no telltale marks in the dirt of a bike going off the road or having been dropped there, so we continued on. When we checked in at the finish line, they confirmed that all of the bikes had, in fact, made it through just fine.
Just as important as making the car, or the bike, go fast on stage is making sure it continues to go fast, which means refueling and making any necessary repairs. Every few stages there is a service stop in the schedule to allow for this. Some are quite long – on Sunday we had a 60 minute service after just two stages, and spent most of it having lunch and staying out of a rain shower. Others are short, maybe 15 minutes – just long enough to refuel, get a drink, make a minor adjustment to the bike, and get out of there. Everyone goes to a designated service area, where they check in and out at their precisely scheduled times. Rally teams usually have a dedicated service crew of one or several people to jack up and wrench on the car. But the bikers mostly did their own work, while others had a friend or significant other there to help them. At one point we were laughing at their five Sprinter vans all parked in a line, four of them white (the other was DHL yellow, being a retired delivery van). Yet one guy’s service vehicle was simply a Toyota Yaris pulling a Harbor Freight trailer for the bike.
I had a really good time hanging out with the RallyMoto competitors. They’re a great bunch of people. It’s a bit different than the usual rally scene that I’m used to, since there’s more of an individual than team focus than I’m used to in rally due to the nature of their event. But they were all socializing between stages, riding together on some of the transits, and sharing beers at the end, including with me. Because I had to work today, we had to skip the after party and make the long drive home. I was sad to miss out on the trash can chicken that the Harrisville Fire Department makes us every year. It’s some of the best chicken I’ve ever had. It also would’ve been nice to catch up with my friends in the cars at the end of the event, and watch some of them receive well deserved trophies.
I’ve already pondered picking myself up a dual sport bike at some point. Would I ever consider entering a RallyMoto event? I’m not sure. Though I have all the car racing experience and training I mentioned, I consider myself to be merely an adequate rider at this point. And I’m not shy to admit that at the moment, I’m afraid of dirt. I’ve never ridden off road, and my few spills have all involved dirt somehow. I’ve said before that if I’m going to race, I’d rather have a metal cage around me. On the other hand, if I already have the bike and riding gear, and all that’s between me and competing in a stage rally is a racing license and $50 worth of equipment, it would be mighty tempting to try. Even doing it on the cheap, it takes thousands of dollars to buy, prepare, and run a rally car, and you can’t really use it for anything else. It’s a pain to climb over your roll cage to commute to work, and you can’t reach your stereo when you’re strapped down into your racing harness. But a bike set up for RallyMoto could be used as-is, anytime, anywhere, on road or off, because so few modifications are necessary. I don’t think I’m prepared to give up having a sport touring bike of some kind at this point, but the idea will probably keep rolling around in my head for a while…
Many thanks to USUK Racing for sharing their cabin with us for the weekend! We greatly appreciate their hospitality.