RallyMetro on approach, comin’ in hot!

This past Saturday was the big day. I took the RallyMetro out for its first event with Stateline Rallycross. Before I get into how things went, a brief recap of how the RallyMetro came to be. The car has 266k miles on it, lots of rust .. LOTS of rust, and (unbelievably) working air conditioning. I purchased this car from fellow Oppo XJDano for a paltry sum of money. For all intents and purposes, he gave me the car in exchange for a plane ticket back home. While he did leave with seven of my $20 bills in his wallet, he was none the richer for all his efforts.

And what efforts were those? He drove it from his home outside St. Louis to mine outside of Chicago on a Friday night, crashed on my couch, then spent all Saturday swapping the transmission to one from the junkyard which we were hoping had better syncros (it did!). That night I dropped him off at the airport, and mailed his greasy clothes and shoes to him.

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Since then I’ve mended a few things and mounted one of Harbor Freight’s finest tow bars, which I affixed to a mount I fabricated with a sawzall, a vice and a hammer. I also scored some barely used snow tires off of Craigslist, and called in a favor to have them mounted on the set of 14” steel wheels that also came with the car. My friend FryGuy appointed himself my bodyman. He cleaned the car up, spray painted some rash with sort-of matching flat black paint, and spray painted my numbers on the doors. With that tremendous level of preparation, what could possibly go wrong? I mean, besides it collapsing in on itself from all the rust … other than that, what could go wrong!?!

Mmmmm ... breakfast burritos

When the time finally came, I hooked up the RallyMetro, loaded some tools and supplies, slapped some magnetic lights on the back (another Harbor Freight special), and rolled out at 6:15 am. I stopped after about 10 miles to check my hook-ups (and eat breakfast burritos, naturally), but all was well. We took the back-roads and kept it to 55mph, the RallyMetro tows like it’s not even there.

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Once we arrived at Byron Motorsports Park, we parked it and started getting ready. Prep was pretty straightforward, we unloaded it and topped off the oil. We then got out some chairs, and enjoyed coffee and a beautiful morning while watching people look like they were doing important things (I have no idea what they were doing, probably things that made them faster than me). I began to recognize some people from the last time I tried rallycross. What really surprised me, as a guy who had been there once, nearly a year ago, in a completely different vehicle, was how many people remembered me. I heard some version of, “Hey, aren’t you the guy who brought that giant station wagon last year?” at least six or eight times throughout the day. I guess when you show up to a rallycross in a wood-paneled fullsize wagon, complete with car seats still in the back, it makes a bit of an impression.

Ready to rock

After a brief driver’s meeting (summation: Here’s what we’re going to do today. Don’t be an idiot.), it was time to get the day started. They were trying out a bracket racing format, which I won’t bother explaining because they did it already here. I will say it did make for better spectating. It also meant there was a one hour long open practice in the morning, and I knew that was my real opportunity to get some reps in. I had no delusions of grandeur. I knew my car was slow, and that I was inexperienced. That wasn’t going to make me competitive in bracket racing. I staged up for the practice session towards the back, and decided I was going to keep making laps for as long as the car seemed healthy. This is where I was going to get my money’s worth for the day. How long would a $140 crapcan stay healthy tough?

Parade lap

When I got my chance, I dumped the clutch, spun the front wheels, and quickly shifted into second gear as I crested the first hill. FryGuy dubbed the first tight turn “Dead Man’s Curve,” and indeed it is a tricky one, but it didn’t pose a problem. After the first tight hairpin a couple turns later, that’s when the issue revealed itself. So much momentum is lost around the really tight corners, that the little three-banger just falls right on it’s face coming out of them. There were three spots on the course where the little car just craaaaawwwlllled, desperately trying to pick up some steam. Of course if I could’ve downshifted back into first, it wouldn’t have been a problem ... but I couldn’t. While the syncros in the replacement trans were better, shifting into second gear meant staying there unless I came to a complete stop. Only then could I slot it back into first.

There were 10 vehicles in the 2wd classes, so for the first couple of runs there was a lot of waiting in line for my turn. I did a couple runs in second gear, making improvements. I decided to leave it in first for a run, and see how that went. The first gear run had the engine just screaming and banging off the rev limiter during the longer parts of the track (don’t ask what the red-line is, there is no tach), but coming out of those tight sections was quicker. After the run, I felt like it was probably faster, but I was afraid of blowing up the motor and ending all my fun, so I went back to using second gear.

Other competitors started parking it after a few runs, choosing to save their more competitive equipment for the actual race later. Before long, it was just myself and a stock Ranger making laps. As frustrating as the exits of the slower corners were, I could feel a marked improvement in my driving. I was getting smoother, and I was learning to trust the RallyMetro and what it could do. I lost count of how many runs I made, but I think it was nine or ten. I was having a ball, and my racing machine hadn’t missed a beat. I had been watching it’s temp gauge closely, and while I could see it make small moves when the thermostat opened and closed, it never climbed above normal. The car didn’t break in half either, nor did it leave any parts on track. This was a damn good day.

We then got a break while the AWD class had their open practice sessions. We watched a bit of that, kicked back and enjoyed some water and some trail mix, and did a little diecast photography. After the AWD practice, it was time for the 2wd brackets.

Rally Escort

They did their best to keep things fair, but that’s not easy to do when a 10 car field features everything from the RallyMetro to an LS-swapped E46. Luckily everybody is just there to have fun, so it didn’t cause any drama. I ended up facing off against a rally-prepped MKII Jetta. I made the run in second gear, and predictably got stomped. Into the loser’s bracket I went to wait my turn again. I discussed my first gear/second gear dilemma with some fellow competitors, when one plainly said, “Dude, it’s double elimination here, leave it in first gear.” He was right, so I did when I faced off against a Sentra. That little hamster wheel was crankin’ and bangin’ and screamin’. I still lost, but at least I made a show of it this time.

My favorite car there. Lest you think it’s some rich guy’s toy, the owner tows it with a cargo van with ladders stacked high on its roof rack. He’s a super nice guy, like everybody there.

With that, I was done. I stayed on top of the staging hill to watch some more runs, and then I made my way back to the paddock to start hooking the RallyMetro back up to my truck. Tyler, the same guy who had advised leaving it in first gear, came over and said don’t pack up yet, we might get more runs later. A few of us went over to consult the powers that be, and got an answer of definitely maybe, if we have time ... unless you did really bad, then probably not. I had done very badly, and since I had gotten so many runs in during the practice, I elected to head home early to surprise my wife and daughters. It appears I made the right call, because the results posted only have one 2wd bracket. I tied for last with #47, which I believe was the stock Ranger (we had predicted, just like last year, that we would be fighting for last place … we were right again).

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Satisfied with the results, we pointed east and cruised home. It was a beautiful day, the people at the event were all fantastic, and the RallyMetro was none the worse for wear. I made sure to stop at Starbucks near home and get my wife a decaf coffee with cream, to make up for her inevitable disappointment that the Metro came back home with me. That’s the kind of stuff that earns a married guy a continued hall pass to do stupid things with crappy cars.

The RallyMetro exceeded my wildest expectations. As much as I wish I could freely shift between first and second gears, that little beast took every single bit of pounding I could give it, and didn’t falter once. I was afraid the car might not make it through even one event. There are four more events at Byron this year, and now I think the little crapcan that could might just make it through the whole season. Thanks again to XJDano for basically giving me this car. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s going to die the death of a warrior on a rallycross course.

If you’re anywhere near the area, I strongly encourage you to come check out the action. Whether you come to participate, or just to watch, it’s a great way to spend a day doing dumb stuff with cars. If you decide to participate, I don’t recommend you do so with your daily driver. I went home on a tow truck last year, shit does happen sometimes. I plan to bring the RallyMetro out to all of the Byron events this year. If any of you bring a helmet, I’d be happy to give you a ride during practice.