It’s been a tough year for my local rallycross group, Stateline Rallycross. Every event since June has been cancelled for low car count, wet conditions, or both. As many of you know, in an effort to recruit more drivers, the owner of the league sponsored me to run the Gambler 500-Illinois in the RallyMetro. I’m sure many of you rolled your eyes at my frequent posts basically begging people to register for a rallycross.. While our own LongbowMkII answered the bell and drove all the way up from Kentuky, my efforts didn’t appear to pay many dividends. The October 15th event, two weeks after the Gambler, got scrubbed for rain, while still only having 15 drivers registered. Five short of the magic number needed.
I was actually relieved, because that gave us more time to recruit more drivers. I made more posts, both here and on the Gambler 500-Illinois Facebook group. As the weeks wore on, I began to get depressed. I was checking the website frequently for registrations, and none were getting added. Turns out there was a problem with the website. A week before the race I found out that we were over the needed number, and the event was a go.
I then turned my attention to the iffy forecast. It’s been an extremely wet fall in these parts. Fortunately we didn’t have much rain last week. Saturday night and Sunday morning though both had a chance of rain in the area. All we could do was cross our fingers.
Registration kept climbing, and the crew at Byron Motorsports Park managed to get a course prepped in a different area from where we usually run. Nobody really knew what we were going to be in for until Sunday morning though.
Sunday morning my head popped off the pillow at 5:15 AM. I got ready and went downstairs. My youngest daughter heard me and got up too, followed shortly by her big sister. I made us all breakfast and filled a thermos with coffee. My buddy FryGuy showed up right on time, and we pointed west. It was wet out, and it began misting. As we headed further west, mist turned to rain. Further west still, rain turned to sleet, then to snow.
We were getting close, and I was getting worried about the event getting canceled, when I felt my phone vibrate at a stop sign. I glanced at my phone, and my heart sank. It was a refund notice from Paypal. I began cursing, assuming the worst, and pulled into a parking lot. The refund was something else. I pulled up Facebook to check for updates. The race was still on, but pushed back an hour. I breathed a sign of relief, and we pressed on.
After we signed the needed waivers, we were directed up a hill. I was relieved that they were staging us somewhere different, because the normal paddock is bare dirt. As wet as this fall has been, we would surely all get hopelessly stuck in that spot. Atop the hill was a patch of grass for us all to park.
Wet snow was falling as competitors continued to filter in. My personal favorite was a lifted and built Miata, which was towed in with retired school bus (a short Ford E-Series bus with a diesel). LongbowMKII was already there with his trusty Yaris, and Opponaut Birddog arrived right behind me. He had come to ride shotgun with me in the RallyMetro. We began unhitching the Metro from the truck and making preparations.
We spent a lot of time milling around, checking out the competition, talking to fellow racers. I think it’s safe to say we were all anxious to get started. Finally it was time for a drivers’ meeting. At the meeting a grand understatement was made. “The course is pretty good right now, but it’ll probably get pretty muddy once we break through the top crust.”
Finally it was time to go, and the 2wd group was going first. In a remarkable bit of short-sightedness, I hadn’t thought to warm up the RallyMetro. I hit the key ... and nothing happened. I had forgotten to reattach the battery cable (you have to unhook it for flat-towing, so they key can stay on and the steering wheel can turn free without draining the battery). We made a mad scramble to hook it back up, start the car, get our helmets on, and get to the line for our parade lap.
Luckily the cars that had gone in front of us left a muddy line to follow, because we couldn’t see jack-freaking-squat through the fogged up windshield. That crust we were told about breaking through? That was already gone, the course was fully mud. Second gear would be completely unnecessary, because the game of the day was going to be modulating your wheel spin around the entirety of the course.
We staged up towards the back of the pack, and then waited ... and waited ... and waited some more. People kept getting stuck. When someone gets stuck, they have to get pulled out. Which usually means the next person on track has to come to a stop. Which sometimes means that person gets stuck, and always means that person gets a rerun for being impeded. Fortunately that gave the RallyMetro plenty of time to defog its windshield. The heater in that car works GREAT.
Finally it was our turn to go! The track was a sloppy mess. It wasn’t so much about choosing a line, as it was dealing with where the mud pulled you. Managing wheelspin and trying to keep track of where your wheels were actually pointed were the toughest part. There were a couple of places where the mud pulled us right off the track, but a judicious use of the throttle (read: banging it off the rev limiter) and the trusty Firestone Winterforce tires pulled us through. We never got stuck.
The staging lines remained long throughout the heat. Predictably, the rear wheel drive vehicles had the most trouble. There was an S-10 that had to be pulled multiple times per run it seemed. There was a really nice Volvo 240 that absolutely crawled around track, and I saw get stuck a few times. I think the only RWD vehicle that didn’t need a pull out at least once, was the lifted Miata on mud tires.
Our second run was a little better. LongbowMKII decided it would be prudent to bow out after his second run. He was already eight hours from home, and headed further away to see some friends, and thought it best not to spend any more time banging off his rev limiter while so far from home. Hard to argue that logic.
Our third run was better still ... I dared to say the track may be improving ... then we got stuck on the outside of the last turn. I was able to rock our way out of it, and I don’t think I impeeded anybody, although I’m not positive of that. We noticed that with each run, the track kept getting pushed a bit wider and wider still. One thing that never changed, Birddog and I were laughing our asses off the entire time. It was SO. MUCH. FUN.
Our fourth run was going even better still, but then we had to stop on course while a BMW got pulled out of the muck in front of us. We staged up again for our re-run, and that’s when we cranked off by far our best run yet. I dare say, I made it look like I might actually know what I’m doing. We were hooting and hollering and screaming with joy. I’m really not much of a competitive person, but it felt so great to get better, to improve, and of course sliding around in the mud is always a good time. We were also proud that we never needed to be pulled out, as there weren’t too many 2WD vehicles that could claim that.
I pulled back over by my truck and we got out to survey the results. The RallyMetro was completely plastered with mud. It was glorious. By this time, with all the delays, it was already after 1:00, with the AWD groups still yet to run. We figured there was no way we were going to get a second heat in, so we decided to hitch up the RallyMetro for its return trip, and then watch the AWD groups. We were most excited to see the UTV’s run.
To our surprise, a lot of the AWD cars, which I’m pretty sure were all Subarus (shocking!), were not going all that much faster than we were. They certainly got stuck a lot less, but it was slow going for most of them. The UTV’s, however, did exactly as we expected. They tore it up! One of them in particular, a 4-seater that sat a lot lower than any of the other UTV’s, was an absolute rocket ship. You could actually hear how good his tires were sucking in the mud, as he rolled to the line. That dude had some serious speed. The UTV class was by far the fastest, and he was dusting the other UTV’s by a solid 8 seconds per run. It was impressive to watch.
After the AWD heat, we had a drivers’ meeting. A lot of people had already left. We had a choice, do a second heat of two runs each, or do a half hour fun-run session. I had already hitched up the RallyMetro and was happy with my performance, so I deferred. The remaining drivers voted for fun runs. A second choice to make was did they want the fun runs timed, or should the timing official tabulate the results. We wanted results.
There weren’t a ton of drivers who took advantage of the fun-runs. Rallycross wild man Tyler went out in the Neon he was sharing with a friend, and discovered that the mud on course had been dug a LOT deeper than it was buring the 2WD heat. Probably by those insanely cool and fast UTV’s. He only made one run, during which he got stuck, and packed it in. That made me feel better about calling it a day.
After the fun run session, it was time for those of us who remained (not many) to gather around and see how we did. There was a kid who I had interacted with a bit on Facebook. He had spent the last year building a Ford Aspire rally car, which looked really good, and his big goal was to beat the RallyMetro. He hadn’t been able to stick around to the end. His whole family was with him, and they wanted to get home before dark. I came in second in the Stock Front Wheel Drive class, with a total accumulated time of 669.XX seconds. The Asprire was in the Performance Front Wheel Drive class, and had a total cumulative time of 820.XX seconds.
Now, I can’t be too happy about beating a kid who rallycrossed for the first time, and did it in terrible conditions. What I do genuinely feel happy about, is I beat the only car in the Modified Front Wheel Drive class. That car is a rally prepped MKII Jetta, one that has previously thouroughly whipped the RallyMetro’s butt in dry conditions. He had a total cumulative time of 674.XX seconds. It was fun to beat somebody with more experience and better prepped equipment. I have no doubts that next time he’ll be way faster than me again, but I’m enjoying this little moment of accomplishment. It’s the first time I haven’t been dead last among those who finished the event.
With that, it was time to hit the road. Everybody was wet and frozen to the bone. I wish I could tell you that everybody had a good time, but there were some people there who were clearly very upset. One of them made a fairly shitty comment to me right before they left. I guess I was guilty of being in their general vicinity, and perhaps looking at their car. I feel sorry for them, because the rest of us had a great time playing in the mud. I do believe I have gotten Birddog hooked on rallycross.
A lot of trucks and trailers were getting stuck in the mud. The folks at the venue fired up their giant Ford tractor and pulled them out. My truck is 2wd, but fortunately I had parked at the edge of the staging area, at the top of the hill, so I had no trouble getting out on my own. In the tiny hamlet of Stillman Valley, just east of the venue, we found a self serve spray wash and hosed down the RallyMetro. I was surprised at how easily the mud came off. We then pointed towards home and cruised, tired but happy.
Photo credit: FryGuy