Had a fire instead.
I was hired last minute to co-drive for two time national class champion Cameron “Hollywood” Steely at the Lake Superior Performance Rally when his regular co-driver had to cancel due to a family emergency. How last minute? I was contacted on the evening of October 13th. The deal was closed on the 14th. I had to be on the road the morning of the 15th.
Cam and I have been friends for years, which helped us coordinate the event strategy once I arrived in Michigan. Fortunately for the first time in event history there was the opportunity to do two-pass recce (drive each stage twice on recce day - the day before the rally which is used to prepare and refine our pace notes - instead of just once). Unfortunately because the event didn’t really want to offer two pass the only way to fit all the stages in twice before recce closed was to start at 6 AM sharp. Sunrise was at 7:45.
For the record, doing recce in the dark is dumb and dangerous. It’s harder to accurately gauge the distances of straights, crests and jumps are harder to pick up on and accurately note, and you just generally miss a lot of important details in the dark. Massively experienced co-driver Rhiannon Gelsomino, who has 150 rally starts including 17 in the WRC, broke both her legs in a bad rally crash which she attributes to having to recce in the dark.
Deciding that bad recce is better than no recce Cam and I came up with the strategy to start at 6 AM, starting with a pass of the stages that would be run in the dark during the rally itself, and using the “Jemba” notes provided by the event for those stages. Jemba notes are computer-generated notes created by driving through the stages at a consistent speed and letting accelerometers gauge the grade of the corners. They’re usually reliable enough, but an experienced competitor will be faster with their own notes since competitor-created notes are tailored to the individual style of the driver. For that reason once the sun was up and we could see the stages we switched to writing our own notes for the rest of the rally.
Because we needed to be at the first stage by 6 AM we left the hotel at 5. I offered to do the hour drive down to the stages, because drivers are soft and need to be pampered. Really though, you want your driver to be well rested and alert on recce, both your lives depend on the notes the driver dictates. On the drive down to the stage I made what ended up being titled our save of the rally. A deer jumped out in front of us last second on a narrow dirt road. I managed to swerve around it, threading the needle between erratic deer and big ditch with a margin so tight that if my window had been open I could’ve smacked the deer in the ass as I went by. Cam was less fortunate once he was behind the wheel, having an encounter with a skunk that left the recce car smelling like fermented ass for the rest of the week. This is why you use a rental car for recce.
Fast forward to race day and we started the rally sixth on the road out of over 60 cars. Ahead of us were, in order, Oliver Solberg in a factory Subaru, Barry McKenna in Ott Tanak’s old S2000 car (now with turbo), Ramana Lagemann in Tommi Makinen’s 2002 Subaru world rally car, David Higgins in the other factory Subaru, and Piotr Fetella in a Fiesta Proto (2016-spec Fiesta WRC body with a Mitsubishi Evo drivetrain). Behind us was a LS-swapped AWD Chevy Sonic and a Mustang V6-powered Mk II Escort. The fact that our battered, worn out (over 50 rallies on the chassis) Limited class STI that only made 210 hp at the wheels was ranked up among this crowd speaks to the speed and skill of Cameron. It was going to be a good day.
We went into the first stage a bit cautious. Cam had never had my voice in his ear, and I didn’t fully know how he liked the timing of his calls. We expected it to take two or three stages to sync up with each other and find our rhythm. It took roughly three corners.
We cleared the 6.7 mile opening stage in just under six minutes, coming in sixth fastest, five seconds behind the Proto and 19 seconds ahead of the leading R5 (that feels good to say). The second stage was a similar story, sixth fastest and averaging almost 72 mph on the stage. We were hustling and feeling great as we headed into service before stage 3.
Service was routine, the only issues the crew needed to address were bleeding the brakes and securing the exhaust which was starting to come loose. Oh, and removing the box of posters that had been accidentally left in the trunk. On the way out of service headed to stage 3 Cam picked up on a strange noise under power. The faint whistle, barely audible over the many other loud noises a rally car makes, sounded like a slight boost leak. We pulled over to check all the hoses, clamps, and fittings, but found nothing obvious. Our only option was to try to get it through the next loop of stages and back to service so the crew could properly diagnose it. We didn’t make it.
Stage 3 started reasonably strong, the car launched off the line and was performing well through the first few miles. Roughly five miles in we got onto a decent size straight and the car struggled to break 100 mph. We knew in that moment that something was wrong. The car struggled to pull itself out of the next corner, then smoke started entering the cabin. Cam, who has had some experience with car fires, said he thought we might be on fire and looked for a safe place to pull off. We jumped out and I was immediately met with a sizable fire in the passenger wheel well. I grabbed my extinguisher and put it out, but it flared back up again. Flammable liquid was pouring onto extremely hot metal, the kind of fire that can be impossible to put out.
I knocked down the fire a second time and we opened the hood to get a better angle on it. At this point Cam had his extinguisher as well. We took turns trying to get it out. I completely used up my bottle. The fire wasn’t flaring up as strongly as it had been, but it wasn’t staying out either. I started to think about my emergency plan. If it looks like we won’t be able to save the car what do I grab from inside in the few seconds I might have? Phone, wallet, maybe some of the cameras? How many could I pull free in five seconds?
At this point the car behind us was closing down. We jumped into the road to flag them down, me yelling “FIRE FIRE FIRE” at the top of my lungs, trying to be heard over the Sonic’s V8 as they pulled to a stop alongside us. Ole Holter, the co-driver, got out with his extinguisher and started spraying the engine as I got out our red cross - the symbol printed on the back of the route book that’s to be shown to competitors in an emergency - and prepared to flag down the next car.
As the following car, the V6 Escort, pulled to a stop and I began another round of begging for extinguishers Ole shouted over that he’d managed to get the fire out. Relieved, I handed back the extinguisher to the Escort crew. Crisis now averted we sent them on to give the situation to the next radio location on the stage, and began the process of stopping all the ensuing cars. By showing the red cross we’d officially canceled the stage for all the cars behind us, once a red cross is shown it can’t be undone, so even though we no longer had an emergency we still had to stop all the cars as they reached us. One by one we would stop them, tell them of the situation, apologize for ruining the stage, and send them on down the road at transit speed. All we could do at this point was wait for a tow out. Days of preparation and planning, thousands of miles and thousands of dollars spent, all ending on a tow rope. That, as they say, is rally.
Here’s the O.D.D. Racing recap of the weekend. Hopefully not my last time in the car with Cam.