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1999 Tbird Stories
Thunderbird Rally 1999: 
A Novice Point of View by Kelly Watkinson

Car #32  Driver: Taun Chapman Co-Driver: Kelly Watkinson Audi 5000CD Avant

Taun asked me to enter Thunderbird Rally up in Merrit with him this past weekend, since neither of us has ever rallied before, it seemed like a good plan.

Saturday morning things started out a bit frantic as the guy inspecting our car said we had to have a fire extinguisher, while insisting that everything loose had to be tied down. At the drivers meeting 1/2 hour before the start they gave use the route instructions. Comments relating to: "lots of snow" and the "yawning chasm of doom" were tossed about the room. The organizers also made a big deal about having and using one of those orange safety triangles. They kept telling us to make sure we put it a long way from the car.all this was starting to worry me.

We finally passed tech inspection and got our first look at the route instructions. They made no sense whatsoever. We eventually figured out that SOR means "sign on right", but CG, KL, SC and MBCU remained mysteries. Fortunately everyone was quite helpful and we now know them as "cattle guard", "keep left", "surface change" and "may be considered unnecessary" respectively.

The first stage was a transit section, which is basically a drive to where the fun starts. The way it works is that at a given time, plus your car number in minutes, you start the section. Nobody was there to tell us when or to time our start. Now I understand why it's so important to synchronize your watch with the rally master's clock! Once underway on the first timed section, we were surprised to see so many orange safety triangles and cars in snow banks. We must have passed six stuck cars in the first 10 minutes.and these were the more experienced teams! They had us novices start at the back of the field so we wouldn't get in the way. It turns out that driving a rally is much more challenging than I had thought. We also learned that by starting on time, and not allowing enough time to accelerate in the slippery conditions, we were invariably ten or fifteen seconds late by the first checkpoint!

We had a great time though and Taun was having a gas driving. The Audi is a great car but seems to understeer on the entrance to a corner. He had to brake with his left foot to get the front wheels planted. Adding to the challenge were the ubiquitous orange safety triangles. We soon understood why they had told us to place the things so far up the road from a car that had gone off. The more warning we had to slow down, the more likely we were to make it through ourselves. The next few stages got better. We learned to start 5 or 6 seconds early, then to go like hell whenever we could. This actually kept us pretty close to on time.

During the last section things got a bit difficult as I was not able to get all the time calculations done. I was also getting a bit car sick trying to work all this out while we were driving! By now it was getting late.where did the day go? We got a good start but soon realize why most of the other cars had so many extra lights on. Coming into the first checkpoint we were about 15 seconds late. Taun was trying to makeup time and, without good lights, his strategy was to go fast on the straight sections and assume there was something bad lurking around every corner - he got no argument from me.

At 19.4 minutes into the section, Taun straightened out a corner a little early and all of a sudden the snow bank looked so small. It's actually quite disorienting to be upside down inside a car. We learned that Audis run just as well upside down as rightside up. A quick check revealed no pain or blood. Now the trick was to get out of the car (it was more difficult than I would have thought). I was careful not to undo my seat belt before some basic trajectory estimates! Fortunately my door opened OK and we scrambled up the bank ten or fifteen feet back to the road: "Wow!". Several cars stopped to see if we were OK and we finally got to use our own orange safety triangle. After a bit of discussion we decided that it would be better to leave the car over night and get it pulled out properly on Sunday. It looked like there wasn't much damage, but if we weren't careful we could have caused a lot getting it out.

On Sunday Taun called BCAA. It seemed to be a bit of a stretch getting them to pull us out, but they went for it. The driver had never been on the road we were on but he knew where it was and we knew the car was exactly 25.6 km in. Unfortunately there was about 10cm of fresh snow, which did not thrill the driver. About 10 km in we met a grader coming the other way, which was not a good thing on such a narrow road. The tow truck driver moved over and promptly got stuck. The grader driver just squeezed by, then stuck out his blade, backed up and pushed us out. The first thing the tow truck driver said upon seeing our car was: "I've never had to tackle anything like this!".

We managed to flip the car over on the first try. One of the tow straps broke, but it worried me more that the tow truck kept sliding sideways. It seemed to me that that had been the easy part (and about all the truck and driver were capable of). Overall the car looked good: no broken glass and no lost fluids. Getting the car back up the bank looked more difficult. It was about ten feet down a very steep embankment and sitting at about 45 degrees. The major problem seemed to be that if we tried to pull it forward the back would probably slide down the hill into a tree. We tied the back to a big tree and pulled from the front. Unfortunately the standard Audi tow hook was not designed to drag a car up an embankment! By hooking onto the subframe we got the car about half way up, but as I had anticipated, the truck kept sliding sideways. Taun told the driver that he would even stand with his foot wedged between the road and the side of the tire if it would help!

It did not look like this was going to work, we needed a bigger truck. Just then a very large truck came around the corner with a very big thing on it. Things did not look good. The car was in a precarious position and if we had unhooked it, it might have slid back into the tree. Then a guy appeared who looked like a thin Kenny Rodgers and said: "Do you want me to fire up the bundler and pull your car up onto the road"? Taun quickly responded: "Sure!". We unhooked the tow truck and the car managed to stay put. Then the large truck pulled up with the big thing on it and swung a big boom out over to where the car was. We hooked up the tow chain and pulled the car out like it was a kids toy! It was amazing to watch as it looked exactly like a child's pull toy. This machine did not even strain under the load. It turns out that the bundler was used for cutting and bundling trees - like a big back hoe with a saw blade on one end. The blade itself was three or four feet in diameter and two inches thick. It had carbide inserts the size of my fist. This was the second coolest big thing I had ever seen (next to a Saturn V rocket in Houston)! 

We checked the car over and disconnected the coil before turning it over. It seemed fine. No oil had filled combustion chamber, so we connect the coil and tried it. Nothing happened, it would not start. I smelled gas coming out of the exhaust and when we had had the coil disconnected I had seen a bright blue spark. Taun finally suggested that we remove the distributor cap. I said it was probably unnecessary, as we knew we had a spark and it had been running after we rolled, so what could be wrong under the cap? It turned out that there was at least a half cup of water and ice in the cap! I guess all that snow had melted and run down inside the cap. What did I know - I didn't have much experience with upside down cars!

Basically the car is fine, a few dents but we drove back to town without a problem.

c. 1999 Kelly Watkinson

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