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2001 Tbird Stories - Car 29

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Thunderbird Rally 2001, 
British Columbia, Canada.

Jamie Thomas and John Felstead Car 29.

The preparations 

I arrived in the USA on Saturday 10th Feb to be met by Jamie at Seattle Airport after 16 hours of travelling, I was very tired and fighting my way through customs, trying to explain why I was over was fun, not! 

They were not making my life easy at all. I don't think they quite understood what a rally was and I didn't want to have to explain how Jamie and I met, as that would certainly blow their minds. 

Anyway, after what seemed an age of questions and bag searches they let me through and I could finally meet up with Jamie. 

We headed off down to Oregon for the weekend to stay at some friends, so by the time I stopped travelling I was pretty exhausted, did I sleep that night. 

Sunday was just what I needed, I spent a few hours working on a Pro-Rally Subaru then we hit the beach for a while, that was fun, my first time in the Pacific, amazingly its wet and salty. 

Sunday night we headed back to Seattle, about a 3-hour drive, Jet lag was really kicking in then so I was grateful to be at my home for the next 2 weeks. Thoughts then went to the work we needed to do to Jamie's new Impreza to get it ready for the rally. 

The original plan on doing the rally was to compete in Jamie's Legacy GT, sadly that was destroyed on new years day so there was a possibility we wouldn't make the rally at all. We were both determined that we would though, with Jamie's determination and my Rally Prep experience I knew we could make it, nothing was going to stop us, that's for sure. 

Jamie had installed the DMS rally suspension and skid guards to her brand new Impreza before I arrived but we still had spot lamps to make brackets for, mount and wire in. We needed to get the snow tyres mounted on some rims, map light installed, computer system for the stage timing programmed and linked in to the ECU, 110V inverter to source to power the laptop, tow rope, warning triangle, fire extinguisher etc to install, so plenty to do in 5 days. 

As the car is Jamie's daily driver it meant doing the work in the evening so it left us very little time to play with. I mounted and wired the final pair of spots on the Friday morning, just 2 hours before we headed off for Canada. 

Having the spot lamp brackets made was an adventure in itself; I went up to Glenn Wallace's place to have a look at his Rally car to get the dimensions from his lamp brackets. These were Glenn's own design and look really neat, only take 15 minutes to remove from the car and you can't tell they were ever there. Great simple design that works! 

Richard Squire and I then spent the next day trying to find a local machine shop to make us a pair, that was quite a struggle as the bends required needed some quality sheet metal work to achieve. We had quotes for $65 per bracket and we can have them next week! ermmm, we need them like now!! 

We finally found a shop in down town Seattle who would make them as we waited; the guy did them in 15 minutes! When I asked how much I owed, as quite frankly I didn't care at that point, I just wanted them now, he said as I was an out of town visitor I could have them for free, just buy him a beer sometime. Talk about top US Hospitality. I am going back there this week with a huge case of beer for that guy. 

So I now had the brackets made, I just needed to drill them, buy the mounting bolts and spacers, paint them (Jamie wouldn't let me just bang them on until they looked right) and then get them on the car. I then wired up the lights using some proper Hella wiring looms, one loom per pair of lamps. Although we were tight on time, nothing was bodged; we did the job properly, which is the only way I can work, even if it means it takes a few hours longer. 

I was doing all this in sub zero temperatures with a stinking cold in the dark but we had a rally to compete in, I have done this a hundred times before and no doubt will do it again, its just something you have to do if you really are keen to compete. 

Very few people really understand the effort required to go rallying until they try it themselves. I have a huge amount of time for any rally competitor because of the dedication it takes. 

So we now had the lamps sorted out, I now needed to get the laptop computer loaded up with some seriously trick rally timing software Glenn and Richard had developed themselves and the ECU wiring tapped into to give us a speed trigger. To do this we popped up to Glens place with the car and connected up the wiring, this in the middle of a snow storm, this was turning into one cold week! 

Glen then gave me a 15-minute crash course in running his software, which quite frankly blew me away, it didn't all sink in but the essential stuff did. It was fun just booting the laptop as it is running the latest version of windows from Microsoft, which isn't even released for a few months; I wonder how we got hold of that software? 

So Friday lunch arrived rather quickly, we were ready to set off for Canada. 

Unbelievably Friday morning Seattle was hit by the biggest snowstorm for years, we had 9" of snow at Jamie's. The thought of having to drive 500 miles to BC in that was not a fun thought. 

Amazingly once outside Seattle the roads were completely clear so we managed to set a great pace on our way north, we went in mini convoy, Richard and Glenn in one 2.5RS, Jamie and I in her Impreza 2.5RS. That made quite a sight compared to all the American and Import Cars on the road, 2 rally prepared Impreza's. I doubt its something seen that often on US roads. 

We made great progress and arrived in Cache Creek, British Columbia around 7.30pm, half an hour early for first registration so we booked into the hotel and hit the local Bar for a quick pint. It was bloody freezing though, just 10F degrees (-12C). Something I would get very used to in the next couple of days. 

After registration Richard gave me another crash course in the timing software, which I needed badly, then it was time for bed, we would be up at 6.30am on the Sat Morning. 

Day 1 - Leg 1 

We started the day with tech inspection which consisted of checking the car was safe and all the requirements like lamps, extinguishers, tow ropes etc were all in place. We will be driving in some of the remotest, inhospitable roads in Canada so we had to be prepared for if things went wrong. We sailed through that and it was nice to see that our car looked one of the best prepped there. 

We then completed the signing on and received the rally decals and number squares to apply to the car. Even that isn't an easy task in 10F degrees, what would normally be compliant sticky back plastic turns very brittle at that temp, making it quite hard to apply without it splitting. 

We then had a novice drivers meeting to go through all the rules and procedures followed by the main drivers briefing where we received the first days stage routes. These are in the format of tulip diagrams and text instructions telling us the required speed through the different parts of the stage. We then had 30 minutes to program the computer with all the instructions before we had to set off for the first stage. 

Richard and Glenn were running car 1 and Jamie and I were car 29, this meant I was on my own as I wouldn't see them all day so I was a little nervous I would screw up the computer system, I had only received 30 mins tuition in something that takes years to master fully. 

Jamie and I managed to program in all the stages bar one before we had to leave for the first stage, that took a lot of pressure off getting most of the programming out of the way. 

We then had a 31Km road section to stage 1; this is used as an odometer check to set up the factor required to calibrate the PC to the tyres. The PC was setup as default for 195/65 x 15 Hakka 10 studded snow tyres, we were running 205/65 x 15 Hakka 1 studded snow tyres so I was expecting the calibration to be out. 

Sure enough, after the odocal section the distance reading on the PC did not match the true rally distance but I was buggered if I could remember how to modify the calibration setting, I was incredibly frustrated by this as it was essential to get this bang on, otherwise I could not give Jamie the accurate info she needed to stay on the correct pace for the stage. 

It's probably a good idea to explain quickly how a TSD rally works. In the stage instructions you are given the route through the stage with Tulip diagrams, that is easy for me to follow, I have used them since I was 17. Unlike Special stage rallies however, you are also given a set speed to attain through the stage, this is known as the CAST, one stage may have multiple sections of different cast's and it is my job to tell Jamie whether we are bang on the correct speed for that section, down to the 0.1 of a second. Also unlike a special stage, a TSD stage has more than one time control and these are hidden from the competitors, so its essential you keep to the set speed all the way through the stage. Now you imagine being given a set speed to attain of 72km/h through ice and snow covered hairpins with 1000ft drop just a few feet away, it's not easy. What you find yourself doing in some sections that have nasty bends is say 30km/h but then having to make up the lost time by doing 120km/h plus where it is safe; it's a hell of a challenge.
Teamwork is absolutely essential because I have to make sure we don't go too fast or too slow to the second through a stage that may be 120Km's long. Just think about that, 120Km's of driving accurate to the second; pretty amazing task on tarmac, never mind snow and ice. 

Anyway, back to the rally.

So I now am in the position where I know my odo reading and therefore speed-reading is out, but I cant think for the life of me how to change this! I quickly worked out that the calibration was 2% out so we set off through the first stage with me trying to adjust the times in my head by 2% from what the reading on the PC told me. Headache, tense nervous headache!!! 

On top of this I was reading the instructions to Jamie, trying to help her read the road a little as driving on snow and ice was new to us both, read the tulip instructions as to when a turn was coming (the stages had NO arrows like a UK special stage) and try and work out a way for us to communicate efficiently as a team, this was the first time we had attempted a rally together and it takes a little time to gel as a team. 

Things were going pretty well for our first stage considering I was trying to calculate what our true speed was in my head, we then came upon a crashed truck driven by a local who was driving against rally traffic, unlike a special stage rally, all the stages were still open to public traffic so the danger of a head on was ever constant. Fortunately everyone was OK and 2 competitors had already stopped at the scene so we pressed on. The first stage was 44km long called DEADMAN, great name to settle you in gently, not! 

About ¾ of the way through we started to catch the car in front, a Mazda 323 GTX 4x4 car driven by a rather experienced crew so I thought, ****, I have my calcs miles out as we shouldn't catch anyone so I asked Jamie to back off and loose some time. I was so wrong to do that, it was them that had screwed up, not us, they were running too slow but I doubted myself and so made a mistake. We completed the stage intact and I was really pleased with the way Jamie had driven, she had never taken her new car off road before so was learning how it handled as we went and she was doing a great job of it, never taking risks but still getting it sliding where it was safe to get a feel for the handling on snow, it was a lot of fun to sit and watch her work it all out.

At the first checkpoint we were just 5 seconds off perfect time, so my brain was working pretty well, but at the 2nd checkpoint because I had asked Jamie to back off we were 30 seconds off, so at the end of the first stage we had 35 seconds of penalties. 

It was now essential I worked out how to reset the Odo cal for the 2nd stage if we were to stand any chance of a decent result. I thought of a bodge to the software I could use by editing an .ini file that held the default calibration factor, so I modified this value by 2%, the problem was I didn't know if I should go up 2% in value or down 2% so it was 50/50 whether I would get this right for stage 2. It turns out I chose the wrong way so instead of being 2% out; I was now 4% out. *sigh* 

We had a 84km transit to the start of stage 2, even the transit roads were ice and snow covered in the main, just on base tarmac rather than forest tracks. The transit roads have no timing to them; you just have to ensure you are at stage start on time. Also unlike a special stage rally, there is no one at the stage start to count you off, it's up to the navigator (me) to start us on time, as the first hidden control could be just 100yards up the track if they wanted. 

The 2nd stage was 47km long of more twisty snow covered roads, with 6 cast changes, after about a mile I realised I had gone the wrong way on my speed calcs so I was now trying to work everything in my head but this time 4% out, did my head hurt! 

Again we caught the car in front and I was convinced I had screwed up big time so again I asked Jamie to back off, a big mistake. We lost 97 seconds in that stage. Unfortunately we didn't get any times till the end of the day so I couldn't clarify the times. 

At the end of the 2nd stage I reprogrammed the Odocal factor again on the PC and this time I got it spot on. I managed to clarify its accuracy using the transit distances to stage 3 so for the first time I was 100% confident in what I was telling Jamie. Sadly by now we had accumulated 132 seconds penalties which is very frustrating as Jamie was driving absolutely to my instructions, I was pretty amazed quite how well she was driving, that side of the car had no problems at all and I was enjoying being in the car, watching her confidence grow as the miles passed by. 

The next transit was 34Km long, not a lot happened except me clarifying the PC accuracy was now spot on. 

Stage 3 was 42km long and about ¾ of the way through we caught the Mazda yet again, this time I told Jamie to pass the bugger as he is screwing up, I was convinced 100% I was right and they were wrong now. It was amusing to watch this guy try and pull away from us once they realised we were catching fast, they decided to pull over and let us by after nearly stuffing it big style trying to keep to our pace, that made me giggle a little and gave me a lot of confidence in Jamie's driving as she could easily beat these guys without any dramas at all, yet they were all over the place, we had the makings of a good team I thought after seeing that. 

Well, what a difference a calibrated PC can make, in that 42km stage we were exactly 1 second off perfect time!! 1 second in 42km of snow and ice, that's pretty amazing for a brand new team, I am really chuffed with that stage. 

We then had a 41km transit to a petrol halt, filled up and were immediately into the next transit section of 34km. The time was now 5.25pm, we had set off at 11am and been up since 6.30am and we still had 4 hours ahead of us, this is proper Rallying, non of this daylight WRC wuss stuff. 

Stage 4 was 69km long with 8 cast changes, again another challenging stage with some really fast sections followed by tight and twisty sections, we passed an Impreza stuffed into the snow, way off track after launching on a snow bank, plus the Mazda 323 off on the other side of the road at the same junction. We were making great progress, staying within 1 second for 99% of the time with relative ease and not making any silly mistakes. We then came upon a Range Rover that had rolled on a tricky downhill series of bends; they were OK so we pressed on. At the end of this stage we had been 0, 3, 0 and 7 seconds off perfect time at the 4 checkpoints, again pretty impressive for complete novices, which is what we were at this sport. 

We then had a 22km transit to the next stage start. We were now into a great routine, working well as a team and having a great laugh along the way. We must have been the coolest rally team out on the road sections because we went from one stage finish to the next stage start with Jamie's Trance Music CD's blasting away as we winded our way through the stunning scenery of BC. 

Stage 5 was a short and sweet 16km, I don't remember much happening in there at all, we were again just 1 second off setting a perfect time. 

We then had yet another transit of 12km to the start of stage 6 which was just 10km long, again we were 1 second from perfect time. We were getting good at this stuff, Jamie was driving with great skill and confidence now, we were really getting into this. 

We then had another transit of just 5km then to stage 7, a rather challenging 51km. 

Stage 7 was one hell of a stage for us for one simple reason, the computer power failed, I just couldn't believe it, we relied 100% on it for telling us distances for when the turns were coming plus keeping our speed correct. I made a mistake of not getting Jamie to reset her trip meter on the dash, although inaccurate, it would have given me some clues as to how far in the stage we were. Well, it took me what seemed an age to reboot the PC and then use a point on the road book to recalibrate the mileage we were at in the stage as the odo reading was a mile out on the PC when it came back up, I used a cattle grid that was marked on the stage book to recalibrate. It was at this point I realised we were 3 minutes down on time, Jamie had been driving blind for quite a while whilst I tried to get the damn PC working and we had dropped a huge amount of time. Well all I can say is the next 10 miles were scary as hell from where I was sat as Jamie drove superbly to claw back those 3 minutes, unbelievably by the last 2 time controls we were back to zero time, we had a massive 72 second penalty for mid stage though! What a bummer. 

I had such mixed feelings at the end of that stage because I was so disappointed that the PC had screwed us up, at the same time I was just chuffed to bits Jamie was capable of clawing back such a huge deficit, if anyone ever doubted that women can drive they should go sit with Jamie because she is bloody good and shows one hell of a lot of determination, I was impressed and I have sat with some top national rally drivers in my time in the sport. 

Anyway, trance music back on for just 5k's then it was time for the last stage of day one. This was a fairly short 11Km that we dropped just 2 seconds on. We then headed off to Williams lake on the final transit of the day, just 10k's to the hotel. It was now 9.30pm!! 

We had a very welcome hot meal, quick pint in the bar with some American rally legends telling their stories like only American's can. (I love the yanks, they make me laugh so much with there open conversations) then it was off to bed. Phew! 

Day two 

We had the 2nd day drivers meeting at 8am, we were up at 6.30 am again to make sure we had breakfast and were awake for the days motorsport. The crash of the local on day one had caused a few problems in that stage which we were due to run again as the final stage of the rally so the organisers decided to cancel the last stage. This meant we had some major route book changes to make plus we were started off 30 minutes later than originally planned so we had to be very careful programming the PC with the correct times and route instructions. 

The first transit was just 30km so we decided to sit in the hotel car park, finish the PC programming then make our way to stage start. That meant I could relax and forget about having to enter the instructions prior to the stages. 

We then tackled the first stage of day 2, a 65km stage that was full of huge exposures on tight hairpins of sheet ice, now that was great fun to sit and watch Jamie tackle, she really had a grip on it now, I had absolute confidence in her abilities, I am just glad that stage was on day 2 because it had some incredibly dangerous sections. If we would have gone off there, as Eric Carlson's codriver once was heard to say, our cloths would be out of fashion by the time we hit the bottom of the canyon. (Copyright Satch Carlson, haha) 

In the 4 checkpoints we set 0, 4, 0, 0 time penalties, pretty awesome numbers, just 4 seconds off perfect in a very challenging 65km. 

We then had a 30-minute brake where we went and had a look at an amazing suspension bridge over a beautiful frozen river in a canyon, just breathtaking views. 

We then tackled the mother of all stages, 122km of the most diverse forest roads you can imagine and in the thickest snow of the whole event, this stage was going to work us hard. The biggest memory I have of this stage is when we were down 30 seconds, it was simply impossible to stay on time, making that time back up in deep snow over blind crests into sweeping continuous flowing corners I think will live with me for ever, it was the only time I thought we were going off as the car had a mind of its own at times, jumping from one rut to another in the deep snow. Jamie fought that car all the way through the really tricky deep snow section that lasted a good 20 miles; I thought it would never end. Absolutely fantastic stuff to watch, I wish I could have just sat back and enjoyed it but I was very busy on the road book and PC. The end of the stage brought a big grin from us both. Again we had set some great times, for the whole of day 2 we had just 29 seconds of penalties. If day 1 had not had the issues with the PC calibration and power loss we would have finished well inside the top 10, we actually finished in 17th overall out of 57 entries. I am pretty sure we were the highest placed first timers on the rally even with our problems; I don't think you can ask for more than that. 

The competitive rally was now over, the fun certainly wasn't though. Whilst the organisers worked out the results we were all sent off to play Ice Racing on a frozen Lake. Now that is a laugh. I got to drive Jamie's RS for the first time on the Lake, my first ever experience of LHD with a manual shift was on the start line for the Ice Racing Track, nuts or what?

We then had the prize giving which meant we didn't leave Cache creek till 7pm, we then had a long drive back down to Seattle, I got the 3rd degree from the US customs yet again on my way back into the USA, god knows why? We arrived back in Seattle at around midnight. Now that is what I call doing a rally, brilliant stuff!! 

It seems Jamie and I made a great team, I would love to come back over and do another event with her because I think we would be very competitive. I need to find us a sponsor to pay for a few days off work for me to let me do that I think. Any offers? 

I would just like to end on some thanks, firstly to Jamie for agreeing to compete in this Rally with me, especially after the loss of her Legacy, to get a new car ready so quickly shows what huge character she has, I am so chuffed to call her one of my best friends, she is very special. 

Also a huge thanks to Glenn Wallace for all the help in getting the spotlamps sorted and especially the computer software, absolutely amazing stuff Glenn. 

Also, thanks to Richard Squire for putting such a crazy idea in my head on last years Network Q Rally over a beer or 5. It's real easy to talk about doing this stuff but never actually carrying it through, thanks to everyone who helped make it become a reality.

Finally to the Organisers of the Rally, thank you for running a great event and allowing a Brit to enter. I'll be back!


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