With ambitions of non-competitive rallying on the back roads and byways of Southern California, we decided a little immersive training would set the stage for our project recce car Gruppe R.
Without the budget to pop into a boutique driving school like Dirt Fish or Team O’Neil for some rally pointers, we looked to a more grassroots level organization, the California Rally Series (CRS) hosts the NASA Rally Sport school as a one-day event bringing novice students into the fold with an intensive classroom session and hands-on, or co-driving instruction with rally veteran ride-a-longs.
The site of our adventure would take us to the high-desert town of Ridgecrest, California. Situated along Interstate 395, China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station is home to a small community of hand-picked characters, and can likely be found on the CCCP list of ICBM targets, as it takes on a distinct “Forbidden Zone” atmosphere where one might expect to find a new Cherry 2000 hull.
We made our way across the the rolling arroyos to the hotel where we found our accommodations and proceeded to check-in for the evening. The scene was grim, like The Shining minus the quality architecture. An oasis of plastic plants was festooned with a bounty of formica and polyester.
Navigating the narrow hallways, the eerie dinge of fluorescents lit our path, our olfactory senses detecting the skunky musk of herbal remedies imbibed by the fellow patrons. Opening the door to our transient abode I groped for a light switch, the only one forthcoming illuminated the magnitude of our impending luxury. In the far corner was an outdoor, motion-detection security light. This sole fixture lit the scene and we basked in the fascism of it’s harsh glow.
The room was spacious, with plenty of room to put down plastic sheeting should the occupants be inclined to make a mess. Relics and artifacts of a bygone era in hospitality furnished the space — a novelty of domestic proportions. We were hungry, and a long day awaited us in the morning. An excursion back through the domestic wasteland of the lobby was in order. Along our route we took in the atmosphere. This was a rare occasion, one to savor.
Passing the cornucopia of edibles available for purchase, we struck out into the night to seek nourishment elsewhere — a risk we later discovered, may have better been left alone. The local taco shop was distressing, abundant cross contamination put us off the local fare, and the threat of bodily harm loomed as we monitored a pair of weathered locals keen to eyeball us.
Returning to the asylum of our double-bed sanctuary we turned in for the night — that is after stripping the bed of offending linens, of course. Morning broke and the promised continental breakfast became the mythical continental breakfast — in that there wasn’t one. The local doughnut shop was pleasantly hospitable, filled to the gills with old-timers who clearly were part of the decor on a daily basis.
Class began promptly at 8:00 a.m., introductions were made, and we all tried to follow the spoon-fed curriculum. Headed-up by a delightfully paired duo — Mike and Paula Gibeault — these two are passionate about the sport of rallying. Their aging-hippie (in the kindest sense) appearance endears them to a crowd of, let’s be honest, a mixture of mostly nerds peppered with a few loud flat-billers.
The syllabus walked us through rallying basics and terminology while answering questions both basic and technical. After a transition to another set of married speakers, mass confusion ensued as the bewildered heard of rally newbies struggled to wrap their heads around the complexities of time controls. We thought this was all about going fast?
Finally we got into some discussion on theoretical driving technique and terrain reading. The importance of line choice, the late apex, footwork, and navigating obstacles were explored in detail. We were introduced to the traction triangle “trace,” which as a concept showed us where the limits of adhesion could be surmised under different conditions and combinations of acceleration, braking, and turning.
Rally as a form of motorsport has been around in one form or another for ages. While we generally associate rally with sideways-sliding and gravel spitting wheelspin action along the cliffsides of some exotic locale — the truth of the matter is these “special stages” only represent a small percentage of the time-trial event.
Transiting these sections on public roads is a regimented affair, and timing controls (points along the stage that competitors must reach by a certain time) are counted to the second. Penalties are levied for arriving too early or too late, so pacing and navigation are handled by the co-driver.
With a better handle on the rules and calculations of timing controls we ran a foot rally through the halls, stairs, and lobby of the hotel. We were issued a time card and had to leave and arrive at different check points in the correct time frame. Subtly we were reminded that although this was a training exercise it was a race, and the winner would get something. Ever the competitive soul I urged my “co-driver” partner that we should hurry, as most of the field was taking their leisurely time. In the end there was a tie for first place, and we were awarded a handsome prize in the form of a t-shirt.
After our provided bag lunch we delved into strategies for getting into rally on the cheap — car selection, class rules, licensing, and other logistical considerations. The path of progression for an aspiring rallyist is predetermined by a very linear route defined by prerequisite experience and achievements. One must prove themselves in the lower classes before a racing license for another class will be granted.
The mysterious coded language of stage and pace notes was translated for us to implement in our stage navigation. Stage notes are a set of landmark and distance notes outlining the route of a rally as provided by the organizer; pace notes are generated by each team during recce to decide their individual strategy and evaluation of the terrain.
The classic shorthand that uses numbers and punctuation to foretell the corners and features takes some deciphering. Until a few basics are establish these lines of code are little more than an obscure runic language. For example: 5R/Cr 200 3L > 2L NC 400 6R < 500 translates into: slight left over crest into a 200-yard straight until a medium left that tightens in radius, don’t cut the apex, 400 yards of straight into very slight right that opens in radius to a 500-yard straight. Many more symbols and abbreviations exist, but learning how to read and digest the information is the real challenge.
On The Dirt
At the end of the day, we met up at the local fairgrounds that hosted the driving portion of the rally school. A number of skid-pads in the form of doughnuts and figure-eights were carved in to the dirt field along with a short autocross course. We were paired with an instructor and first took to the skid pad. Using a fixed amount of steering lock we were taught to maintain a slide of varrying radius using throttle, left foot braking, and lift-off oversteer. This proved challenge in Gruppe R as the dynamics of such a vehicle are variable.
The AWD system is not full time, so the car behaves like a FWD car until a certain point, and then some of the fundamentals change. With the electronics fighting back in a clamor of confusion, some of the left foot braking drills were not possible, even at the hands of the instructors. All in all, the experience on a loose surface in a modern car like this was valuable, not only from an enthusiast’s standpoint but a car control and safety standpoint.
Sliding around on the dirt and crossing uneven patches of ground under steering, braking and acceleration certainly exposed some of the Golf R’s inherent weaknesses as a recce car — weaknesses we intend to address. The suspension travel is limited and far more suited to the track, the electronics put a foot down on the control inputs, and the low-profile tires leave little give. Numerous cars fell victim to debeaded tires, overheating, and sever engine issues.
We returned to the hotel for some closing words, and made our egress from the premises with haste. Personally, coming from a background of desert racing on loose surfaces I was interested how many skills do not transfer from one sport to the other and vice-versa. In retrospect, desert racing is anarchy inside and outside the cockpit — a battle of survival, brutality, technique, and resourcefulness. Rallying is order and precision, timing, and civility. You be the judge.