by Walt De Wit
The RallyCross was absolutely epic. TLDR(Too Long Didn’t Read) version for those allergic to stupidly long posts: Went, had crazy fun, got home with car in mostly one piece.
And the long version for everyone else:
The first ever Teng Tools NZ International RallyCross kicked off with about an hour in line for scrutineering, which gave me a lot of time to notice the extras that all the other cars seemed to have. Stuff like ground clearance, suspension travel, rally tyres, hydraulic handbrakes, mud flaps and sump guards. I guess the only compulsory one was the mud flaps though as they made me fit some. I told them that I had been a bit worried about not having them, until I saw all the crazy open wheel offroaders. Those look like they’d just sprung off the cover of a Tamiya RC model box and obviously throw up rivers of sand, but the scrutineer just replied that they were a different class of car. I then pointed out that RSG1 wouldn’t be throwing dirt up anyway as she was low, front wheel drive and on street tires, but no joy. So I promised to tape on some plastic bag cut-outs and the scrutineer said “whatever you want” and we were free to go.
Back in the pits, I taped those on, much to the amusement of the entire pit row. But a different official came past less than 30 minutes before first practice to tell me they were unacceptable and to go to Repco – even if it meant missing the session. Luckily the ugly duckling in a row of rally geese had attracted some sympathy and Ric who was driving a tricked out (and sump guarded) Civic had already offered to bail me out with some thick clear plastic if I got sprung. Systematic panic removing wheels and screwing or zip tieing the giant mud flaps in place ensued. Our group was called to the dummy grid while I was still working on the 3rd one so I figured I’d just leave the taped on plastic on the fourth corner. Got through by promising the grid marshal to finish the other one after.
After the compulsory 20 minutes of sweating on the grid she was all on, and having walked the course earlier I was totally unprepared for what was coming.
On the way to the start line I fired her over the raised exit from the concrete section to the asphalt to get a feel for it (think a 90 degree blind turn with wide judder bar at the apex), then took a wide line into the stadium to get the best angle onto the steep clay entry ramp. With a row of 700kg silage bales directly below I was looking to complete most of the turn on the hard stuff before hitting the clay and landed fine. Coming from a track background it felt weird to be off the seal but still on the track and I did my best to get a quick feel for the red dirt before it got very real.
So far so good. Practice was being run as single cars at 10 second intervals in groups of six and I was lucky to see a few others take the first turn. Bit too much wheel spin off the launch and into the first corner. Clay to sand with a shallow concrete culvert between. Sledge, gas and handbrake, full power but ran wide, pulling up just short of a silage bale. Quick reverse and back into it down the first straight, powering through loose sand, around the jumps and into turn 2.
Here’s where I almost wished I hadn’t walked the course as it was hardly recognisable. A two foot wide sandy ledge remained on the inside, but that dropped off a foot or two to the bottom of a bank of loose sand. I ran the banking and almost bogged down in the loose stuff on the exit before again running around the jump on the following straight, which had somehow developed sandy judder bars of its own coming into turn 3. That made turn 2 look like a picnic. A huge hole at the apex (cars were disappearing in there past their headlights by days end) didn’t look too wise to attack directly so I hooked the rim of it and fired her onto the sand that had been in there – now built up into a giant steep sandy bank around the outside of the corner. Which would’ve been great if I had another 100 hp, more height and rally tyres but running wide towards the exit meant ploughing to a stop in a huge sand bank that wasn’t there an hour or two earlier. Stuck and stuck good – on the outside just past the apex – I watched as the practice continued around me, and I left her running so I could at least make the best of it if I got a shunt.
Once the chequered flag went up a marshal arrived but several minutes of digging didn’t uncover the front tow loop so the tractor pulled us out backwards instead. Second time lucky with full commitment we made the corner, ran the bumps down what had been the main straight of the jet sprint course a month earlier and hooked a right through another excavated corner to jounce onto the concrete exit, relieved to hear the spectators cheer not jeer, and headed back to the pits.
The guy pitted next to me had seen us get trapped and told me to always stay in it on the sand and keep my speed up as much as possible. Thought I’d already been doing that but it was good advice and I adjusted the crazy commitment dial accordingly.
The fourth run of the day, at about 9.55pm under lights was pretty mad too as it started raining decently back on the dummy grid already. Carefully entered the stadium at the best angle we could (but not too gingerly or she’d ground on the lip of the ramp) and took position on the front row of the start grid on the slick clay. There was way, way, too much fog on the windows to have any show of seeing the starter so I just keyed off the car on my inside.
Thankfully I’d done my homework by watching the earlier rally cars submarine through the worst corners so I had a plan for making it around i.e. stay exactly one car width wide on turn 3 and take a wide exit on turn 4 leaving the stadium. That wide exit feels horrible as you come flying out of big mid corner bumps towards the concrete barriers entering the tunnel but with no sump guard it was the only line there that would let me finish the race with a working car.
Pretty desperate stuff, peering through a dinner plate sized hole in the fogged windscreen (boy did that mad max dashboard fan pay off) and our best lap was almost ten seconds down on the nearest rally car but we finished and so had qualified for the heats, despite them cutting qualifying short by a lap to meet their noise restrictions and so stealing my faster Joker lap away.
The rain also complicated my sleeping arrangements as RSG1 leaks like a sieve around the sunroof delete cover (the motels were all booked out when I’d called from home). Kindly though, a couple of fellow competitors had already earlier offered to let me crash at their rental in Rotorua, saving me from an overnight waterboarding. On the very off chance they see this (though they know Graeme Wong pretty well from sharing Targa support) – thanks again Jilly and Adam!
Day two, back at Baypark, and a mud flap is missing after that night session. And the wheel liner attached to the mud flap. And the transponder attached to the wheel liner. Aarghhh. They’ll have bulldozed and regraded the course overnight and transponders are anything but cheap!
A rush to the office and appeal to the marshals saw it all returned, with that marshal also mentioning he’d found a cold air intake on the course and left it on a bale. I told him ours was stock so it couldn’t be hers but a quick trip back to the pits proved otherwise. So I rescued it and attended the drivers briefing with some of the car attending too.
Refitting the liner and air box just wasn’t anywhere near doable in the time available. Instead, I fabbed up an intake guard out of a small plastic bag and lots of duct tape to protect the intake from sand coming off the front wheel, zip tied the transponder to a steel spar and refitted the obligatory mudguard. The only other modification was one inch of closed cell foam under my bum as I didn’t fancy rupturing a disc in my back – cheapest suspension upgrade ever.
I then went out and thanked my pit neighbour for his earlier advice by beating him in the first heat from pole, swapping the lead a few times and dodging his lost boot cover in the process.
Second heat he had P1 and gridded in the middle of the track, pushing us out onto the loose outside clay for a slow launch we ultimately couldn’t recover from.
The track was much better maintained and the overnight rain has helped settle the loose sand a bit so we were getting quicker and quicker.
I was acutely aware that I needed to look after the car too though, so when a tyre popped off it’s bead in the last lap of the semi-final, I retired one corner later and took the exit lane.
It’s probably lucky I hadn’t read the programme though because with $700 prize money, toolbox goodies and a cup on offer to the fastest 2K Cupper (and I was the only one there) I’d have been sorely tempted to limp her over the line on the flat tyre and run the final on some borrowed tyres.
As might be obvious from the above, it was absolutely awesome and a bucket list experience – trophy or no trophy. It would’ve even been great value for money to just watch, as some cars rolled onto their sides or flipped end over end over end in front of the crowd. I also have a much better understanding of why rally teams have sizeable pit crews, after getting under the car umpteen times for various reasons, including to hang the muffler back up twice after she’d jumped her hangers.
The camaraderie in the pits was great, and I so appreciated the welcome I got, with people lending bits of kit to help out, whether bigger rivets for the sun roof or getting the flat tyre back on the bead.
I’ll get her looked over to be safe and reattach the bits that came loose (and some I took off as a precaution) but RSG1 was an absolute testament to Honda engineering, as well as being rather a crowd and announcer favourite at the Mount, even if they were taking bets at one point as to whether her dragging exhaust would stay on for the next lap.
Lastly, a massive, massive thanks to my fellow drivers in team RSG for letting me take our track pony and give her a run in the dirt. She does sound more like a race car just now, and I suspect I’ll be replacing a few bushings soon (Drury tyres already chalked the inners at Friday’s alignment) but I’ve been reliably informed that she still drives just fine at speed.