Two weeks after mud-fest, I mean Hyperfest, we found ourselves traveling to another event. But this time it was different. This time we were preparing ourselves for the first official stage rally that Stitch would be competing in since the full rebuild. And while I felt confident in having some seat time prior to this event, I had not quite been prepared for the experience to come.
Leading up to the week of the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally (STPR), which took place in small town Wellsboro, PA was just as intense as the 2 weeks prior. After being stuck in NC and having to drive through the night with teammate Justin Robinson, I managed to return home to Michigan Tuesday (22 May) in the afternoon. My return resulted in sleeping my day away from the exhaustion I felt after losing Uncle Walt and having a weekend full of racing. (Thank you Lupus!)
The following day consisted of several doctors appointments, which my return to work that Thursday. The week fell short and I embarked on another journey with my Aunt that Friday as we traveled down to Kentucky to spend some time with our family in the wake of the loss of Uncle Walt. My aunt’s heart ached when she thought of my uncles beloved pups and where they would go next, so she offered to take the smallest pup - Bitsy. What a heart warming experience that was. My southern family has always felt like home since I was a child, and being surrounded by them after another loss in our family mended some of that heartache. (Not to mention some good old fashioned southern cooking to fill up our tummies).
Driving home there was a beautiful double rainbow over the rolling Kentucky hills. It made me feel like my Gramps was right there with us, with Uncle Walt alongside him. And that feeling I gathered was of pride. Pride from them both at how loving our family truly is.
The next few days were spent packing and preparing for the rally. That is when the next journey began. While I tried to get to my crew to help with final work on Stitch prior to the event, my flight was canceled on Tuesday evening, leading me into the following day; which was Wednesday, 30 May. I boarded the first flight that morning (even got lucky enough to be in First Class) to Raleigh, NC where I was collected by crew member Mike Butler. We then connected with NSR driver and Subaru tech Ryan Holzbaur who had already picked up Stitch and loaded his truck.
The 3 of us headed onto the highway far later than we had anticipated, which of course resulted in an 11 hour drive instead of an 8.5 hour (thank you DC area traffic!). Not only were we slap happy and ready to be out of the truck, but we made it into the woods of Wellsboro in search of our cabin, only to be lost on the back roads going in circles for nearly 1.5 hours. This resulted in 3 hours of sleep the night before RECCE. NSR team member Ian Kessler rolled in not too long after with the rally pups, which gave me access to the RECCE vehicle.
I awoke just before 5am and headed into town to meet up with the Beliveau Boys Racing Team and pick-up my co-driver Jessica. This would be our first time really having a chance to hang out and work together. So not only were we learning one another on a professional level, we were also gauging one another on a personal level. Luckily for us both, we hit it off right away and got to work. Surprisingly, despite the lack of sleep, we managed to make it through all the stages with a decent amount of time to spare. My faithful 2000 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS (aka “Yoshi”) took us through RECCE without any issues and continued on like a champ.
RECCE went over pretty smoothly, minus getting lost in transit a few times. There is never a dull moment in rally, whether it is during the travel to and from the event or during! Jessica adapted quickly to my requests for changes, and was on par with my perceptions. We only suffered slightly when the little restaurant that usually hosts the competitors and volunteers during our RECCE break was found to be out of business. Luckily for Jess and I we packed our lunches and came prepared. (Always a huge suggestion for anyone doing RECCE for the first time - bring lots of extra writing utensils as they always somehow seem to be eaten by the car, and bring extra hydration and snacks/lunch, because many times you are embarking on a 25-35 mph road trip for several hours at a time without many breaks).
I do have to say that one of the most memorable parts of RECCE this year was discovering a hole in the floor of Yoshi just under my feet. We were cruising down one of the last stages, and suddenly I felt little bits of sand and rocks hitting the back of my leg which made me jump. The next thing I know I look down to see a bit of dust, and that’s when I discovered the hole. Of course Jess and I got a good laugh out of it all. There were a few other moments, like hitting a pretty gnarly and unavoidable pothole that made Jess bounce up in her seat (thank goodness for seatbelts).
The guys got Stitch through tech without any issues this go around, and finished with vinyl additions for the event. After RECCE, Jess and I met with the crew to prepare for some testing. We did a few shakedown runs to get acquainted with one another for notes and to allow for Jess to gather a pace for my driving. On our 2nd run through, we encountered a surprise note- L4 to !Deer. Given it being just a practice run, we took a moment to take a breath, and the continued on, thankful to not have hit the deer. (I am still convinced it was the same deer mocking us earlier in the day, and then again in transit to the shakedown stage). We ran a few more times before we felt we had a pretty good handle on our pace, and then headed back to meet with the crew and get some rest.
It was really awesome having Ian’s mom and friend there to cook and care for the entire team. We all returned to a warm dinner and fresh breakfast the following day. Friday was race day 1. We all made our way down to Parc Expose, where we were greeted by several fans, some old and some new, as well as many rally friends. It felt amazing to be back at STPR in my own car, a place I had not been since 2014.
Stitch received tons of compliments on his new Livery. HUGE shout out to 5 Star Window Tinting and Graphics out of Raleigh, NC. They did an amazing job, with such limited time to work with and the car looks great! The welcome back from other competitors filled my heart and really reminded me that this is where I belonged.
Heading into Day 1, Jessica and I quickly discovered it would take a few stages to get on a good pace while I figured out Stitch’s behavior on loose gravel, and Jess sorted out my driving style. Concentrated, but steady we worked our way through the Waste Management Stages. On SS1, we managed to get a small amount of air on the spectator jump, maneuver safely through the technical portions and get to the finish. We were caught by slight surprise during the newly added section at speed. Some portions of the stage were filled with large drop offs and huge chunks of rock, which the MRF gravel tyres glided over smoothly.
Nearing the end of the stage, we got caught off guard in a section that felt more like whoops for a dirtbike. Coming in a little hot from a Left 2+, I had to come off throttle quickly to resettle the car as we bounced from one bump to the next. The headset filled with Jessica’s giggles as we made our way down the 250, which resulted in laughter from myself as I reminded her to call the next note. Across the stage finish we were beyond thrilled to have survived the first stage! Because this is a turn around stage, we had a chance to socialize with other competitors, take a moment out of the car, and enjoy some nice cold water thanks to the volunteers! We even had a chance to watch some of our competitors on stage from the turnaround spot as well!
SS2 was the reverse of 1, which kicked off pretty smoothly. I was starting to gain a little more control over Stitch’s behavior and get a feel for how much understeer the car was giving in the loose gravel. I finally had a chance to play with the DCCD controller this go around, and managed to start finding more traction in the wider sections. Jess did a great job keeping on the notes in the fast, technical portions of the stage, and she surprised me when we got to the spectator jump. But just prior to the jump, we were coming into a L4 when Stitch got some attitude. I went to downshift before entering the corner, and in the process the car was suddenly stuck in neutral. I tried 1st gear, nothing. 2nd gear, again nothing. 3rd gear and still no luck. We pulled to the right side of the road, with a gut wrenching feeling hoping this was not the end of our rally. After what felt like minutes (though was only mere seconds), I managed to get the car back into gear and we were well on our way towards the spectator jump. We entered the jump at about 60-65 mph, which later we discovered made for some excellent photos. The car sailed quite evenly over the jump and though it landed hard, the rear end only bounced slightly. We continued on through the stage, completing it with smiles and laughter and worked our way back to the crew at the service area, where we would get a break before running the Super Special Stage in front of hundreds of fans at the Tioga County Fairgrounds.
Service went smoothly, and the crew tried to sort out what the possible issue could be from the transmission being stuck in neutral, but to no avail we were all stumped. We made our way down to the rest of the cars to be lined up for our run at the Super Special. We had the opportunity to request who we wanted to run against. Long time rally friend, Robert Pepper, who pilots the classic Porsche #951 and I decided we would run against one another for good old fashioned fun and for his daughter. Unfortunately, and to our disappointment, due to some confusion and misalignment at the start of the stage, we were separated and unable to run together. :(
Our first run was a bit disastrous as Stitch was struggling upon launch, due to the lights drawing a lot of extra power from the car. We started in the far right lane, which is where Jess and I experienced slight confusion on the first loop, nearly overshooting the turn, I locked up the car , tried to down shift and had trouble getting Stitch into gear again, causing us a few critical seconds. We made our way up the hill and down the straight away feeling a bit flustered and onto the second loop. During the second loop, again I hit the brakes, began to downshift and we were stuck momentarily unable to get into any gear losing several seconds yet again. By this point, the adrenaline and frustration with Stitch began to truly set in. Luckily, Stitch went into gear again and we worked our way towards the finish and on the cleaner side for the hairpin which we managed to get through.
Our second run did not go a whole lot smoother, as we got stuck in neutral yet again around the first loop, and I discovered my hand brake did not have enough leverage due to the shorter handle, causing no change in the rear brakes. Unfortunately, this resulted in a terribly executed hairpin turn. In order to avoid the dreary mud and ruts, I chose to stop the car, reverse and turn to get thru the finish. I admit, but the end of the super special, my pride was slightly squished and my mind was filled with questions about how to get Stitch sorted for Day 2.
That evening, the crew gave a thorough look over the car to try and sort out some of the bugs we had encountered on Day 1. Crew Chief Ryan Davis and I rode back in Stitch together discussing the concerns with the transmission, breaking down every movement that I could recall in each scenario where I had issues with the car getting stuck in neutral. After a few small conclusions, the crew sorted through the issues and finally got to bed for some rest prior to Race Day #2.