Taking on NEFR 2018 with Vengeance
After a year had passed by, I had my second chance to take on the gravel roads found in both New Hampshire and Maine during this year’s New England Forest Rally, hosted by the American Rally Association. Last July (2017), the crew and I made a huge push to get Stitch on stage for any type of a shakedown. Not only were we racing against time to prove to ourselves we could accomplish such a large task, but we had something to rise above.
Last summer, crew traveled to North Carolina from multiple states including Michigan and Connecticut to where our rally headquarters are located within TurboTime’s Subaru shop. We spent hours upon hours getting the car ready for the 950+ mile haul to Newry, Maine. Even after we arrived, we were unprepared, scattered brained, exhausted and still finishing items on the build list. Upon race day #1- we failed. While we passed the technical inspection, there were various safety concerns with seating positions and the cage that kept us off the stages. On day 2, while we managed to make some changes to get us on stage, but then we encountered catastrophic engine failure just 9 miles into the stage of Aziscohos, one of the roughest stages in the event. While we felt accomplished in succeeding to get the car on stage, we fell short in various ways, driving us to ensure we returned in 2018 with vengeance.
This year, we did just that. As many of you know, over the winter, Stitch received a complete rebuild, down to the cage. Restoration Race Works, INC. stepped in and removed the old cage and provided us with a custom, top of the line rally cage that we are confident and proud to share with the world. My crew chief Ryan spent countless hours rebuilding the car in terms of wiring and a new engine build. As this season has progressed we have made small adaptations to the car based on my experiences in the cabin of the vehicle and how the car has responded.
For me, competing at NEFR and getting to the final MTC on day 2 was my biggest goal. A close second was to begin pushing myself as a driver to get back into the swing of things of where I left off with my old car in 2014. I can happily say, by the end of the event, I accomplished both of those goals.
It is no secret that life has been throwing a few punches my way outside of the rally scene, keeping me a bit busier than usual. I made my way down to North Carolina a week before the rally. In an attempt to clear my mind and gain some footing, a couple crew members and I enjoyed kicking back in the state forest at the river on Sunday.
The next day, we got to work on the car. There was not much left to focus on other than primarily focusing on designing and fabricating some underbody protection for the mid and rear sections of the chassis. Additionally, we installed some OEM fog lights, replaced the hardware on the awesome IKEA cutting board mud flaps, finished rewiring a few items and lights, installed a little bit of green underglow in honor of Marker, swapped my MRF gravel tyres onto the white BRAID wheels I have and added some custom grip tape stars to the floor to help prevent any slipping when entering and exiting the car. Stitch got a good bath and was ready to go by Tuesday evening.
Once all sorted, we loaded up and started the long journey that took an overall 16 hours to arrive at the Sunday River Resort in Newry, Maine. We had left about 11pm Tuesday night and arrived about 3pm Wednesday afternoon. After finding our condo and unloading, Jessica met up with us for RECCE registration and we prepared for race weekend. The rest of the crew arrived in the middle of the night, including special guest and photographer Mary (MJ) Rinell of MJSMotoPhotos.
Thursday made for a fairly long and frustrating day, but we pushed through and worked out our notes. Unfortunately, some of the RECCE instructions got a bit messy as a stage had gotten canceled, so we were left with some confusion midday putting us behind a good schedule. We made the choice to skip RECCE for Concord Pond (SS 1 & 2) so that we could get some testing time in for Shakedown. Stitch felt better on launch with the clutch and brake adjustments, and he seemed to respond better than I had remembered at STPR. The shakedown was .78 miles in, with a turnaround at the end and .71 miles out. It was smooth and fast with a jump. The way in was flowing and gave us a chance to sort out our timing on notes and for me to feel out the car. On the way out we were nearly blinded the first 30% of the way due to a setting sun, so I have to admit that was a bit intimidating, but a good test for similar situations that arose on stages due to dust. It was awesome seeing all the young girls lined up at the start of Shakedown cheering everyone on. They were so excited to discover Jess and I were a girl team, and I think we just may have gained some lifetime fans. We made a few runs and then I had the chance to give our team photographer MJ a ride. (see video! I love her reaction to the jump!) That was by far one of the best experiences I have had and her smiles and reaction was worth every second!
That night we had dinner as a team and then I studied in car videos, primarily of Concord Pond due to missing out at RECCE. (Let me tell you- putting in the study time makes a big difference in confidence on stage, and overall performance. I can say that it is something I will be focusing more on and adding into my routines prior to events in the future).
Friday Parc Expose kicked off at 9.30am, filling the gravel lot with the sounds of happy fans and teams. It’s always great seeing rally family! It was awesome interacting with so many fans to start our day, and it felt great to be welcomed back with so many smiles. I was pleasantly surprised by one of the coolest gifts I have ever received. I was given a 3-D paper model of Stitch! How cool?! Dear friend David Swenson joined forces with a few friends to design and print out a paper model of my car. I was given a stack to pass out to spectators and it was a hit! You can check out more about it and even inquire to have one made of your car by visiting their link here: www.paperracecar.com
Day 1 was short with just 4 stages. There were 2 runnings of Concord Pond, one run of South Arm N, and one run due of Icicle Brook (S-N). The stages went smoothly for us, and we were increasing our speed as each mile passed beneath our tyres, enjoying the excitement of the jumps and chicanes. After the running of SS3, we were all grouped up at the turnaround. The car was handling well, and only needed a few zip ties on the underbody protection while we waited for the next stage. After about an hour or so of waiting, the first car was sent off to start the stage.
Unfortunately, as many may have already heard, Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino were involved in a rollover which resulted in Block’s Cosworth to go up in flames. Due to fire/safety hazard, a red cross was thrown and the stage was halted. The remainder of us (a good 80% of the field or so) waited patiently to find out if everyone involved was alright and what the next steps would be. Luckily, everyone was unharmed, minus the poor Cossie. After waiting for what felt like another hour or so, we were directed to turn around and exit the area on an alternate route, following one of the 0 cars back to service, which took us approximately an hour and a half. Exhausted and hungry, we were greeted by our crew, who began to service the car and ensure everything was all set for the following day. That night, I made an attempt to study again, but with little success I resorted to getting to sleep instead.
Saturday was a longer day, with a total of 7 stages. Parc Expose started a bit earlier kicking off the day at 7.00am, with the first car out at 8.15am. During Parc Expose, we reached out to a few competitors to see if they would sport a #HelmetsForTyler decal in honor of our late crew member, and crew chief Ryan’s son, who we lost to a skateboarding accident in mid June. We were all pleasantly surprised at the positive response of the rally field to support our team and place a decal on their rally car. Tyler was a huge part of the build and our reason for making an appearance last year, so this even served as a bitter sweet reminder of his absence, but also his impact on our team. So I would like to say- from the bottom of my heart - THANK YOU to all of the teams willing to support us and for placing the decal on your car. It means so very much to us all.
The first run of Wilson Mills was a blast. The stage was smooth, short and fast and I was starting to really get a good feel for the car; finally starting to push thru the 4’s. After 3 stages, with the last stage of Sturtevant Pond being notorious for taking cars out, we made it into service without any major issues or complaints, though we had discovered our brakes were taking a good beating from the large rocks.
After a 30 minute service and refuel, we were headed back out for 3 more stages. This time starting with a shorter version of Sturtevant Pond, following by a second running of Wilson Mills and Aziscohos. I was a bit surprised when I noticed the car seemed a bit tail-happy at first, only to discover the DCCD controller has accidentally been bumped and set to full open. THAT explained a lot! Some adjustments later, we were getting better traction on the following stage with the second pass of Wilson Mills.
At the end of the transit to the second pass of Aziscohos, the car began smoking. I will be the first to admit I felt a little bit of PTSD from this stage last year, as we lost the engine with coolant leaking everywhere from the hole that was punched through the block. It turns out, upon popping the hood, that the upper radiator hose was rubbing against the radiator fans, causing a small hole to form in the hose. With the help of teammate Matt Peterson and another competitor (forgive me here as I have yet to discover who he was!) we were able to get the hole plugged as best as we could to proceed on stage. A mix of chewing gum, hose tape, gorilla tape and zip-ties, and we were on our way!
While trying to remain focused on the notes and the road, I also had the task of keeping an eye on the engine temperature to avoid any potential issues or damages. The second running of this stage shocked me! It was THE roughest stage of the event after being run twice. Rocks were brought up by the leading cars, ruts were growing larger and the battle for finding traction grew. Additionally, the dust from other cars left large clouds of nearly blinding dust. Midway through, the dust brought us to a complete stop, which also resulted in Stitch giving a little attitude and stalling out. A few seconds lost to resetting the car, and we were back in motion. This gave us a few seconds to let some of the dust clear, but we were on a mission, and the dust was not about to stop us. Luckily, we survived the nearly 12 mile stage. Our next task was to navigate through the transit to get back to service.
Good friends Louie Jonas and Villa Cseh of Jonas Racing pulled over after the stage so that they could follow us in the event of an issue. Sure enough, halfway into the 40 minute transit, the hose sprung a leak again leading us to pull off to the side of the road. NSR teammates Matt Peterson and Lori Clute followed shortly behind and both they and Jonas/Cseh pulled over to assist. We decided the best plan of action would be to be flat towed to service and go from there, this way none of us should lose any time or receive any penalty. With that, we hooked up to Peterson’s good old trusty Honda Civic (aka Abe) and were towed back approximately 17 more miles to service. Upon arrival we were unhooked, as we have to get our car through the time control on our own power. We were able to get towed in as close as we could to the control so it would be less for Jess and I to have to push the car. Louie and Villa hooked us up and drove themselves in on their minute with us following behind. They unhooked and Jess and I waited for our minute. On a slight incline, the car was not budging so easily, leaving me feeling a little concerned when suddenly the car launched forward with the help of other competitors.
As it turns out, David Higgins and Craig Drew from the Subaru Rally Team jumped out of their car on their way out of refuel/service to give us a jumpstart on the push and get us as close to the yellow control sign as they could. I have to hand it to them, I had not expected the kind gesture and was pleasantly surprised. These guys are such a genuine bunch and have really given back to the rally community. Their act of true sportsmanship and kindness will always be appreciated - so huge shout out the the team!
Once through the control, our crew ran up and with the help of a few other competitors they pushed me and the car into our service space. There, the crew had lined up another upper radiator hose (thanks to Dan Fouquette!), tons of water and coolant and got to work on the car immediately. Within 30 minutes, the car was repaired and we were on our way out for the 7th and final stage of the day. We made it through SS13 - North Road, chasing after various clouds of dust.
By the end of the rally I felt good. I felt like I was finally “back”. My confidence behind the wheel of Stitch felt similar to that of my old car and I finally felt “home” in my new car. I am thankful for some of the advice I was given by fellow competitors, which I kept in my mind as I worked through gaining speed and looking for traction and maintaining control of the car in the corners. I felt proud, accomplished and hopeful. In all reality, my eyes have been opened and my goals for next season redirected to something bigger and I cannot wait to see where the rest of this year takes me.
I would like to give a BIG shout out to my crew. Y’all had it together this year and the services went smooth, from start to finish. Thank you for your time, loyalty and hard work and for making my dream a reality. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people supporting me out here. To the awesome fans for your love and support, to the organizers and volunteers for putting this rally together and to the competitors and teams that have helped us out and made this event an awesome experience- THANK YOU ALL!
Onto the next!