The Circle of the Sand
In 2013, I attended the Sandblast Rally in Cheraw, SC for the very first time. It was my first podium, and he was there. That was the event I met him. It was the event that lit a fire inside my heart, reigniting the desire to succeed and prove to myself that “I can”. Over the next 6 years- it would be a rollercoaster of a ride, but one that has shaped me into who I am, taught me invaluable lessons about life, and opened opportunities I never thought would exist. And I owe a lot of that to him and his ability to push and challenge me to go outside of my comfort zone. It was also the same event that I would last see him face to face years later. It would be the same event that changed everything, ripping to shreds the very man I knew and loved and hated.
He was the most stubborn man I have ever met, and his pride was a force no one could wreckin with. He was as complicated as he was simple. As violent as he was gentle. As full of love as he was hate. As much of an asshole as he was a good man. He was, without a doubt, undeniably himself, and unlike anyone else. He was fierce, loyal and determined. He was far from perfect, in fact, he could be absolutely terrifying at times. But he was human, and he was broken and we all loved him anyway.
The grief comes in waves. Sometimes it feels like I’m under water, being pulled further into the depths of the ocean as the waves continuously crash down on me. Other times, the skies are clear, calm and silent. His absence is one felt just as strong as his presence.
This past weekend, I returned to the very place we last spoke. The weather was cooperative, the stages were in some of the best conditions I have seen in years. The car was better prepared for this event than it has been for others in the past. I was joined by one of my best friends, and extremely talented and experienced co-drivers, Liz (aka- boo). I had one job- to finally focus on just being a driver. (And in the depths of my heart, to survive the emotional whirlwind that would surround me throughout the weekend). The crew were in great spirits. We had a plan. We were organized and ready, with only minor hiccups. The event was just an hour 30 from the shop, and another hour from Mike’s- but the closest thus far.
Monday night I took to the airport, awaiting my flight to Raleigh, to spend some time with my favorite person before all things rally ensued. I decided to volunteer my seat as the flight was overbooked, and to my surprise, I was chosen, given a gift card for future flights, put up in the fancy airport hotel and given a free dinner; all while being rescheduled to the first flight out the next morning. My sleep was restless, but I was happy. I made it to Raleigh the next morning and enjoyed some down time before the adventure began. On Thursday, Tamika and John made their way from Michigan to North Carolina safely with only 1 hiccup being that John’s luggage was left in Nashville. Luckily, it was sorted and scheduled to be delivered that night to the house. For the rest of the day, we finished a few smaller tasks on the rally car, organized our tire selection and managed some decent rest. The following morning, Liz met us and joined me and Stitch as we made our way down to South Carolina.
Friday was packed with registration, store run, placing decals on the car in the parking lot (seems to be our usual MO these days), going through technical inspection, checking into hotels and making our way to Shakedown for a couple passes to feel out the new suspension and transmission in the car. The first pass felt like we were just floating on top of the sand, unable to truly find the right amount of grip. Mike and Kevin lowered the tire pressures and the next pass went much smoother. Liz and I felt good and decided we would go for a third and final run, but after a second car rolled during testing, we opted to head out to Parc Expose and call it early.
Saturday was race day and we were ready to rock and roll. It was that morning that it started to sink in again. Gino was, in fact gone. When I walked downstairs to start Stitch and load up the car, I was greeted by his S202. Hector stepped out and gave me a much needed hug. Shortly after I was greeted by Besty and Edwin (with a proper Gino-style hug, back pat and a “Don't be a pussy” holler). The day flew by quickly. Starting with Parc Expose in downtown, placing the memorial ribbon on the car, being reunited with many fellow grassroots rallyists and friends who were affected by his death. For weeks I was unsure about how I would feel being there again after everything, but I was oddly calm and comforted.
We started the day off on our winter tires, taking the approach of using a softer tire in colder temperatures in the deep sand. After the first service, we planned to swap to the gravel tires for comparison and to decide how to finish out the day after 2nd service. Stages 1 and 2 went pretty smoothly, though we did debead one of our tires, forcing our hand to run the gravels for the remainder of the day- which was to our advantage in the end. I was humbled when I saw the memorial collage created by Ben DeVries placed in between mine and Tony’s service spaces. It captured his essence, and gave me the moment I needed that weekend to start letting things truly sink in, despite the reminder that the gaping hole I felt in my chest would never go away.
Service went by swiftly, and when it was time to head back to the control, Stitch decided he was no longer going to start. The wiring for the emergency cutoff switch (outside the car) had separated. Luckily, the guys were able to get things sorted quickly and we only suffered a 30 second penalty after checking in late. We made our way to SS3, finding far superior traction on the gravels and dug our way through the sand for the second leg of the rally. After SS5, we had a hang up on the passenger rear. The sound of scraping and grinding metal ensued for the remainder of transit but we managed to make it back to the second service. Turns out, we broke a wheel scraper and lost a caliper bolt- looks like we had literally driven the brakes off the car! After service, we were sitting pretty in 3rd in class (OAL).
We headed back out to SS6, a second pass of the infamous Campbells Lake, with our newest addition of a snorkel (or “sporkel” as some call it due to it’s stylish glittery nature). In years prior, Campbells Lake is known for a massive mud/water hole and 2 water crossings, of which took out my MAF in 2019. While in much better conditions this year, we never really utilized the sporkel, however we did avoid any issues in the deeper water crossing. The ruts were getting deeper and we found ourselves bouncing around more than the first pass, though with far less bottoming out now that we were on the gravel tires.
The third and final service went smoothly, and we had a little more time to breathe before having to head back out. It’s the part of my day that speaks just a little louder than the others. When I exited the car, we were surrounded by an amazing group of people who had come together to honor Gino. The laughter, the hugs, the memories, the sarcasm, it was all needed. And man, did I need this past weekend more than I had ever realized.
Before SS7, we were in a close battle for 3rd and we were bumped off the podium by 11 seconds to 4th. I looked at Liz and told her “I want our podium back” and was determined. I drove harder than I anticipated. I stayed in it, even when it felt a little scary. I looked up at the windscreen to see Gino’s infamous words before each stage and reminded myself that “I can do this” and that I would. It was a super close battle, but at the end of the day, we pulled it off and secured 3rd place, bringing Sandblast, and the memories full circle.
The awards felt like they took a lifetime to actually start, but it gave me a chance to catch up with many others that I desperately needed to see face to face after Gino’s passing, including the very man who called me to tell me, and another of my own teammates and best friends. I was surrounded by my brothers (and sisters) that night and it was humbling. Eric (Gino’s last team/driver that he worked for) presented the “Gino Award” and it was perfect.
For those who were there all those years ago, and to return again this year and have such a similar and humbling experience- well, I can say that I could not have asked for it to go any other way. The love and the comradery that was shared amongst the crews- it meant something. It spoke to our human nature, our vulnerability and our interconnectedness to one another. It spoke to the volume which Gino had impacted to many in the community. It reminded us that life and death share a very thin line, and that our time with others can end at any moment.
The weekend recaps are slowly emerging on social media. Photographs are being shared. The public belief that we should not grieve openly, or that men should not expose their vulnerability is being crushed. The humanity, the empathy and understanding of the feelings of profound loss have surfaced and it is humbling.
If you are reading this, and you have been contemplating suicide- please reach out to someone. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
SOMEONE IS ALWAYS LISTENING!
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call the Veterans Crisis Line
1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 or text to 838255. https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
15 October 2019- “Rest Easy Soldier”
I've sat for hours trying to find the words to say to express what this feels like. To try and describe what you were like and what the last 6 years have been like.
I can sit here and try to explain the broken bond we had, what it was like getting the phone calls at 3am, the tears, the screaming, the love, the frustration. I can sit and tell everyone how much you helped me in my racing career, how you made me feel so secure and safe at times and yet how complicated and terrifying you could be.
I can try to explain that you were fierce, yet protective and loyal when you chose. That you had such a kind, empathetic and caring side that not many saw. I can try to explain how you were the most stubborn person I have ever met, and you challenged me in more ways than I think anyone ever has. It was complicated, it was fiery, but it existed. And despite it all, you always came back with love. Even just recently, you reached out and tried to make it right in your own way. You didn't forget and you tried to own it, and for that I forgave you. I read your words over time and time again wishing I had some way to make it better. But none of us could. You wrestled such demons not many can even begin to fathom. It breaks my heart to know you felt that alone and that broken that this way was the only way.
There isn't anything I can say or do that will bring you back or make anything better for anyone silently suffering and trying to process all of this right now. No amount of tears, or anger or sadness can change anything. Hell- you can't even read this.
But what I can say is to those in our circle, to our crew, to the ones that were there for some of the hardest moments we shared with Gino- remember it all, the good, the bad and the ugly. Take your time to process and thank you for being here through this. We are all human, and no one deserves to feel so alone that suicide is the option. Be there for one another and don't stop loving one another. It's all we have.
Gino- despite the ups and downs, the wrongs and rights, I will miss your crazy self, and when I said "I love you too", I meant it. Rest easy soldier💚
2020 SANDBLAST GALLERY