My Review of My Trip to the Eastern Tennessee RallySprint (6-8 April 2018)
While I had a brief moment with the new rally car at last years New Englad Forest Rally in Newry, Maine, I never really had a chance to "get to know" my new car. I made it all of 9 miles on stage until the engine had blown. Though I will say, it was the most glorius 9 miles of stage driving I had seen, because I was in MY car.
After NEFR, I decided it was time to make things right and give the car an overhaul; including a new cage. I decided to rid the car of nearly anything I could think of from Sassy because it felt like some of her previous attitude problems were all too hauntingly familiar. In fact, the unofficial launch of the new car was exremely similar to the experience I had debuting Sassy back in 2012. The first time I ever drove Sassy was off the trailer straight into tech. Stitch was quite similar, except this time... my first experience driving him was into Parc Expose. And as many of you know... that all went horribly wrong.
But that is neither here nor there. What I want to focus on right now is the fact that the car has a new engine, most of the little details have been sorted and I DROVE MY CAR! I actually had the opportunity to bond with Stitch prior to an event, and then give him a proper shakedown for the season. The experience was unforgettable and I am beyond excited to see where Stitch and I can go in the future.
So where to start? Well, why don't we start at the beginning of the trip. I awoke at 6am on Thursday, 05 April and worked over 12 hours. That evening, I came home and found the time to finally pack for the weekend. I got everything sorted out (and even had a chance to visit with one of my besties for her birthday) and enjoyed a nice dinner with Ian and Justin before the road trip began.
Justin and I left in the rental car around midnight. I drove the 701 miles from my house to TurboTime, giving us an arrival time of approximately 11:15am. There we finished helping the crew to sort out some of the final issues before needing to depart for the event, which was approximately 6 hours away. To my surprise, my crew chief Ryan explained that Stitch decided to act up that morning (I swear those two are going to have a love-hate relationship for a little while). While Stitch was driving great for the past two weeks, he randonmly decided to stall as Ryan was pulling into the shop drive Friday morning. Ryan was able to start Stitch back up and get into the parking lot. Just as he was getting ready to pull up to the shop Stitch stalled again and this time he would not start. His stubborn personality was starting to pose as a problem. Katie and Steve arrived to help push the car into the bay to begin the all too common process of diagnosing whatever the issue was. (Turns out it had to do with the killswitch).
Once things were sorted out. I helped bleed the brakes and then Ryan took him for a test run. And then it was my turn. The clutch was very different from what I was used to, and the brakes responded immediately. I had a feeling this was going to take a bit to get used to. I took Stitch down the road for a few miles and could not stop smiling. I was back in my own car! And he was driving flawlessly. With the feeling of satisfaction, I headed back to the shop and we began loading the cars up with things we would need during service.
Justin and I then headed out in the direction of the rallysprint. I drove Stitch, and Justin followed in the rental car. Ryan and Barry were to follow shortly after. The 361 miles to registration for the event went by without any issues with the car. The majority of the drive I enjoyed the sound of the exhaust and the fresh air blowing around in the car with the windows down and the roof scoop open. What an awesome feeling!
We left the warm air of North Carolina to be greeted by chilling rain in Tazewell, TN. The last 30 minutes of the drive was stressful as the tarmac appeared to look like black ice with everything reflecting off the surface, making it nearly impossible to see where the lanes werre. The GPS was being a bit finicky, I had been awake for 39 hours by this point, my butt went numb from the race seats and I was just simply ready to get out of the car. We greeted our crew member Levi and my co-driver for the event, Lori. It has been awhile since both Levi and Lori and I have worked together so I was excited to see everyone again. With my car down, Levi pursued other crewing opportunities, and Lori picked up a lot of experience riding in the silly seat with NSR teammate Matt Peterson. (They are doing awesome by the way! Starting the season with a podium!)
After registering and briefly visiting, we headed to our hotel room and got ourselves sorted. Exhausted, yet unable to sleep, Lori and I found ourselves in a fit of hysterical giggles (I blame Justin for adding his own laughter when we could finally catch out breath). Finally, after 41 hours of being awake, I was able to sleep.
We were greeted by waking 30 minutes later than planned and feeling rushed. Luckily, the event organizer Matt, told us to take a breath and relax that we still had plenty of time. After getting ready, the guys swapped the gravel tyres onto the car and we were ready to head out for tech inspection and to start runs for the day. That is when Stitch decided he was feeling a bit nervous and while warming up just suddenly shut off. (Killswitch issues again) Ryan sorted out the switch and we drove down to the track.
The road to get to the track was loads of fun with lots of tight twists and turns! Tech was completed and then we had our drivers meeting. It felt almost exactly like a rallycross back home and it was a great comfort. We started with a 2 pass recce where Lori wrote notes of the track. It was packed with elevation changes, surface changes, a variety of corner degrees and a LOT of mud!
At the start of the event, I ran the slowest of the 3 all wheel drive cars there, and I could tell I was really nervous to run the car in higher RPMs. I quickly learned that I could not utilize
my hand brake because of it's current location; but I also learned there at that event there was no good use for braking because all it did was lock up the wheels and cause you to slide even more. In the morning we did 4 runs. The track became more and more slick with each run and challenged me a lot with the new car, but I was enjoying getting a chance to feel it out. On top of that the weather was ever changing as it went from dry to rain, to sleet to snow!
We stopped for a lunch break and then went back at it again. This time, we attempted the track in reverse, but during recce the Honda Fit got stuck trying to go uphill, which then separated us from the rest of the group. We managed to get around them (almost getting stuck ourselves) and followed as best as we could, what we thought was the new track- come to find out we were not even close! (haha)
Thankfully, another team in an Impreza (Ryan and Ricky) offered to take us through RECCE. After the pass, the organizers decided to scrap that direction and change the track going to way we went in the morning. We did another 2 pass RECCE and then lined up for our timed runs. After the first few runs I finally started to get a feel for Stitch, finding ways to get the car to respond and slide without using the brakes. It reminded me of the old days racing in rallycross before I ever knew what left foot braking was, and I reverted to using the tactic of clutch kicking. My crew was able to watch the event, which was really cool.
Justin ran up to me with 3 runs to go and told me to be more "show-boaty" because that was what they noticed in the other 2 Imprezas and it appeared they were able to gain more
moementum and slide around the turns faster. He also told me Ryan encouraged me to drive in the higher RPMs. All along I was paranoid while testing because, let's be honest, I don't exactly have the best of luck with engines and I did not want to see this one give me issues. Part of me was really afraid of damaging the fresh build, but with the confidence of my crew behind me, and their feedback, I took their suggestion and drove the way I felt I would if I was doing a rallycross. When we came through the finish to get our time I had shaved off 12 seconds from my run. TWELVE! AWESOME!
By the end of the day, I had gone from the slowest in AWD to the fastest! It was a fantastic opportunity for testing, to build my confidence and comfort in the car and to allow my crew to see the thing they have been working so hard on get put to the test.
After our 12 runs, I was able to do a few fun runs and I got to give Barry, Justin and Ryan a ride on course. THAT was fantastic! I could have kept running for another hour if allowed. After the event, they handed out awards and we all decided to meet up for dinner at a tavern a little while later. So the crew and I headed back to the hotel to get cleaned up and ready for some real food. We enjoyed a nice dinner with our team, Anders and Boxer 4 Racing. Afterwards, we took Stitch for a nice bath and the guys got a majority of the mud washed off, as well as swapping wheels.
It was a great feeling to be able to get into the car after the event and to really enjoy driving the car. I finally felt like I was home again. I now have my own car to compete in, and man does it feel good!
That night, we then had a chance to head out to the local bar to hang out with some more of the rally family and enjoy some country music. The night ended on a happy note and come morning, we all packed up and had to head in different directions. We said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. Justin and I traveled another 472 miles up to the car rental in Michigan to return the car, where Ian met us to collect us and take us home.
After traveling almost 2,000 miles in 3 days, and feeling exhausted all I can really think about is Stitch and what an amazing experience that was. 2 days later and I am still in awe of how much I love Stitch and how I cannot wait to get back into the driver's seat again and continue building on my experience and confidence in the car. Getting to see the smile on everyone's faces during the weekend was one of the best parts of the experience. A close 2nd to getting to finally shake down my new car.
So to my crew- I love you all. You have really poured your heart and souls into this build and I am forever thankful for all that you have done to get me back in the seat. So I say - THANK YOU!
A big shout out to Matt Earl for organizing the event, and to Anders Green and Marcel Ciascai for keeping things running smoothly and to all the volunteers/media/spectators/teams for making this past weekend loads of fun!