Since 2004 (on and off), I’ve volunteered to work as a radio operator for the New England Forest Rally. I’m a fan and dabbler in many forms of motorsport, but rally is by far my favorite. Watching real cars fly down real roads, not manicured race tracks with runoff areas, is the ultimate form of racing, in my opinion. Cars drive on public roads (yes, these race cars are street legal) to “special stages,” which are sections of road that are closed so they can race down it as fast as they can against the clock. There are several stages spread across two days of racing. The fastest combined time wins. Yes, it’s hard on the cars, and there are many mechanical failures and crashes. That’s why there are people like me there to keep track of the competitors, keep them safe, and send them help if they need it.
I’ve been doing ham radio for over 30 years. Because of my experience, for the past few years they’ve put me in a challenging but critical position on a stage where the start and finish can’t hear each other directly because of a hill in the way. They put me on top of that hill to relay information back and forth. It can get pretty hectic. In 2018, Ken Block (yes, the guy in the Gymkhana videos) crashed and set the forest on fire. We had to coordinate getting the race cars stopped, bringing in fire departments to put out the fire, and logistics involving getting the competitors waiting at the start line out of there using another route. (I wrote that story up for The Drive.)
It was an easy drive from my parents’ place to Sunday River in Newry, Maine. It was even easier to check in at volunteer registration and get my stuff. On my second attempt, I found my campsite in the lower parking lot of the White Cap Lodge. It was closed, and aside from one camper the first night I had the entire lot to myself. I guess not many people took them up on the option of free camping.
I took advantage of the small hill behind the van to unload the bike on an almost even surface. I wasn’t going to be riding much, but I wanted the extra 400 pounds off the back so the van would ride better, and so I wouldn’t have to worry about the bike as I drove down bumpy rally stages. As a bonus, since it was already unloaded, I used the bike to get around the Sunday River area, which was quite busy with rally people without a lot of parking. While finding space for the van would be tough, I could shove the bike anywhere out of the way and call it good. Unfortunately my picture of the KLR parked next to Ed’s Unimog of the same color didn’t come out.
I was up way too early the next day, as the volunteer meetings started promptly at 7:00 am. First there was the radio operator meeting, then the general volunteer meeting, and then splitting up into our stage crews. There are four crews that head out to the sections of road where the race takes place, shut them down, manage spectators and local traffic, and run the start and finish controls. The South Arm and Icicle Brook stages, which use most of the same road with a short loop and a long loop, are so large that two stage crews combine to cover the entire 16 mile distance. Once again, I was at the top of the hill, where I could hear everything and relay if needed.
This year, we had a not at all secret weapon to fight the usual communication problems on this stage. Traditionally, we use the 2 meter band, 144-148 MHz. It’s good for local communications, and accessible to hams with the entry-level Technician license. It also operates mainly line-of-sight, meaning that if there’s a hill in the way — which there is on this stage — two stations can’t contact each other. This year, we used the 80 meter band, 3.5-4 MHz, instead. It requires a different radio, antenna, and the higher General class license to use. The advantage, though, is that with antennas intentionally low to the ground, we could send our signals straight up, bounce them off the ionosphere, and back down to the ground to get over the hill that blocks us on 2 meters. Last year, when there was no rally because of COVID, a small group of us went out to the road we use and tested this successfully. Now it was time to do it for real.
In case this didn’t work, we still had the usual setup on the 2 meter band. This required me to have both radios going at the same time, and to relay information about the cars on the stage from 80 meters to 2 meters. Fortunately, I had Allison to help me with that. She only has a Technician license, but she could run the net on 2 meters while I ran the other radio on 80 meters. To avoid confusion between the two callsigns at the same place, we arranged to use the North East Rally Radio Club callsign, W1RLY (W1 Rally), for the occasion.
My van was the perfect base of operations. All of my radios run off the house batteries, so I could run them all day without worrying about not being able to crank my engine off the starter battery at the end of the day. (Been there, done that.) My solar panels generated more than enough power to keep the batteries charged anyway. My VHF/UHF radio operated as a cross-band repeater, enabling Allison and I to use our low-power handheld radios outside the van and relay through the more powerful radio and bigger, taller antenna that we put up. Best of all, I had all the food, drink, and warmer layers of clothing I needed, because I literally brought my entire house out to the rally stage.
All that long-winded explanation to say, everything worked perfectly. So well, in fact, that once cars started running, I could walk down near the road and take pictures and video of the cars zooming by. (Keep an eye on our YouTube channel for that one!) Since the alternate frequency was new and had never been done before, we had several contingency plans in case it didn’t work. This time, at least, we didn’t need any of those plans. For the first time since I can remember, the stage ran as smooth as can be. The 80 meter net wasn’t the sole reason for this — it helps that there were no major crashes or forest fires — but it was certainly a major contributing factor to its success. When none other than rally legend John Buffum, driving one of the course opening cars, repeatedly commandeers the 80 meter net because he can’t reach the other course opening car on 2 meters, we know we got it right.
Why volunteer at a rally? It’s a lot of time, effort, and work to allow the competitors to go out and play. For me, volunteering is the closest I’m probably ever going to get to competing in a rally car myself. It’s a front row seat to the action, closer than the spectators get to be. I’ve made many friends by working rallies, from people I’ve been working alongside, to competitors who I’ve helped out along the way. We’ve considered ourselves the “rally family” since long before Dominic Toretto turned the concept into an overused cliche, but it’s true.
With all I’ve been through this year, I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed me if I didn’t make it back to New England for this event. But I felt that if there was any way I could be there, I needed to. I’ve filled a critical role on the communications team. I wanted to see this bold experiment with the new 80 meter net through to completion. I also wanted to be there to take up the slack on the 2 meter net if 80 meters failed, which fortunately wasn’t necessary. It was all worth it.
But that’s not the end of the story. NEFR is a two-day event. But day two is a story for another day.