New England Forest Rally — Day 2

It was another early morning start — this time not for meetings, but to make the 90-minute drive north to Morton Cutoff, stages 9 and 13 of the rally. Unlike yesterday, where the route and direction of travel changed, this stage runs exactly the same way both times. It’s also a short stage, just over three miles long. The previous day was a bold experiment on a major and often troublesome stage. Today would be easy in comparison.

My job was to be the radio operator at the finish line. This meant I wouldn’t see any dramatic high-speed passes like the previous day, but that’s okay. I’ve worked start and finish a bunch of times. I know how it’s done, which is no doubt why I was assigned there.

Setting up the Morton Cutoff finish control.

I didn’t need the 80 meter radio equipment at all, just the usual 2 meter setup I usually use at rallies. I discovered that the plug had broken off my J-pole antenna, so my stage captain, Jim, W1JIM, loaned me one made out of wire. In a way, this worked even better than mine. I grabbed my roll of twine and a large socket from my toolbox, tied them together, and lobbed the socket over some nearby tree branches. Then I tied the antenna on and hoisted it higher than my own antenna could’ve gone on my 12-foot mast. Everyone heard me well.

Start and finish are the two most important radio positions on a rally stage. When a rally car enters the stage, the start radio announces their starting sequence number, their car number, and what time they started. “Sequence number 1, car number 199, started at 16:32.” I, as well as all the other radio operators on the stage, write this down. Additionally, I, as the finish radio, read this back to the start radio to make sure I wrote it down correctly. As the car passes each radio location, they check off that they saw it. This way, when someone crashes — not if — we’ll know they crashed between points C and D, for example. When a car comes through the finish, I check it off my list, and know that we don’t need to worry about them anymore.

Lister “helping” me track cars.

Lister was quite popular among my fellow rally workers. Everyone loved seeing him, petting him, and giving him all the attention he could handle. I had to keep him inside most of the day, though, because I didn’t want him running under the van and into the road. He handled it fairly well, but was obviously a bit restless without his usual outside frolic time.

After the first few cars, it became clear that I was not going to be able to hear my little handheld radio with loud rally cars idling next to me, getting their time cards filled out. I retreated to the driver’s seat of the van, and from there I continued writing and radioing. Three cars crashed on this stage, two of them in the same place. Fortunately, no one was hurt, thanks to the extensive safety equipment the cars, drivers, and co-drivers have.

The first run through the stage went well, and after the sweep team came through the road was open to traffic for a couple of hours until the second running. Abe and Bonnie brought a grill and cooked up hot dogs for the entire stage crew, who (with permission) abandoned their positions and came to the finish to eat. I offered to add the grill from my van to the kitchen, but theirs was keeping up with the hot dog demand just fine without it. We hung out and chatted for a while. Lister got extra attention. When the time came, everyone returned to their positions to prepare for the second running of the stage.

Several of the top drivers didn’t make it to the second running, leaving Travis Pastrana in first place with only two stages remaining. He was in the lead, but his former teammate David Higgins was hot on his heels in a World Rally Championship spec Ford Fiesta, so he had to go on maximum attack to stay ahead. By his own admission, he cut a corner marked as a “no cut,” crashed, and ended up on his roof 0.3 miles from the finish, where I was.

There was a radio operator close to where Pastrana crashed. He reported the crash, and soon after reported Pastrana running toward him (so clearly he was unhurt). His crashed car was blocking the road, and he wanted to warn the competitors behind him about it. This guy crashes out of first place in a rally, and his very first thought was the safety of his competitors. As much as I appreciate Travis Pastrana’s impressive athletic achievements, moments like this are why I like him so much.

Ironically, everyone else who started the stage finished it successfully. Pastrana was the only person who crashed, and Higgins would go on to win the rally overall. Subaru Motorsports arrived at the finish, and asked when they’d be allowed to go up the road to retrieve Pastrana’s crashed car. During that conversation, the sweep team arrived, towing Pastrana’s now upright car to the finish. I took down the antenna in the tree, and prepared the van for travel once again.

Before leaving, a few of the other finish workers and I walked down to the end of the road to take another look at Pastrana’s crashed car. The man himself was there, chatting with people and being his usual friendly self. I joined the crowd chatting with him.

Just hanging out with Travis Pastrana.

I’ve never seen anyone in such good spirits after a major crash. He was just hanging out, shooting the breeze with anyone who wanted to, and delaying the inevitable “ass chewing” (his words) from his team. I told him we were happy to delay him for as long as he wanted. A passer-by handed out beers to whoever wanted them. I declined, because drinking on a stage while wearing a rally official shirt isn’t a great look. Travis accepted, though. Why not? It’s not like he was driving anymore.

Also, behind us to the far right of the picture is Pastrana’s co-driver, Rhianon Gelsomino (her story is fascinating as well). She was on the phone to family in Australia, no doubt letting them know that she was fine after the crash, and before they heard about it elsewhere. I didn’t want to disturb her, but even she took a few seconds away from her call across the world to say hello and thank you.

Anyway, Travis and I said our farewells, and will see each other again at Mount Washington in two weeks. Don’t get the impression that we’re close personal friends. We’re not. But we’ve crossed paths at several races, and with Climb to the Clouds just two weeks away, sure, we’ll look for each other. I’ll have to ask him how bad his “ass chewing” was.

I made the long drive back to Sunday River, then took Allison up on her offer to grab a shower in her hotel room. She was still working the final stage of the rally, so I was in and out before she got there. Then I parked the van back at my campsite, hopped on the bike (it’s easier to park), and went to the post-event banquet. The food was good. I got to chat with many old friends I hadn’t seen in a while, except for some of them passing by in rally cars. I didn’t see as many as I would’ve liked, unfortunately, but I was glad see who I did.

I was wiped out from two long days of go, go, go. I slept well that night.

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