great racin’ suriel 2004

Once again, I have spent three days crammed into a tiny car, racing with my dad. It was not exactly what I hoped it would be.

Thursday we had the technical inspection, followed by a speedometer calibration. The technical inspection was pretty much a formality; the guy doing the inspection was Tommy, who’s known my dad since dad started doing the Great Race. The speedometer calibration was another story altogether. We ran it four times before we could get our speedo calibrated properly, and even then it wasn’t perfect — but it was about as close as we were going to get it.

We went to the Rookie School after we ran the calibration, but mainly to get our Friday instructions and jot down our time instructions early. My aunt and uncle — my dad’s brother and sister-in-law — were also racing, in a Ford Five-window Coupe my dad restored for my uncle Wayne. My aunt Lida had never navigated before; she definitely needed the class.

So Friday morning, we were up before dawn as usual and shivering while getting the cars ready. We collected our instructions and set off for the tire warmup, west down I-10. I won’t go into the details (you can read more about rallying here and here); but I’ll give you the highlights.

It was a pretty normal day up until lunch in Wickenburg, where we were treated to a sky rapidly filling with dark clouds and the occasional flash of lightning. I was wearing my dad’s Barbour jacket made of heavy-duty waxed cloth, so I was pretty sure I was going to stay dryish. Famous last thoughts.

A couple instructions down the road, a few drops spattered the windscreen. I was all happy — I could tell my brother I’d gotten rained on in the Speedster. Then the few drops turned into a deluge, and I realized I couldn’t see a damn thing. It went on for hours, freezing cold and stinging where it hit our faces at 50 mph, but that wasn’t the worst bit.

The worst bit was the hail.

At one point, we realized that the rain was hitting damn hard. It was when the marble-sized lump fell into my lap that I yelled into the headset, “Dad! It’s hailing!” We laughed about that, because you have to. You can’t dwell on the fact that you’re getting hailed on in an open car, and you’ve still got hours of rallying to go.

It was during one of the hail incidents (because there were many, alternating with sleet and freezing rain) that my dad and I both missed a sign that was our indication to turn. My dad cursed and whipped the Speedster around in a tight three-point turn (in a wash on a two-lane road, water up to the floor and a truck bearing down upon us, not a maneuver I recommend), but even though we tried to make up the time, we passed a check shortly thereafter and knew it was all over.

When we finally finished the day’s racing, we were 50 miles outside Phoenix, and racing to keep ahead of the storm. It was no good, though. Traffic came to a literal halt and the sky opened up again. There we sat, soaked to the skin with freezing rain, lashed by a wicked north wind and unable to move. I was shivering so badly that by the time we got back to the hotel, when I climbed out of the car I was unable to walk — my leg muscles had seized.

Also, our score was repulsive: 1 minute, 1 second. This was very bad. We’d need two superb days to make up for it. Alas, we weren’t to get it.

Saturday we went east, rolling around the desert and having lunch in Casa Grande. After lunch things went badly wrong. We were coming down a long on-ramp for Interstate 8 when traffic ahead of us slowed dramatically and got into the far lane. We moved over as well, and when we drew abreast of the reason for the slowdown, we saw something horrific: one of the Great Race cars, a top-down 1923 Dort (the picture’s not the actual car, but one just like it), upside down forty feet from the roadway.

I don’t think I’m capable of describing how chilling that was, combined with the sight of a group of people clustered around an unmoving shape on the ground. I would have stopped, but my dad, knowing me all too well, kept going. There were other Great Race cars stopped there, along with half a dozen police cruisers and an ambulance. We would be in the way, and I would never get over the sight of that scene. So we drove on, very subdued, hardly speaking except for racing instructions.

“This is not fun today, dad,” I mumbled. “I know,” he responded. “The car was upside down, dad.” My dad had nothing to say to that, no words of comfort. It was an open car. An open car like ours.

We motored on, following instructions and making turns, but it wasn’t until we saw other racers on the course, and passed another check, that we relaxed a bit. Surely, if something … dreadful had happened, they’d stop the race, right? I couldn’t get out of my mind the image of that group of people and that unmoving form on the ground.

It was in this area that we made our biggest mistake of the whole race. We turned where we were supposed to, but I made the gigantic error of telling my dad the rest of the instructions, which were “(this road is paved)”. Well, the road wasn’t paved, despite being in the right place race-wise, and my dad, blistering my ears with curses, whipped around again and tried to find the right road. We never did, and by the time we regained the course, we passed the check many minutes late.

When we finally got to the finish, we turned in a protest, along with my uncle Wayne. (We thought others would, as well, because other drivers and navigators we’d polled had had the same problem with the instruction, but no one else did.) Sadly, our protest was denied, and our score stood: 1 minute, 10 seconds.

We ranted about it for hours — and argued with the president of Rally Partners for a good 45 minutes — but they were implacable. Based on the other instructions, the inclusion of the “(this road is paved)” was logical to them, and we should have continued on.

Ah, well.

At the finish, though, we did get some unexpectedly fantastic news: the guys in the Dort were fine! Well, not entirely; they were pretty banged up and one of them would have to spend the night in the hospital for observation, but amazingly, there were no broken bones and no serious injuries.

It seems they were rear-ended on the curve by an 18-wheeler, and were both catapulted from the car, which then flipped a couple times and ended up as we found it, upside down and scaring the daylights out of us. One of the guys — I don’t know if he was the driver or the navigator (this was their first Great Race event and no one seemed to know them well) — was at the lunch at the finish on Sunday, and got a huge, teary round of applause.

Sunday, knowing we were probably out of the running but determined to put in a good day all the same, we started off north on I-17, rallying through the Anthem development and surrounding countryside. We recognized many places from the last two times we’d been through the same area, and seemed to be running tight. We didn’t miss any instructions, had no arguments about instructions, missed no speed changes, and didn’t have to turn around in the middle of the road at all.

So I was feeling really good about our times, and sure enough, when we got to the finish (once again, halfway up Camelback in the amazing, huge home of one of the racers), we pulled a 21-second day. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to place us. We ended in 12th place with a combined score of 2 minutes, 9 seconds. The winner, for comparison, finished all three days with just 28 seconds.

On the plus side, the annoying (now) 11-year-old toerag finished fourth, so there was some comfort to be derived.

All too soon, we were back at the trailer, loading up so my dad could haul both cars back home. I was disappointed beyond words that we hadn’t placed, but y’know, we ran our own race and did our level best, and while it wasn’t good enough, I did get to spend several wonderful, awful, fun, good days with my dad.

But I’m never going to stop pressuring him to put a rollbar on the Speedster.

Picures can be found here.