Thursday, May 5, 2011

DooWop Rally 2009

I Remember Finishing

This story is dedicated to Ray Damitio.
This race was the last that he organized, and also the first that I competed in.
Ray passed away February 10th, 2011 at the age of 83.



      There are a lot of things that I don't remember about that weekend late in February 2009. I don't remember who won the race, I don't remember how much money we spent, and I don't remember going to bed after I got home on Sunday. The one thing that I will never forget is that I finished the first rally that I entered.. and not even in last place.
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At 4:44 AM on February 21st 2009 I walked in the door of my rental house. The Fleetwood brand mobile home sat atop a high hill in southwest Port Orchard overlooking Glenwood Road. I grabbed a party pizza and rolled it up like a burrito and started to eat it as I glanced at the clock. I was really hoping to get an hour or so of sleep, but it was almost five. Five is when I was supposed to get up. The next few minutes of shitty salty pizza eating can best be described as meditation, with my backside halfway on the counter and mind unreeling.
“Hey princess, it's time to get up,” I said out loud, seemingly to no one. Someone stirred in disbelief, rolling from their encamped position on the couch to see a clock. I threw every rally t-shirt I had in a backpack along with some bathroom items, socks, and underwear. Helmet in hand and fire suit half dragging on the ground I walked out to the shop, past the ominous hum of the high pressure sodium lamp perched above the basketball hoop, and went inside. Centered in the large bay of the shop was the rally car. It was a beat up old Saab 99 coupe and it had never really ran right. By some miracle a half-hour ago it started to sound more like a race car and less like an old tractor. It may or may not have had anything to do with the hour of finger-banging I gave it under the hood earlier in the evening. The trunk was open; I tossed the fire suit and helmet in an open banana box and placed the backpack beside it and turned my gaze to the workbench. In what seemed like a random game of pick up sticks, I started throwing wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, ratchets, random tools and the occasional nut or bolt into a blue 5 gallon NAPA auto parts bucket. When my “toolbox” was approximately full, James walked in the door. James was my co-driver-to-be and he was fresh from about an hour of sleep. we finished loading everything else we may need in the Subaru station wagon service car.
The next few hours are fuzzy, but somehow we ended up at Registration and Scrutineering, which was located at the Honda dealer's service department in downtown Aberdeen. The car looked terrible inside. Wires everywhere, dangling out of the dash like the tentacles of some wire-monster. Outside wasn't so bad, except for the various shades of primer and white paint, and the hood that was always slightly ajar. I could swear I told James to make sure those hood pins were in the right place before he welded them on. I guess he didn't hear me, or was too tired to care.
We registered and paid for our licenses, even though we knew our checks wouldn't be good unless they cashed them late. Once we had paperwork squared away, we decided we should do a run-through of some of the equipment that we would be required to demonstrate the functionality of in just a few short minutes. We knew the first thing they would check is all the lights so we did a light check. Nothing in the back of the car was working at all! James and I quickly pulled the tail light lenses off the car and started to do all the little tricks that we knew of to get shaky light sockets working. We scrubbed with Scotch Brite, pulled the connector in the socket forward with a bent screwdriver, polished the connector end of the light bulbs with our shirts. Mid-repair we overheard a couple of fans, or volunteers, talking about how hard it is to get started off with rallying.
One of them said “It can take years and tens of thousands of dollars before you get everything ready.” James promptly replied, “We've only got 500 bucks into this thing and we started working on it a month ago.” We didn't tell them that we were terrified we might not pass the upcoming inspection by the scrutineers, and in just a few minutes our first race could have ended before it started. After some more fiddling with the lights they all worked, which was a good thing, because we were up next. We knew this wasn't going to be easy, since we never really finished wiring the car. Well, we never really finished anything on the car. For some reason we decided to show up anyway. The worst they could do is tell us we can't race, right?
I was sitting in the car when I noticed someone waving me into the service bay... it was our turn. As soon as I pulled in and killed the engine, I was given a hand signal to turn the headlights on. I grabbed the old GM-style switch that I had snap tied into the dash and gave it a pull. High beams were next.. OK, I had a GM-style headlight dimmer switch hanging down from the wires under the left side of the dash, the kind that would usually go on the floor for your left foot to hit. I clicked it with my hand. I notice James walking around talking with someone else, showing them stuff. The man in front of me held out his right arm, apparently indicating for me to turn on the left turn signals. I had practiced this, but in the rushed atmosphere of scrutineering I was very panicked. I grabbed the wire dangling from the dash labeled 'Turn Signal Power' and frantically touched it to a pair of twisted wires just to its left. Touch, release. Touch, release. I looked up and he now had his left hand out, indicating for me to do the right blinker. I took the power wire and tapped it to the twisted pair for the front and rear right turn signals. I looked up and he yelled “brake lights!” I hit the brake pedal, but they didn't work. I turned the ignition on and tried again... this time, one light came on. We had just tuned up the rear lights 5 minutes ago and now one of them was on the fritz again! They didn't seem to mind. They asked me to turn on the reverse lights. I grabbed the clear-colored fuse off the dash and put It into the fuse holder 5th from the left on the dash, and took it out once we cleared that check. Wipers. I grabbed the green fuse off the dash and stuck it in the second spot from the left. Wiper washers. I hadn't thought of that one. I said “they aren't working for some reason.” Horn. I hit the steering wheel, pretending as if there was some sort of switch there, when in fact there was none. “It worked earlier,” I said.
With that portion of the check complete, I got out of the car and opened the hood. Our battery tie down was a ratchet strap, which apparently isn't the best way to tie down your battery. We got lectured about the strap; they told that the wiring under the hood could easily cause an electrical fire if one of the wires near the engine were to rub, and then a curious thing happened. The scrutineer took a look inside the car for our fire extinguisher and noticed the dash wiring. He looked at me and said, “Man, there is no way you would pass a real inspection. I'm going to have to let you guys through today because Gene told me I have to. But let me tell you, if you want to compete in the next event, you've got to clean up all this shit. I'm serious.”
Gene is a rally driver of old who now plays an important role as an assistant event organizer and is a very revered scrutineer in the Pacific Northwest. Earlier in the month he had inspected our roll cage and found our enthusiasm, budget, and vehicle inspiring. He had – without informing me – instructed the man standing before us to sign the form and let us race, even though it probably wasn't the best decision. Gene believed in us; perhaps he saw a bit of himself at a younger age... or maybe he was tired of only seeing Subaru's and Volkswagen's at the races. I got in the car as fast as I could and drove it out of there before they could change their minds. We were in.
I parked the car around the corner in a mud parking lot and hopped out and called my Dad. I told him that they let us pass tech, so we were going to race. I got off the phone and looked around. I had no clue what to do next. I found James, because I was pretty sure that the co-driver is supposed to know whats going on, but he was clueless too. Eventually we looked through the big book they gave us that said “Routebook” on the front and found a schedule. We found our way over to the Park Exposé and resumed our work on the car. Someone came up to us and said “Drivers meeting, ten minutes.” “Thanks,” I replied. We made our way over to the crowd of people. I recognized some faces, mainly of the organizers. We didn't really know anybody, though. Someone said to me “Glad you guys could make it. How did the harnesses work?”
I was totally confused but I just answered the question and later James told me that was Paul Eklund, Western States Rally Champion in 2003 and our primary vendor for race supplies. It felt like we belonged there even though we were definitely awkward and unsure of ourselves. There is a strong sense of community in this sport. Someone passed out a start order sheet, and then an old man walked out in front of everyone. He was hunched over, thumbs in his pockets and elbows cocked out to the side. It was Ray Damitio, the organizer of the Doo Wop Rally and a long time member of the rally community. Just last year he co-drove for the winner, who was another local and drove a 90's Volvo that had been heavily modified and upgraded with a turbocharged V6 under the hood. I remember thinking to myself, “Ray must be a crazy person to get in a rear wheel drive 350 horsepower Volvo and let someone else barrel down gravel roads as fast as they can with his life in their hands.”
Even though I took that as clear evidence that Ray was insane, I listened to what he had to say. He informed us that the roads were in beautiful shape – although a bit wet – and told everyone outright that “no one could win this event on the first stage.” If we wanted the treat of running some of the best gravel roads in the country on Sunday, we needed to stay on the road and make it to the finish on Saturday. We all nodded approvingly like we would be good, and not mess up, or at least do our best not to. It felt really good to be part of such an amazing local grassroots event.
We were the very last car scheduled to start, so we had about an hour to stress out about everything and work on the car. I spent most of my teenage and adult life trashing perfectly good Saabs and now I sat 30 yards from the start of my first rally transit and we had this jalopy as our chariot. Our minute came up and a man with a clock wrote it down on our time card. We waited about 30 seconds and then slowly pulled away from the control, took a right, and tried not to get lost in Aberdeen. We kept going down 101 until we came to the first stage: Blue Slough Rd, a paved public roadway next to the Warehauser plant in Montesano. It connects Hwy 101 with the Hwy you get to from the Montesano exit, and follows the Chehalis River. It's a very windy road with some really fun sudden drops in elevation. There are places where the road seems to disappear out from under you. This is the only paved stage at the event (ran twice) and it made me feel uncomfortable at first. Wet tarmac has never been my strongest substrate, I grew up driving on wet gravel.
It was exhilarating to drive this road as a closed course. I remember just ignoring my co-driver and having a fun time. I got that feeling that I always get when I pass somebody on a public road or when I'm doing something I know I shouldn't be on some gravel road. Except this time, it wasn't illegal or wrong at all. You might imagine that would take the fun out of it, but I think it only amplifies the experience. The only part that I struggled with were the chicanes. Small and tight, they are simply some road cones and construction sandwich boards set up to force the driver through 2 or 3 tight steering maneuvers to reduce speed before a tricky part of the course. We finished without incident and transited around on another route back to the start of the stage and lined up again to run the stage the second time. James compared our time with that of some of the other cars and we weren't doing bad. We were faster the second time and it was a lot more fun. I really started to nail the chicanes. A couple people even shook their hands in the air at me, apparently because I did a good job. With the first 2 stages complete and the car not even complaining yet, we drove off trying to follow some other competitors because James couldn't really figure out where we were going.
The transit took us to the other side of the freeway over to the area surrounding Sylvia Lake and went to the start of the Pico stages which partially parallel the Montesano Silvia Ridge Trail. I had to get out and open the hood to shut the heater off because the floor and firewall were starting to get pretty hot and we were getting uncomfortable. This was my first gravel stage and it was almost all downhill, so I got to go fast even though the car wasn't all that powerful. I started off at a reasonable pace but after the first few corners I really tried to push my comfort zone and quickly found that the car responds very predictably. Full throttle until I come up to a corner, let my foot off the gas as we get to the corner and turn just a little bit to get the back end to start sliding out. Once the proper attitude is attained its back to full throttle to power out of the corner, straighten out, and speed up until the next corner.
James was trying his best to interpret the diagram that was provided for each major corner. He had a hard time converting these symbols into something audible so most of the time he would try to make the shape with his hands for me in the air. Sometimes he would just scream “Hard left!” if he started to get stressed about how to say it. A few times he said left when the corner was actually a right, so I just started ignoring him.
After awhile, we were starting to get into a rhythm, when suddenly I hit a pretty good size rock right on our chinsey rear skid plate mount and deformed it enough that the skid plate was now dragging on the ground. Now my car sounded like we were newlyweds barreling through the woods with tin cans in chase.
I remember on this stage I tried sliding around a corner but I misjudged it slightly and my driver's side front tire went up on the green, moss covered berm on the inside of the corner. Then I noticed my Dad staring at me from just a couple feet away on the inside of the corner with his blue Northwest Saab Owners hat on. I'll never be sure if he was scared, or repulsed at both how slow I was driving and how out of control I was. Either way I feel that moment left an impression on him.
It was funny that even with how exhausted and overwhelmed I was and distracted by the task of racing I still noticed him. After we ran this stage again in the reverse direction we finally had a service break. I had to borrow a jack from another team and crawl under the car myself with a crescent wrench to bend the skid plate mount back into alignment. I really wish we had time to come up with a better system for the rear skid plate mount, but it was too late now. We added a couple quarts of oil to the leaking transmission and started our transit over to the ocean and ran the Tahola stages on the Quinault Indian Reservation north of Ocean Shores. During this stage the oil leak from the transmission started to get worse, and smoke started to develop in the passenger compartment. Every once in awhile James would yell “Smoke in the cabin!” and roll his window down, which I found amusing since the smoke didn't bother me.
On a long, downhill part of Tahola the car started to fishtail at around 85 miles per hour. All of my experience with situations like this told me to hit the gas so that's what I did. The speedometer kept creeping up faster and faster and the car still felt unstable, although the fishtailing had lessened. On a smooth part of the road I gradually let off the throttle and got the speed back down to 70 or so before the next sweeping corner and the fishtailing went away. To this day the car tries to do this every time we get above 75 or 80. I think it's because the front suspension is too soft and the rear suspension is stiffer. Either way, it's a bit unsettling!
Later in the stage I came into a corner really fast and the back end of the car slid out so far that I couldn't recover. The car spun around, which had the potential to be a huge problem for us since we didn't have reverse. Luckily, I was quick on the draw and managed to use our now-rearward momentum to spin the car back around without using reverse. Very exciting!! my first spin. We finished the two Tahola stages without further incident (despite some minor fishtailing) and headed back to service for some more transmission fluid and Gatorade.
The last two stages of day one were called 13 corners. It was a very short, twisty dirt road that snaked up and around a hill. The state was planning to do a major improvement project to widen and straighten the road so it would be more viable for commercial shipping. It hadn't been raced on in years, but the organizers felt an attachment to it so they went out of the way to get it on the schedule before it was gone forever. The first running of this stage was in the uphill direction. You can drive way faster uphill (if your car has the power) than downhill because it's harder to slide out of control up a hill. It's almost like the hill helps slow the rotation of the car, so you can really toss it into uphill corners without worrying too much. Our time for that stage was 3:47, 2 seconds slower than another competitor that we had been comparing times with, Phil Meyers.
On the downhill version of the stage I tried to go fast again but the car was acting unpredictable. Something was wrong. On the 4th or 5th corner we started to slide even though we weren't going very fast. That slide sort of resonated into the 6th corner when the car spun and came to a stop with a thud, nose planted firmly and squarely in a 40 foot tall forest wall. No reverse.
I start yelling to James that we need to get our warning triangles out and display the OK sign so no one calls an ambulance, when suddenly a group of drunk spectators stumble down the steep and loose berm above the road. James yells at them to push us out, and they are glad to give it a try! They start pushing and lifting up in front, where the car is in the ditch. They heave and rock and wonder why we can't just back out. Finally they give up! NOO!
James, an experienced off-roader, tells them to pick up the back of the car and move it. No joke. They sort of walk to the back of the car with a confused look on their faces and then the 6 or 8 guys sort of pick up and drag the rear of the car over a few feet. Then another foot or two. That was enough for me, I threw it in first gear, climbed several feet up the forest wall at an angle, slammed through the ditch and made it back on to the road with gravel shooting everywhere. We took it easy and made it to the finish, this time in 6 minutes and 29 seconds due to the spin. We had finished day one. Somehow.
We got back to the headquarters hotel and just parked the car and got out. This guy started yelling at us about something but we really weren't in much of a mood to talk to random people so we tried to ignore him. Turns out, he was a rally official and he was trying to tell us we need to drive through the time control he was standing at, instead of come in the other entrance to the parking lot. James said “Can't you just fill out the damn time card? You saw us come in.” I could tell James was impatient from the days activities, and I supported his attitude. Finally the official persuaded us to start the car up and drive through his little control. He asked us what time we wanted to declare and we had no idea what he was talking about. When you come to a master time control at the end of the day you are allowed to declare the time you were supposed to arrive there at after the transit. To calculate this you look at what time was written down on your finish of the last special stage, drop the seconds, and add the minutes allowed for the transit. Sounds easy, right? We were clueless. Finally the official that we were being very short with just a couple minutes ago helped us do the math and we were done for the day.
The plan for the weekend did not include sleeping arrangements, I guess we just figured we would sleep in the cars or something. After a couple minutes of discussion James walked over to the hotel office and got us a room.. he was the only one that had enough money. No one ate dinner, took a shower, or anything. I called my girlfriend Elise and told her we were alright and that I love her and then I passed out on the couch, or the floor. I don't remember which.
The next day we got lucky when we discovered the hotel had complementary biscuits and gravy, and waffles. I went out to the car after breakfast to get it over to the Park Exposé. It was about 30 degrees out and I felt a chill run down my spine as I walked up to the car. It was unlocked, as always (I didn't have a key and the locks didn't work anyway), and I got in and after some careful looking around through the icy windows managed to pull out and cross the street to the exposé. After some more words from Ray we headed south on Hwy 101 until we came up upon Smith Creek Rd.
Sunday was Ray's pride and joy. You see, Ray also owned the Brooklyn Tavern, a historic throwback to small town of Brooklyn's heyday. This little town about 15 miles west of Oakville has two of the nicest rally roads in the country, Smith Creek Rd and Brooklyn Oakville Rd (simply known as the Brooklyn Stage). At one point in the 1980's it was a general consensus amongst American drivers that the Brooklyn Stage was the best rally stage in the country. Smith Creek is more smooth and fast, but Brooklyn has high speeds on the west end combined with tight repetitive twisties and some amazing S curves. A driver can really find their rhythm on this stage. Unfortunately, this year we could only run half of it due to a landslide. That didn't stop the drivers from being extremely competitive as usual. If you hadn't pushed hard enough to wreck your car yet, this is where you were supposed to pull out all the stops. The record stage time even gets printed on t-shirts from time to time to encourage competition.
Smith Creek Rd eventually runs out of houses and turns to gravel until it pops out in Brooklyn on the other side. We lined up behind the other competitors right after the pavement disappeared. During the drive up it had started to snow, and we were getting reports of heavy snow further up the stage with up to an inch or two of accumulation. Out of 27 competitors we were the only ones that had 4 snow tires on the car. A friend of mine who competes in a 1986 Toyota Corolla, Adam Crane, had 2 snow tires on the back of his rear-drive car. Everyone else had gravel tires, which is about the worst kind of tire imaginable for a snowy situation. The pack was praying for the snow to change to rain. I was praying for the worst weather we could get. Later we named the race team North Wind Racing to help explain to others how the Norse Gods smiled upon us because of our Swedish-built and Finnish-driven steed. The North Wind was surely at our backs that day.
They started us at one minute intervals. About four minutes into the 10 minute stage I came up behind the red Volkswagen Rabbit that had started in front of me. I was flying down this road having a great time with my snow tires and I felt really comfortable on the smooth, fast, twisty Smith Creek. The red VW driver, Phil Meyers, had beat me the day before, but we were scheduled to run Smith Creek two times today. I had already gone an average of 125% of his speed for 4 minutes in order to make up the one minute gap between us, and we were just starting out the day. I sat behind him in his snow spray and couldn't see a damn thing for the next 6-8 minutes. I wanted to get around him so bad. I asked James what the hell was going on and he said he had no idea. He stopped navigating and I stopped driving, we just sat behind this Rabbit like we were following a school bus. After it was over, we turned right and drove through the town of Brooklyn and stopped when we encountered gravel and a line of competitors. The truncated Brooklyn stage was only 5 minutes long for us, and about 3 minutes long for the fastest competitors. Still, it was a lot of fun and we did better than a few of our fellow inexperienced competitors.
During the stage we passed a Silver Subaru WRX that was in the ditch. While we were all waiting to run the stage back the other direction, he got pulled out by a truck and came barreling down the hill past the line of people waiting after the finish control. They pulled up next to a rusty old gate blocking off some abandoned logging road and jumped out. The co-driver already had the tow strap in his hand and began to tie the strap around the front tire of the car and to the gate. Everyone stopped talking and turned their attention towards the commotion. The driver and co-driver team acted like no one else was there, they were running around and yelling at each other while trying to execute their frantic, desperate repair. The wheel in question was pushed back into the fender and rubbing severely from the damage they incurred during their ditch adventure. Finally, the driver jumped in the car and started it up. He pulled forward a couple feet, we heard a clank, and the reverse lights came on. The driver gave the car a generous amount of gas and the car shot back, coming to a sudden stop with a snap as the tow strap tugged on the tire and entire suspension. It worked, the wheel was in the center of the fender again, just where it was supposed to be. They unhooked the tow strap and drove up the hill past their clapping audience to take their place toward the front of the pack again. We did Brooklyn and Smith Creek stages again and headed towards the freeway, where we serviced in a gravel lot next to an overpass.
When we came into service I asked a couple of Saab Club members and rally veterans what the procedure is when you come up behind on somebody during a stage and they are slowing you down. A short man with long wiry hair, cigarette in mouth, told me: “Flash your lights and honk the horn. If they don't move, hit 'em.” That man was John VanLandingham, made famous as a rally driver and Saab mechanic, but made infamous as a bullshitter. John kept talking and telling us stories, but we were already late. We added a couple more quarts to the transmission, and then I asked John if he could smoke, bullshit and push at the same time (remember, no reverse). He helped push us back out of our service spot, and we headed back out to do Smith Creek two more times.
The last two stages of the rally were smooth and fast without incident. I don't recall catching the Red VW again, we may have started in front of them or the snow had melted enough that they could speed up. I've tried to catch Phil Meyers in his little Rabbit at every race since so I could ram him in the ass like I should have done on snowy Smith Creek, but I haven't been able to catch him after those first two times. We transited back to 101 and went around to Hwy 12 to come back down the other side of the landslide on the Brooklyn Stage, and drove through Oakville to the Oakville Grange. James walked in and turned in our time card (with the proper declared time, of course) and our rally was done. We made it.
James, our service guy / friend Jens and I ate dinner and then James just sort of disappeared. He had to get home to his girl, and he was totally exhausted, so I didn't really worry about it. Jens and I stayed and mingled with people, told stories, looked at pictures, and stayed for the award ceremony. When the trophy for last place was given, I almost had one of those moments in a movie when a person stands up to accept an award but in fact the name of someone else was called.
I wasn't last. I couldn't believe it. Of all the day 2 finishers, I finished ahead of 6 of them.. even with 2 spin outs and a penalty for being late to a checkpoint. Some of them had gotten stuck in the ditch, just longer than I had, but a few of them I beat fair and square. So Phil Meyers went up to take the last place trophy, which for some reason made me kind of sad.
We were getting ready to duck out early when Janice, Ray's wife and an organizer, told me we should stick around. “Trust me,” she said. About ten minutes later Janice got up in front of everyone and started to tell a story about how Carl, who holds the record on the Brooklyn Stage, still had a bunch of tires left from his Volvo rally days of past and he was donating them to the event. Janice, Ray and Carl had decided to give them to a competitor that was up and coming, broke, and needed them. “It only took us about 2 seconds to decide who those competitors are,” she said, “Quinn Morley and James Protzeller in the Saab 99!”
James had left, so Jens and I walked up and shook her hand. We had just been given eight brand new Hankook rally tires. They usually run about $120 apiece and they were the perfect size for my car. On the way back to our seat I brought Jens over to Carl and we all shook hands and everyone gave a round of applause. The dinner was just about over when Janice walked up to me again and said she could keep the tires at the tavern until we could pick them up some other time, with a truck or whatever. “Actually,” I said, “If I came back later I would just come with a Saab anyway. I think we should take them tonight.”
With some trouble, we loaded 5 tires in the trunk of the car and where the back seat should have been, made difficult by the roll bar and it's X reinforcement. We strapped 3 more to the roof with a ratchet strap we usually use to hold the spare tire down. Tired beyond measure yet full and gratified in more way that one, we climbed into the race seats, buckled the harnesses, and started the car. The exhausting and exhilarating weekend played over and over in my mind during the seemingly infinite journey home. Squinting to see the dark road, barely helped by the dim headlights, I couldn't help but think of all the people that had discouraged me or told me we couldn't do it or the car wasn't good enough. Perseverance and triumph where the themes of the weekend, and it was a weekend none of us will ever forget. I remember finishing.

Life's journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways totally worn out shouting 'Holy crap! What a ride!'”
- Ray Damitio

3 comments:

Ron Mount said...

Man, when you are done racing, that story should go in a book for all to read. It's a rip-roaring tale and a great tribute to Mr Damitio.

monty anderson said...

that is one hell of a good story. you could have a future as a wrighter. loved every bit of it. keep it up.

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