There are two types of rallyistas – those who have rolled and those who will. Gearbox Magazine would like to make another distinction – There are those who prep a car and compete and those who say they will. Aaron Ekinaka is the latter on the former and the former on the latter. Last month, we documented Aaron’s perspective prior to his first rally. This article shares his perspective after his first rally. Read on!
First of all, how did you do in Prescott?
We did better than I could have possibly hoped. I really only had 3 goals for this race. 1) Be safe – don’t kill the car. 2) Finish the race – don’t do anything stupid that’s going to make it so that you can’t cross that finish line, and 3) Have fun – which we had loads of fun. The fact that we finished was awesome, sure we made some newbie mistakes and got a bunch of road points, but I really wasn’t too concerned about things like that. They were learning opportunities. We ran our own race, and unfortunately the other teams in our class had various problems that allowed us to come in first. We moved up from being seeded dead last in 22nd position up to 10th overall by the end of day two. When Michael Taylor asked me to back my car up to where the other winners were, I couldn’t believe it. Spraying champagne at my first rally? There had to have been some mistake… but it was legit.
Did you run into any “situations” in the 48 hours prior to the start? What will you try doing different next time out?
There were a lot of things that needed to come together before the rally, and like most people find out, some things can’t get done until right before the car is supposed to be loaded onto a trailer to go to the event.
I took the car down to Jackson Rally several weeks before the rally. I made Kyle Jackson had a laundry list of things to do on my car. Fortunately, he was able to get to all the critical things that needed to be done (massive front skid plate, battery relocation, front tow hook, etc) but not everything because the list was so long. Its kind of a good thing though because I needed money for some other things too.
OP (from the Gravel Crew) looked over my car and found several things that needed to be addressed before we left. One of which was a noise coming from inside the transmission. We decided to swap in my spare gearbox before the event, and deal with this noise at a later time. One of my LCA bushings was totally shot too.
The other major hurdle was getting a new insert for one of my coil overs. I had bent one practicing before the rally and just never got around to replacing it. The replacement I got just days before the rally was not the right size. I have to tip my hat to Barrett Dash at All Wheels Driven for sending another insert via overnight first AM delivery to the hotel in Prescott. My amazing crew took care of assembling the strut as I was out doing recce in Albert’s car. It was a well orchestrated last minute fix. I still can’t believe we pulled it off.
What would I do differently next time? Pretend the rally is starting 2 weeks earlier than it really is. Maybe that will save me a couple all nighters working on the car.
How nervous were you about passing tech? Were there any surprises at tech? Any compliments or comments? Will you try doing anything different at the next rally?
I was nervous about tech. I knew Kyle had a very strong understanding of the rules, and we had been over everything already, but there’s always that “what if” feeling in your gut as the car rolls into tech inspection. The car passed with flying colors though. We were in and out of the tech bay in no time. One of the inspectors did actually comment that he was surprised that my parking brake was actually functional and could hold the car in place. I had to laugh about that, I never use the parking brake to turn the car… Now if I had a turning brake, that would be another story!
How did registration go? You had a lot of family, friends, and crew on-hand. (You might be the first team to out-do the Marciniak’s “Red Shirt Army” back in the day.) We know you were already exhausted from the final push to Prescott. How did you deal with the stress?
Registration was a breeze, it was kind of a question of “Well… what do we do now?” since we were the last car out of Parc Expose. We had what felt like hours to kill before we could suit up and go out. I think it was during the novice orientation where I first started noticing how not well I felt. I had probably a total of 4 hours sleep in 3 days thrashing just to get the car where I thought it would be acceptable, not only for the tech inspection, but for me to race in. It was almost like a catch-22: 1) I could stay up and make sure the car was ready to run from a technical stand point, and be exhausted, or 2) have the car not ready to pass tech and be rested. The only thing I could do was push myself to get everything dialed as quickly as possible, all this while holding down a full time job.
Family and friends were extremely supportive before we set off to race. My wife Juliet was taking care of random odds and ends, so that I could just take a break in the air conditioned truck to get a power nap in before we strapped in for the first transit. She really was awesome throughout the entire weekend; Making sandwiches for everyone and taking photos all over the place. It was the first rally that my Mom and Dad had ever been to too, and I think they had a great time being right in the middle of all the action. My friends/crew were just amazing, from towing my car all the way out, to working on the car even if I wasn’t around. I can’t thank them enough. I don’t think they understand how truly grateful I am for all their hard work.
Who helped with what before, during, and after the rally? (48hrs before to 48hrs after)
Literally countless people helped me before during and after. I would have to list so many people its ridiculous. Everyone pitched in to help in one way or another. Whether it be physical work on the car, monetary support, or letting me borrow parts/safety equipment.
What was going through your mind as you pulled up to the start of the first stage? Were you worried about anything? Nervous? Blindly confident? What was the one thing you wished you had done differently at this point?
As we rolled up to the start I was actually really calm. I was pretty tired, but excited at the same time. The funny thing is that I was more worried about what I would do if I had to puke and I had my full face helmet on. What a mess that would have been. I wasn’t really nervous about crashing or anything because I was in the mindset of running my own race. No one was going to catch me (I was in the back of the pack), I was very familiar with the handling characteristics of this car, having practiced many times in the desert on similar terrain. The brand new rally tires were somewhat of an x-factor, as I had not driven on new directionals before… only used ones. I felt confident, but was anxious to get going.
Tell us what you were thinking as you took off down the first stage of your first rally. Did you notice your perceptions/concerns change as you progressed through the event?
Taking off at the start was not really what I had expected. I still wasn’t feeling well as we set off on the first stage. I just kept reminding myself that I wasn’t there to impress anyone and that I wasn’t going to win the rally on the first stage. Smooth and clean was the plan, and I really needed to feel out the car before I could add any more speed. I did make a rookie mistake and jumped the gun by a full minute on the starting clock, resulting in a ton of road points right off the bat. Not exactly a confidence inspiring start in my opinion.
After a few stages in the car, the adrenaline really curbed any sick feelings I had. Albert later admitted that he wasn’t exactly feeling 100% at the start either. We slowly gained some confidence, not only in the car, but in each other too. He was on the notes almost all of the time. The first day’s stages were mostly in the dark, so I pushed as hard as I felt was safe. Saturday was a different story. In the day, we already had a good feel for the road having done recce, and run them in the dark. By mid-day I was trying to focus more on car position on the road, braking points, and not lifting on some of the more open turns.
How did you like working with a co-driver? Was it easy for you to meld what you saw with what you heard in the notes?
Albert and I had practiced recce in a few different scenarios. We both attended John Dillon’s Widget Co-driving seminar in the hills outside Los Angeles last year, and even more recently, we practiced writing our own notes on some of the dirt roads where we practice driving out in the desert. This really paid off when it was time to actually do recce for the race. Having organizer supplied notes was a huge help, as there were really only a few things we needed to change. For example, I decided to remove all the pluses from the notes, and some of the really hairy stuff was marked a whole number lower than what it really was. My co-driver was very good about repeating notes too when I asked him to. Overall, the atmosphere in the car was really lighthearted and we were joking around and having a great time the whole rally.
Have any OH SHIT moments?
We actually didn’t hit anything very hard. So the only oh shit moments were when we finished stage 2 and smoke was pouring out of the hood scoop. I knew something was up, but hoped it was only a torn CV burning grease or something. It turned out that one of the power steering lines came loose and fluid was burning off on the exhaust manifold. Sketchy, because it could have started a fire, but we were able to get back to service and the problem was fixed. There were a couple of tight turns on the FirstView stage that I managed to find some big rocks on the inside apex. We ran them over without any damage though. Those kinds of things really make your butt tense up.
How about OMFG THAT WAS AWESOME moments?
There as a section that was truly amazing during day 1. It was actually right before the finish on stage 2 when we had the problem with power steering. The end of the stage was a long uphill straight where we were going absolutely as fast as we could with all our rally lights blazing into the dark, motor screaming at redline, and on the horizon right in front of us, several bolts of lightning were hitting the ground from the passing thunderstorm. It was so insane.
How did the car hold up during the event? Any major repairs?
The car held up great. Other than the power steering issue that was repaired during service, there were no other major issues. I even ran the same set of tires on the second day that were on the car on the first. I think this was a result of good prep work. I’ve seen a trend with some of the top guys, and teams that rarely DNF, most of them seem to go over every aspect of the car before an event. If necessary they tear things down and rebuild whatever might be a weak point or potential failure piece before they ever load the car up on the trailer. Checklists are a great tool for not forgetting what needs to be addressed before racing and during service.
What was the mood in the car like on transit back to the final control behind the Prescottonian?
The mood was mostly relief, but at the same time lots of joking and laughing. I made sure to let Albert know he did a great job on the notes. We were extra careful to follow the exact route of the transit back to the MTC. We were both exhausted.
How does stage rally compare to the Dirty Meets organized by DirtyImpreza.com? How well do you think the Dirty Meets helped prepare you for rally? Did you learn anything in your first rally that you’d like to apply to Dirty Meets in the future?
To be honest, they don’t really compare at all. The previous DirtyMeets were loosely organized and was mostly newer guys going out and just trying out getting sideways in the dirt. The more of those that took place, the more I realized that its a big risk to have all these inexperienced drivers out in the same area at once.
What we found out is that going out on our own in small groups is where you can really learn a thing about car control [is a better idea]. We even setup a mock stage on some dirt roads, practiced recce, and ran them at speed to get our feet wet. I was glad we did this in the dark too, so we knew what to expect on the night stages in Prescott. The practice really helped, its just a shame that here in southern California you have to make a significant time investment to go practice. It’s not like other places in the country where guys can literally drive down the street to some amazing gravel roads.
Tell us about something you thought was critical before the rally that wasn’t as important as you thought.
When you’re getting ready for tech, it seems like EVERYTHING is critical. However, I think that one thing I over-compensated for was wheels and tires. If you’re not driving out of control and hitting things left and right, you can probably get away with 1 set of tires and 2 spares for a whole event. I had 4 brand new LASSA’s on the car, with a whole set of spare Hankooks already mounted and 2 more spares. We didn’t need the Hankooks at all. All those wheels and tires cost a ton of money too.
Tell us about something you hadn’t thought was critical (or thought about at all) prior to the rally that ended up being super-important.
Knowing exactly how transits and time controls work. We learned a lot about this stuff by actually doing it, but even in the classroom, or reading things online doesn’t really prepare you for how you need to be quick to get where you’re going for every time control. We stopped to check out the car when it was smoking, and didn’t stay long, but still ended up getting some road points for being late to time control. It wasn’t the end of the world though.
What’s the most important lesson you learned this first time out?
To always run your own race and not get caught up with the times, and who’s beating who, or worry about how far back you are from the next person, etc. This all clouds your head and will affect your driving style. There were sometimes where I could tell I was giving into the adrenaline and started pushing harder and harder, but I would catch myself and pulled back a bit if I saw it getting too crazy. You don’t want to let this get you in over your head, and outside of your ability level.
The other thing I learned, and this seems so stupidly simple, is to rest. You absolutely need to have enough rest before even going to a rally. You can’t function at your full potential if you’re exhausted or falling asleep during transits. We found this out the hard way.
What will be your next rally?
I’m not entirely sure, but for 2010 we’re done. It took a lot of resources to get to Prescott and it was definitely worth it, but now I need to focus on getting my finances back in order, etc. I’d like to do maybe a couple select events next year. Possibly High Desert Trails in April 2011, just to stay sharp and also because its close to home. It would be awesome to go to Idaho, but that’s another very big project. We’ll see though… it would be lots of fun to go back to Prescott again. I guess you could say I have a soft spot for that event now.