Back in 2005, a friend asked if I could help him crew for a California couple racing a Dodge Neon at the Prescott Rally, 90 minutes north of Phoenix. They needed help keeping the car in the fight. Eight years later, I am still just as excited about this event each year as I was in 2005. Have you ever volunteered as rally service crew?
A TEST OF GEARHEAD METTLE
You might have seen videos of WRC teams swapping out engines and gearboxes at service. As bad ass as those guys are, I’ve never seen that happen at the grassroots level. Most of the people competing at your local, regional rally are regular Joes just like you, juggling personal finances and paid time off to make their motorsport dreams a reality. They spend a lot of money to get to the starting line, and the friends and family members who come out to support them as service crew help them cross the finish line.
Every team is a little different. I’ve seen some pull into service, get out of the car, have a walk around, maybe kick the tires, and then sit down for a sammich and a cold drink. I’ve seen others dropping transmissions in hotel parking lots at 1AM. And I’ve seen just about everything in between. Working service is a true test of your gearhead mettle. Here’s a look at what it was like for me this year, at the 25th running of the USRC Prescott Rally.
That California couple with the rally Neon – Kris and Christine Marciniak – has since become family. My wife Vanessa, who typically comes out to the rally with us, is currently eight months pregnant and had to pass this year, so they made a point of coming out a day early to see her. Before dinner that evening, Kris got the last of the vinyl on the new, second generation Neon (2GN), we installed the rear rally tires, gassed up the tow rig and my truck, and took a couple reveal shots of the new Rallynotes.com livery package for Twitter.
- Get everything ready the night before so you don’t have to rush in the morning and risk forgetting something.
- Think about the weather where you’re going. Will it be hot, cold, windy, wet?
- Pack plenty of clean clothes. You’ll want layers, sure, but you also stand to get pretty dirty!
We hit the road just after 0830hrs Friday morning and pointed the trucks north on Interstate 17. A little under two hours later, we arrived at Tim’s Subaru, where registration and tech would take place. I signed in as service crew, got my wristband, and stepped back out onto the lot to help get the Neon ready for tech. Soon after, my crewmate and buddy Dan arrived from SoCal. We got him waivered up and set about wiring up the rally lights on the front of the car. Well, he and Kris wired up the lights. I re-located the remote faceplate for the Kenwood HAM radio Kris installed between the seats. I also replaced the rear hatch struts on the Marciniak’s Chevy Blazer service rig.
Liberally coated in sunscreen, Dan and I quickly scarfed a couple burgers from the grill behind tech, where scrutineers were inspecting competitors’ vehicles for compliance with the rules. Once through tech, all the rally cars were parked in parc expose (“park expo-zay”), at which point we made a quick run across town to check into the hotel and drop our bags. It wasn’t long after that before competitors began leaving for the first special stage and Dan and I headed out to set up service.
Dan and I arrived at Depot 89, the rural gas station and convenience store north of Prescott where service has been held for years. We found a couple decent parking spots under an overhead light, and began unloading the trucks. (We were asked to drive another team’s gear up to service and happily obliged.)
Setting up service is fairly easy. In its simplest form, setting up service means unfolding a tarp, parking a couple jack stands at the corners, and opening up a toolbox. We also had an easy-up tent to raise and a couple plastic bins of spare parts, hardware, and specialty tools to unpack.
- Every second counts in rally. If you’re setting up service, try to set up close to the entry/exit.
- You’re gonna be here a while. Make sure you’re able to be comfortable and safe.
- There might not be voice/data signal at service. Bring a magazine or something.
- And, if something isn’t packed – tarp, jackstands, etc. – maybe go buy it for the team. (Rare.)
About 45 minutes before the car was scheduled to arrive, I hit the road back towards town and picked up dinner for the Kris and Christine – a couple chicken toaster club sandwiches and tater tots from Sonic. Every time I do this (and I’ve made this run about a dozen times in the last eight years), I feel bad that they have to come in for soggy, tepid food, so this time, I tried something different – I had their sandwiches made plain, so I could put the bag with the hot stuff under the hood and the lettuce/tomatoes in the cooler. I think it was a hit.
The Neon came in more dirty than broken. We had an o-ring fail at the remote reservoir on the right rear strut on the drive to Arizona, resulting in a loss of dampening on that corner. Without having any spares for this new suspension setup, we just went through the service checklist and hoped for the best.
THE SERVICE CHECKLIST
If I am any kind of competent rally service crew, it is because Kris and Christine (okay, Christine) take the time to create and provide complete documentation to use well in advance of the rally. We know where they are (they provide maps showing the stages), when to expect them (first car in/out), how to contact them (radio frequencies), and what to check when the car comes in for service. If you can do the following, you CAN be helpful to a grassroots rally team.
- TIRES – pressure, condition
- STEERING – wheel bearings, tie rod ends
- SUSPENSION – leaks, bushings, loose hardware
- ENGINE – belts, hoses, oil, coolant, plugs, wires, air filter, battery
- GENERAL – lights, horn, clean windows, re-fill Camelbacks, Cool Suit cooler
If I’m not mistaken, we had a 35 minute service window to check the car out and make any repairs. If you sign up to crew for a team with deep pockets, they might want to swap an engine in 30 minutes. Can’t say I’ve seen anyone do that in eight years with the CRS, but it’s worth thinking about. Most teams seem to save the big stuff for overnight.
Once the car leaves, it’s time to pack it all up and hit the road. If there’s only one service for the day, you’re probably headed back to the hotel, but sometimes you have to move to another location and setup for a second service. Those are challenging, yet exciting days.
Sometimes, it’s possible to get out after service and do a little spectating. This seems to be the exception more than the rule, however, as the stages close well before the competitors arrive. And, let me tell you, it’s gut-wrenching to have someone come up to you and the team as you’re standing at a corner an hour from the trailer to tell you your team has crashed, needs you to come get them, and can’t get ahold of you. (Been there. Done that. Hated it.)
Dan and I went back to the hotel, took much needed showers, and did a little channel surfing while we waited for Kris and Christine to get back to the hotel after the last stage of the day. We thought we’d be kicking the tires and going out for dinner. We thought wrong.
- You are there to keep the car in the fight. Never, ever, ever give up.
- Plan on working on the car (getting dirty) into the night.
Kris wanted to get his best pair of tires on the front drive wheels, so we had a tire rotation to do. As I lowered the rear of the car, we noticed the oil gusher coming from the right rear strut tower. We had definitively found our suspension leak.
Next thing you know, Kris is running off into the darkness with Doug Nagy of Streetwise Motorsport (who we’d like to interview, hint hint) in search of new o-rings. Dan and Kris get the remote reservoir out of the car and discuss possible ways to disassemble and recharge the unit in a dark hotel parking lot after hours on a weekend. In the end, Kris and Dan make a 1030PM run to Wal-Mart for ATF (automatic transmission fluid) and “specialty tools” to attempt a recharge while I stayed behind with Christine to re-pack the service truck and keep an eye on the race car.
Sometime around 1130PM, the guys returned with not only suspension repair goodies, but a bag of Taco Bell. Fourth Meal might very well be the loosest definition of “food,” but that late in the evening without dinner, it was fantastic. What followed was a masterpiece of coordination, as Dan held the shock reservoir fitting, while Kris forced ATF through a plastic syringe (through the rubber tip of one of those baby ear/nose cleaner things), while I slowly raised the car with the jack to put hopefully draw the fluid into the strut.
And then I lowered the car to start the process over again, which meant Dan got a face full of ATF. DOH! In the end, we were fairly confident we managed to get a pint or so back into the strut, but there would only be one way to know if we’d made a difference. Kris took a quick spin around the block, said it was probably a little bit better, and we decided “it is what it is,” and called it a night just after midnight.
Saturday morning, we drug our tired asses downstairs to for breakfast and a 7AM team meeting. We got our marching orders for the day – things to go into or come out of the race car, what to get for lunch, etc. – and then I hopped in the silly seat for a quick run up the road to get gas.
By 830AM, Dan and I were rolling into the service park. We were pretty much the first ones there. The lady inside the convenience store ran out to tell us “No yard sales today! No yard sales today!” To which I replied, “Um, ooookaaaaay.” Apparently the locals like to setup a little flea market there on Saturday mornings (this explained the randoms driving by and asking us how much we wanted for “Hinkelstein,” the Marciniaks’ 9,000lb beast of a floor jack).
We got service set up. “How much time do we have before they get here? Where’s the movement plan?” OMG. We had just under three hours to kill in a rural gas station parking lot. Dan crashed on the tarp, using his Camelbak hydration system as a pillow, hat pulled low over his face. I crawled into the back of the Blazer, slid a couple things to one side, and did likewise. Neither of us got any sleep, though, as it seemed like someone was pulling up to buy or sell junk every ten minutes, but it was nice to get a little rest.
The 00 car was my signal. I hit the road for Taco Bell (strangely, Kris and Christine wanted Fourth Meal twice in a row). Upon returning, the front running open AWD teams were already fast at work. Dan and I chowed down just in time to see the 2GN arrive at the time control. We worked through the checklist again, this time also raising the car and trying to inject more ATF into the sketchy strut (which was no longer leaking, by the way).
After the car left service, Dan and I packed up the Blazer and went back to the hotel again. We were beat. Showers ensued, as did conversations on first jobs, current jobs, politics, and democracy. The movement plan said the car would be back at the hotel after 5PM, but we missed the part saying the car would be at the Subaru dealership around 430PM first. Oops. We hustled across town just in time for the champagne spray.
Afterward, we all got the rally car loaded on the trailer, Kris and Christine caught a shower, and we went looking for our favorite local steakhouse for dinner. It was closed for renovations, so we ended up at a brewery in downtown Prescott, where our food arrived maybe 20 minutes before we needed to be back at the hotel for the award ceremony.
At the end of the night, Rallynotes came in 2nd in Open 2WD, just 10 seconds behind Eddie Fiorelli and Tom Smith in the silver Volkswagen GTI. Not a bad showing for the second time out competing in a new car (with a blown strut). The after party was a bit subdued compared to past years, but there were still people out behind the hotel telling tall tales over tall ales. (That’s clever and I just made it up on the spot, by the way.)
Dan hit the road right at dawn on Sunday. I hit the snooze button, but was still up before Kris and Christine. The race was done, the car was loaded up. All that was left to do was have breakfast and head on home. I had a quiet breakfast at the buffet by myself, pushed a couple more pictures out to GU+, and grabbed some caffeine while I waited for Kris and Christine to wake up to say goodbye.
They charged me with getting my car back together enough to attend the CRS rally school in five months (definitely possible), there were hugs and handshakes, and I was on my way. A quick stop at a local rally buddy’s house to pick up a roof rack for the truck, and I was headed down the mountain.
SHOT IN THE ARM
It will be awhile before my next rally. With the baby due later this month and a limited budget for travel, I’ll be staying close to home. High Desert Trails isn’t likely until spring, and Prescott will be another year away, but I know I can play service crew for my own rally team. Like Kris and Christine, I have a checklist, but I have a couple months to get things on the car to check them out. Attending a rally is a shot in the arm. You come home inspired to make progress.
I’d like to know about your motorsport service crew experiences. Some of us have been lucky enough to get free hotel rooms and meals out of the deal (Rallynotes comps!), but there are reasons why we pack up and put in 30-40 hours of work on a weekend, out in the elements, to help other people race. What are yours?