You wanna know the worst thing about running this magazine? It’s getting to know so many awesome people I may never actually meet because we live so damn far apart. So when I get the chance to meet a gearhead in person, I jump at it. When 2012 United States Rally Champ Alvin Fong and I started talking, he’d stuffed his Evo and wasn’t sure when he’d back out, let alone be on the west coast.
Introductions: Who are you, where are you located, what do you do for a living?
My Name is Alvin Fong. I drive for the Black Box rally team.
Currently I reside in Northern Virginia. I work for a “Federally Funded Research and Development Center”. I’m what they call an “information security engineer.” We help the government design secure computer systems. Sometimes they even listen to us.
What do you drive and how do you drive it?
I drive the Black Box rally team Evo. It’s a Production AWD class car. It’s basically a stock car with minimal modifications to make it rally-able.
I find that the car is most at home when I’m flat out, sideways; on dirt, on snow, doesn’t matter as long as the back end is hanging out there, waving. I’d like to think that I follow Tommi Makkinen’s motto: “Maximum Attack!!!”
Why did you get involved in rally?Growing up in New England, there were a lot of twisty-turny roads. We used to mess around town on these dirt roads, all the time. One day in high school physics class, my friend Harrison, showed me this video on the internet:
He also told me how the Evo was coming to the US. My friends and I started to look up what rally was and, thanks to the internet, we discovered WRC. My world was changed from then on. There was something purely awesome about driving the car, on any road, any surface, through any condition. I just had to find a way to get involved!
When I got into college, I landed an internship my freshman year in 2005. I blew all my savings putting a down payment on an Evo that May. It was my first stick shift. I couldn’t even get it out of the parking lot. Still looking for ways to get involved in something rally related, we stumbled upon a gravel TSD style rally the SCCA runs; the Pine Barrens Express in south Jersey. Six months after I picked up the Evo, I had convinced some high school friends to get to our first sanctioned “rally.”
How did you make the jump from TSD to stage rally?
Around November of 2005 , I came across an event called the Pine Barrens Express in South Jersey (probably as a result of watching too many WRC videos). I bugged all my car friends to see who would be crazy enough to drive several hours to south Jersey just so they could spend another 8 hours getting lost in the woods, half of which would be in total darkness.
Turns out my friend William, now our team driving instructor, was eager to jump in with me. It was a fantastic and rough event, with ample opportunities to break the car loose in the deep sand with our summer tires. Despite many attempts otherwise, we managed to finish the rally. By the end, we knew this was something we wanted to pursue.
So we went ahead and found a “local” series; the Finger Lakes Winter Rally Series. By local, I mean we drove 6 hours there and back, every other weekend, for 4-5 rallies a season, attending as many as we could. These were brisk TSDs in the winter on dirt roads.
The FLR region was unique because they had speed classes. You started out averaging 36mph in winter conditions, moving up to 45-50mph, a pretty brisk pace to maintain in snow/ice conditions. This was really great as it allowed us to learn how to drive the car in pretty adverse conditions.
By pretty adverse, I remember quite a few blizzards we volunteered to drive through, and one rally where I stuck my head out the window and used guard rails as road markers since we literally could not see 10 feet in front of the car. We were successful at these TSDs, taking the novice championship our first year, and podium-ing in 15 of our 21 completed TSDs between 2006-2009. Over the years, more of our high school friends became involved in these TSDs with us; they now make up the bulk of the rally team.
Also in 2006, we discovered our first ever stage rally, the Susquehannock Trails Pro Rally. We were amazed something we had assumed only happened in Europe was happening in the US. Although it’s been advertised before, I have to reiterate that volunteering is really the best way to see, experience, and get into rally. We learned more from volunteering at rallies than anything else.
2006 was really one of the golden years of US Rally; this is where we were introduced to folks like Travis Pastrana, Antoine L’Estage, ACP, Tanner Foust, and Ken Block.
In 2009 I moved down to Northern Virginia for work, and discovered the WDCR rallycross region, filled with many accomplished stage rallyists like Jason Smith, Allison Hirsch, Jared Lantzy, Dave Shindle, Sam Albert, George Loef, etc..
After many years of TSD, it was becoming evident that we had learned all we could learn from the series; in terms of driving techniques at those speeds. The next logical step would be up to stage rally as a true test of car control at full speed. We began to ask ourselves, why weren’t we running the same stage rally events we were volunteering. We had honed our skills on winter/gravel surfaces. We had cut our teeth learning how to work on cars by repairing and replacing every component on an old 1990 Eagle Talon TSi. We were already traveling to many regional rally events.
In June of 2011, a conversation with Anders Green, director of NASA RallySport, at Hyperfest, pushed us over the edge. He assuaged all of our concerns about getting into rally, starting in a turbo AWD class, and put me in touch with the whole NASA community which welcomed and supported us. We set our sights on Black River Stages, which would be three months later in September.
Our experience with the Eagle Talon TSi taught us that building our own car would set us back at least a year, assuming we were even comfortable welding our own roll cage. We didn’t want our rally project to fall victim to the many risks that big car builds always seem to fall victim to. After consulting with several other stage rallyists, we decided the best option was to look for an existing build. It was at that time we were introduced to Blaze @ PPD Motorsport, who had an Evo chassis ready to go. As far as I’m concerned, Blaze does some serious rally magic. In a little over 3 months, he turned a used 2006 Evo IX into a fire-breathing, earth-moving, NASA Stock Heavy class rally machine.
While the build was in progress, we worked on getting all our safety gear, licenses, and rally support gear in check. We continued volunteering at the Susquehannock Trails Pro Rally, and started getting involved in NASA events such as Rally West Virginia. In September, there was a hiccup in getting our FIA-spec cage from the UK, which led us to missing Black River Stages, so we went to volunteer there instead. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the intense training regime leading up to the rally. I drove up to Connecticut from Virginia every weekend to work with our team driving instructor to refine my skills and technique, preparing me for the increased challenges of stage rallying.
Finally, the afternoon before International Rally New York, in October, we got our car, hand-delivered from Blaze. We worked through the night getting the rest of the car prepared.
International Rally New York was an epic rally for us. We put the past 5 years of experience to the test and ended up getting our Production AWD Evo on the overall podium, finishing 1st in class, 2nd overall out of 18 starters. Throughout the entire event, I was just trying to finish the rally; I was kept in the dark as to what our results were. It wasn’t until the last checkpoint that I was made aware that we were on pace to podium at our first stage rally event!
Are you running that Evo you bought back in 2005? Why did you decide to risk such a nice car on rally?
I would have loved to run my original Evo on these stages, but as noted above, it just wasn’t feasible for the timeframe/budget we were shooting for. Too many major components would have needed to be changed/stripped/replaced to make the car compliant with rally car class rules. Looking at the car now, sitting on jackstands, this was probably the best decision we could have made. Just this past season alone, we had to pull the suspension, brakes, wheels, throttle position sensor off the car as “donor” to the real rally car. On the plus side, my old Evo really does make a wonderful parts car.
In terms of why I decided to start in an Evo; my goal was always to rally an Evo. For 5 years, that was the car that I learned to rally in – to drive stick in for that matter. It just didn’t make sense for us to go to a 2WD car and “re-learn” how to drive, when we had spent all this time learning the nuances of turbo AWD cars. For that matter, it wouldn’t have made logical or financial sense for us to invest in building an Open Light class rally car, just to build an Evo rally car a couple years later. The Evo was the most intuitive choice.
What was the single greatest obstacle you had to overcome to make your rally dreams a reality?
I spent a lot of time thinking about how to answer this question. I don’t think there is ever a “single” obstacle to overcome when you talk about turning dreams into reality. Arguably, the whole sport of rally is a story of perseverance; learning to overcome adversity, in whatever shape or form, as it comes your way.
I knew rally would become an obsession the moment I was exposed to WRC and started carving up dirt roads with images of Tommi Makinen in my head. As you can imagine, there were many moments – and battle scars – from my early rally ambitions when I knew nothing about driving a car. There was a pivotal moment in my life where I spun my car tackling a chicane and ended up rolling into an embankment. I will remember those few seconds of my life forever. I almost hung up my driving keys after that.
I believe the greatest obstacles are mental challenges. Luckily for me, I am afflicted with what I’d like to call, “short-term memory loss.” A couple months later, with the encouragement of my co-driver, we were on our way to our first TSD winter rally podium. I made a commitment though, from that point on, to begin seriously developing my driving techniques. Sheer bravery only gets you so far.
I want to point out however, that I am simply the face of our entire team, so when I think about it, the obstacles I have had to overcome are overshadowed by the sacrifices they have had to make supporting me. Our team driving instructor William has spent countless hours coaching me to at times what I am sure is ad tedium. The entire Black Box rally crew; Michael Ortega, Wes Morrill, Billy Machin, and Catherine Stirbis – they are the ones primarily in the shop, spending countless hours preparing the car, servicing the car when we break things, and even more hours repairing all the things I’ve broken post-rally. These folks spend all their vacation days supporting us each event, and most times they don’t even get to see the rally.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned thus far?
This is going to sound like the biggest rally cliché ever, but I think our whole season really echos this quote; “To finish first, you must first finish.” Rally is not a drag race; It is not about who holds the fastest time on a stage; Rally is an endurance race. The winners are competitors that perform consistently, night and day; the entire weekend, across all 20 stages. In rallies we “finished,” we came in first in our class, and were able to contend the overall podium. The service crew was very bored. When we let this mentality get away from us; that’s when all our problems compounded. We had more hair-raising moments, the service crew was constantly working, we spent more time worrying about the car, and less time focused on racing.
What’s the one thing you’re most looking forward to?
Right now, we’re busying trying to make Prescott Rally happen. [Note: We spoke with Alvin prior to his running Prescott.] After Gorman Ridge, we are in a good place in the United States Rally Championship.
To be able to contend the overall United States Rally Championship our first full season of rallying; I can’t even begin to describe how excited we are. As a competitor, I’m looking forward to racing with west coast rallyists we met at Gorman, meeting ones we haven’t been introduced to yet, and chatting with all the volunteers and folks that make up the rally community out there. I really enjoy traveling to new places and meeting new people; seeing what rally is like elsewhere in the US. As I’ve never been to Arizona before, I’m certain this will be an adventure for us!
Where can people connect with you online and follow along?
Primarily, we’re on the intertubes at facebook.com/blackboxrally. They can also follow us on twitter; @BlackBoxRally. We try to post updates and pictures during each rally. We put out a recap and highlights video the week after the rally. Our entire season is tracked via our blog; blackboxrally.com.
It’s hard to meet exceptional gearheads all over the world – but not really get to meet them. I’m glad Alvin and I had the chance to meet face-to-face and shake hands at Prescott. As Alvin said, there’s never just one obstacle to overcome when you’re out to achieve your dreams, and “sheer bravery only gets you so far.” If you’ve got an automotive story to tell – obstacles you’ve overcome to make your automotive dream a reality or a time when bravery came back to bite you in the ass, we’d love to hear it. Until next time, keep going fast with class and press on regardless.