Simon Wright tempts the rally gods and goes on the record as saying he’s not had any very serious offs, although he does so humbly so as not to anger them. 12.5% Scottish and he rallies a Ford Focus. Is he related to Colin? Read on to find out.
What’s your name? Where are you located? What do you do for a living?
My name is Simon J Wright. I’m a brit living in Raleigh, North Carolina and I’m a co-founder/co-owner of Knowledge Sharing Systems, a software company specializing in knowledge management and intellectual property management – Technology Transfer.
What got you interested in rally?
Growing up in England I suppose. I think it’s in our DNA but I never got a chance to let it out until recently.
Tell us about your rally car. How long have you had it?
It’s a 2001 Ford Focus ZX3 with some performance tweaks. We run in G2/Open 2WD Light. We’ve had it since “new”. That is from when it was turned into a rally car in late 2006.
Did you buy your rally car or build it?
What challenges did this cause? What benefits did you realize as a result?
Build. I know the prevailing opinion is to buy your first rally car and I’m actually of the same opinion but I think I have a special case. I wanted to test my abilities against the entire program. I love rally because of the depth of skills and commitment needed to get to the finish line. Once I decided to get in the sport (rather later in life than usual – I was 50) I ran several events as a co-driver for Andrew Frick in a VW Scirocco in 2006 which gave me a few insights and Kieran, my youngest son, would crew for us. Later that year the Rally Spec Focus class was announced – seemed perfect for me: a well defined spec meant that I had few decisions to make, being a member of a local car club (THSCC) gave me access to some local resources and knowledge, and I suckered my son into helping me build a rally car. He jumped at the idea and only then did I tell him we were going to use his daily-driver Focus! He would be my codriver.
He was game however, and in late 2006 we were busy tearing his car apart and turning it into a rally car. Out first event was Sandblast 2007. We knew how to change a wheel, engine oil, bulbs and belts but that was about it. We learned as we built. Made a few mistakes but nothing too serious. I did underestimate the number of times I’d be visiting the local auto stores, building up my collection of tools and parts. I designed, but outsourced to a local expert, the safety cage. Transmission work (LSD and final drive update) was left to the experts too but Kieran and I took care of everything else.
Biggest benefit of all? Doing it all with my son. What an experience. We’ve grown even closer as a result and work really well together both on and in the car. And we’re intimately familiar with all the parts of the car and not fazed by having to fix stuff.
Tell us about a time when you stuffed the rally car (or maybe had a nasty off).
Well, I know I’m tempting the rally gods when I say this but we’ve been very fortunate and not had any very serious offs. We have run 23 rallies in this Focus and have finished 21! That’s not to say we haven’t had our moments. A memorable moment was at International Rally New York 2009 where we had caught up with the car ahead of us a couple of miles before the finish. Seeing brake lights flash on and off on some of the long straights only urges me to go faster. I ought to imagine there’s another car just around every corner and maybe I’ll go even faster. We caught right up to this car but there was no safe place to pass so I stayed right on his bumper (well, maybe 20 to 30 feet back) as we tore toward the flying finish. Suddenly the entire stage was blanketed in while smoke as the car in front blew its turbo. Complete white-out and OUR cabin filled with smoke. I was obliged to slow and come to a full stop since I couldn’t see the road and didn’t know if the car ahead had stopped. Thirty seconds later the smoke clears enough for me to see we’ve stopped 5 yards before the finish line! Aargh! Fortunately the delay didn’t affect the final outcome of the rally.
What’s the most rewarding part of being involved in rally? The most challenging?
As I eluded to earlier, I love the whole process. Not just jumping in the car and doing your best, but the weeks and months of preparation; making sure the car is the best prepared it can be; identifying and anticipating potential failures; the run up to the rally itself; persuading people to volunteer their time to crew for us; coordinating people and places; towing and waving back to the people who pass us on the interstate; recce and shakedown; and the camaraderie of my fellow competitors. And when I’m on stage it sometimes amazes me that here I am doing things that other people only dream about! I’ve never been a great spectator and I’m a poor passenger – I like the doing of it. My wife says we should strive to live in the moment. I don’t think rally is quite what she had in mind but if you’re not entirely in the moment when you’re tearing through the forest on twisty gravel roads then you’re in for an upset.
How many events did you enter last year? Is that trending up or down? Why?
We did 7 rallies last year and it’s been pretty consistent. Living in Raleigh, NC makes Anders Green and myself neighbors (relatively speaking) and I volunteered to work at Sandblast Rally 2006 – my first US rally experience. So I’m kind of attached to NASA Rallysport and have run their east coast championships in 2007, 2008 and 2009 winning the M2 2009 Atlantic Rally Cup. I also volunteered to work at STPR in 2006 and vowed to run those sweet forest stages one day. I took my chance in 2007 and despite some people telling me it often takes several attempts to finish, we completed STPR in 2007 and 2008 and 2009 taking 2 place 2WD in the 2009 Regional rallies there.
What kind of cash prize structure would entice you to enter more rallies or push the car harder?
Being a privateer, and an older one at that, I realize that I have little access to financially meaningful sponsorship so a cash prize is always attractive. The MaxAttack! series is excellent and rewards and stimulates competition. Unfortunately this year the MaxAttack! events do not intersect the events I am doing. So I guess I’m saying that cash prizes are a nice bonus but I’m not actively pursuing them. I choose events based on their fun factor, proximity and inclusion in the championship (which I now have to defend).
How important are car classes? What class/region do you race in?
How many competitors in your class at each event?
The more cars in a single event the more that classes make sense. But with the lower turnouts of the past few years it is better to have fewer classes. It’s not much fun coming in 1st place when you’re the only one in the class. In fact I jumped from the Rally Spec Focus class to M2 class in the 2009 Atlantic Rally Cup just so that I could compete in a class with more drivers. M2 had about ten competitors in that championship. But I don’t rally to win championships – that’s just a nice way of measuring one’s success. I rally for the sheer unadulterated fun of it. At an individual event, classes are a good way of comparing teams in similar configurations. But when we ran Black River Stages last year I specifically asked Kieran not to tell me our classmates times during the rally. I wanted my finish to be influenced only by my desire to win; to drive my very best. If knowing a competitor’s stage time is going to make me drive faster then that means I’m not driving as fast as I could in the first place. I’m not yet at the point where I can afford to strategically slow down!
What do you think about recce vs pacenotes vs blind rally?
I’ve never had to run a blind rally (except some stage sections that were changed at the last minute). I’ve always run with Jemba notes or organizer provided notes. When it is offered we have always made the effort to do recce. I think recce is an important part of the process and we have a lot of fun doing it although sometimes I find it more exhausting than running the rally itself. Lately we’ve begun to incorporate pacenotes into our stage notes in an effort to improve our performance but amendments for safety are incorporated first. In fact, indirectly, safety notes are a form of pacenote since the amendment will likely keep you on the stage.
Spectators: Dream come true or worst nightmare? Why?
Well, when I’m dreaming about rally it’s never about spectators. But I love them. We’ve even got a small but vocal USUK Racing fan club that comes out to cheer us at some events. One of the attractions of rally as opposed to other forms of motorsport is that it’s possible to imagine yourself doing it. NASCAR, Formula-1 etc seem to use exotic, expensive cars well beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Rally events take place using recognizable, accessible cars on real roads that at other times of the year can be driven by anyone. Spectators feed the sport providing much needed volunteers and hopefully more new competitors.
How do you get local gearheads involved in rally?
It’s hard. Even as a spectator it takes commitment of time and money to attend an event. We try to make crewing for us a fun, rewarding time but people still need to spend their hard-earned vacation time. Participating in local motoring events and communities helps to build some loyal friends.
What do you see is the most critical issue needing addressed by the rally community today?
How would you address that issue if you were in charge?
No doubt it’s the low entry numbers. Some events are run barely at the break-even point. The old saw about starting with a large fortune if you want to make a small fortune in rally may well apply to organizers too. If I knew what to do about it I’d be telling everyone I know.
How do you help out at rallies when you aren’t racing?
Volunteer when I can. But, to be truthful, running 6-7 events a year pretty much taps out my available time. I have lent a hand behind the scenes to Anders Green and Amy Feistel, the unsung heroes of Sandblast Rally, Rally Tennessee, and Black River Stages since Amy and Anders are relatively close to where I live.
If you could enter any WRC event, which rally would that be? Why?
Now that’s hard because I’ve never considered it financially feasible for our small privateer team. If funds were unlimited I’d probably pick an event with the best gravel roads somewhere. The recent US entries at Rally Mexico has stimulated my imagination. Mexico seems achievable since I could conceivably tow there.
Your favorite Group B car?
Different world back then. But the Quattro, of course.
We’ve all got a rally hero. Who’s yours?
I’m 12.5% scottish (the rest is english) so I must be related to Colin McRae, right? Although I never met the man I did spend a day with Nicky Grist when I attended his codriver’s school at Rally New York in 2006. Then we went drinking. He has some amazing stories of his times with Colin and I admire Colin’s never-give-up attitude. I just wish I had his courage to commit.
Do you have a local rally club? Tell us about it! (If not, why not?)
The Tarheel Sports Car Club. Been a member since I bought a WRX in 2002. I’ve run autocross, rallycross and a few track events. A great technical resource too and occasional source for service volunteers.
How often do you get together with other rallyistas to talk shop?
There’s a small group of us that gather every month or two to exchange stories and plans and share a few beers. We’re overdue for one though.
Tell us about some people who have made your rally dream a reality.
Too many to mention. If I attempt to list them all I’ll invariably forget someone. But I will single out Marcel Ciascai who seemed to adopt us in 2007 and has provided a lot of support from crewing for us, to providing technical support by phone, to keeping, repairing and maintaining the rally car at his shop in Staunton, VA between some events. Marcel might be codriving for me at STPR this year since Kieran is teaming up with Gary Gill in the RA events.
Thank a volunteer (or group of them) here.
Again too many to mention – thank you to all the volunteers and organizers. I will mention “Radio Robert” Cella’s generous contributions to the sport. He has sponsored the entry fee for several rookie rally teams (including us) at the New York events.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from your time in the rally community?
Life is too short to fret over stuff. There are always more things to learn and skills to hone. If you stop learning that’s when you start getting old. Embrace and enjoy life.