Your world would fall apart were it not for data centers. Email, text messages, music, movies – the story you’re reading right now – just about everything relies on data centers these days; giant, non-descript buildings full of servers and exabytes of data. For the last six plus months, I’ve been working in a data center. I had no idea providing ping, power, & pipe was so involved. Everything has to work at least 99.999% of the time.
Which is why this interview’s been a long time coming. Eric Wages is one of our earliest rally interviews, has proven himself one of our biggest supporters over the years, and is responsible for Google’s data center in Moncks Corner, South Carolina; A data center they’ve just announced is expanding to the tune of US$600M. He’s an incredibly busy gearhead, but still found time for a little Q&A with me.
WHAT’S NEW 2011
It’s been over two years since last we talked cars in earnest. I asked Eric what’s new and how his third engine held up. “Wow,” he told me, “So much has happened. In 2011, Marcel Ciascai and ended up 2nd in the Atlantic Rally Cup (ARC). There was a lot of development and shaking down for the car – from ECUs to brakes, the car had a lot of work done on it. And like any good systems engineer will say, only change one thing at a time. Well, this being racing and not a lot of opportunities to perfect one system at a time, we went for it – and subsequently had some teething problems. Black River Stages (in 2011) yielded our first DNF which was a letdown, but the car felt great until I ran out of talent on stage and damaged the suspension. We ended up finishing second in the ARC. Not too bad for my first full year of competition.”
WHAT’S NEW 2012
“2012 was a fresh start with a new codriver. Sarah Montplaisir and I had worked together as driver/codriver for course opening for older runnings of Rally Tennessee, so we wanted to give competing a shot. Results were good at our first event: a 3rd place in Sandblast where we had to get a tow to the final time control after splitting a radiator hose on the last stage, but finishing. (This required a new engine to be built.) I DNF’ed Hyperfest where I was driving a borrowed car as mine wasn’t ready at that point. We won Rally West Virginia on the new motor, tune, and a fancy new suspension. And finally, melted down the new motor with one event on it at Black River. A very expensive year, for sure. Again, we finished second in the ARC.”
Sandblast – note: missing mirror (photo: Ryan Holbrook)
THE FIRST BIG WIN
Eric’s first overall win came at Rally WV. I asked what it was like. “It was my first overall. It’s tough to put it into words, but I was just glad that I was able to share and celebrate the occasion it with my wife, Margaret, our Dirty Rallysport family, and all of our rally friends. Bill Caswell even flew out from San Diego, as he wanted to personally award the trophies he made just for the event. It was very special to me to receive a trophy from Bill, as many years ago, I played an arguably not-so-small part in getting him hooked into rally. In short, it was a wonderful evening with friends that I don’t get to see frequently.”
Dirty Rallysport crew at Rally WV after our overall win (Photo: Margaret Wages)
“Years ago, in 2009 before I was ever competing, I was helping Anders Green with Rally Tennessee. One of my duties that year was to organize and teach the Novice Competitor Orientation (NCO). This orientation is important, as it not only reiterates critical safety reminders, but also imparts the philosophy of NASA Rally Sport as an organization and its focus on grassroots competition. These orientations are commonly given the night before the rally as to give new competitors plenty of opportunity to ask questions and discuss issues.”
Caswell was on the entry list that year, but absent at the NCO. Unbeknownst to Eric, Caswell – in true Caswell fashion – was just pulling out of his driveway in Chicago 500 miles away as the NCO was wrapping up. Around midnight, Eric received a phone call from Anders asking if I would be able to do a special, one-on-one NCO for Caswell before the rally started in 8 hours. Bill’s estimated time of arrival was 5am. Said Eric, “At NASA, we are extremely accommodating!”
“At 5:30am, Bill Caswell and Sam Smith (then Editor on Jalopnik, now Executive Editor at Road & Track) pulled into town and got a customized, fast track orientation before setting off to get the car teched at Parc Expose. I quickly discovered why Bill and Sam entered Tennessee: he had a track car, not a rally car. Being asphalt, the track car would theoretically be pretty decent. I hurried through the orientation, giving as much advice and guidance as I could and left them with the parting words ‘This is your first event and you can’t win. There are too many other things going on. Go slow, finish, and you’ll have a great time. Try to push and go fast, and you’ll have a bad time.'”
‘This is your first event and you can’t win. There are too many other things going on. Go slow, finish, and you’ll have a great time.
Try to push and go fast, and you’ll have a bad time.”
“Bill and Sam crashed out with a damaged radiator, but the rest is history,” Eric told me. “Bill is hooked for life and continues to push hard for grassroots competition, low cost cars, and maximum fun. And supposedly the movie about his $500 rally car continues to move forward. I can’t wait to see it – rumors are, the character of Eric Wages was written in to the screenplay!”
BACK TO ALMOST WINNING THE ARC
Back to Eric’s rally adventures, what happened? “Going into Black River Stages, we were in the lead for the points. Sarah Montplaisir and I had just won Rally West Virginia outright, our first podium, and the math to finish the season was simple: we just had to finish the race and we would have secured the championship. Unfortunately, about 1.5 miles into the first stage, the engine caught fire. There was a huge smoke cloud behind the car and it started to permeate into the passenger cabin. I started looking for a safe place to pull over, but didn’t find much success for about 0.5 miles. Immediately after pulling over, Sarah ran down the road to set triangles while I addressed the smoking engine.”
“I could clearly see flames alight on both sides of the engine through the hood vents, so I tried to pull the external fire extinguisher pull handle. It was seized in the sleeve that entered the cabin. The handheld extinguisher was just enough to keep the flames at bay until Sarah returned from triangle duty at which point we unhooked the water bottled and dumped it on the engine, and a CamelBak or two.”
“The post-race tear down yielded a piston that completely melted and ruined the block. This melted piston allowed the pressurized boost into the crankcase, which resulted in the camshaft seals pushing out, allowing hot engine oil to spray out both sides of the motor on top of a hot exhaust manifold. Thankfully, damage was concentrated to just the pistons, engine block, and the wiring harness; the car was saved and will be rebuilt to race again in 2013.”
The did-not-finish (DNF) at Black River was especially difficult for Eric. It’s the second time he’s DNF’ed that event and it’s a very, very long tow back home to Charleston, SC. He’s hoping to break the curse in 2013.
ON THE FUTURE OF RALLY IN NORTH AMERICA
At the end of 2011, Rally America was sold to a private investor. At the end of 2012, Rally America announced a partnership with USAC (United States Auto Club), which sanctions a number of race series other than rally. There seems to be an inordinate amount of effort put into marketing the sport to the mainstream media on this side of the house. I put it to Eric – USAC and future of rally – Does it help the sport in the US or hurt it?
“Most people think that the sport is incredibly healthy and popular due to proliferation of online media associated with people like Ken Bock, Travis Pastrana, and others. The reality is much more dim. The number of people involved rally in the US is an incredibly small population at around 650 active competitors in the entire US in 2012. Generally speaking, the trend data we have suggests most of those 650 competitors won’t be active much past 4 years. A sad thought.”
“Those who say ‘No! That can’t be! Things are much better than that!’ have to also consider this data point: There are approximately 13,000 members of the United States Curling Association – a hobby/sport, like rally, that is extremely niche. Rally has a long long way to go to be considered healthy when curling has a 20x participation rate.”
It’s unclear to Eric what the outcome of Rally America/USAC merger will mean for rally. Here’s what he told me we do know:
- Rally America will continue to sanction their own events and run their own championship, with USAC providing insurance, some level of media promotion, potential sponsorship and cross-over participation.
- USAC will also be independently sanctioning and insuring some events and creating its own race series, in essence, as direct competition to Rally America.
- USAC is having a new rule book authored, by the individual who rules for the Rally America rule book, based on FIA rules and other sanctioning bodies procedures in an attempt to keep RA-prepared vehicles aligned and able to be entered in USAC events.
- Pikes Peak, the notable hillclimb run by USAC with rally participation, had some issues in 2012 with on-the-fly rule changes excluding a number of rally competitors the wrong way, causing a big uproar, and ultimately forcing the organizers to re-instate the excluded competitors.
- There is more liquidity in the “sanctioning market” for events and we’re starting to see events switch between RA, USAC, and NASA based on many variables:
- Perceived and actual value
- Sanctioning fees
- Geographic dispersion of competitors and location to other events run by the same or different sanctioning body.
“Just on the surface, I would say that the exact future of Rally America and USAC is certainly muddy with a rocky undertone, as there appears to be a lot of potential conflict on the horizon between roles and responsibilities. As of today, the ‘tally’ as-it-were, would indicate that USAC is a huge winner in 2012, coming out of nowhere to take over a large number of events, NASA gaining two or three events in 2012, and Rally America losing many events, mostly to USAC and a few to NASA. What does this mean for the long term? Who knows. But being partners and direct competitors is extremely challenging, especially when the market is extremely small.”
“Regardless, the tide needs turned to keep people in the sport longer by focusing efforts on keeping events as cost-effective as possible. I see many of the same mistakes being made today by Rally America that the SCCA made before selling off rally: chasing manufacturers, focusing to-the-very-end on marketing the sport and its top competitors to try to get sponsorship dollars, and doing little to encourage growth and cost control at the entry point. The philosophical differences between RA and NASA are fairly clear: RA is a for-profit media company, and NASA wants to just have a place for people to go race in the woods and have a good time. USAC’s role as an independent sanction body is yet to be determined.”
“No matter how you look at it, grassroots growth is desperately needed to keep rally growing, especially with the 4-year participation span of the average competitor. If cheap(er) events can allow people to stay involved longer, it’s worth it in the end.”
We talk about “grassroots” rally a lot. “Grassroots is easy to throw around casually,” Eric said, “For me, I look at grassroots rally from the standpoint of building and supporting an inexpensive, sustainable rally culture where much of the chaff is eliminated providing organizers the freedom to focus on developing the events as they want to. For NASA events on the East coast, this means keeping entry fees low through a mix of great insurance and rules that cap costs at the top, simple and lightweight registration and paperwork processes, high quality racing, great camaraderie, and excellent parties.”
“What’s not in that list? Targeted focuses on spectators and media glitz and glamour. What focus we do have on media and spectators is supporting all competitors, not just the top people – The NASA Racer of the Day is a good demonstration of that desire, as well as our broadcast SMS text updates that cover all competitors, classes, and scores. The racing is what’s important, not the appearance of racing.”
“Additionally, grassroots has a component of continually improving and changing to conditions as necessary. And a lot of changing needs to happen to keep the sport alive as it is in a very fragile state. The perception of the point-of-entry in to rally is horribly misaligned between expectations, desires, and reality. In other words, if you find yourself in a conversation with someone about rally who’s interested in competing, they often believe that they have to have a turbocharged all-wheel-drive vehicle to simply start out. When you correct people that it’s not required, not prudent for a new competitor, and certainly not the cheapest way to get into rally, the individual loses interest. They either want to keep the dream of someday tearing through the woods in their AWD Subaru, Mitsubishi, or even custom built AWD M-Sport Ford or they won’t drive at all. There’s no middle ground; They aren’t interested in racing any 2WD cars even if it teaches better car control and is dramatically cheaper at the novice level.”
“Developing a low-level, competitor-focused ‘championship’ providing some level of incentive for 2WD and cheaper machinery is a good thing, even if funded by a cash buy-in by the competitors themselves. I believe something like a Group F or Group H entity could change people’s opinions on cheaper cars. I imagine a world where a competitor would buy-in at the event for say $50, to be used to fund payouts to the same pool of competitors that paid in.”
Angry Eric (Photo: Eric Wages c/o Google Hangouts)
HOW IT WORKS: FRIDAY NIGHT RALLY CHAT (FNRC)
A couple months ago, I was sitting on the couch giving my newborn daughter a bottle when I noticed a new alert in the task bar on my phone. It said I’d missed an invite to a Google Plus Hangout. Clicking on the alert, I thought I’d be linked to a thread with more details. Instead, I was instantly connected to a video chat with multiple people talking rally. I couldn’t stay and chat, so I asked Eric to tell me more about these things.
“I wish I could claim Friday Night Rally Chat (FNRC) as my own, but alas, it was another one of Anders‘ great ideas. As I mentioned earlier, the number of participants in rally are incredibly small and geographically dispersed, but being it’s the 21st century, we don’t need to be separated from a communications standpoint. For me, much of the enjoyment of going to rallies is meeting and hanging out with my extended rally family. FNRC was an attempt to enhance that enjoyment and spread it throughout the year and not just at rallies.”
“The rules are incredibly simple. Since most of the time people hang out at rallies are at the after party, we treat the FNRC just like any other party. That commonly means a drink (of some form) must be present and people just need to chat. The FNRC is not NASA specific; we have regular participation from Rally America competitors and organizers, international representation from people involved with Barbados and European rallies, and of course, NASA folks.”
“The technology is incredibly simple. When the time comes, we use webcams with Google Hangouts (remember, Eric works for Google, but we’re not here to advertise G+) which is a multi-way videoconferencing system. An added benefit of Hangouts is that, if the originator chooses, they can save the Hangout as a YouTube video which gets streamed live from their YouTube account so you can have hundreds (or thousands) of people watching the discussion.”
“The first time we ever streamed the video live to YouTube, we had over 100 views. Not bad for people shooting the breeze about rally for 3-4 hours the Friday before Christmas! These chats have been incredibly popular and people have been joining from around the world. Our furthest participants joins in regularly from England at around 3am local time!”
“The longer we do these chats, the sillier they get. But a lot of rallyists are crazy in some way. Who in their right mind would strap themselves into a car and risk so much by driving at 80-90 mph on dirt roads through trees… sideways!”
“As silly as these chats may be, we typically do have a lot of really good discussion going on. Discussions run the gamut, but a common cross section are things like organizational issues, political discussions like how to secure roads in National Forests, how to build and prepare cars, and how to go racing on the cheap!”
“On the grassroots front, I think any venue that creates a positive environment for all questions and discussions around rally is a great thing. People are welcome to join in and talk about whatever they want. It’s not an exclusive club for just a few people.”
What’s in the future for Eric Wages? “As always, win! Ha! Realistically, like last year, I want to win the Atlantic Rally Cup (ARC). And should that happen, I would qualify for an invite to the new NASA National Championship event in Prescott, Arizona, in October. If everything lines up, maybe Dirty Rallysport would head out to Arizona with the goal of being the first NASA National Champion!” I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that one. It would be awesome to finally meet Eric in person at my “hometown” event.
Additionally, remember Eric’s commitment in 2012 that he would organize a rally in 2013 if I won the ARC? Unfortunately, he fell short again in 2012, but he’s still holding regular meetings with prominent landowners in the Charleston, South Carolina, area to try to get enough usable land together to organize a rally sprint. It’s a challenge, Eric thinks he’ll have all of the pieces lined up for an event in 2014 if things continue on path.
Lastly, Eric considers competitor development a big personal focus this year. He’s been working with a number of new and novice competitors to help them through the daunting process of getting prepared and getting out on stage that first time. As a part of this effort, he continues to work with Anders on NASA’s effort to develop the Rally University, a program designed to answer many common questions that spectators, volunteers, and competitors have about rally. And how’s this for a closing point: Eric says, “If anyone is looking for a rally mentor, I will be glad to help out. I can be contacted at eric [at] dirtyrallysport.com!”