Last summer, maybe sometime in August, I was having serious doubts about my own rally dream. Again. Despite restructuring this dream several times over the years, all I had to show for it was a partially caged, halfway sold Galant VR4 rally shell collecting dust in my garage and I was trying to figure out why I was so terrible at rally.
Kris Marciniak (and his wife/co-driver Christine) have pretty much been at the forefront of my rally belief system since 2004. Few people have believed in my rally dream more than these two. Thinking I was onto something, I sent Kris an email looking for confirmation of my theory. We thought about going further to do another full feature, but it turns out these might be two of the best rally-related questions I’ve ever asked.
Kris and Christine Marciniak recently took home the 2013 NASA Rally Sport 2WD National Title at the California Rally Series awards banquet in southern California. The 2014 Prescott Rally will mark a full decade I’ve spent playing cars with these two. They’re family. This short feature originally appeared in issue 1.09.
[bd] You’ve followed the rally dream – discovered the sport, got involved, built that first car, built the second car, even organized your own event. You practice amateur radio (HAM) as a hobby on the side because it plays an important role in rally operations and safety. Beyond that, you and Christine have been deeply involved with the California Rally Series (CRS), volunteering on the Board of Governors in various capacities. Why has this sport come to represent such a large piece of who you are and what you do?
[km] The sport of Rally exemplifies and rewards teams skilled in multiple disciplines and there is often just as much weight put on months of planning as those quick side of the road, complete change of plans, decisions. I love that rallies have been won and lost based on the driver and co-drivers ability to get the vehicle moving again. I love that rally challenges me on like thirty levels at the same time. I love that hundreds of people need to interpret the same instructions in order to get a stage setup. I love that on a rally weekend I will be using my skills as a communicator, mechanic, hacker, engineer, and driver at the best of my ability. I love that I get to do this sport with my wife. Her diverse skill set equally compliments my own, and I appreciate how rare that is.
I love the adventure as a competitor, and as an organizer I love to surprise people. The concept that you’re going to race on a road you’ve never seen, or maybe only seen a handful of times, as fast as you possibly can is so intriguing to me – and so freeing. I love the camaraderie. I think because it’s a team sport, timed against the clock, we are more forgiving to our rivals. A rock or a tricky instruction can catch all of us out and I believe we want to see our competition finish. We watch out for and help each other. No other motorsport has more moments where points, standings, and ultra competitive stage times take a back seat to getting out the tow strap and tugging our fellow competitors off a berm and all the way to the service park if need be.
Rallying is my passion. It is what I focus on. It’s what I’m trying to master.
[bd] Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, suggests it takes 10,000 hours of practicing something to become freakishly exceptional at it. Humility aside, how many hours do you think you’ve got into rally in general? How would you define “freakishly exceptional” when it comes to rally? What do you think that looks like, and what might be the milestones among the way?
Basically, you know there’s a lot you don’t know, which is socratic genius when it comes to rally. You have become the trusted expert, but I know you don’t presume to be Dog’s gift to the sport. If 10,000 hours is what it takes, and you’re closer than most to that figure (if not over), how accurate is the perspective of being the next Sebastien Loeb or Kenny Block as a realization of that level of achievement, and is that really what the sport needs to be viable long term? Surely it can’t just be about free rides in factory cars on the WRC circuit for 7-figure salaries… or can it?
[km] I have a lot more time into car prep. An easy 3,000 hours spent doing nothing but working on rally cars. From oil changes to detailed fabrication. Passing tech at my first event was a big milestone, breezing through tech with my second car felt even better. I want to think I’m better at driving then car prep, but I enjoy them both.
Let see: An average 10 rallycross events a year for the last 10 years for maybe 8 min of actual driving time per event puts me at about 14 hours of actual rallycross racing time. 20 rallies over the same time span with an average of 120 miles of stages puts me around 54 hours total in the car 100% focused. This completely and totally pales in comparison to a pro, or even semi-pro rally driver. They might have 3 days of testing every 2 weeks along with 14+ events a year. My math puts that around 80 hours of in the car racing time, in one year alone. That’s how you get “freakishly exceptional.”
To compare the poor college kid going to his first rally and a WRC superstar is really apples and oranges here in the US. We have lots of regional events, but there is no strong national championship anymore. There is no clear path for success to become a national professional rally driver besides personal wealth. No team is paying professional drivers to be in a car 3 days a week practicing, and we certainly don’t have the budgets to scout for talent. Where as many countries in Europe have lots of local, regional, national, and international programs. The sport feeds on the passion of the WRC, and millions have grown up watching it as a sport second only to football. This doesn’t happen overnight.
My take as a reasonably successful US regional rally driver: Are you young and talented? Have a dream to be a professional rally driver that you absolutely can’t shake? Go to Europe. Take a summer off and invest what you would be spending on a semester of school or a college study abroad program, and put it into a rally rental package in lets say: Ireland, GB, or Finland. Live, eat and breathe rally for 4+ months. Give yourself a few events and then see where you rank. If you’re in the top ten at a regional event, maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a shot at moving up. If you’re not winning classes and events after spending a serious concerted effort, then you’ll have some great stories to tell your kids about that time you spent a year rallying in Europe.
Rally is quite viable if we look to make strong regional championships that foster new interest in the sport and continue to grow participation over the next 5 years here. Then our tiny niche sport will survive and thrive in this country. I’d like to see more spectator opportunities, and less hype and false promises. If we continue to sap the life out of our organizers, volunteers, and competitors – rushing off to expand into the next big national thing while we forget what makes rally great, we’re not going to grow. The reality is: A national level rally program with manufacturers, sponsors, TV, and professional driver interest should start with a strong regional program, and not by plowing over our perfectly good regional events to placate the 12 people that can afford the spotlight.
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You can learn more about rally and car prep by visiting rallynotes.com or NASA Rally Sport’s Rally University. Both are highly recommended resources for anyone interested in rally. If you’d like to meet Kris in person, sign up to volunteer at High Desert Trails, the rally he and Christine organize each year in Ridgecrest, California, or drop him a line through the contact form on the rallynotes website.