July 26, 2020

FTV: Rally Time


     On October 19, 2018, my wife and I were on the way to Houghton in the late afternoon when we happened to notice one of the cars from the Lake Superior Performance Rally (LSPR) traveling in the other direction.  They were headed toward the Friday evening starting point of their weekend rally.  Just for fun, we started counting the cars that went by (they were hard to miss with tons of sponsor logos and rally lights festooning their colorfully painted buggies).  In a stretch of no more than twenty miles, we saw 53 of the 56 cars entered in the rally.  The LSPR was the eighth and final event of Rally America’s 2018 season.  The forecast calling for cold temps and snow meant the rally teams were going to get exactly what they were seeking:  challenging conditions on the backwoods U.P. roads they would be navigating.  Note the purposeful use of the word ‘navigating’ because a rally is not a ‘race.’  A road rally is defined by Wikipedia as, “A car rally that takes place on the public roads.  It is a popular sport in the United Kingdom, especially Wales.  Competitors travel over a predetermined course against the clock.  There is no direct head to head racing. The driver and navigator team up to follow the course in a predetermined amount of time.”  

     The ‘public roads’ making up the LSPR can range from paved to primitive.  Some years earlier,  my wife and I had another close encounter with this car rally somewhere between Baraga and Greenland.  In this case, the rally entered the highway somewhere behind us.  All the rally and support cars passed us before they turned north and disappeared on a gravel road.  It was just our luck to be in the middle of the ten mile stretch of blacktop that connected one segment of the rally’s backwoods route to the next.  In that twilight period of the day, we were traveling below the posted speed limit so the entire rally passed us by like we were going backwards.

     Back in his college days, my brother Ron was a charter member of the Lake Superior Sportscar Club (LSSC) in Marquette, MI.  My buddy Jim and I weren’t even old enough to take Driver Education when we joined the club as associate members.  Why would a sportscar club have associate members who weren’t old enough to drive?  Without extra bodies to help out at club sponsored events, all the ‘real’ members would end up working instead of taking part.  In other words, we were the group’s built in volunteers.  Not only did we get to ‘work’ at the events, we got to tag along to the planning meetings and believe me, it took more than a little time to mount a successful event.  ‘Planning meetings’ usually included food, so we were all in.

     One of the first events Jim and I helped with was a closed course performance trial.  The LSSC was granted permission to use the Marquette Senior High School parking lot on a Saturday afternoon.  The staging area was located on the north end of the parking lot along Fair Avenue.  There were three other points of entry to this large parking area so traffic cones, barriers, signs, and one of the Associate Members were posted at each one to keep out unwanted traffic.  The closed course was basically a slalom course of traffic cones run against the clock.  Each driver would navigate the course with points being deducted for any cones they killed.  The fastest time with the lowest ‘cones killed’ score took home the biggest trophy.  Ron’s sage advice was, “If someone spins out or heads your way, run like heck.”  For our efforts, we got to hear a lot of squealing tires and went home with a free event sticker.  For my time spent in the club, I collected a fair assortment of plastic badges and stickers that were still attached to my old bookcase when the folks moved out of our Summit Street homestead in 2012.  Closed course events were fun to work at, but not nearly as fun as setting up road rally courses.

     A road rally covers a lot more ground than a closed course trial.  A driver and navigator are given a set of instructions telling them where to go, how far it is between checkpoints, and the approximate average speed they were expected to maintain.  In order for a rally team to get a set of detailed instructions, someone had to go out and map the route.  Once it was mapped, there had to be a trial run so the directions, distances, and average speeds could be double checked.  This was the fun part for me because we got to see places around Marquette County that very few people would visit unless they owned a camp or liked to hunt in those areas.  The one essential rule said that “thou shall not speed.”  These rallys took place on public roads and no one wanted to risk injuring a civilian.  The average speeds were planned so drivers would be able to make up for lost time without excess speed if the team got turned around.  A team might have to slow down or pick up the pace some to get their average speed and time right.  When a team arrived at a checkpoint too early, they would sometimes slow to a snail’s pace to try and adjust their average speed.  Crawling along in sight of a checkpoint always led to a merciless (but good humoured) ribbing.

     The biggest road rally I remember from those days was called Moonlight Madness.  When we were setting it up, I had no idea that there were towns in the southern part of the county called Ralph and Arnold.  The best description I can give you is this:  Ralph and Arnold are located in the vicinity of Felch.  Not much help?  I went to high school with a girl named Dee who would  correct my description of her old stomping grounds.  Dee’s family had roots in that area and she would remind me that, “Ralph, Arnold, and Felch are all suburbs of Felch Mountain.”  This would be akin to saying “Mass City, Greenland, and Rousseau are suburbs of East Branch.”  Any way you cut it, these hamlets are off the beaten track and relatively unknown unless you had a reason to visit them.  We also used to tell Dee she could only know about these remote locations because she was obviously the lone survivor of some lost Felch Mountain commune.

     When we were doing the route scouting for one of the Moonlight Madness rallies (there had been a couple of previous versions over the years), I finally had my learner’s permit.  Ron had me drive so he could take notes on the mileage between checkpoints and changes needed in the written directions the navigators would follow.  Ron would tell me to keep a certain speed so he could get a rough idea of the travel time between reference points on his map.  We had a standard Chevrolet half ton pick up at that time and I was still new to the logistics of downshifting from highway speed to country road speed.  Ron was looking down at his map and said, “You will need to turn right off the pavement at the next corner,” without realizing that “the next corner” was directly in front of us.  I braked hard, turned the wheel to the right and ended up with Jim (who was riding in the center position) and Ron (riding shotgun) sliding my way and pinning me up against the door.  Thank goodness for door locks!  There was a lot of gravel on the pavement, so by the time we came to a skidding stop, we were sitting in a cloud as dust drifted through the cab (we had the windows open – no AC in trucks back then).  After Ron chewed me out for not slowing down enough before making the turn (and I accused him of not paying attention to where we were when he said “turn here”),  we went back to work.  Forty miles of twists, turns, logging roads, two rut roads, and creek crossings later, we emerged on the same paved road no more than ten miles from where we had left it.  “That will be a fun stage,” was Ron’s assessment.  

     Once finalized, a rally contains a series of stages that begin and end at check points spread all over the county.  On rally day, my job was to team up with an older volunteer and man a checkpoint for an alloted period of time.  If all the cars hadn’t passed us by a certain ending time, we figured they were lost and wouldn’t be needing us to punch their checkpoint card to win that stage.  I can’t say that I understood exactly how the stages were scored to determine the overall winner, but we could usually tell who was in the running.  The lack of questions a team asked when they got to our check point usually meant they knew where they were and where they were going.  Teams that asked a lot of questions were not going to place in the money.  If they thought they may have missed a checkpoint along the way, all we could say was, “This is checkpoint six.  Didn’t you check in at five?” The most frequently asked questions were, “Are we the first car here?” and “How long ago did the first car leave here?”  Occasionally, a car would drive into a checkpoint from the wrong direction and try to tell us that we were in the wrong spot.  How they found us by traveling the rally route backwards was always a question for the ages.

     The last Moonlight Madness rally we worked on found Jim and I helping set up the southernmost checkpoint.  I mentioned Ralph and Arnold specifically because the checkpoint we manned was actually set up at the entrance to the dump between those two burgs.  “Dump” here signifies to old fashioned Upper Peninsula ‘trenched trash pile in the woods’ kind of dump and not the modern day “landfill” type.  This is significant in that the old fashioned dumps were the equivalent of ‘bear buffets.’  We were set up just after dusk and didn’t break the check point down until nearly 2:00 AM, which of course, is prime bear dining time.  If you have ever gone to watch the bears forage at one of these dumps, then you know we had our heads on a swivel all night long.  No self respecting wild bear would have put up with all the traffic once the cars started rolling in, but then again, dump bears seemed to gain a little too much tolerance of human activity when there are easy pickings to be had.  We did not find it especially helpful when the rally teams departed with a cheery, “Watch out for the bears!”  

     One of my favorite rally participants was named Clyde.  Clyde ended up being the supervisor of the Cartography Lab in the NMU Geography Department when I was a college freshman.   I didn’t get to know that version of Clyde until a few years after the last Moonlight Madness.  The ‘MM Clyde’ was the guy who did the entire rally by himself…riding a motorcycle.  He managed this feat of driving and self-navigation by taping the rally instructions to his gas tank while holding a flashlight in his mouth.  When he got to the bottom of a page, he would rip the sheet off and stuff it into his leather jacket.  By the time he hit our Ralph and Arnold checkpoint, Clyde, his bike, and his current instruction page were a muddy mess.  He may not have won the rally, but they had to give him a trophy just for completing the whole route solo – the one and only entrant in the motorcycle division.

     If one considers some of the two rut tracks that some of these rallys covered, it amazes me that no one did any serious damage to their vehicles (that I remember).  There was one instance where a driver put his car in the ditch, but that was a mechanical failure on US 41 between Marquette and Negaunee (a four lane divided highway and not a two rut road).  The reason this one mishap sticks in my head?  When this team finally came in to the last checkpoint, the car didn’t have the customary shoe polish number painted on the driver’s side window.  They avoided being DQ’d when the driver explained:  “We didn’t dare tell the police we were involved in a road rally because I wasn’t sure my insurance company would cover the tow truck.”  His description of feverishly scraping the number off his window before the police arrived to fill out the paperwork was funny, but only after it was clear that he and his navigator were not injured.  Had the wrecker  pulled them out of the ditch a little sooner and their minor repair had gone a little quicker, they might still have picked up a trophy.  They really should have been awarded a plaque for comic relief, because this tale was the highlight of the rally postmortem.

     When my wife and I were dating, we went mudding with our friend Dan to the end of the Keweenaw Peninsula.  Dan was taking a couple of buisness courses at MTU and owned a jacked up four wheel drive pick up.  Dan belonged to a group that would explore the backroads on weekends.  We were making our way to the tip of the peninsula when I remarked that the road we were on would make a good route for a rally.  Dan expressed some doubt and just said, “You’ll see,” when I questioned why he didn’t think the route would be suitable.  Some miles later, we came to a rather large beaver dam to our left.  The pond it formed flooded the track ahead.  Dan eased the truck through the water covering the road.  Half way across, the water was breaking across the hood like the inverted prow of a ship.  Dan said, “We were here in the spring and the water wasn’t much higher, but we had chunks of ice flowing over the hood like icebergs.”  Okay, using this particular route would not be great for a car rally.  The rally cars my wife and I saw on the road to Houghton in 2018 would have needed snorkels to traverse a pond this deep.  Poor Clyde would have needed a wetsuit and a snorkel!

     The trend these days finds more and more people venturing into the wilds with side-by-sides that have grown larger over the years.  Certainly, these buggies would be ideal for backwoods rallies and I am sure that such events already exist.  Mudding with a vehicle equipped for that kind of outing is pretty common these days.  Just the same, the rallies I got to experience were run with regular, over the road vehicles.  The ‘scavenger hunt’ nature of finding far flung check points was half the fun.  Surviving the muddy stretches with a ‘normal’ vehicle was sometimes miraculous.  I never rode a rally route as a driver or navigator, but it always struck me that I got to see a lot more than the participants.  The rallies I worked on were all run at night so seeing the routes during the daytime planning and shakedown drives was far more interesting for me. 

Top Piece Video – NOT a good rally song because Sammy Can’t Drive 55 – and a very young Sammy Hagar from the days when videos sold music!