Over the summer I ended up spending a lot of time in the garage prepping the car. At Headwaters, I had gone off and landed on top of something hard in what was otherwise, mostly a marsh. That something hard drove the skid plate into the oil sump. We finished, but the engine didnít sound too great, and I expect that the oil pickup was either blocked or severely restricted and that bearing failure was likely imminent.
I had slowly been putting together a ďbuiltĒ engine. It was ďcompleteĒ in that the block was together with the head and the oil pan and valve cover were installed. It ended up taking quite a bit more time getting all the bits and pieces in place on the engine before I could swap it in.
Between Headwaters and Ojibwe, I had reached the conclusion that the amount of time, effort and money I have to spend to race arenít justified by the enjoyment I get out of competing. I made the decision to run just one more event, and then move on. So I withdrew from Ojibwe, and set my sights on LSPR. Ojibwe may be my home rally, and I may be part of the organizing committee, but LSPR, for me, defines what rally really is. Itís harsh and unforgiving.
So I prepared the car. New engine in, lots of little leaks fixed, first firing, tuning, etc. All taking more time and effort than I wished, but moving along. New skidplate fabricated, with much larger support members. Lined up a co-driver for the event.
I set off early on Thursday morning (no recce for me, alas) and just across the Wisconsin border I have to stop, and spend four hours in a coffee shop using their WiFi desperately trying to get an entire company back online and functional after a power outage. Itís that, or turn around and go into work. So much for making Thursday Tech, or even registration. Ah well, I roll into Houghton around 10pm and meet up with my crew member, Jesse. We drill mounting holes and fasten the new skid plate to the car, diagnose why suddenly the headlights arenít working (corroded fuse under the hood).
Friday morning, I take the car over to Tech, and meet my co-driver for the first time, Dustin Masters, who usually sits in the navigator seat of the Offbeat Rally Team GMC Sonoma. Dustinís enthusiasm is obvious and appreciated, as Iím already worn out getting ready for the event. We spend a little time working on the engine tune, a little time trying to get the new rally computer (tablet + high-res GPS) to work. It worked fine at home, and not at all at the event. Then off to parc expose, where the weather gets progressively wetter and wetter. Yay. Windscreen is fogging up terribly. Hasnít been an issue before but this is the worst combination of cold and wet the car has seen.
Start of Day One
We transit to SS1, the Green Acres Super Special. Still lots of fogging, but we roll up to the start and weíre off! Iím concerned about the new engine and lack of testing time on it, so as I shift into second gear and the engine stumbles a little, Iím concerned. Kinda half-ass the first turn (guess Iím never going to get that one right). and then start hitting water all over. Itís spraying everywhere, and jetting all throughout the cabin. Now the window isnít just fogged, but has mud on the inside. Engine starts cutting out and doing all sorts of unpleasant things. Crap, crap, crap. I get utterly lost, but we manage to, by dumb luck, find the right path without too much wandering. More and more water, more and more engine problems. At the finish control, the car dies and wonít restart. After many tries, it catches again and we manage the transit. Canít see anything, donít have an odo, and the carís not running right. Welcome to LSPR. We manage the transit, but the car stalls at the regroup in and Dustin has to push us into the control. The car refires and we manage the turnaround OK. Letting the car run in line, to help defrost the windows, we discover that the coolant temps are going up, and up. At 250F I shut the car down to prevent major damage to the new engine. And it wonít refire. Sometimes it fires, sometimes it doesnít. We trip the 250A breaker on the battery line and have to risk being penalized for work in a control in order to reset it. Car is completely insane, sometimes spark, sometimes nothing, will catch for 2-3 seconds and then go stone dead. Push car though out control and pop the hood and start checking everything we can. All the usual suspects, distributor, MAF, TPS, etc are dry. Dustinís a professional mechanic, and Iíve worked on this model of chassis and engine for 21 years, thereís no lack of knowledge or ability here, but nothing we can address is coming up bad. After about 20 minutes of this, we hand the timecard to sweep and call it a day. Yeah, we could have pushed for another 10 minutes, but the battery is getting weak and weíre flat out stumped. As an organizer, I hated holding sweep up so much right at the start of the day, knowing it could mess up schedules all night long.
My first DNF ever. Iím just so pissed off that after getting ahold of Jesse to head back from service (ďBut I just got set up!Ē), I canít even sit in the car without stewing, so I wander out in the soaking rain and chat with Greg Hanka, the co-driver of the other Nissan Sentra SE-R entered in the event, who also DNFíd after SS1 with a blown power steering line. Not a good day to be a Nissan in the UP, I guess. Theyíre trying to get a new hose. I tell them that they can have mine if I canít get the car sorted for Saturday.
I get a text from my other crew member, Matt, who was driving in directly to service from MN. Heís blown the engine in his car and wonít make it. I feel bad that it happened when he was coming to help me, but it was probably going to happen anyhow.
After an hour and a half or so of sitting there I decide what the hell and fire the car up. Runs perfectly. Damnit. We drive back to the hotel and the car exhibits no issues. We idle the car for a long time at the hotel and no overheating. We canít recreate any of the issues. In the end, we agree to get together early in the morning and leave for LíAnse an hour early. If the car fails, we can try to fix it, if not, weíll run. I hate problems that fix themselves, but we agree that it was probably the water on the stage mixed with the high-iron content mud that shorted out something in the ECU or main harness.
Suit goes into the hotel dryer, I head into the hot-tub and Jesse and I enjoy a few beverages while Dustin heads back to his hotel. Then I go to bed earlier than I have ever gone on Friday at any LSPR in the last 13 years.
Brisk, but drying out, we hop in the car and head to LíAnse. The car runs fantastic. In fact, it runs so well that we end up making the drive into a tuning session (Another of Dustinís very welcome skills, heís experienced tuning cars!). We get the car dialed in nicely by the time we hit Baraga and stop for fuel. Weíre getting a little fogging and Dustin hits the screen with Rain-X anti-fog. Holy crap! I had heard bad things about it in the past, but itís like a miracle. windscreen is perfectly clear for the first time all weekend.
We get to Parc Expose early, and get the very center spot, which amuses me to no end. Iím next to the 2015 STi showcase with my 23 year old econobox regional car. It is, as usually, unbearably cold and windy on the shorefront and Iím very glad when we finally get the car fired up. Except that the car is starting to get hot again; Dustin checks and the fans arenít running (they were last night and earlier this morning). Well, weíll work around it, and shut the car down rather than idle at stage starts. Off to start the second day of the event.
The first stage is brutally rough. My back has been bugging me all weekend, and this isnít helping. But the car runs great. We roll into the finish and realize weíve nearly caught the car in front of us. Now, Iím starting to get psyched.
Second stage is Ĺ of my favorite LSPR stage. Arvon-Silver. The start is dry, flowing and fast. The car is just screaming and the straights disappear like they never have before in this car. Iím not sure Iím carrying good speed through the corners, but the new engine pulls out of them so damn hard, itís intoxicating. And then the road gets wet, and slippy, and I end up in a really long, lurid slide on a left that finds purchase just shy of the trees. Iím a little shaken and kinda tiptoe through the rest of the stage.
Third stage is Herman. And Iím hitting speeds on stage Iíve only seen in the past on the old Arvon Tower, the car is singing and it has a lovely afterfire when I drop the throttle from WOT at the end of a high RPM pull on the straights. And Iím having to go into 4th on a semi regular basis, because Iím running out of 3rd (which is good to 90mph, btw). We catch and pass midway through the stage. Right after running through massive water, but the car stays perfect! Iíve driven stages better, but never with a car running so well.
Transit to service and this is finally coming together! Dustinís been spot-on with the notes all morning. At service, we hot-wire the fans to an extra light switch, clean the windows and re-apply anti-fog. No issues, and back out to run the second half of the day, which starts re-run of Arvon-Silver, and Herman, avoiding the really rough farm stage.
Arvon-Silver - The start is just as beautiful as I rember it from the morning, but I have more confidence in the car and drive it faster. And I donít bork up the spectator area like I did the first running either. All is good. We reach the slippy part and Iím ready for it. I start opening it back up on the dry stretches and then hauling it down when it gets wet, and itís working well. Then we come around a right hander in the dry and right into a wet left, with a little downhill. I go to brake as soon as I see the wet, but itís too late. Once the car starts sliding, nothing is bringing it back, Iím pretty sure I even turned on the wipers in an attempt to use every possible control. Unfortunately, even though we bleed most of our speed in the long, straight slide, there is a nice, big stump from a tree that clearly fell across the road and was cut off with the cut pointing straight back at the entrance of the corner. We center-punch it. Nothing doing. Weíre done. Radiator is pushed up against the exhaust manifold, I can tell that the skidplate took most of the blow, as the tubes of the support structure are all torn out, not at the welds, but the tubes themselves are torn apart.
Sweep shows up and they pull us out. Help us pull off the last bolt holding up the skidplate. Gather up the various lights dangling loose (but none broken!) Ask if we want to continue. I doubt it, but I go and pull the power to the fan that now has an O2 sensor jammed through it, and fire up the car. Amazingly, the radiator seems to be nearly, or maybe even, entirely intact. And then we see it. A nice big M10 flange head bolt laying on the ground. The bolt is immediately recognizable as the strut to knuckle bolt. I canít risk it on a car with unknown frame damage, no skidplate, and possible suspension damage. Still, if I can drive out of the stage under my own power, that makes recovery that much easier. So we set off at a slow pace with terrible noises coming from the front end and resign ourselves to a slow-slog to the end of the stage.
After about a mile of this, we start smelling the distinctive stench of gear oil. Great, Iíve busted the transmission case too. But wait, sweep has come across another car. We stop and see a line of oil on the ground leading to the other vehicle. The other sweep behind us comes up and says ďHey, you know your exhaust has come loose and is banging around?Ē Oh, *thats* the noise! Thatís so much better than I had thought. ďYeah, itís wrapped around your front wheel.Ē
Wait, what? How the hell does my exhaust get wrapped around a drive wheel? On a front-wheel-drive car?
Well, it turns out the downpipe had come free from the header at the front of the engine and what we had heard was the downpipe whipping around on itís flex joint to the point where it was nearly 180 degrees from where it should be and banging on the floorpan, then eventually the tire caught it and pulled it up into the wheelwell. Dustin and the sweep guy manage to hook it with my tow strap and secure it to the strut tower bar in the engine compartment. I canít help because at this point my back is really starting to hurt bad.
As he comes up,. Dustin reports that all the strut bolts are in place. It wasnít my bolt we found on the road. The realization that Subarus and Nissans of this era share the exact same strut mounting crosses my mind. After we get the exhaust strapped up, the car drives like nothing ever happened. Damn, we could have continued!
Drive the long drive of shame back to service, where Jesse is waiting, having heard we were off but continuing under our own power on the radio (again, having multi-skilled people around you at a rally is a blessing, Jesse is also a licensed radio operator). We load up the car, take a few pics and head back to Houghton, having now filed two DNFís in a row.
Jesse and I head to the banquet to get some food, and Dustin takes off to meet up with his friends, we plan on meeting up later downtown. My back just gets worse and worse, so Jesse and I only make a very brief appearance at the Firehouse and call it a night.
Towing the car back to MN the next day was an exercise in misery. My back wasnít getting any better for being stuck in a truck for 8 hours.
Monday, I went to see my doctor and got some strong painkillers to deal with what we expected was muscle trauma and soreness from the crash.
Tuesday, I was being pumped full of Dilaudid (super-morphine) and carried/wheeled into an ambulance buy a pair of EMTs screaming whenever my back was flexed. Spent the next 36 hours being pumped full of painkillers and IV steroids after an MRI revealed that I thankfully, had not broken my back, but ďonlyĒ ruptured a disc. Gotta say, the steroids were amazing, and I was able to (barely) walk out of the hospital to my wifeís van and go home. Two weeks later, Iím 90% functional.
The lessons here? Things are often not as bad as you think they are. Theyíre either better, or much worse.
And donít f*** around with back pain if you go off. Take that s*** seriously!
In the end, itís a very mixed feeling. I opted to run LSPR instead of OFR because I had come to the decision that i was only going to run one last event and retire from competition. The time committed to rally was far outweighing the enjoyment. If I could arrive-and-drive, itíd be a different story, but being my own builder meant tens if not hundreds of hours before the event in prep or repairs. Add that to organizing Headwaters and being on the OFR team, and itís just too much.
OFR would probably not have had the same challenges that did me in at LSPR. LSPR is much, much harder. And thatís why I chose it. ANd it bit me and now Iím left knowing that there is so much in the car that I never got to really use, but that the price I paid to run the event was even higher than I had accounted for in my decision to stop competing.
So, in a little bit, thereís going to be a fantastic G2 car with a nearly flawless mechanical record, some new front end parts, and one heck of an engine in it going up for sale.
So, to everyone whoís helped me out over the last few years:
Jake Himes - Inspiration
Jason Standage - Co-Driver
Colin Vickman - Co-Driver
Chris Gordon - Co-Driver and driving mentor
Dan Drury - Co-driver and mechanic during the build
Dustin Masters - Co-Driver and engine tuner
Anthony Isrealson - Service rig driver
Jesse Lang - Service crew
Matt Alexander - Service Crew
Rotten Johnny - roll cage welding
Jeff ďThe Alignment GuyĒ Forss - Alignments, providing the trailer I used for every event, and many hours talking about all-things car-related.
Everyone who has volunteered with, organized for, or competed against me.
TL;DR - Thank you all so very much!
See you in the woods! (Though I might be in a lead car, in which case I had better not be seeing you!)