Six rally cars in a row was a spectacle for the locals in a grocery store parking lot in the small town of Licking, Missouri. My co-driver William and I suited up while also talking to our newfound fans about the race. This was a particularly exciting moment for William because this was his very first stage rally.

As we arrived at the first stage named Bigfoot Run, he said that donning his race suit and helmet was starting to make his dream of rallying feel like a reality. I could sense his nervousness, so I gave him a quick pep talk. “I really appreciate you trusting me as your driver for the weekend. Remember our goals are just to have fun and make it to the finish in one piece.”

Back in February, I wrote about the art of rally pacenotes. Typically, rally teams get to drive each stage road twice taking careful note of every turn, curve, crest, dip, bump, or jump. These notes are called “pacenotes” and the co-driver reads them out so the driver has advanced warning of every feature of the road. Today, though, we would be flying down a road none of the competitors had ever seen before with only a few brief instructions at particularly dangerous corners provided to us. This historic style of rally is known as a “tulip rally” or by competitors as a “blind rally.” The Missouri Ozark Rally is one of the few rallies in the U.S. that is still run this way. This year’s event ran two stages three times each, which meant we could at least start to familiarize ourselves with the road. 

[Photo by Matt Jones – Memories in the Fast Lane.]

“In a half mile there’s a deceptive left turn,” warned William. Then he began counting down the seconds until I would launch both William and myself down a hot and dusty forest road. I shifted through the gears and bravely built speed while my eyes darted between the treeline and the road surface. Not having a constant feed of instructions from my co-driver was unnerving. To make matters worse the intercom battery had started to go out and I couldn’t make out the garbled instructions coming through my intercom.

He began frantically waving his hands and pointing left. I saw a sash of red banner tape was draped across the road ahead of me and realized I was about to completely blow the deceptive left hand turn he warned me about. I skidded to a stop just short of the red tape, threw it into reverse, and then tore off back into the forest unscathed. In rally, there is no time to dwell on your mistakes so we shook it off and William resorted to hand signals for the remainder of the stage.

On the next transit, we swapped the batteries and restored our ability to communicate clearly. As we waited to start the next stage we got out and talked with our fellow competitors. Apparently we weren’t the first team to make the same mistake, as at least half of the cars didn’t see the turn and nearly blew through the banner tape. We laughed as each of us recounted our near off-course moment. 

The second stage was named Moo Cow Ranch and we had been warned that sections of the road had recently been graded and as a result the road surface had varying levels of grip along the six-mile stage. Shortly after the start of the stage, William warned me of the upcoming low water bridge. As it dipped down through a dry creek bed, the river rocks loudly scraped along my skid plate. “Easy, easy—BIG ROCKS,” William warned. I powered through it anyway and replied back, “car can handle it, this isn’t that rough.” It was a good thing I was confident in the Z3 coupe’s ability to handle rough terrain because the road surface varied between more river rock and freshly poured crushed limestone. Being able to quickly differentiate the brown rock which had grip from the loose gray limestone was critical in order to survive the six miles of road that wound between cattle ranches. The cows were not the only onlookers on the stage. We hooked a right at an intersection while fans stood on either side of the road. I pushed my right foot into the throttle and let the straight six sing while the back of the car swung around to follow. This elicited an excited “WOO HOO” from my co-driver. It was safe to say his nervousness had completely faded and he was thoroughly enjoying the ride.

After this stage, we drove back into town for the first service back at the grocery store. All the preparation we had done on the car was paying off and my crew jacked up the car just to double check. This gave William and I an opportunity to rehydrate from the August heat.

The temperatures in the car were so brutal that one of the other teams unfortunately had to withdraw due to heat sickness. We walked over to check in with the only two-wheel-drive team entered in the rally only to discover that their car stalled and wouldn’t restart on the first stage. This was a big bummer for us as our team had helped them get their car ready the night before. I was also disappointed the only other two-wheel-drive team was out and I had no one else in my class to compete with. 

The last couple of stage loops became very dusty, with fine dust from freshly poured limestone hanging in the air making it difficult to see on some of the sections of road. Regardless of reduced visibility, we still shaved over seconds off our previous leg. The last four miles of the first stage were smooth, fast and flowing. This was our favorite section of road as we could confidently take turns at over 60mph without fear of any surprises or mishaps. Despite inconsistent surfaces on the second stage, we were able to set very consistent times. These last few stages were not smooth for everyone and unfortunately one of the teams in a Subaru lost their transmission on the second to last stage.

This meant there were only three teams that made it to the finish, but everyone was present for the BBQ dinner and awards. William was so proud to have finished his first event and couldn’t stop smiling. The realization that we had managed a podium finish didn’t set in until we were called up to accept our award. Since we were the only team to finish in a two-wheel-drive car, we won our class and placed third overall. I was proud to have set such consistent times in such challenging conditions.—Kelsey Stephens




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