Rally of the Tall Pines – 29 November 2014

This year I hadn’t planned to volunteer to work at Tall Pines, partly because of the discomfort of working outdoors in the cold weather and partly because I wanted to spend time with my new girlfriend. But I received a plea for help from Ross, the Clerk of the Course, a couple of weeks before the rally and it turned out that my girlfriend likely would be busy on the day of the rally. So we discussed it and agreed that I should help out because they were short of people, even though her plans might change in a way that she’d be free.

So I quickly made arrangements for one of the subsidized accommodations for two nights and organized my packing to provide a small bag for the rally and more clothes to visit her right afterwards. It’s the same distance from Bancroft to her house on Grand Calumet Island as it is from there to Perth, so it made sense to go there directly from the rally. The subsidized housing was Cedar Hill Camp, which appeared to be some sort of bunkhouse. So I didn’t expect much.

I left home around 11 o’clock on Friday and made the two hour trip to Bancroft easily, since road conditions were good. At this time of year you can never tell what Mother Nature might bring, so I was lucky there was no blizzard. I had asked Ross for a work assignment that would allow me to be close to rally HQ where I could stay warm and he promised to try. As it turned out though, I was assigned to help with timing at three controls, fairly close to HQ but definitely exposed to the weather. I would be working with a friend named Darryl, whom I’ve known for several years from previous rally experience.

When I arrived I was given a package of information and I looked for Darryl, so we could plan how we would proceed and learn how to use the timing equipment. In the old days, timing had been performed by manual clocks, flags and hand signals. But in the last couple of years the organizers have adopted electronic equipment which required set-up and training to operate correctly. I found Darryl and we started discussing the questions we had, but he was also helping with technical inspection of the cars, so we didn’t get much time until late afternoon. Then we started looking for someone who was knowledgeable with the timing equipment, but didn’t find him until late evening.

There was a meeting at 9 PM for all workers and it was only afterwards that we had some time with the timing expert to see the equipment, learn how to assemble it and get an idea of how to use it. Ross said at the meeting that they’d tried to assign knowledgeable people to the timing teams, but they failed in our case! We picked up the equipment that night, along with the control point signs, and went to our overnight accommodations knowing that there was still a lot that we didn’t understand.

Cedar Hill Camp turned out to be very rustic. I think it was designed for hunters and fishermen, because the beds were in a large, well built building with a large common room at one end and a hallway of bedrooms at the other, each bedroom containing eight bunk beds! The rooms had been pre-assigned so I found mine on a mid-afternoon trip to scout the location, which was five kilometres down a narrow country road, about 27 km from rally HQ. The room assignments included both men and women, but at least there was a separate ladies washroom! When I returned at 11:30 to go to bed, there were several volunteers socializing in the common room and their voices carried quite well into the bedroom area. I didn’t get to sleep until close to one o’clock because of the noise they were making. There was electric heat in the building, but it wasn’t really warm; so I slept in a tee shirt, sweat pants and socks, and stayed wrapped up as warmly as possible in my sleeping bag. At least there was only one other occupant of the room, so I didn’t have to sleep through three (or more), other guys’ snoring. I was up a little after six AM, welcomed by the smell of bacon cooking in the basement cafeteria – which was a welcome feature.

I met Darryl at HQ and we had a chance to talk with a couple more people who clarified the tasks we had been assigned. Then we had most of the morning to wander around talking with old friends and looking at the cars along with the public, before the cars were launched from the start ramp amidst rounds of applause and flashing camera lights. At 11 o’clock we were supposed to gather at the beginning of our first stage, so we could watch the cars pass through an intersection on an earlier stage that used the same road. We were able to get front row seats in the comfort of our vehicles and watch the cars go through, before beginning our assignment. We stayed in our vehicles to keep warm and I used a huge amount of gas running the truck’s engine for over an hour – achieving 75 L/100 km fuel consumption!

Around 12:30 the road was clear and we moved into position, to set up the beginning of stage A7 on Langdon Road. Timing at the start of a stage is pretty easy, since the equipment consists of only a clock, a set of red/orange/green lights, a battery and a tripod to hold the lights., It also involves a team member (Jane) sitting in her car and radioing the start time for each car to rally HQ. We got that equipment set up pretty easily and figured out the equipment with the help of some experts who stopped by to ensure we were ready. About one o’clock the cars started to arrive and then it became very busy for a little over 30 minutes while we started the cars – every two minutes for the first five and then once per minute for the remainder of the 30-car field. When the first few cars left, the noise was unbelievable, since the standard approach was for the driver to raise engine speed to the rev limiter in the last five seconds before the green light, and then drop the clutch and explode with a spray of gravel and ear-splitting sound as he launched down the road.

As soon as the last cars had passed us, we had to disassemble the starting equipment and drive a little further down the road to set up a finish line for Stage B1. There was very little time available to do this, since the first car was expected in less than half an hour. The finish line equipment was far more complex to set up, since it consists of two infrared transceivers, two batteries, three clocks and two radio transceivers, all connected by cabling. Fortunately we had some additional help from two safety workers, since it would be very difficult to see the car numbers as they flew past the finish line at upwards of 150 km/h. It took us a while to get the infrared transceivers aligned so the beam was working and then to arrange all the clocks and cabling in a convenient way. One of the clocks and radio devices went into the radio car which was positioned about 300 metres downstream from us. We got everything set up and tested with only a few minutes to spare, before the leading car came through. It was 7-time national champion Antoine L’Estage in the black Mitsubishi, travelling well over 150 km/h and a little bit sideways. It’s good thing we knew he was first, because there’s no way any of us could see or read the car number! It was pretty exciting, but my truck got sprayed by the first two cars until I backed it up a few more feet. I can’t find any major damage, but I think there are a couple of small chips. With the later cars it was easier to read their numbers, so we finished our assignment comfortably, not making any mistakes.

We packed up all the equipment and had a four hour wait until we were to meet for the start of last stage (C4) of the rally on Old Detlor Road. We met with both the start and finish crews at 7:30 and drove to the starting line, from where the finish line crew carried on to the end of the stage. By this time it was getting pretty cold and extremely dark, since we were out in the bush where there are no inhabitants. With the help of flashlights and the headlights of the radio car, we set up the tripod, starting lights and clock and then waited until about 9:30 for the cars to arrive. The course-clearing cars came through (Cars 000, 00 and 0), and then it was time to get serious. We had lost one of our team members, so it was up to me to man the starting lights and clock, while Darryl and Jane welcomed each team and gave them their departure time. Jane loaned me an LED flashlight that I could hook into my coat collar so I could see the clock – otherwise I’d have been juggling a small flashlight and the clock while trying to enter each car number on schedule. Everything worked out well, except one team stopped a bit short and I couldn’t stretch the cabling far enough to see their route card in order to read their starting time. We lost a bit of time fiddling with that, so I had to delay their start by a minute and mark up their card to reflect that. By this time I was shivering pretty badly and stamping my feet to keep the circulation up in my legs. It was very cold just standing around on frozen ground. Finally the course clearing car (number 99) came through and we packed everything up.

Daryl and I decided to drive the stage so we could pick up signs and yellow tape that had been strung along driveways and side lanes, to clean up the stage. I couldn’t believe how narrow, twisty and hilly the stage was. It was barely wide enough for a car, with trees on both sides and some of the hills and crests were extremely high and sharp, with big rocks and potholes everywhere. I would love to watch the rally cars go through there at speed. I suspect the faster cars were just skipping over the crests. We got back to rally HQ about the same time as the winners were being announced. So we handed in all the equipment and I left for my bed immediately, while Darryl stayed for some of the celebrations. I was very cold and tired and just wanted to sleep. The celebrations went way into the night back at the bunkhouse, but at least they closed the door to the bedroom wing and kept their voices down. My roommate didn’t return, so I had a fairly good sleep, although I was never really warm. I got up around 7:15 – having thankfully slept more than the night before – had a light breakfast, and left for Grand Calumet around 8:30. I spent the rest of the weekend relaxing and enjoying the company of my girlfriend, and still needed a couple of good nights’ sleep to recover. I will not be volunteering to help again – it’s asking too much!

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