First Day Out 2001

March 25, 2001

by Nick Shectman

Yesterday, the Touring Club of New England and Mass Miata held a 60-mile TSD Rally. This was my friend Doug Hagerman's first time as a rallymaster and he seemed pretty nervous about it, despite every indication that the planning was going smoothly.

My usual rally partners were unavailable, so I volunteered to work. Doug already had plenty of workers signed up, but he seemed nervous about getting a good field, so he tried to convince me to run. This led to a frantic and complicated series of emails to various, mostly first-time, potential rally drivers. I got back about five positive answers and finally decided to run with Val Stegemoen, partly because I wanted to try out some new class C (taped-odometer) navigational techniques and partly so that the first-timers could run in novice class.

But two of the first-timers wanted someone experienced to navigate for them, and the other two didn't manage to get in touch with each other in time, so none of them wound up coming out. That's a shame; this was a great rally for the first-timer, with lots of milages to keep you on course, plenty of pauses to help you stay on time, and lots of speed changes to confuse the more-experienced teams.

I woke up early, excited about the event, so I had plenty of time to set my clocks, and to go through my rally kit making sure I had everything. Despite that I still forgot the gaff tape and the keyboard for my PalmPilot. Oops. Those items live in the rally backpack from now on.

I got to the start a little after registration opened, found Val, and we drew car 3 (out of 14). This turned out to be a good thing later on. We got our NRIs and I sat down with the hiliters and the calculator and calced all the segment times I could and hilited all the pauses and CAS changes. I missed one pause at the start of a free zone, but this turned out to be a good thing later on, too.

A couple of people expressed interest in the Palm (which I was using for a 4-function calc at that point) and so I beamed them copies of my hundredths-reading stopwatch, and told them about the rally app. But although I brought paper copies of the instructions with me it's really not a good idea to start off with a new system you haven't seen before.

Apparently Fred Mapplebeck came out with a new version of his rally program for this rally, and a couple of teams that adopted it got bitten by changes in the way it worked. These were folks who were already familiar with the concept of rally calculation so I'm glad I didn't try to spring my app on any of the novices.

It seems like it wouldn't be a rally story without some snafu with the tires. And sure enough, when we went out to Val's Explorer to start the rally we noticed a screw in his right front tire. But it seemed to be in there pretty good, so we decided not to mess with it. Fortunately, the tire seemed to hold air OK through the rally.

Speaking of snafus, I repeated a past mistake by not reading the general instructions. I figured this was a novice rally and there wouldn't be anything tricky in there, so I asked Val (who did read them) if there was anything unusual. He said no -- and while there wasn't anything strange there was one exception to the NER rulebook which would have saved us some points if I'd known about it. More on that later, too.

One of the many things Doug was nervous about was the suitability of the rally for class C cars (of which there were two, surprisingly; usually C is pretty unpopular in the local rallies except maybe for me or Val). He was concerned that we wouldn't be able to get any good long stretches at the same speed to calibrate our speedo. But actually there were three or four mile-long stretches which let us calibrate the speedo at several different speeds.

I was amazed at the number of things Val could do at once, with a clock in his lap and a center clipboard. I guess the trick is to do math and play with your clipboards on the long straights, so you can pay attention and maintain speed better at the turns. Having seen Val in action I see why center clipboards are a good idea, and how to use them so they're not a distraction.

It took a little while for us to really settle into a rhythm on the road. I ran the first half of the rally with paper-and-pencil, which is a lot of work! I wasn't always sure whether to count down landmarks in miles or time, and when I did time it was sometimes hundredths and sometimes seconds depending on which was easiest to convert in my head. I think sticking with miles would have been fine; the navigator isn't the only one in the car who can convert miles into time in their head.

When to scribble and do math and when to look out the window for landmarks was also something it took a bit of time for me to get used to, and I wasn't sure at first what information I needed when and in what order, especially at checkpoint. It was a few legs before I was feeding instructions effectively, and as a result we lost 30 points going right at a "left at Y" on the second leg. This is where my not reading the generals nailed me.

What I didn't know was that time allowances were free. Had I known that I'd have told Val to pause another 20 before we left the intersection. Instead we motored out of there. But what should be around the corner but a checkpoint! Val instinctively dropped to half rally speed and we managed to dump another 7 points before crossing the line, 13 early after a 50 TA. Whew.

After that, though, things settled down and after a few more checkpoints I felt like I had a much better grasp on paper-and-pencil taped-odo navigation. Although the rally was fairly short it had a half-hour break in the middle, in a very pleasant park visitors' center. We chatted a little with the other rally folks, but most of my time was taken up with entering the second half NRIs into my rally computer.

Although the rally app was designed for class B, I had come up with a way to use it in C and wanted to find out if it would really work. When deciding which half of the rally to run paper-and-pencil and which half to run with the computer I hadn't paid that much attention to the NRIs. But it's a good thing I chose to do it this way -- the afternoon had a lot more tricky CAS changes than the morning, and I don't think I'd have been able to keep up with just paper and pencil. That would have meant delayed info ("by the way, you were down 20 two NRIs ago") which is much less useful than countdowns.

Our afternoon scores weren't really all that different from our morning scores, so I can't say the computer is really any better than paper-and-pencil. After all, what it's doing is pretty much the same math. But it worked, and it did make errors a little less frequent, and navigating generally a lot less hectic.

But what about that missed pause? And why was it such a good thing that we were car number 3? Well, let me tell you about the last leg. This had a longish free zone in it to get through a downtown area, with a 50 pause at the start of it. I not only missed hiliting that pause but didn't get it entered into the computer. We got there (and blew through a yellow light at the intersection that the 50 pause was for), and then Val noticed the pause and told me to hold it until the end of the free zone.

Sure, I told him as if I'd meant to leave the pause out, I'm all over that, no problem. We worked our way through the traffic in the free zone, trying to stay on time or at least keep track of how far down we were. Eventually we popped out the other side -- but not before using up our 50 pause at another busy intersection. We weren't sure if there was going to be another live control or if we'd just run into the do-it-yourself control at the end of the rally. We also still didn't understand about the free time allowances. So we were pretty anxious to stay on time -- especially because in class C it's a lot easier to find the end of a free zone on time if you stay on time through it. We weren't out of the woods after the free zone, though. I noted down our time, and we headed out the last 2 instructions to the DIY on a fairly busy street. OK, probably no checkpoints here -- but there was an unmilaged speed change and then the unmilaged checkpoint marker, so we still needed to stay on time to get a good distance measurement. This turned out to be nearly impossible due to some sort of repairs being made to the road. There was all manner of construction equipment blocking the way, despite which we managed to get a half-decent measurement of the speed change. But when we got to the DIY we were left with zero confidence in the time for that leg. Since we now knew that there wasn't a live control in there, we went back to the end of the free zone and ran it again.

Actually, we ran it four more times, if you count the measurements we made while going back to the restart. Our five measurements were all over the map, but we got two that agreed with each other, so we went with that. We also took the time to recalculate our out time from the end of the free zone (which we'd gotten wrong by six or seven points the first time), and wound up with something like a 10 on the final leg.

Good thing we were so early on the road; this gave us plenty of time to calculate before turning in our scoresheet.

As might be expected in March in New England, there were lots of frost heaves. A few people (including Doug) were brave enough to bring out their Miatas anyway. I thought the coolest one was a black '96. I chatted with the driver (sorry I didn't get your name) about plastic vs. glass rear windows (apparently the '96 was the last year to have plastic) and headlight styles (pop-up is somehow more the essence of Miata).

Speaking of frost heaves, there were plenty of jokes about the frost heaves having thrown off the milages. But despite this, and despite Doug's nervousness about it, everyone seemed to think the milages were fine. Relax, Doug, you did an excellent job.

Scoring was very fast; this was probably helped by the fact that there weren't any particularly close contests that might be affected by a protest, so Doug didn't have to worry about that. Though from what I could tell there wasn't anything to protest anyway.

I started the day with three goals, figuring I'd be happy to get any of them.

First was to get better than 10 points per leg; with 49 points over 8 controls we easily met that one. Next was to score a zero; we missed that goal but did score two 1s, and there weren't any quickie legs on this rally so I don't feel bad about that one.

The final goal was not to score behind anyone except the A cars. We wound up second overall (to Natalie and Bill Shrader, if I recall), so we made more than good on that goal.

All in all, as Doug would say, a great day.