The No Alibi Report 2002
by Dan Comden
"I'll try not to kill us," I said as we recovered from another sidewise slide around a hairpin turn. Only a mile into the last section of the No Alibi rally, Co-driver Marvin had just informed me we were already five seconds late. We were certain there would be a timing checkpoint at the top of this hill climb. I would try to catch up, but heaving our ungainly vehicle around the corners of the slippery dirt road on the "Climb the Rock" section would be a challenge. For the first time this weekend I could feel myself sweating; I wasn't looking at the steep drop to the valley floor but I sure knew it was there. I'm not sure if my statement calmed Marvin but I was stumped for any other conversation. "Just looking at the alpha, seeing if we're on time, not looking at the road, nope not looking at the road," he responded tightly with his arm braced on the dashboard.
Some people would say that a full size Chevy Blazer is a poor choice for driving at brisk speeds on unpaved roads. Some people would be correct! It was the default vehicle, however, as the Subaru of my usual rally partner was sitting at the airport while he was on vacation and borrowing my wife's VW wasn't an option due to the fact that this was a two-day rally -- too long to have it away from domestic duties. Besides, the Passat hasn't received enough shopping cart dings to let it out on gravel rallies. Compared to other potential rally vehicles, the Blazer is a Big Ugly Beast (BUB).
The No Alibi rally began early Saturday morning at Snoqualmie Pass and wound through Washington to end the evening in Spokane. Next morning would have us headed out through the upper Palouse region and back through the wheat fields and coulees from the previous day to end in Wenatchee, about 150 miles from Seattle. A rally like this isn't a racing event -- dictated speeds are always at or under the legal limit and all roads are open to the public. Participants are given instructions for the course, a mix of scored sections where the goal is to be as close to perfect time as possible based on a posted average speed and distance traveled. Checkpoint locations are unknown to the competitors. In order to do well the idea is to always try to be "on-time." For every second arriving early or late, a point is scored. In order to win, try to acquire as few points as possible. Sound simple? It is, or rather the concept is straightforward - the execution is another matter.
This was Marvin's first touring rally. He had navigated a couple of "Friday Nighter" competitions that are quite a bit different than something like No Alibi. For one thing, they're much shorter -- just a couple of hours. Checkpoints separate sections -- there can only be one score for a section. Roads are nearly always paved, as the events are held fairly close to civilization. Friday Nighters are more about course following challenges than driving smoothly, though of course that's an element as well. Most importantly, in the class we run, navigator duties are considerably different -- mostly reading instructions and helping look for signs and course traps. There are no course traps on an event like No Alibi, except for the ones we make for ourselves. More on that later.
Preparation for No Alibi was slightly more involved than the usual Friday Nighter experience. For one thing we'd be running with an additional odometer -- one that would be much more accurate and precise than the stock odometer on the dash. Because we would be given mileages between route instructions, we would be able to calculate target times for each of the instructions. This was one of Marvin's major contributions. He created a perl script to be run on his Powerbook computer that allowed him to input speeds and distances and quickly derive the target times. For places where there was significant mileage between instructions (e.g. a mile or more), he could extrapolate target times. We were fortunate to be able to borrow a hub-mounted odometer sensor (an EZ-Pulse) and odometer/clock (Alfa Checkpoint) from Eric and Steve, our friends from TeamD (http://www.teamd.org). Thanks guys! With Jim's help I built a mounting system for the EZ-Pulse that would keep the cable out of the wheel with minimal modification to the body. Apart from a hole in the hubcap, I only had to drill two holes in BUB, both of which are nearly invisible when the sensor is removed.
Using a calculating device put us into the Equipped class. Other classes are Novice, Vintage, and SOP (Seat of Pants), where only paper and pencils are allowed. Unlimited class is where anything can be used to help the team stay on time. Teams in Unlimited usually run with some sort of specialized computer hooked directly to odometer input. This allows the team to instantly know how early or late they are at any moment -- or it does when everything is working correctly...
Saturday morning came around plenty early. To make the meeting time at Snoqualmie Pass, sixty miles away, meant a 0530 wake-up. I had loaded the BUB with tools and gear the night before so it was only a matter of packing the cooler and making coffee before heading out the door to pick up Marvin. We made it up to registration with time to spare and enjoyed Team D's hospitality suite - a box of donuts on the roof of Eric's BMW. Workers made sure that our lights and signals worked for tech inspection and after the driver's meeting; first car out time was soon upon us. Assigned a car number of 15, our scheduled departure time is fifteen minutes past the car zero time. Each car departs at one minute intervals so it's possible to have a clue how early or late you might be if other cars are spotted while on a TSD (Time, Speed, and Distance) section.
The first section was a transit east over the pass where we checked the odometer reading and compared it to the official rally mileage. Marvin calculated the correction factor and entered it into the Alfa and we were ready to go with no stress. He had long since calculated most of the times for all sections during the time before we started thanks to his software. Now it was time to put it to the test. We were doing well until a little confusion about the difference between early and late had us slowing to the point that the car one minute behind us passed as we were figuring out if we were early or late. Knowing that the team in car 16 had quite a bit more experience, we passed them and tried to regain time, only to find ourselves at a checkpoint near the end of the section. Oops. 45 seconds late in the first section. But this was a learning experience that taught us not to make the same mistake again.
Another transit to the next section: Marvin works on splits for mileages and we feel we're doing well, but we miss a transition from paved to gravel and turn down a highway instead of crossing it. After going a mile the wrong way, we realize what we did wrong and head back to find car 18 (three minutes behind us) just entering the desired road. Fortunately he lets us go ahead and we figure that we're about two and a half minutes late once we make up a little time. Due to the confusion on directions, we plan on submitting a time allowance as the road is too narrow for us to safely get back on our perfect time. After a discussion on priorities so that we increase the importance of being on course ahead of being on time we find ourselves at a rest area on Interstate 90, getting ready for the next section.
With an average speed of 70, this is easily the fastest section of the day. We descend into the Columbia River gorge, cross the bridge at Vantage, and begin the climb up the grade knowing that there will be a checkpoint somewhere soon. Despite truck and RV traffic, we're able to stay close to perfect time and we're only one second off on this TSD. Soon we find our way off the interstate, through Quincy and begin the first all-gravel section of the day, titled "Dry Coulee." This is a challenging section with brisk speeds and the BUB doesn't like the twisty descent, though we're doing OK staying on time. A confusing intersection while timing a split has us go off course again, where we miss a tight left - left at a checkpoint. A four-point turn later, we get back on course just behind car 16 again. This time there's no way to pass due to the thick dust. We settle in behind and plan on a 90 second time allowance but the car ahead is running SOP and is a tad late. We try to push them a bit and manage to have some of the higher scores for us that day. No worries now - we're really committed to course following and we come up with a scheme so that Marvin identifies instructions that are close together where he'll just point the way with his finger instead of describing the intersections.
After another short transit there's another brisk gravel TSD section that has us doing well through three checkpoints. We manage a respectable 3 points total, and even zero one of the checkpoints. This brings us into the lunch stop at Summer Falls state park where the rally organizers have provided lunch. We're ready for a break at this point and enjoy a stress-less meal while Marvin computes a few more split times.
The remainder of the day's sections has us going through farm country. We no longer see car 16 on any of the TSDs and have a great time on the "Telford Road" section in the scablands as we get closer to Spokane. The road is interesting enough, but at average speeds of 30-40 mph, it's great fun. Some of the off-camber curves have the BUB levitating and we're forced to really slow for some of the sharp turns and try to make up time in the brief straights. Considering the inertia involved with a heavy vehicle, we're happy with the way things go. The last section brings us through the forested hills west of Spokane and then a long transit into town where we are ready for a beer and dinner.
After checking into our motel we head over to the Ram pub where a buffet dinner is planned. Though the food is less than exciting, the stories and personalities around the tables more than make up for it. After a day of driving in the dusty navel of the state, the beer tastes great, too. The evening is topped off with anecdotes from Bob Chandler, a rallyist with years of experience, who provides very entertaining stories about rallies past - some successful and others less so. We receive our scores for the day and find we're in a distant third place in our class behind a couple of very experienced teams. The top two Equipped teams are tied with scores of 38 and we're well back with 143. Though we're obviously in a different league, we're certain we can deal ourselves some improvement cards for day two.
The evening ends with margaritas and mixed drinks at the TeamD hospitality suite on the floor above us back at the hotel. But with a 0730 driver's meeting slated for the next day, it's not much of a late night.
Sunday begins with blazing blue skies and we're feeling like we are ready to do well as we make the long transit out of Spokane to the first TSD section. Marvin had spent time the previous evening finishing up calculations and splits for the day, so he doesn't need to juggle the laptop while we're on the road. The first section goes well and we come up with ways to adjust our speed based on how early or late we are. We find later that on the first section we score well, zeroing the first checkpoint and scoring a one and two for the others. Things are definitely looking up.
The next section notes an area with "exposure and congestion." We don't see any local traffic but the driver's side dropoff is impressive as we wind down a short twisty section where we can see a checkpoint. Again due to the poor cornering of BUB we're a tad late but we have no problem ranking safety over low checkpoint scores. We find out later that we have actually arrived early at the checkpoint, which is surprising to say the least. Perhaps the BUB isn't such a poor choice after all. Or perhaps we're just getting used to the adjustments needed to stay close to on-time. Regardless, we're pleased with how the day is going.
A very rapid transit to the next TSD has us arriving at the start only five seconds before our scheduled departure. There's just enough time to zero the odometer and accelerate away. A very low average speed just before a tunnel under a railbed, a quick photo op and then the section ends before a transit to another rest/refuel stop. Then a long transit that crosses north of I-90 and we get in line for the last TSD section before lunch. We find ourselves in a rhythm that has us believing we've worked the bugs out of our teamwork though we discover an odometer discrepancy that seems minor but has us puzzled. Split times are a tad off and we're not sure if it's due to wheel spin on the gravel or some other sensor error. The factor only means a second or two difference for most checkpoints so we're not too worried at our experience level but it's certainly something to consider for next year. And yes, we're already talking about doing this again next year even though we haven't finished the event - we're having that much fun!
Lunch again at Summer Falls has us doing some of the previous day's sections in reverse. The BUB is doing well on the flat turns and we manage to zero one of the sections. Sure there was only one checkpoint but we'll take our pride where we can find it.
On one of the TSD sections after lunch we see one of the Saab Sonnets, car nine, on the side of the road. The team gives us a thumbs up as we slow to offer help so we press on. It appears to be some mechanical problems. On the next transit they come up behind us and we allow them to pass, not realizing that the next section will be starting just a short distance up the road. They head off in front of us and throw up an impressive dust cloud for such a little car. We're not happy about being dusted again and this time it's not due to us getting off course. As we try to keep on time, we find we're pressing them a bit and on a sharp right, they pull out to let us pass. Great sportsmanship and we wave as go past, knowing we're very close to a good time. Congratulating ourselves means we nearly miss another turn but our rhythm is soon recovered and we are back to sub-five checkpoint times. This penultimate section has us on the road where we'd missed a turn the previous day and we're glad we don't have to be driving in a dust cloud and manage to enjoy some of the scenery. A very low average speed of 18 mph has the cars behind us catching up as we enter a longer tunnel, then another photo op and quick change to a much higher speed as we exit.
One more transit to the last section and we don't know what we're in for until we pull up to the line of cars waiting for their turn for the last "Climb the Rock" section. The sound of the Saabs laboring up the hill echoes down as we look up, up and even more up to the switchbacks towering above us. The instructions indicate that we'll be leaving pavement but I see no dust from the cars above. Foolishly figuring that there's an error in the otherwise nearly flawless instructions, I elect not to start in four wheel drive. Our start time hits and we head off up around a sharp right and find ourselves on dirt. BUB fishtails on the granite/dirt surface and I quickly engage the front differential. We're late, Marvin informs me - five seconds and we've hardly begun to climb.
The road is imposing. Though it'd be nice to have a look out over the Columbia from our vantage on the Rock Island Grade, this is not a time for sightseeing. Managing to make up some time after a series of switchbacks, we reach the top where the expected checkpoint is located and find we're only a second off our time - a second early, even! One last checkpoint and we hit the roughest road of the rally over Indian Camp Road. Finally we have a section where the clearance and suspension of the BUB is an advantage but there are no more checkpoints!
The winding road down into Wenatchee brings us to the pizza parlor for awards and dinner. As we arrive, scores for the day are all but posted, informing us that we've scored quite well. The last checkpoint results come in and we find we've done a creditable 42 for the day - much better than the previous day and a solid third for our class and sixth overall with a final score of 185. The first two teams in the Equipped class ahead of us ended up third and fourth overall with scores of 63 and 65. Overall winner is an Unlimited team with an impressive 34 for the two days.
Two days of rallying leaves us spent. I turn over the wheel to Marvin as we head back to Seattle, reliving the twists, turns and times of the weekend. We're planning on coming back to No Alibi next year - it's a "can't miss" event.
More photos can be found at www.comdens.com/Rally