There is nothing that can prepare you for a day like this one. Months of preparation, weeks of physical conditioning and three days of intense practice on the mountain. You've driven each section, now you've got one shot to put it all together and lay down the fastest time.
The morning is early as usual. Wake up in the 4 o clock hour, the crew gets to packing the final things while I get suited up and put on my boots. Gloves, arm restraints, helmet all in the truck. I practice deep breathing as we do a final inspection and pack into the truck. The drive to the mountain and up to the start line takes an eternity. I slept in a hotel room for the first time last night, got a bit of rest but spent a good few hours tossing and turning running through every inch of the road, every inch of the car and every possible scenario in my head. I think of the positives: fast qualifying, lots of experience, good setup, great crew. I think of the negatives: old car, things constantly breaking, very fast competition, a mountain with a mind of its own, and the most uncontrollable of variables such as animals, rocks, weather. Up the mountain I'm thinking of all the same things. I'm trying mentally to block out as much as possible but it is impossible. I just have to let it run its course as I know it will fade soon enough. We reach our pit for the day and the crew unloads the car. They get to work cleaning and final prepping. I lay in the back of the truck and take a nap. It's 4:30 AM, we're one of the last teams to arrive and there is nothing to do until the drivers meeting at 8. 7:30 rolls around, I get a shake on my shin to indicate it's time to get up. I rise slowly and go check out camp. The car is sitting looking at me menacingly. The drivers meeting is the usual business about road conditions, a lecture to the protrucks on cutting ditches, something about being done around 1:30 and the obligatory "be safe, have fun".
The first car goes out at 9 AM. We are way down the starting order as our class runs closer to the end so I go back and paruse the pits checking out competitors cars, cars in other classes, and visit some friends. I run into a couple who we competed against and lost to last year, Nathan and Brandye Conley. They are their usual fun, warm selves. We chat about the mountain, our cars, rallying, competitors, times, the usual mess. He compliments my qualifying times as they were quicker this year than last. I thank him and we talk a while more about how things are going with him, about the ridiculous cost of the sport and specifically tires, and eventually we shake hands, wish each other good luck and I meander around a bit more. Mike Ryan's new Shell-sponsored big rig race truck is there and I look over it with my mechanics Roy and Wes. An astonishing amount of the truck stays true to its roots with air suspension and massive steel frame rails. The rest is a different story. We marvel at the engineering prowess and beauty of the machinery before heading to the highlight of the hill for me. A man by the name of Marty Roestenburg has come over from New Zealand in a tube chassis, carbon bodied Mitsubishi Evo with over double the horsepower of our car and nearly a thousand pounds lighter. He's running in our class and his times are incredible. It turns out so is he. We visit for a while about the state of the sport in both my home and his, he discusses the ups and downs of bringing a car overseas for an event like this and is clearly thrilled to be here. His love for the sport is unrivaled by most people there and his enthusiasm is outmatched only by his genuine interest in the conversation. There are few people I've met in the sport who know how to keep it fun quite like Marty. We visited for a while and shook hands to wish each other a safe run before I went and visited with the engineer in charge of building the car. He's equally as nice, very much an engineer. Seems a bit uncomfortable taking compliments on his work, chocks it up as "Simple really. Just a race car." I meander about for a bit longer before finally making my way over to my car to start getting suited up. I make one last trip over to see Nate Conley who is just putting on his helmet. I give him one last handshake and tell him to "Give em hell!" "YOU give em hell!" he replies and he gives me a thumbs up as I walk back towards the car. I put on my fireproof balaclava, helmet, gloves and slip my arm restraints around my forearm. I sit in the car taking deep breaths for a few minutes before starting it up. The guys started it just a while ago and ran it on jackstands to get all the fluids up to operating temps. It purrs nicely, we've done a lot of work to make sure of that during the week. I back it out of the pit and pull it onto the highway and take my place in line. I idle the car for a few minutes, pulling it up every couple minutes as another car takes off. We're about 10 or so cars back and haven't gone forward in a while. Another red flag.. Something like the 10th of the day. An absolute record already and unfortunately not the last. Eventually, the driver from a car that went off is found to be ok, the course is cleared and cars continue. It's getting close to my turn to start, we're two cars back. The bright yellow Subaru of the Conley's takes off in typical fashion with precise shifts and the notable bang pop of the subaru anti-lag system. Todd Moberely in the Subaru infront of me pulls up to the start line and his crew closes the doors. Within moments, an ambulance by the start line fires up and blows off onto the course. "Who is it?" I ask the officials next to me. Nobody is talking, extraordinarily focused on the report coming from the headsets. It is the Conleys. They only made it three corners in before sliding off the road on the exit of a corner and hitting a tree. There is no report for a few minutes and I finally hear somebody say they both have back injuries but are conscious. Medical personell come out of the woodwork and begin hustling on radios and in cars organizing an air evacuation for Brandye and it's quickly decided for Nathan as well. At this point, there is no idea how serious the injuries are but I'm watching friends who I just saw minutes ago hauled out in an ambulance. Without any idea of how severe the injuries are, we wait at the start line for 45 minutes until the course can be cleared. We get word that several more competitors have either gone off or have had mechanical failures on the course. An official comes to the car and asks if I could use a water while I wait. Roy and Wes are at the car with me trying to keep my focus on the race, the road, the car and making it to the summit. I'm having an extraordinarily hard time focusing as a million thoughts race around in my head. Are the Conley's going to be alright? What is the mountain like today that guys like Nathan are going off not just on the pavement but on the 3rd corner. I keep telling myself I've been at this start line 3 years before and I've driven this mountain in rain, ice, snow, mud, gravel, with and without grip and I can do it again. I do everything I can to stay prepared mentally but it's difficult to keep the anxiety down. My blood pressure is high, the sun is beating down and finally, after 45 minutes, we go back to green flag racing. The Moberlys climb in, buckle down and in moments are sent up the mountain. I pull up to the start as Roy and Wes are topping off the water in my intercooler spray tank. This is the last minute. I've been sitting in the car studying the course map for the last time taking note of where people are having trouble. I'm thinking about the Conleys and telling myself to go easy until I know the conditions, I'm thinking about cold tires, cold brakes and a hot engine. I'm taking a deep breath and the green flag points at me. I nod, the flag waves. First gear, second gear, third and fourth gear into the first corner. Fifth gear going through the second corner and onto the first straight. I think about Nate and Brandye and trail the brakes lightly into the corner. It is obvious that the mountain today is not the mountain we qualified on Friday. Back into fourth into the fourth corner the tires are scrubbing and the car is unstable. The pavement is several miles long and varies from tight, technical corners to fast flat out corners. None of them are fast and none of them are cooperative. My braking zones are earlier, the corner entry is slower and the corner exit is endless. I can feel the seconds piling on and know that I'm not getting anywhere near the time I was hoping for. Onto gravel and I feel hope that everything will get better. I go into the first left hander where I hit a rock and blew out the suspension in practice. The car slides wide again, this time no rock in sight. Brown Bush, a tight right hairpin turn comes up and the car will not cooperate. I can't get it to turn left, right, slow down, it's almost helpless. I wrestle it down to a slow enough pace and tiptoe in, the car very reluctantly beginning to turn. I see the exit and squeeze the throttle managing to save a shred of dignity as the car picks up pace and heads up hill to the next corner. Through the entire gravel section the car continues to fight. Not a single corner goes as planned until I finally make it into the last corner before the middle section at Glen Cove. Back onto pavement, the car is still a handful and runs very wide coming up into George's Corner, the first hairpin in a long succession that takes you above the treeline and into the alpine zone. The tires are scrubbing violently, losing countless seconds in the process. I try a different approach each time, nothing seems to be any quicker. I use the handbrake to get it sliding through a corner and I find the antilag isn't working proper and I have no power to get the wheels spinning on corner exit. The car slides to almost a halt as I grab first and try to salvage what's left. The next corner I run a clean race line and don't lose much. Soon, I come up into 16 Mile and in a last ditch effort, try pitching the car sideways fast and early hoping I'll have enough time to get power and pull through to the exit. The effort proves overzealous and I slide backwards into a ditch against the only snowbank on the entire mountain. In the process, I come within inches of taking out a photographer. Courtesy of my good friend four wheel drive, I fire the car up and pull out back onto the main straight with only seconds lost and head up into the top section of the mountain. This is the final stretch. It's all gravel, it's fast and it always scares the shit out of me. Last year I lost the race on this very section because the gravel was loose and the car wasn't set up for it. This year Im hoping for better conditions but find it unfortunately even looser than the year previous. There has been an unusual two day dry spell and the road hasn't seen any rain since Friday. This means the dirt has become loose and gravelly and combined with the dry-biased setup on the car, it makes for a twitchy difficult to control race car. I make through the first couple corners, braking early, easy on the throttle. I make one or two corners count and come up into the final corner before the summit. It's Olympic, one of my favorite corners albeit one of the more difficult. Some of the drivers who have already completed the course are watching and they turn as I come up into the tight right corner. I trail the brakes in, the car begins to slide right, I yank the handbrake and the car finds a tight inside line. The power comes on easily and I slide through on a much cleaner line than expected. I maintain some bit of dignity through there and across the finish line and slide the car sideways in a wild display of joy before pulling up behind the other parked cars and climbinb out. A month ago I decided for the sake of health and physical and mental well-being I wasn't having any soda until I made it to the summit. In honor of that, I packed a camera bag with six Dr. Peppers for this very occasion. I climbed out of the car breathing heavily and slowly peeled back my gloves, helmet and balaclava. All of them wet, my eyes teary from the wind and dust. I go to the trunk, pull out my bag and open a soda. Worth every bit of wait, it's the best drink I ever had. A half dozen reporters come over to ask if I was the guy who went into the snowbank. One guy asks what happened, another asks how much time I think I lost and another asks if I knew I almost took out a photographer. Consumed, I give them all a vertical index finger and swallow my soda. "Can I have 10 seconds?" I ask. Everyone backs away and smiles as I catch my breath. I walk to the first guy "Now what's this about a snowbank?" I ask. He grins and puts a microphone up and begins to ask me all kinds of questions about course conditions, my run, my history on the peak, etc. I manage to get enough out to make a useful interview and go to the next guy. This time it's the radio. My family and crew are down somewhere on the mountain with a portable radio and I know they're hearing some portion of this. I tell them what they want to hear and meander off to take in the air at the summit and visit with the handful of friends who made it. A few minutes pass and I come up to my buddy Leon who's visiting with somebody. He grabs my shoulder and shakes me and asks "How is it, Mr. Winner?" "I don't know, you'd have to ask somebody who won," "YOU did, mate!" he says as I stare blankly for a few seconds before it sets in. I begin to stumble and almost collapse. "Where's Marty?!" I ask suddenly stunned at the thought that I don't see him anywhere. "He flipped it down at bottomless pit." Leon tells me. "You won it!" It's a bittersweet moment as I'm torn between the undeniable thirst-quenching, heart warming, overwhelming feeling of taking the win and the concern and heartbreak I feel for Marty. "How is he?" I ask. Nobody seems to know too much for the moment but from the radio and the bits of information seeping through here and there it appears he is ok.
A couple hours of walking around on the summit, taking naps in the car and visiting with friends and it's time to head back down. The fans line the road to give fives. Around 16 mile, many are enthusiastic about the spin, the whole mountain has something to say about the graphics on the car. I reach 11 mile where I know the crew is and I see Merek in the black and pink Rally Ready T-shirt. I pull out of the procession and towards him right as a swarm of arms fly up in the air and I hear a chorus of cheers from crew and family as I pull along and drive past. Arms are going in the car, people jumping up and down, cameras flashing and a bag of home made beef jerky lands in my lap courtesy of my mom. It is clear they got the news.
Back in the pits, Wes walks over refusing a handshake and goes right for a hug. He knows all the work this week and the week before has been worth it. We discuss the climb, the win and the Conleys. I go see Marty's mechanic and ask if he has any news and he says not yet. At the awards ceremony I find out he's in the ER getting checked out for chest pain. Later that evening he is released with a clean bill of health.
The crew and family come down, we talk, hug and take pictures. After a brief awards ceremony (where for the fourth year in a row, I finished on the podium and didn't get a trophy,) we packed up cars and trucks and headed home. Miraculously, I stayed awake for the duration of the evening talking to family and crew before getting some well deserved rest.