Thursday, July 3, 2008

Step into my office

Ever wondered what it is like to sit in a four wheel drive turbocharged rally car? Rally Ready driver Dave Carapetyan gives you an e-ride:

Through the intercom into the drivers helmet: 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Go. Left 3 over crest 30. Right three minus down 50. Right four into left 5 20 right five opens long.

The co-driver rattles off a succession of seemingly computer calculated information that means nothing to anybody.. except for me, the driver.

I sit ratcheted down into a bucket of Carbon Fiber wrapped in fireproof fabric. My hands, wrapped in the same fireproof fabric are loosely gripping an aluminum steering wheel lightly clad in suede. My feet, wrapped in.. you guessed it, fireproof fabric, dance between a stack of pedals. My right foot generally fluttering up and down on the throttle while my left foot wildly dances between the clutch and brake pedal in an effort to transfer the weight from corner to corner, helping slide the car on the narrow gravel path swirled through a maze of trees.

With the tall task of keeping a 400hp car somewhat sane on a narrow gravel road, the idea of not only hearing what the co-driver says but translating that from gibberish to steering, throttle and brake information adds an entire new realm of insanity to the already intense equation.

5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Go. Foot squeezes open the throttle, clutch foot slips out, just long enough to zip to seven thousand RPM. Clutch back down, right hand goes to second, steering wheel goes left, throttle still wide open. Clutch back in, 3rd gear. A few feet at full speed, all of a sudden the road drops off ahead, turn the car left, start braking, steer right, lift off the brake and blip the throttle just long enough to get the car to change directions, back on the brakes as the car is sliding and scrubbing off speed. Down the hill the road goes right.. same direction as the car luckily. Apparently the rally binary spewing out of the co-driver means something as the car is miraculously maintaining the small margin between the car and trees. Towards the middle of the corner, back on the throttle, in second gear somehow (when there was time to shift is anyone's guess) through a series of corners the car is flat out with a tap on the brakes every now and again to change the direction of the slide. At a T with another road, the car slows from 70 mph down to a school zone friendly 20 and the hand reaches down not for the shifter but the big vertical handbrake. A pull of this cheater bar sends brake pressure to the rear wheels causing the car to slide an even tighter radius and point the car straight on the new road. Slam the throttle back down for a half mile drag race. I reach down and tighten my seatbelt straps. Over a cattle guard, the car pops in the air and lands just in enough time to hit the brakes and handbrake our way off onto another road.

New road, the dynamics change. It's narrow. Rock face on one side, hill on the other. The corners are technical and the Co-driver has shifted into overdrive reading two corners ahead. Where you enter a corner also determines where you exit therefore the entry position for one corner often determines the position for the next three. Get it wrong and at best lose a few seconds, at worst lose a car or a life. "Left four opens 30 into jump. 20 jump. 20 big jump right six over crest." I'd like to pretend I'm professional enough not to entirely keep my cool but between the nervousness of keeping the car in one piece and the excitement of leaping through the air in a car, a few extra beads of sweat form. Exiting the left four, the steering goes back to straight. Approaching the first jump, brake lightly and then apply full throttle to hurl all the vehicle's weight back. All four wheels spinning, the engine taps the rev limiter and the wheels come back down. 20 meters to regain composure and they're up again. Back down and it's time for the big show.

A six is the fastest of all the corners, the numbers loosely correlating to the appropriate gear. This means my job is to keep the car on a road which is not only going to turn but send my car flying through the fastest measurable corner while it does so. That is, assuming the note was called correctly. Since I can't see any of it, I'm relying on the trust I have in my co-driver and his notes to keep us both alive. I turn the car right, begin to slide towards the trees. The road goes up and drops away just as he promised. While floating about waiting for physics and our good friend gravity to chime in, I'm looking at where Mr. Chatterbox told me the road was. I see trees, grass, rocks, I see people some cheering, some with their hands over the mouths, some running. The possibility always exists that he made the mistake of saying left when he meantright or six when he meant two. Both would mean the car is on its final flight and taking us both down with it. Luckily, cut narrowly through all that is a road. Right smack dab where he said it would be. Our rubber meets the road once again and the onslaught of legalized automotive brutality continues. Both fixed on our jobs, working in a symbiotic battle to find the limit of every law of physics without crossing that deadly line.

Unfortunately, sometimes the cards don't fall in your favor. As the old saying goes: There are two kinds of rally drivers. Those who have rolled their cars and those who will.

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