by John P. M. Dillon
October 2-3, 1999 - Prescott, Arizona
In an idyllic setting found in Arizona Highways magazine, under perfect Prescott sunny skies, Noel Lawler and Charlie Bradley clinched the SCCA Michelin ProRally championship by winning the Prescott Forest ProRally. So far, 1999 has been a season of unexpected results. The Lawler/Bradley team is the only pair to win more than one race (they won three - Wild West, Ojibwe, and Prescott). Second on the podium were Mike Whitman and Flynn Baglin, but not in the Sierra Cosworth that normally takes Whitman to the top. Instead, they drove a venerable old Group 2 Datsun ("not Nissan!") 510, a car built long before the Prescott Forest Rally was a gleam in anyone's eye. The Group 5-winning Ruby's Toyota carried Ralph Kosmides and Joe Noyes to third overall just ahead of Henry and Cindy Krolikowski's Group 5 Dodge Shadow.
Production GT was the most hotly contested class of the day. Seamus Burke and Tom Lawless narrowly edged out local wizards Roger Hull and Sean Gallagher for the win, with only three seconds separating the two teams after 100 stage miles and 235 total miles. Burke/Lawless finished sixth overall. Lee Shadbolt and Claire Chizma finished fourth in the class behind Patrick Richard and Ben Bradley, thus moving Chizma to within 0.2 points of the PGT co-driver points leader John Dillon.
Karl Scheible and Gail McGuire, who clinched the Production championship at Ojibwe, dropped out of the rally after the rough roads of Mingus Mountain proved too tough for their VW New Beetle. Peter Malaszuk and Darek Szerejko capitalized on the Beetle's problems to win the class in their factory-sponsored Daewoo Nubira.
The Widget International Rally Team (Mark Tabor and John Dillon) was honored with the inaugural Carl Merrill Sportsmanship Award. "This award honors Carl Merrill, a racer who always believed in sportsmanship," said Jeff Hendricks, one of the rally's organizers. Together the workers and organizers decided who best deserved this award. Michael Taylor, another organizer, explained why Tabor and Dillon were the inaugural recipients. "At every stage these guys made a point of thanking our workers for volunteering their time to stand in the dust and heat and make the rally possible. They really went out of their way to make our workers feel appreciated." Dillon, not known for his quiet demeanor and a past president of the Conejo Valley Toastmasters club (an organization dedicated to improving one's speaking skills), was rendered speechless by the award at the banquet. Out on the stages, however, he and Tabor were vocal in their support of the volunteers. They also delivered bags of candy at each checkpoint, telling the crews "You guys have eaten plenty of dust today--here's something sweet for a change."
In an effort to make the rally more affordable for competitors, the organizers compressed the rally into a one day format. Additionally, the first stage was a short race through the Yavapai County Fairgrounds before hundreds of spectators (despite the early hour). The fairgrounds, usually a horse-racing facility, proved an excellent venue to show off our sport to the uninitiated, and most of the competitors enjoyed it as well. Two representatives from ProDrive, an English company that prepares the factory Subaru World Rally Championship cars, came out west to scope out American rally action. They're looking at the possibility of importing cars and parts next year.
The racing drama unfolded even before the first stage began. Due to turbo oil line problems, Paul Choiniere and Jeff Becker's Hyundai Tiburon had to exit Parc Expose (and thus garner significant penalties) to affect repairs. Although late, they were able to start the first stage and collect desperately needed starting points, but they were concerned about the leak causing an engine fire so they retired after completing the run through the fairgrounds. At this point it became Lawler's rally to lose.... unless he could keep his Hyundai on the road for the duration.
Dark horse contenders Lauchlin and Farina O'Sullivan stormed across the early stages in a 15-year old Audi. At the first reseed they were tied with Lawler/Bradley as fastest on the road. Shortly thereafter an unexpected jump ripped up the O'Sullivan transmission, but crew chief Kevin and his team cobbled the car back together. They also suffered a broken throttle cable, but the two know how to "press on regardless." Farina worked the cable by hand while Lauchlin steered and braked when necessary so the brother-sister rallyists could go on to finish second in the Open class. Their finishing position catapulted the pair into the California Rally Series championship points lead. George Plsek and Renn Phillips, in a much newer Audi S2, suffered suspension problems on the turn-around stage. They limped across the finish line just 24 seconds ahead of the Production-class Neon of Trevor Donison and John Allen. The Neon earned Donison and Allen the 1998 Production championship, but a 10-minute tire change cost the team any chance of contending for the podium at this event.
Mark Brown and Ole Holter had a fine run to finish second in Production, in preparation for a full National run next year. They were caught out by the same unexpected jump the O'Sullivans found. "I thought we'd never get the wheels back on the ground," said Brown. "I told Ole to recalibrate the odometer to subtract out the mile we flew!" The team actually picked up the pace when they lost second gear. "I had to keep the revs up in third gear to keep from bogging down, so I ended up going faster."
The Krolikowskis, challenging Kosmides and Noyes for the Group 5 win, were hindered by a broken panhard rod on Stage 8. At the end they were able to patch the rod with a ratchet strap, but their hopes to win were dashed by the delay despite having traded fast times with the Ruby's Toyota all day.
Bryan Hourt and Pete Cardimen were hooked up and flying through the early stages in their Honda Civic. Several reports listed them as second overall, but at the finish they'd slipped back to fifth, though they did claim second in Group 2 ahead of Bill Malik and Eric Tremblay. Malik and Tremblay (who substituted for Christian Edstrom) dealt with chronic fuel starvation problems in their Volvo 740 and had to stop several times to address the situation.
The Production GT race proved especially exciting. Lee Shadbolt's driving style and Subaru Impreza are ideally suited for the tight, rough twisty roads of the Prescott's early stages, putting him and co-driver Claire Chizma up front. As the day wore on and the roads opened up, horsepower became more critical, allowing the Mitsubishi Galant VR4 of Seamus Burke and Eagle Talon of Roger Hull to jump to the top. Canadian rallyist Patrick Richard and multi-experienced Ben Bradley worked their way ahead of Shadbolt as well, but Shadbolt's key competitors, Gail Truess and Pattie Hughes, were relegated to fifth place by Shadbolt's skill and early margins. Mark Tabor, driving in his first National event, joined PGT co-driver points leader John Dillon at Prescott for a sixth place finish. A couple of flat tires were fixed between stages and didn't impact their results too severely, but when they dove into the first corner on Stage 8, Tabor's brake pedal went the floor. He quickly grabbed the hand brake to negotiate the turn and for the next 23 miles (Stages 8 and 9) he drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on the brake lever. Matters were complicated further when darkness fell before Stage 9 began. "We were unable to install our driving lights at the previous service break," said Tabor, "so we lacked the necessary candlepower, in addition to the stopping power, to set a quick time on this stage." Several other competitors faced the same lighting problem.
A lot of contenders complained about the roughness of the roads, but some folks enjoyed the challenge. Oklahoman "Mad" Mike Halley, racing with Emily Burton-Weinman to third-in-class (Production), summed it up this way: "What cool roads!" Tabor and Dillon enjoyed them too, adding "they're the same for everybody." Dillon had gone off the road "big time" in the 1998 event while co-driving for Fred Ronn, just a few minutes into the first Saturday stage; he pointed out the problem area for Tabor's amusement. Mike Whitman recognized the value of an old 510 in Prescott. "You'll notice these trophies have a 510 on them.... that's because it's the best car for these conditions!" he said.
Several local hotshoes were waylaid by mechanical problems and rough roads. Tony Chavez and Ken Cassidy first encountered a power steering fluid leak, which started a small engine fire. After extinguishing the fire, they continued, but the fire melted a tiny oil gauge line, causing an oil leak and then another small engine fire. They quenched that fire as well, though they'd lost considerable time by then. Though a little fire couldn't stop the team, a broken crossmember finally ended their day before sunset. ClubRallyists Paul Timmerman and Ola Lysenstoen rolled their Mazda 323 GTX a mile from the end of Stage 4 after taking a slow corner at high speed. Timmerman, who works for the Jet Propulsion Labs, calculated that "This event was 1.3 times as rough as Rim of the World." Paul Eklund and Dave Jameson were sidelined on stage 5 by a rock that took out their crankshaft position sensor. Earlier they dealt with strut failures, a plight that befell the Shadbolt team as well.
It's interesting to note that the top five finishers in the first ClubRally were in five different classes: the O'Sullivan clan (Open), Burke/Lawless (PGT), Malaszuk/Szerejko (Production), Chad Dykes/Deborah Fuller(Group 2), and Tom Liljequist/Roine Anderson (Group 5). The order shuffled a bit for the second ClubRally. At the top was Richard/Bradley ahead of Liljequist/Anderson, Burke/Lawless, Malik/Tremblay, and Peter Workum/Lon Peterson. Yes, you read that correctly--Lon Peterson rode in the ballast seat in the old (but always dominant) Plymouth Fire Arrow. Doug and Sue Robinson won the Open class in the second Club Rally, while Malaszuk/Szerejko took home another ClubRally trophy as well.
Ron Wood and Kelly Walsh hoped to finish the event so they didn't push too hard at first.According the Ron, "I just took it too easy on the rough trails that were supposed to be stages, hoping to save the car for later." Unfortunately for the pair, the intercooler coolant tank fail on Stage 7 which effectively took them out of the event since it also cost them their oil cooler. The best result their formidable Audi could muster was 3rd in Open class (16th overall). They DNF'd the second ClubRally. The Dykes/Fuller truck was another vehicle to DNF part 2. Electrical problems was the apparent cause--at the service break they were asking competitors for an alternator. A partial brake loss, a punctured radiator, and a flat tire didn't make things any easier for them either.
The local rally contingent consisted of three teams: Cable and Tyler Rhodes, Roger Hull and Sean Gallagher, and David Rodgers and Tim Flood. All three Prescott teams completed the journey for a local success rate of 100%. The finish was especially gratifying for Cable--it was his first finish in four starts. This does NOT imply that his day went without incident. Some of you may recall that last year he stopped in transit to check something under the RX7's hood, which required he remove his light bar. When the checkout was complete, he climbed back in the car and took off, realizing just microseconds too late that the light bar was still on the ground in front of the Mazda! One year and one crunched light bar later, Cable and Tyler were racing down the turn-around stage when they hit a seriously hearty dip. According to Cable, the light bar become an aero device and flew off the car, landing in the middle of the road. At the turn-around rendezvous, the competitors behind him reported that the bar looked intact. However, no one told Nick Taylor and Pete Morris about the expensive hardware on course. In the twilight they zoomed up on it and, unable to avoid without drastic consequence, flattened the assembly. Sigh. Cable assures us that he'll weld it in place next year!
Mike Halley and Emily Burton-Weinman felt they had a chance to catch Brown/Holter in the second ClubRally. "I did not realize at the time that the turning point of the battle between Mark and I came at the second half of the turnaround stage (Stage 8)," recounted the driver. "Mark was alert enough to ask George Plsek to allow him to start in front of the ailing Audi and was allowed to. I, on the other hand, not only started behind George but also two minutes behind the brake-less Tabor 323 GTX." He added, "That stage was about the scariest thing I've ever done. Driving on nothing but low beam headlights in choking dust we almost came to a complete stop twice. There were times we were not going 10 mph but we still managed to catch and pass both the Plsek Audi and the Tabor Mazda. Once clear of the Oregon car we were back to running 80 mph again and finished the stage with a flurry. But the damage had already been done. We lost at least two minutes to the Corolla on that stage." Though this helped Brown to cement his position for the event, Halley redeemed himself by finishing 12th overall while setting the fastest Production time on the next-to-last stage.
Mick Kilpatrick and Jim Gillespie showed real teamwork in Prescott. Perhaps the only active rally competitors from the Rocky Mountain division, they took turns driving "Yumper," their old Dodge Omni. Mick drove the first ClubRally, then swapped seats with Jim for "Phase 2." Rookie Steve Westwood teamed up with pseudo-rookie Alex Gelsomino to compete in Group 2. Gelsomino has rallied in Europe but this was his first "no pace notes, no pre-running" rally. The two were there at the finish, finishing 4th in Group 2 behind Kilpatrick/Gillespie, then 3rd in Group 2 behind Gillespie/Kilpatrick.
The next ProRally event, the season finale, is the Lake Superior ProRally on Oct 22/23. The next local rally, Treeline, is November 13th in Monrovia, California.