It’s not unusual for a married couple to have a shared hobby, passion or interest. And it’s certainly not uncommon for them to be competitive with each other during these activities.
But how many couples do you know that are competing professionally at the very top of a sport? And how many of them are actually competing directly against each other while doing so?
Enter stage right, Alex and Rhianon Gelsomino. Both live and breathe rallying, are professional co-drivers in their own right and this year are fighting one another for the coveted American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National title.
Oh, and they’re doing so alongside two of the biggest legends in US rallying history too: Ken Block and Travis Pastrana.
Competing in the same country, series or rally is nothing new to Alex and Rhianon though. What’s new is gunning for the same overall national title, but it’s something they’re both relishing.
“I think the nicest thing is finally we’ve worked so hard in both our careers and this opportunity has come up that we can both be racing in top cars for a championship, and that to me is really important because a lot of the time one of us is trying to win a rally but the other might be in two-wheel-drive trying to win two-wheel-drive or something like that,” Rhianon tells DirtFish.
“I know how hard Alex and I work and how hard we’ve worked in our careers competing overseas and all over the world, developing our skills to really become the co-drivers we’ve been able to become.
“So the opportunity to work with Travis is fantastic because it means that we’re both at the top of the level of the sport here in America, in factory rides, doing what we love and that’s probably one of the most important things to me.”
Australian-born Rhianon and Italian Alex have had differing journeys to reach the top of rallying, but nobody can deny that they deserve it. Their services are frequently in demand all over the world, but it’s their current seats with Pastrana and Block that are garnering the most attention.
Alex has partnered Block practically ever since Ken started rallying in 2005 while Rhianon linked up with Pastrana midway through 2020. It’s a relationship that is already bearing fruit though, as Pastrana and Gelsomino have won all three ARA rounds of the season so far.
Alex’s 2021 season meanwhile is yet to reach top gear. He and Block spent the last ARA round, DirtFish Olympus Rally, learning their Vermont SportsCar-built Subaru yet still managed to finish second. Before that, they’d taken a Škoda Fabia R5+ to second on the 100 Acre Wood Rally.
When we go to events we barely see each other. We don’t get the same flights together unless it just so happensRhianon Gelsomino
This weekend’s Southern Ohio Forest Rally should offer some much-needed continuity though as Block and Gelsomino look to take down the Pastrana/Gelsomino juggernaut.
Which brings us on rather nicely to the reason you’ve probably clicked on this article. What is it like for a husband and wife to be going toe-to-toe for rally wins, and potentially, a championship title?
Over to you, Alex.
“It’s a great question and it’s an unusual scenario like you said. At first it was a bit strange I think to deal with it, but to be honest we’ve sort of got used to it now. It’s been great to see our last name on the top two of the last two events and we’re both pretty much team-mates at this point and we enjoy seeing Travis and Ken as such a great friendship.
“They’ve known each other [for years] and Ken has been a sponsor of Travis since he was early in his motocross career so there is a lot of friendship in this relationship, obviously we’re husband and wife but at the end of the day we see them and they see us as opponents, and our ultimate goal is to beat them.
“And when we lose to them and when they’re going to lose to us eventually, it’s going to be the same feeling as losing to anyone else. We are professional in our sport and we have the trust of our sponsors, and Rhianon and I have the trust of our drivers.”
Rhianon interjects: “I think what’s sometimes important is a lot of people see Alex and I as husband and wife and they think we go to rallies together and stay in the same hotel room, and even when we’re not working with Ken and Travis we do our job which is to be a co-driver.
“So when we go to those events we barely see each other. We don’t get the same flights together unless it just so happens. Alex left for this next rally on Monday and I didn’t leave until Tuesday. We’re staying at the same hotel but we don’t stay in the same hotel room.
“There’s so much going on because he and I are two professional co-drivers trying to win the rallies. Yes we’re husband and wife when we’re at home but when we go to these races our ultimate goal is to do the best we can for our team and our drivers.
“It’s quite funny, a lot of people look at us and go ‘what, you don’t stay together?’ but we’re competing directly against each other, that would just be unfair to both of us. We’d be fighting over who’s using the desk in the room: ‘Oh no Travis has got to work now,’ ‘but Ken’s working late!’ It would just be a complete disaster”.
“It wouldn’t work!” says Alex. “And to me, I actually like to compare a lot to something that happened in Formula 1 a few years ago, if you remember Susie Wolff was testing and was the test driver for Williams and Toto Wolff was managing the Mercedes Formula 1 team.
“[It was a] similar scenario of a married couple working for competitor teams, so it’s something you don’t see often in motorsport but occasionally you do see it.”
Naturally then, there’s a competitive spirit to this relationship but there’s also a lot both Alex and Rhianon have learnt from each other too. Alex feels being married to another professional co-driver is a “clearly an advantage” as they’re learning almost twice as quickly as others because they can lean on each other’s experiences.
It’s actually been quite critical to have someone that fully understands. Maybe in our previous relationships that wasn’t the caseAlex Gelsomino
“I mean think about it, having another professional co-driver in the same household, you share experiences sometimes, you share failures, because you learn the most from failures and making mistakes. You’re actually subconsciously learning from your spouse’s experience and vice versa,” he says.
“I may be doing a rally in the Middle East and Rhianon may be doing a round of the Australian championship so there is double the experience then when we get back home and we chat about what happened over the weekend.”
“I definitely agree,” adds Rhianon. “You’ll talk to other professionals and you’ll share ideas and things like that but a lot of the time you don’t share certain things with each other because sometimes they’re fighting for the same jobs you’re fighting for inside that car.
“Whereas with us we’ve been lucky as if there’s a job I can’t do I can hand it off to Alex and if there’s been a job Alex can’t do he can hand it off to me, and like he said if one of us makes a mistake we talk about it with each other and we make sure those things don’t happen.
“That level of understanding helps on a personal as well as a professional level too. If one of Alex or Rhianon returns home and was in an accident or just generally had a bad weekend, they can speak to somebody across the other end of the table that knows exactly how they’re feeling.
It can’t be underestimated how important that is for somebody competing at an elite level of sport. You’ll often hear of athletes that struggle to find people who can truly relate to them, but that’s certainly not the case with the Gelsominos.
“One of the most important things about our relationship is if one of us has a crash, the other one knows what you’ve been through,” says Rhianon. “So you’re not just arriving home to someone that doesn’t understand what you’ve actually been through or the feelings that you’ve encountered or things like that.
“There’s been some times when Alex and I are racing on the stage and one of us has crashed and you have to go past the other one, giving you the thumbs up and those sort of things so you know exactly what that person’s been through.
“Our house is full of rally pictures and all those things because rally is our life obviously and we talk rally a lot in our household but then also we have times where we say ‘hey, we need to shut off from rally for a bit because that’s all we’re talking about.’
“So those sort of things are important in a relationship when you’re doing what we’re doing because at the end of the day it is dangerous and it’s one of those sports that takes 100% commitment, so for us that’s been really important in our lives.”
“Yeah I couldn’t agree more,” Alex says. “It’s actually been quite critical to have, like you said on the other side of the table, someone that fully understands. Maybe in our previous relationships that wasn’t the case and so we have experienced that opposite side of the story as well and I can tell you it’s very, very difficult.
“And it’s what the majority of our competitors in our sport or motorsport in general face because it’s not every day that a NASCAR driver, a rally driver, an F1 driver, their partner is also a driver or a top-level competitor, that is actually very rare.
“We have experienced what it means, and it’s very, very important and I wish more competitors could have that instead of having a partner that is whinging because he or she wants to go skiing while the guy or the lady needs to get prepared for the next race.”
When DirtFish calls, that next race in Ohio is a couple of weeks away but as you read this, both Alex and Rhianon are flat-out into their pre-event preparations. Neither is willing to give their partner any sort of an advantage.
“We’re preparing for the next round of the American championship right now as we speak and we are on two separate desks in two separate rooms and we haven’t discussed anything about the event, we haven’t talked about the event yet because we know it’s a fine line at the moment,” Alex reveals.
“We finished first and second and the one that was second wants to finish first and the one that finished first wants to keep winning. Sometimes you have a scenario where someone is having a bad season and as team-mates you can help each other but that’s absolutely not the case right now, it’s actually quite the opposite.
“On the last couple of events we have finished second, Ken and I, which many see as a good result but for Ken and I it’s not a good result and for many drivers and co-drivers it is not a good result.
“So for me getting on that plane and flying back home with your spouse who’s been the one who’s beaten me has been really hard, but that’s the ultimate ride of me working even harder. It’s actually something I noticed really on the last event, I worked harder.”
Rhianon concurs. “We’re always 100% competitive,” she says. “You know if we go tenpin bowling or mini golf, we’re always so competitive against each other, that’s just our nature and I think to be a professional co-driver you have to have that 100% competitive nature in you, because otherwise you just do it as a hobby.
“There are lots of co-drivers who love rally, have a normal job, then turn up to the rallies and they love it because it’s their hobby. We love rally but it’s also our job.
“Even though there’s some times we’re working with the person on their first rally and we’re training them, the competitive nature still is in the fact you want to see them progress and you want to see the skills you’ve taught them used in the event and things like that, versus a lot of people I think are just out there having fun.”
With all that being said then, who’s going to win SOFR on Saturday?
They both laugh.
“Me!” exclaims Rhianon.
“No, I won’t jinx it but maybe we can talk to you after the rally…” Alex responds in amongst collective laughter.
We’ll leave that one there, shall we?