Rallying. It’s what we love here at DirtFish Rally School, it’s what we do.
And that point couldn’t have been made any clearer than last weekend when a strong number of our team members took to the Tour de Forest stages, right here in Washington!
Nate Tennis, Jason Cochell, Michelle Miller, Romain Beaulieu and Josie Rimmer (plus Ryan Skinner who was part of Josie’s crew) were all out in the woods on Saturday, doing what they loved most.
Nate was making his first rally start in over a year behind the wheel of a Volvo 940 Turbo, but unfortunately wouldn’t make it beyond stage three.
“With how terribly last year went, I really wasn’t interested in competing in anything for a while, but I finally got the bug back and wanted to try again. Especially with this being my 25th year, I had to figure out some way of competing,” he said.
“Maybe we’d have been smarter waiting until next year,” he laughed, “with everything that went wrong, it wasn’t the smoothest rally for us. What ultimately did it was when the rear differential blew up on stage three.”
Despite his day job revolving around rally cars, Nate admitted he “felt very rusty” at Tour de Forest – an event that was shortened significantly due to a fire risk the day before the rally.
“One of the things that made me feel most rusty was this being a totally blind rally,” he explained.
“My formative years in rallying revolved around no pacenotes, but it’s been a while since I’ve not used them now! So to go back to a blind rally in a car I wasn’t comfortable in, in conditions I wasn’t comfortable in… yeah, it was nerve-wracking.
“But I really want to give so much props to the organizers because they already had to reduce the overall mileage and then had this huge curveball thrown at them right in the middle of everything and were very, very close to canceling the event. But they knuckled down and worked very, very hard to make it happen so a huge amount of props to them.”
“They had to also regroup the volunteers and they had to all come in like six hours earlier, so people were up at 2.30am so that they could come down and help us run the event which was really, really cool,” Michelle added.
“I don’t think anyone has any interest in setting the woods on fire as it could potentially end rally as we know it in the United States, so we were all really happy to go and race all thanks to their hard work and dedication.”
There's a special connection with that car for sure, and I’ve got to say that it was pretty cool to be back in itMichelle Miller
Michelle was used to last minute schedule changes though, as her initial plans to compete fell through. But a text message from Jason two days before the rally led to her jumping back into the hot seat, and in a rather special car.
“Jason bought one of the original DirtFish Group N cars that we started the School with. He bought number 39 – he came and did a three-day program and just fell in love with the car so he bought it, drove it back home – didn’t even trailer it – and started rallying with it,” Michelle explained.
“There’s a special connection with that car for sure, and I’ve got to say that it was pretty cool to be back in it. I knew exactly where the handbrake was, and I even got to pull it once because he started creeping into a time control!
“One of the instructors at the time was out spectating and he was really stoked to see that car again, it’s just a neat full circle thing that Jason bought that car, he’s rallying it and now he’s working at DirtFish as an instructor.”
Unfortunately a strong result also went begging for the pair when they ran wide on SS2 and debeaded a tire.
“We did an awesome job on our tire change,” Michelle said, “we got it done in about two minutes, but what we didn’t do very well was putting everything back in the car. The tie-down strap ended up under the tire and we had to pull everything back out again – you’re sweaty, you’re hot, you’re rushing and nothing was working! So it took us about six minutes to get everything back in the car.
“Of course I’m a data nerd, so I looked at how we would have finished if stage two had gone well, and we probably would’ve come in fourth in the L4WD class which isn’t too shabby – there are some very well prepared cars in that class.”
Unfortunately for them, Jason and Michelle were deprived of the same pleasure Josie (making her rally debut which you can read about here) and ARA champion Rhianon Gelsomino got when passing Nate’s broken down Volvo though.
“Nate was mooning us!” Josie laughed.
“That’s proper tradition that was taught to me back in the ’90s, if you break down you have to moon select fellow competitors!” Nate explained.
Romain had a similarly fun time, co-driving his first event (and just his second ever rally at all) alongside Sage Van Tilburg in a gorgeous BMW 325.
“The first stage breezed by pretty quickly – Sage and I would need a little time to get into a rhythm, but while our distances and radiuses were optimistic, the notes overall made sense and Sage was able to squeeze a little speed from them,” Romain said.
In between the two loops we had a bit of time to relax, which was welcome because with overdue shut eye and a spotty diet from a stressful few weeks I was starting to feel itRomain Beaulieu
“It quickly became clear we had a couple loose, technical but fun stages on our hands! In transit to SS2 I had us miss a turn (oops!) but I did my math right and we had time to spare into time control. That second stage started well, but about halfway through something in the notes didn’t quite line up and I lost my pedals for a bit. Sage drove through on sight, I found my way again, and we finished not too far off pace… but the pressure was on!
“In between the two loops we had a bit of time to relax, which was welcome because with overdue shut eye and a spotty diet from a stressful few weeks I was starting to feel it. In fact co-driving turned out to be way more physical than I expected it to be!
“This was also one of my favorite moments of the rally – time hidden in the woods with rally cars all around and like-minded people is hard to beat!
“On SS3 we picked up a bit more pace and headed into the dust of SS4 – a hard cutoff of 1pm shortened intervals and cut quite a few competitors from that stage altogether. I lost my footing again that time but found it back quicker and we still managed to post the third fastest two-wheel-drive time on the stage!”
But how did it compare to driving?
“Quite different! It’s quite a special feeling to start feeling the notes steer the car. You have surprisingly little time to pay attention to the driving itself, it’s mostly peeking at what’s in the distance, feel the corners come through, keep shouting into the mic!
“I’d still prefer to drive a rally… but for events like this when I can’t have my car ready and there’s a seat open, it’s still such a fantastic thing. I’m certainly planning on being back on stage on both sides of the car!”
But individual results and performances aside, what made Tour de Forest so special for team DirtFish was being able to share the experience with friends and colleagues.
“I loved it,” Michelle said, “I had people to cheer for, people’s results to look for besides my own, it’s super fun to have everybody out there and everyone comes back to work super energized and enthusiastic, except for the people who had to stay here working they’re usually a little grumpy!” she laughed.
Nate added: “And honestly we have a fairly young group of people on staff, and some of them haven’t been to a rally so these events are their first foray into the sport in general.
“So it’s fun to take the people that you work with and open their eyes to what a proper rally is and get them to be involved in it, participate and further bury the addiction.”
If you want to feed your addiction for rally, then make sure you get down to DirtFish Rally School and learn from the very best how it’s done. The calendar for 2023 classes is already out, and places are selling out fast!