The Festival Of Motorcycling

I went to the Isle Of Man to watch some motorcycle races. 

These were not the (in)famous ‘Tourist Trophy’ (TT) races; those were held earlier this year, as they’ve been ‘most every year since 1907. The IOM TT races are contested by the best young & fearless talent, on the latest & fastest two-wheeled machinery. The IOM TT is billed variously as ‘The World’s Ultimate Road Race’ (by the promoters) and as ‘one of the most dangerous racing events in the world’ (by knowledgable observers). A few moments spent on youTube can demonstrate the IOM TT’s essential character: ludicrous speed on narrow roads lined with trees and stone walls. Full-course average speeds are around 135mph.

The TT is iconic, but for me as a spectator, kind of one-dimensional. The motorcycles all look and sound and perform alike. You’ve got to check the number as it goes by to know one from another. I don’t have a favorite rider to cheer for, and I lack the long term association with the race that would make me keen to follow the tiny differences.

The other races held on the island, the ones I attended, were the Manx Grand Prix and the Classic TT. The first of these is essentially a qualifier for riders hoping to graduate to the TT; bikes are somewhat smaller and somewhat slower, and the competition is a bit — just a bit — looser. That makes for a funner pit – riders and mechanics may occasionally smile and joke, which I doubt you see at the TT. And the second of the races is a distinct animal altogether.

The ‘Classic TT’ is populated with older bikes. The motorcycles were manufactured as old as the 1950s and as new as the 1980s. There’s a tremendous variety of sounds, sights, styles — a veritable cornucopia of mechanical expression. The set as a whole describes the evolution of racing motorcycles, with the path of improvement laid out in physical examples rather than pictures or text. And not ‘as seen in museums’, though many examples are collection-quality; these are here to race.

They’re sometimes piloted by modern stars, but more often by vintage riders who won various TT classes back in the day. From my experience, neither the older technology nor the sometimes older riders lead to a lessening of commitment. The fastest of the Classic TT are circling the course at around 120mph average.

The ‘TT course’ is a linking of four main roads on the island. The A2, southbound through downtown Douglas; west on the A1 to Ballacraine Corner; the A3 to Kirkmichael and north to Ramsey; and then the A18 up across Snaefell Mountain back to Douglas. It’s 37.75 miles in length. During practice, or the races, officials close all of it to other traffic. Practices are 2-to-3 laps; races are 2-to-4 laps. That makes the Classic TT Final about eighty minutes long. It’s hard for me to imagine the level of focus and concentration that’d take.

I went to IOM with two long-time motorcycling partners: Scary Don Siewert, and my younger brother Anton. I’ve ridden with both of these guys for decades. They’re not stodgy, but they’re not psycho. Well, Don used to be psycho, but he’s mellowed. I trust ’em. On Friday, Saturday, and Monday mornings, before breakfast, the three of us made a lap of the TT course. Each time we climbed the summit of the mountain portion, treacherous gusty winds pushed us around on the road. There were painted stripes (slippery!) and iron drain grates (disturbing!) throughout. The off-camber shaded twisties near Glen Helen always seemed moist. So many blind corners… we all knew IOM’s reputation, and these circuits did nothing but cement that reputation in our minds. We were running at, or somewhat above, the speed limit, as the roads weren’t closed, and it took us 58 minutes to make the round. The Classic TT racers were doing it in ~22 minutes.

The course was fascinating, the whole island scenic, and the practices and races entertaining; but the high points for us came from the stupefying range of motorcycles there. Some that none of us had ever seen, and some in great profusion in the amusing presence of so.many.clubs dedicated to such-and-such odd model. There were twelve riders from Sweden who’d come over on their BSA A65s (none newer than 1966). There were the similarly Scandinavian fans of Kawasaki W650s and W800s, motorcycles rare in the U.S.A. but quite a cult classic elsewhere, judging from the hordes of ’em swarming the paddock – each bike customized to suit the owner’s individual preferences. The Ducatis travelled in packs, we saw clutches of older grey-haired couples running about on tiny minibikes like cheerful Hells Angels, the Triumph Bonnevilles were strewn about four to each corner. PLUS the Benellis and Guzzis and holy shit a Harris-framed GS1000, there’s a knot of Greeves, every kind of motor wedged into Norton frames, with tank badges hinting at the type of hybrid: Harton for a sportster engine; VInton for a BlackShadow mill; a big Yamaha V-Twin with the engine case ident polished off in another.

There were sidecars and race bikes and a chopper, I think. There were roving bands of dual-sport riders ‘scrambling’; there were all the latest fastest hyperbikes with their intense owners. There were older two-strokes so heavily customized and updated that only the core of the original remained. And this whole soup of two-wheelers was in constant motion about the island, heading to the museums, working up the back roads to reach a viewing spot on the course, filling the restaurants and inns, every parking lot an impromptu motorcycle show, most every conversation one about the elegant mode of motion which depends on balance and grace, and the crafted mechanisms that enable it.

There are precious few ‘appliance’ motorcycles. The notion of vehicles-of-anonymous-utility does not mesh well with the gentle art of cycling; what would be the point? 

Motorcycles move you in both the physical world and in the inner sanctum. We were moved. And then we came home.

I must say that, sadly, not all of the racers did come home. Even at the Manx GP and Classic TT, the stakes are high, and the penalty for failure is severe.

The TT Course

Or “The Mountain Course”, is a 37.75 mile clockwise loop through four towns, six or ten villages, half-a-dozen roundabouts (taken straight), and a windy wild climb up – and down – a soaring road over the spine of the island.

For the racers, every straight of any length is a chance to gain a slice of a second. If you’re not, the others will. Speeds around the whole are running near 120mph average.

We ran it this morning, before breakfast for a clearer route, and I’d forgotten the first mile by Union Mills.

Have you got it yet?

There’s an apocryphal story about Syd Barrett pranking his band mates by ‘teaching’ them a new song. Every time through the melody he’d change it just a little bit. They thought they were just a little out of practice, or something, they wouldn’t have blamed Syd. After twenty or so slightly – slightly– different repetitions, they wised up. The story says that was the last straw for that incarnation of the band, ’cause no one trusted Syd anymore.

A couple years ago, I wanted a way to close (or open) my garage door via an SMS message. I got the hardware side of things hooked up, using an Internet service that turns SMS messages into webservice calls, and it worked as simple as you please. Text ‘Open door’ to the Internet service, and poof! Up she goes. It even works if you’re two states away.

But I thought it’d be nice to put a simpler face on it, so I built a basic ‘app’ for my Android smartphone. In the background, all the app did was send text messages, but in the foreground:

That’s a picture of the front of the house. Well, actually, it’s three separate pictures: the upper portion (above the doors) is a single image, and then each of the doors down below is its own image. The door images are wired (through the app) so that when you touch one of the doors, it sends the appropriate SMS messsage, and the door on that side should open … or close, depending on where it was when you started. Neat!

I took some severe shortcuts building the app. Normally coders need to account for all kinds of different size screens on phones, so the images they display need to be ‘scalable’ and ‘responsive’ to different screens. Lucky me: Renee’s phone had the same size screen as mine, so a single set of images worked on both fones. The app kept working after we each replaced our phones, because the screens were still the same size!

But around July of this year, the app on Renee’s phone began looking different.

There’s a white margin at the top of the screen, and a white box around the lower images, and it was a lot harder to hit the correct ‘button’ when you wanted a door to move. I thought maybe the app had been corrupted on her phone, so I reloaded it. No difference. Gotta dig deeper. I started up the ‘interactive development environment’ used for building Android smartphone apps, and I had to wade through two dozen “Update available!” messages. At first I tried to ignore the messages, as the previous version of the IDE operated just fine – but a little later I caught the IDE ‘updating’ code anyway. And it wasn’t just updating itself – it was updating the code that I’d written.

The version of the app built with the updated IDE behaved the same on Renee’s phone. More digging, thank Alphabet there’s google. What’s this? Samsung pushed a new version of the Android software to its (well, her) phone in July, and that new version changed the resolution on the screen from ‘quadHD’ to ‘fullHD’. Without asking, even: the manufacturer knows best. So I found the setting and restored the resolution to ‘quadHD’.

Now the app crashes on her phone. The debug messages complain about failing to allocate a huge chunk of memory. Back to the google. What’s this? The Android coding standards say that if you are using images at a fixed resolution, they can’t be stored in the coding project where they used to be. The images must instead be stored over in this other directory.

So I moved ’em, and rebuilt the app. The app works now! (just as it used to).

The pattern for the Android core software and the IDE seems to be: Make slight changes, subtle changes, every single day. For folks who aren’t building apps every single day, there’s no way to keep up. You’re always chasing problems that come out of nowhere. This is the same pattern that Microsoft displayed with successive versions of .NET and the rest of the Windows development stack: change, tweak, change, tweak, change…

When Syd did it, we thought he was malicious.

Geargrinders, 2012-2016

=========================The Game=========================
Lying on my side, in the grass behind the telephone pole with the ALFA clock and clipboard at my elbow, I waited for Car #1. This would be the last match I’d play today, and I’d put some effort into camouflaging my position. During the twenty minutes prior to the Car 0 time, I walked up the farm road collecting brush, and arranged it ‘naturally’ in front of the telephone pole. The first test of the screen came when the Advance crew drove past my position before they saw me.  Excellent!

I don’t know if the game has an official name, but I call it “beep-beep”.  It’s played by two teams, the workers and the competitors. Play proceeds as a series of matches between one or more workers and a  pair of competitors. The workers want to go undetected; the competitors want to spot them. Competitors anounce a spotting by honking the car horn, which gives this game its name. Scoring is simple; +1 to the worker team if there’s no beep, +1 to the competitor if there’s a beep before passing the worker’s spot, and no points either way if the beep comes after the car’s passed. Sounds like a drinking game, doesn’t it? That might not be a coincidence…

So far today I’m ahead. The first location I worked, up on the edge of Rattlesnake Mountain, was on a speedy section of road, so competitors had only a couple seconds to react when they saw my bright red car. But ralliers pay attention to driving – that’s one of the things that makes them sexy – and I left that spot a few points down.  My second location, though, was full of win; I knelt in a fallow field, hidden by the volunteer grass and my light green sweatshirt: +22 for the workers there.

But this spot, my third of the day, is a challenge. There’s nowhere to hide. The young wheat on the left is too fragile to tromp around in, and wouldn’t give cover anyway. On the left, the hill rises gently from the direction that cars will approach, so I’d stick out like a fat lip. The telephone pole itself is too skinny to hide me standing up (they must be making those poles thinner).  I finally hit on the prone position and the tumbleweed camo, but expected a draw – I knew I’d be visible just before competitors passed. I arranged my limbs in-line with the pole to block approaching drivers’ lines of sight, checked my clock, and waited.

Doesn’t the mind wander, when there’s a fixed amount of time to kill. I thought about clouds, and wind power, and what leads folks to buy John Deere when you know IH is just as good, and … well, lots of things. I began to think about how I happened to be lying on the side of the road in farm country, and that made me think about destiny. Check the clock; still 14.32 to go.  Doesn’t that hill over there look like the golf course in Sharon Springs, Kansas? And then I remember how this TSD fascination started, back in that small town in the High Plains…

The town’s South Park lays in a huge, curving low spot carved into the rising prairie south of downtown, with steep sides and sandy soil left over from some ancient meandering of the Eagle Tail river. That watercourse is still nearby, but considerable shrunken from its glory days. As recently as the last century, though, heavy Spring rains would sometimes revive the river for a day or so. In those episodes, enough structures had been proven ‘temporary’ that folks stopped building down near the water, and the whole bowl naturally devolved to public ownership.

The park abuts the county fairgrounds, and the county swimming pool, but those necessities were sited higher, well up off the north bank. The park proper is plain. The city mows it in the Summer, and the Garden Club nurtures some evergreens on the perimeter, but its trees are mostly native Elms and Cottonwood, the groundcover wiry buffalo grass.  Some temporary prosperity sixty years back, probably a corn or wheat boom, allowed the erection of picnic shelters there. A gravel perimeter drive runs atop the outside bank, where Eagle Tail of yon curved back toward the Great Smokey River (R.I.P.), its eventual channel.

You might look at a terrain map and decide that Eagle Tail was destined to go north, to the Great Smokey, but I like to think that it might have turned south and joined the Arkansas… if things happened just a little differently.

The hillier half of the park, closer to downtown, was comparatively undeveloped. The ground didn’t lend itself to playfields or picnicking, and there was no shortage of parking nearby, so it mostly… sat.  In the live-and-let-live social world of the small town, it was open to pretty much anybody for recreation. A handful of dirt bike owners started riding there, and a European-style motocross course quickly evolved. I had a friend with a ported Elsinore, and got a chance to ride that pipey monster – but I never mastered the required rhythm. Bang-bang-bang through the gears, bash the berm, ricochet off and bang-bang-bang again, that’s what it took. I lack the requisite coordination for such antics.

In those days, we knew about only one other form of off-road motorcycle competition: Enduro riding. That form suited me better: hold 23 m.p.h. up this hill, through these trees, then down a slope and through the mud of the riverbottom. Oh, the Penton boys were my heros; I.S.D.T. could have been my first tattoo (and would have been, if it wasn’t for that very wet night in Naples). But while there were some motocross races at South Park (I was even the promoter of one!), there were no Enduros. I wasn’t able to interest anybody else in it, so my own interest and curiosity dwindled… right?  THat’s a common pattern, a kind of passive-aggressive variation on ‘sour grapes’:  “I can’t find anyone to do this activity with – so I guess I must not really want to do it either.”

But destiny, destiny… had other plans.   Still 7 minutes ’til Car 1.   What’s this about elephants?

. . . . .
Reading about Dick Burleson, and the Trask Mountain Nationals, I saw my calling. I built an airbox shroud for my 125, taped an axle wrench to the swingarm, practiced fixing flats. Okay, I practiced whenever I had a flat… my statement is technically correct.

But I never ran an enduro. Even after the Damm family moved to Washington, it was all cross-country or trail riding, with nary a clock to be seen. Precision was about front-tire placement on a rutted hill, or throttle control off jumps; not about the pace.

Hey! Keith Pace was my psych and soc instructor in high school! What a good teacher he was, all irony and sarcasm … 2:56 left before first car.

Funny the things that come to mind, when you’ve got time to kill. What if there was a farmer riding that John Deere, plowing his field, and what he would think of a lone man lying prone behind a tumbleweed pile up against a phone pole? I think it’d be, “Dang city folk are weird”.

The threads that pull us through life are strong. THey’re hard to detect, sometimes, subtle outlines lost in the ground return. All we see are macroscopic manifestations of their influence. We miss the gentle tug, but jump at the crashing china. We’re brought to the thresholds of experiences by unseen forces, and then, /then/,

We Make A Choice.

And as someone said (Satch will know), that choice makes all the difference.

One road leads down into the comfortable hollow, nights by the fire, a cozy blanket and an extra hour in dreamland. The other into positive discomfort, strain, the feel of stinging rain on an upturned face.

Or, if you’re working No Alibi, a prone position just off the gravel of Bently Rd., hoping there are no fire ants. Ahh, I hear a car coming. Ask me about the elephants sometime.
. . . .
Car one did not beep.
Car two did not beep (but I have it on good authority that they saw me).
Car three gave a beep; those guys are always trying to spot us workers. But they didn’t beep ’til they were past, so it was scored as a draw. Credit goes to my tumbleweed camo.

This beep-beep game isn’t just for fun, you know. Hidden checkpoints have a purpose in TSD rallies: they /enforce/ the “on time, all the time” canon. This canon describes an ideal, a perfect goal — it’s also an unachievable goal. Everybody knows (or should know) that you can’t be on time everywhere. The physics of momentum forbid it.

If there’s a 90 left coming up, you’ve got to slow down for it – so the question is, do you go in early and come out on time, or go in on time and come out late? There are a thousand shades of gray between these two extremes, but there’s no perfect solution to this equation. You’ve got to accept some error.

Well, if you knew where the checkpoint was, you could fudge on whichever side didn’t matter. You could explicitly choose to be off time on part of the course, because you were focused on the ‘scoring location’. The canon decrees that that sort of opportunism … (shakes head sadly) should not be rewarded.

Hidden checkpoints force you to minimize error, constantly. They require you to make hard choices. They keep you honest. They are good like gumdrops.

=======Wintry Roads and Cariboo Mishaps=========================

I figured Pablo was a hotshoe. 

Once, on the Port Orford Rally, we were working a control on some little-traveled pavement west of Sutherlin, and he came around the corner and saw us about the time his navigator said, “six down”. WWRRAAZZAZZAowowow said the Subaru and they took two.  That was a hint.

When we took the Primitive Racing Rally School, at the convenient Hillsboro site, he and his team brought us novices up to ‘Beginner’ level through focused driving exercises. Then we faced the Final Exam, a full-sized Rally-X course in the grass. After the students did some familiarization runs, the Perfessor demonstrated the correct technique.  I was stunned at the speed he carried on that field. My supposition grew.

But now I know; and I know because of Hat Creek. 

That’s the name of the first section on this year’s Totem rally. Totem runs in the lower part of the Cariboo Country, along the Gold Rush trail, through south-central British Columbia. The start is in a little desert town called Cache Creek, at the junction of the Trans-Canada Highway and the road that’ll become the Alaska Highway.  The road from the border to Cache Creek was dry this year, a rarity, so it was an easy cruise up the Frasier Canyon.  But we knew it was the calm after the storm; the hills near town showed frosty white, the lowest signs of some serious snowfall over the past two weeks. 

Reports from test excursioners all sounded the same: very slippery up there. I try not to worry about conditions. Our equipment is good, and our priorities are right. (Remember TSD Rule #1, “Stay on the road.”)  We left Rally HQ Saturday morning and went straight to the start of Hat Creek Road.

It starts climbing immediately, long slanted sidehill runs between switchbacks, and by the time we crested the first ridge the gravel disappeared beneath packed snow. Over the next five K, we noticed that there were layers of snow, powder-to-mashed potatoes-to-packed snow-to-ice. Then the road reached the creek, and ran along its gully, near the top of the slope, high up in the trees. 

The surface changed a bit; from bottom up, it was: 
 a layer of rutted ice; 
 another layer of ice with different ruts; 
 a layer of packed snow with still different ruts;
and then 3-5″ of heavy but kind-of-wet stuff.

It was about one lane wide, with nooks and outcroppings and exposures and those damn ruts. And it carried on for quite a while, like a child who’s repeating some silly song over and over, “La-de-doop a-boop ka-nilly doh-da-doh “.  25mph CAST is all t’was ask’d, but we were 20 seconds down.  Another few K to the second control, and we went by it 39 down.

Turns out, that number’s not that bad. Yukon Jim Bowie, scourge of the white roads, Lightning-in-the-Dark, was only 3 under us. I felt pretty good when I saw that later, ’cause Jim can really move on snow.   But car #5, Pablo at the wheel, was just nineteen late.  

Right now I’m trying to imagine myself running, say, ten seconds faster, on pace to be just 29 late. Now I’m imagining the recovery operation.  Brrrr.   And he was /twenty/ seconds faster. Res-pect!

None of the following sections were quite that bad, though there were many more klicks of roads too icy to walk on.  Paul & Yulia led throughout, and finished well ahead of the rest of us. 

Several cars on Saturday forgot Rule #1, including one that ignored Guideline A:  Take snow tires to snow rallies.  A couple cars forgot Rule #1 on Sunday, too.  No serious injuries either day, happily — not even the eagle.

Howzatt?   Well, Sunday morning, transiting back to 100 Mile House from the first section, we saw some crows dining on roadkill. They flew off as we approached.  Three minutes later, an eagle had joined the feast, and when car #6 approached, he took off.  But he misjudged his power, or the car’s speed, and plowed into the driver’s side windshield. The safety glass got a thorough fracturing, but stayed on the job. The eagle took a minute to clear its bird-brain, then flew away.

There’s some metaphor there that I really don’t want to explore, because of what it might suggest about us ralliers. But do you think the eagle went back to the feast?

The Thunderbird rally is the first weekend in February.  If we’re lucky there’ll be snowbanks.

==============What Comes Around=========================

Back in the Aughts there was a 18-month stretch where a certain team was winning all the TSD rallies. They won Totem, they won Thunderbird, they won Night On Bald Mountain, they won Crestline Trail,  Totem again, and won and won and won. 

For that stretch, it’s simpler to list the unpaved rallies they didn’t win:

 ( )   

They won them all. If it had “TSD” in it, they won it.  

It got to be embarrassing among we also-rans. We commiserated, we whined, we conspired, we plotted, we strived – we even encouraged each other! We shared secrets. We placed a liquid bounty for beating them… it went unclaimed. Like an avalanche, they were unstoppable. 

What brought Jason and Brandon to mind, though, wasn’t the period of their total domination – it was from a year or so previous, when Renee and I were starting to understand touring rallies. We’d pulled a pretty good score on the first day of a two-day rally, and we heard through the grapevine that they’d noticed. Pep-talking his cohort for the second day, Jason said, “We can’t come in behind the Damms — they’ve only been rallying a couple years!”

So let’s talk about the Monte Shelton Northwest Classic, just completed. 

The NWCR starts with Thursday evening registration, then first car rolls out Friday morning, and it’s rally rally rally ’til late Friday afternoon when the group’s reached the overnight hotel. There’s food, beverages, stories and lies, and scores for the day are posted quickly. Saturday’s pretty much a repeat of Friday, except that the route begins and ends at the overnight hotel so you get to drive all the little roads that aren’t the quickest way to anywhere – so you ralliers are generally the only folks on ’em. Saturday night there’s more food, beverages, stories and excuses, and individual cars get to see their own scores for the day… but the final numbers don’t come out ’til Sunday morning at brunch. 

It’s .. pretty suspenseful. Everyone knows who was running where at the halfway point, but trying to piece together a complete picture of the final standings before they’re announced is tough (see above, stories, lies, and excuses). And there are a mix of classes, sort-of akin to GG’s ‘equipped/unequipped’ split. The best of the lower-equipped cars are well up into the equipped ranks, and with 77 entrants, there’s a lot of possibilities to juggle and hypothesize about.

Even if you can’t suss out the whole picture, you can tell who had a good day Saturday, ’cause they’re beaming. Like us: we were patting each other on the back that night, “Nice adjusting, Renee!”   “Thanks, Marinus, real smooth driving.”    “We were on fire, just 60 points!”  Super=cheer=squad, activate!

Then we talked with the two guys in car #6, who — as near as I can tell — only run this rally.  Their Friday score was swollen over 150 with a couple of trap penalties, but their Saturday score…  uhmmm… 

   their Saturday score was a 44. Not the lowest of the day, mind you, but very VERY good. 

And they’ve only been rallying a couple years.

  • – – – 
    Summary of the event:

Pablo & R. Dale took the overall win, and the top five cars all carried Geargrinders regulars. April & Marcus wrote it, Kevin and Chris did the checkout, there were tons more workers you know, Russ -n- Katy & the Masterman Crew & Bill -n- Sue: the Grants Pass Ramblers & all the tour leaders wuz us, Unka Satch givin’ ever’body points, sheesh.  It was practically a GG rally.    


When the ferryboat pulls away from its dock, and the propeller shafts spin up, churning the waters aft into a foaming broth, you feel acceleration. You really feel it. 

And you /mostly/ feel it – it’s not like being in your car, pulling away from a light, where the sights and sounds of movement are the primary sensory inputs. On a ferryboat, below decks, sight and sound are secondary. All you see are the walls around you, and the thrum of the engines is a minor thread in the tapestry of unusual and interwoven noises of the ship. There, below decks, speed on the rise, the signals of sight and sound recede in awareness, and the pull (or push) of the deck upon your feet tells the tale.

Once up to cruising speed, the signals through your kinesthesia fade. You must consult other senses to tell if you’re moving. You need to see the bow cutting the water, the curl of its wave slashing down in sheets, the whitecaps trotting by, and the destination’s silhouette swelling in size as you approach it. Or hear the roar of wind along the rail. But when you’re done accelerating, you’re done feeling the change. Oh, you might still notice vibration, or a hard heel to starb’d in a turn, but for the most part… your speed has become regular: the new normal.

And it’s not just speed that becomes old hat. Acceleration’s not immune – if you’ve been on the train pulling out of the station, and surged forward a bit, minutes later, as the engineer eases off the throttle to hold 80, you know you can adjust to acceleration too.
The marvelous things we get used to, the masterpieces we take for granted… there must have been a powerful evolutionary force that brought us this talent for accepting the incredible and quickly rendering it mundane.  We’ve a talent for getting used to things. 

So we cross the water at a tremendous rate, and ne’er think of the wonder. We catapult from rest to 22 knots in a gargantuan blast of energy, then cruise and coast to the end of the crossing. What an achievement is a modern turbine ship, what a marvel! But we grow jaded of even that first surge of power. “Of course my car and I are heaved up and over this pond/lake/river/bay, what of it?  Where’s the hot coffee?”

A talent, sure, but also a curse: why does the amazing flavor of a new variety of beer become commonplace? Why might the sight of an old lover trigger a milder thrill than was’t new? Why isn’t 150 horsepower enough anymore?  

This dulling of repeated experiences is not universal, thank Odin; I’ve just checked some familiar lips-not-my-own, and they’re still loaded with electricity. So, “Whew!” to that. 

But simply put, friends, we must be on our guards. Amazing experiences, amazing opportunities, might go by without attracting our attention. This is a particular risk if we think we already know what they’re about.  Beware this complacency! Especially beware if you lack direct personal experience of the thing… reports from third parties are not a substitute for setting your own feet and eyes – and all the rest – on it. 

Don’t read about the hike, hike it!  
Don’t listen to the stories of the beach, create your own. 
Feel the acceleration.  Feel the wind.  

=========May Is Just A Polite Form Of Can=========================

Practically speaking, “May I have a cookie?” is the refined way to ask, “Can I have a cookie?”  Linguistic fascists declare that ‘may’ is related to permission, while ‘can’ is related to ability.  And this is all tied up, somehow, with ‘would’.

If I say, “Can you lift that 500lb rock for me?”, I’m asking if it’s possible for you to do so; but if I say, “Would you lift that 500lb rock for me?”, I’m assuming it’s possible and I’ve moved on to asking a favor. 

If we reverse the actor-role in this wordplay, there is a difference (the LFs say) between  “Can I have a cookie?”   and   “May I have a cookie?”   The linguistic fascists tut-tut when we use the former, and/or your dad replies, “I don’t know – can you?” 

But this kind of line-drawing is foolishness.  We all bloody well know, through context, whether the question is about ability or about permission.  That is, everyone understands that when we ask, “Can I have a cookie?“, that’s a request for a favor.  This flexibility is one of humankind’s last advantages over the silcon-based intelligences that are slowly surrounding us. We need to practice this flexibility, and keep it strong, for when we need it.

So let’s do some exercises:

  Can I go to the Can Friday Nighter?

Eww. That didn’t really work, did it.  Stuck right in my throat, and I made a face after I said it.   A small modification:

  May I go to the Can Friday Nighter?

My elder cat (the smart one) cocked an ear at me just then. Even that dude knows there’s something odd about the sentence. But, onward!

  May I know where the Can Friday Nighter ends?
  Yes – the Friday Nighter ends very close to the start – about a mile away – at the Denny’s Restaurant on 82nd just north of Hwy 224.  

  May I know what the Can Friday Nighter is called?
  “Tribute … or Travesty”

   May I … eer, Can I bring a Novice?
  You bet your sweet bippie you May!

TOMORROW NIGHT,  Lowes, Registration starts at 6 p.m.
We hope you May make it.


Alternate title: The Fast and Furious in Ukiah

For a comet to be famous, it has to have a long “away” time.  All the action, the spectacular light show, the drama of a tail smeared halfway across the sky, happen as the nucleus gets close to our sun. If the comet’s orbit was tighter, it wouldn’t last long enough to be remembered. There’s a significance to orbital distance, a distance covered in silence and darkness and dizzying speed, but only when the near focus is as brilliant as the far focus is obscure.

Think about that for a second:  one end of a comet’s back-and-forth slingshot is set by a mega-mega-mega-ton ball of fusing gases – the other is marked by nothing at all… a ellipse drawn in space, the outer turning point barren, empty, set by nothing more than the waning pull of Sol finally triumphing over velocity. 

Near the turning back point… if the comet has thoughts, does it wonder if /this/ time – this time! the outward run will be its escape, its getaway?  Would it sense the decrease in momentum, and wonder if the g-force was still too great to ignore? What about before the turning point, way back, early on that long long run toward the heavens… when there was time for thought, time for deep thought, time to dream of an unbounded future – and yet fearing that that freedom is illusory if fate and Newton have already decreed another orbit is due. 

Here’s to the comets, be they regular or unique; both paths are majestic.

  • – – 
    Getting to Mendocino takes some driving. Team Oregon set out in three cars from Portland Friday morning, and though we drifted apart on the highway south, all three swooped through the Redwood Country and were at the HQ hotel by nightfall. This was an SCCA Road Rally, which is a bit like rallying would be if your staid Uncle Samuel (don’t call him Sam!) was the organizer. That means routebooks will be out 30 minutes before your outtime, not a moment sooner, which puts paid to the idea of calcing the sections the night before. Instead, we went out for beer.

Saturday morning, registration opened early, the drivers’ meeting was brief, and we hit the tire-warm-up section a touch ahead of schedule. The morning was cool… Mendocino’s not high desert, but it is higher and dryer than Portland, so the temperature ranges a bit wider than we’re used to. By midday, I was running the A/C even though the compressor saps power from the small mill. Speeds were moderate, surfaces covered the spectrum from teeth-rattling rockiness to fresh-sanded hardwood. 

Each regularity had two controls: a passage control first, marked, and a DIY control later on. There were generous breaks and some stunning scenery, wildlife, and lots of baby livestock. Renee squeals loudest when there are tiny kids, but lambs and calves get telegraphed cuddles too. We did not need the windshield wipers at any point. 

Saturday night followed Saturday afternoon. This sequence has been observed many times, and is considered by experts to be a reliable phenomena.  In Ukiah, Saturday afternoon is apparently ‘practice time’ for the local ruggers (rugby players), whereas Saturday night is ‘unwinding time’ for the same ruggers.  Oh my, oh my, do they unwind. At least one team’d chosen the rally’s finishing location as their unwinding spot. They… unwound. I’ve been on the deck of an aircraft carrier during flight ops. It was quieter. ON THE FLIGHT DECK, I MEAN.  

The rally officials came in the pub to do the scoring (most/all of the competitors were already in). After ten minutes, the rally officials went out onto the patio to do the scoring, because the decibel level had already cracked the laptop screen.   Did I mention? I was kissed by a large man who appeared to have some Samoan ancestry.  His affection could barely be resisted.  I was pleased he considered me a friend, as opposed to any kind of enemy. He was fickle, though, and left me for a new fancy shortly.

We ralliers drank beer and waited. 

Preliminary scores were posted. This being SCCA, there was a precise timekeeping procedure to be followed for the posting, the protest period, the post-protest-posting period, the prelude announcement of the pre-posting-post-protesting-period, period, and then it seemed like scoring was done.   Team Oregon swept the podium overall.   Bill C. and Larry L. were unnervingly close behind us, despite running only ‘Limited’ equipment. Hot on their heels were Simon L. and Paul E., also in Limited. We attributed their nearness to the relatively few CASTs and PAUSEs in the route instructions.

I know what the comet thinks as it approaches aphelion. It’s wondering if this time is the time. 

And it’s thinking of the long drive back to Portland – err, no, wait: that’s me.   It is a long drive back, but it’s shorter when you’re toting loot.

RAINDROP is Sunday, April 27th.  (rainier auto sports club)
OREGON TRAIL is first weekend in May.  (oregon rally group)
The next Friday Nighter is May 9th. (cascade sports car club)

=============Three In A Row=========================

Within reach of Portland, within one day’s drive, you can do brisk Canadian rallies in November, February, and March. No four-day Interstate transits to Sno*Drift, and no flying into Schenectady to do the NY Winter Series in a rental.  Just toddle up the freeway or the lightly traveled Eastern Washington routes to British Columbia or Alberta, and you can get *a triple shot* of snow TSDs.

Where’ve I been? All over. 
    What’ve I done? All of ’em.  
       How’d I do?  Well….  Three on a match, third time’s the charm, three on the tree… truth sets you free.  

Sure, we’d won (!)  Totem in 2012, thanks to Satch’s loan of the Bad Dog.  And we won (!) The Thunderbird in 2013, partly because we spent the week before the rally driving in a frozen foreign land.  But those wins /last season/ punished us /this season/, because we had the honor (hah!) of running as Car #1. 

Our finish at Totem 2013…  I’ve already confessed to.  My excuse is too much snow and not enough gumption, in either me or the car.  

Our finish in The Thunderbird 2014 might have been different, better, respectable — but I intentionally disabled our car’s traction/skid control before the Saturday legs, and our distance measurements weren’t remotely close to official kms.  Sunday I corrected that setup problem, but we were so far back Sunday morning that leprechauns couldn’t have helped us to the podium. Those little guys are untrustworthy, anyway; but still, we were many seconds away.  That’s two rallies down.

Where’ve I been? All over. 
    What’ve I done? All of ’em.  
       How’d I do?  Well….   Good, better, best;   bad, worser, worst;   green, yellow, red… someone’s sick in the head.

Trail of the Gnu is growing in popularity. 28 cars registered this year, a record high number. I’d last seen Rocky Mountain House in 2010, when Marvin Crippen and I won the overall. (Pro tip for drivers: always run with top-shelf navigators.)  This year’s drive up was similar, ditto the hotel, and though it, too, was identical to 2010, the warm hospitality of the organizers and the other competitors deserves special mention. 

The entry list included a familiar car, our gold ur-quattro, now in the hands of Keith Barke, and slated to run this year’s Summer AlCan rally. It touched a heartstring to see Audri there. I helped him fit her snow tires, and while I thought her AWD might be helpful, I was happy to be running our comfortable modern Volvo.  That happiness lasted ’til the first regularity.

See, the thing is, it can snow on the eastern slope of the Rockies in March. Might be more accurate to say, it /does/ snow on that eastern slope – and at unpredictable intervals and in unexpected depths. The rallymaster, checking the route the week before, set the CASTs to be ‘not boring’, but ho ho ho, he needn’t have worried. Old Man Winter wasn’t finished with the hills of the Kootenay just yet. It snowed some Monday, it flaked down Tuesday, flurries on Wednesday, drifts on Thursday, and some more powder – why not? – on Friday.

We had skinny Hakka 7s; we had gobs of horsepower; we had heated seats (nice!); but we had no traction. Blurrr suffered from Failure To Accelerate.   With traction control on, the computer wouldn’t let the front tires spin, so the car basically sat still. With traction control off, the front wheels spun like crazy, but that’s not a good way to get the car going. When we slowed for a corner, we could not quickly recover speed coming out. Every corner made us late-er.

So, of course, you should just haul butt on the straight sections to make it up. 

Except the casts were fairly high (not boring), so to get 20% above CAST you’ve got to go on a narrow road with deep snow. We were doing that, and we were still falling behind. We’d have had to go to catch up, and that’s just stupid.  Even I is not that stupid, even in da heat o’ competition.

So we retired voluntarily after falling 1:20 behind in the second regularity. 

Heh. The car behind us didn’t catch us then, ’cause they were down some too. But when we came out onto a bigger road, still :50 down, I saw their lights and let ’em pass. We were definitely going to get in their way if we continued. Maybe I need less aversion to going into snowbanks… some of the Calgary crowd just stepped up their driving to do the needful, and the furthest anyone went off was two tow-strap-lengths. Maybe hypnosis would help me get over this phobia.

    Where’ve I been? All over. 
    What’ve I done? All of ’em.  
       How’d I do?  Well….  Not a bit of win. Not a scant inch. Not a mite, not a nit, not a little tiny whisker of success. They say Antarctica’s a desert – Hah! – that parched land is drenched, compared to me.
Upcoming:   Unpave My Heart, Portland, OR;   Mendocino Gold, Ukiah, CA;   Raindrop, Chehalis, WA
  Are they on your calendars?

===================The Power Of NO=========================

I’m in awe, tonight, of the power of our minds to redefine the past – to remember events in a different and milder light than that in which they originally occurred. This applies not only to events we were a part of, but events we wished we were a part of. It’s said that thousands more claim attendance at Woodstock than ever were on that field. There’s no wonder in how this is accomplished; the mind must draw on the body’s organs to report our surroundings and sequences. The mind’s got no other camera:  If all you have is sensation  (and that only once it’s interpreted by your brain, a meta-level organ) how do you know you weren’t there – how do you know you weren’t /anywhere/?

Dreams reveal the illusion of sensations. Until you’ve enough dreamtime to recognize the surreal shifts on that stage, there’s nothing to mark the sensations as anything less than what you perceive in the waking world. Dreams both suggest and reinforce the notion that what we sense may or may not be there – or may or may not be happening. Dreams weaken our senses’ credibility.  

The re-imagining of events isn’t limited to momentous scenes like Woodstock. Every time we muff an interaction,, whether our steps in a halting dance trying to pass someone in a hallway, or a terse exchange with a rude motorist in a parking lot, or even the merest pause in the delivery of a joke to the mail carrier – our memories can work to erase the lack of grace. We’ll remember that our footwork was nimble, our rejoinders witty and cutting, and our comic timing: impeccable. This is a mental mercy that must have been selected for (in the Darwinian sense). Truly, if we were all, always, remembering the details of our failures… striving  would cease. 

So join me, won’t you, in a toast to faulty, flattering memory. It’s a requirement! 

My revisionist mind is propping me up even now, as I mull over our performance at the Totem rally last month. Sure, it could have been that I lack’d the skill to surf the white waves, or that my courage wrung out too soon, or even that my vehicular preparation skipped over some critical capability that would’ve made all the difference; but each of those possibilities would require a little diminution in self-image.   Thankfully – wonderfully – my mind has repointed the finger of blame outside “self”. Plainly, the deficiency was inherent in our car. It was, simply, the car’s fault.   

This realization comes without disappointment, to be sure: the car is an excellent car.  It is the best car of France. When I drive her, I soar, I am a hawk: she is pure air and fire; and the dull elements of earth and water never appear in her, but only in Patient stillness while her driver readies himself. So perhaps “fault” is not the right word – perhaps I mean only …. weakness? Nor that, still – let us say that we have discovered an area for improvement. That area is


Huge surprise, no? The delightful iX’s prime mover is an M20 six cylinder. That OHC mill mustered 167 horse pressures at the crank in its prime, 24 years and 70k rally miles ago. These days, through the drag of hypoid differentials & transfer case planetaries, I’ll wager she’s good for a hunnert ten at the wheels.  Not. Enough. Not when there are turbo Foresters about, nossir. Not with these nasty WRXs about, nuh-uh.  Marilyn (our iX) needs a little work done.

Being a dutiful follower of the canon of increased displacement, I naturally have begun planning a bored&stroked motor transplant. But wholesale replacement of reciprocating assemblies is not a project to be rushed; careful plotting and execution is the surest path to victory and satisfaction. I’m accreting, slowly accreting, the bits and pieces that’ll build a proper motor for Marilyn.

Time and tide, though, will not wait: and neither will The Thunderbird. So I’m considering a more expedient path… a method of increasing output that has – shall we say? — less of a reputation. It’s so… rough… that I hesitate to mention its name in this polite company.  Despite the gossip and tsk-tsks, there is at bottom a full grounding in internal combustion physics. This isn’t a magical gasoline synchronizer swirl flange. And it’s not forced induction. I think it is modest enough to mention just its initials. They’re in the subject line.

In completely unrelated news, did you know that the actor who plays the delightful “Sgt. Wu” on  Grimm also appears in the original Fast And Furious?    

==============Roy Batty Knew The Score=========================

Back when director Ridley Scott made understandable movies, he took a run at translating the book Do_Androids_Dream_Of_Electric_Sheep to the big screen. In the film, the dangerous anti-hero “Roy Batty” dominates every scene he’s in. He’s a monster — in the classic sense — performing in all sorts of extra-human ways.  He’s not merely a brute, though: he delivers a couple nice turns of phrase.

Roy’s got a deadline, an appointment he cannot miss. And he’s got a lot to do, so he’s moving pretty fast most of the time. Yet there are moments when he seems absolutely calm and unhurried, as if he’s already seen how the current event will play out, and he’s luxuriating in its unfolding in time.  To savor a moment… to fully dwell in that one-and-only instant of “now” – that’s his special skill. Roy knew what was important is not the unchanging past, nor the un-guaranteed future. Not last year, not next year — the only year that matters is /this year/.

For most of the film, it’s raining. Millions of little droplets, condensed from vapor, falling from high above the ground, splashing onto rooftops and streets and windows and everywhere. Today in Portland looks like those city scenes. Fall’s arrived in the Pacific Northwest, with wind and water aplenty. Thousands of people are without power in Washington. Snow’s falling in the Cascades.

 I say again: Snow’s falling in the Cascades.

Must be about time for the BC Snow Rallies, then.  Yep, Totem registration is open:   

Now look, folks: these snow rallies aren’t going to last forever. Expanding urbanity and climate change will at least reduce them, if not eliminate them completely.  We’re in a golden land of opportunity and adventure, and you should be like Roy: 

Live Now.
 Sign Up.
   Bring Studs.

p.s.  Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc.  –Roy

==================About Those Lug Nuts=========================

My older brother bullied me for years. He’d lie in wait, making no effort to hide, and pummel me gleefully. I think it was his hobby. I might have contributed something to his hearty pursuit of it; mine was a smart-aleck mouth. Fourteen months of growth is a pretty big lead through childhood. It’s a persistent disadvantage for the junior warrior, and only the stupidest or stubbornest persist in fight rather than flight.

Or maybe there was something else going on….

Remember Jack London’s description of Buck’s beating by the man in the red sweater? The brute succeeded in subduing the dog, but not – NOT – in cracking his spirit. The dog fought back until he could not, but he did not stop fighting. It’s a subtle distinction, but like many such dichotomies, it divides the universe. On this side of the line is that which is still wild; and on the other side is the domesticated herd.

I can’t claim Buck’s kinship for my continued struggle. Mine came from lack of alternatives, not from some indomitable internal fire. And, partly, from occasional glimpses of a more evenly matched future.

I’m thinking of the insulated coveralls.

Pater Tony and I were going duck hunting. On the High Plains, that happens in late November, when the chill north winds bring Canadian air down through the Dakotas all the way to north Texas. Trudging over corn and wheat stubble to the handful of little ponds that might harbor waterfowl called for solid clothing, so we stopped by the local clothing store just before closing Friday night. Kermit Sanders fitted me with a dark green quilted suit, and I wore it home, and there encountered the bully.

With just a hint of revisionism, I recall that he mocked my suit, sneering, “you think you’re invincible in that”. Well, that night I was; and I womped up on him. The sense of added protection gave me just enough confidence to cut loose and take chances, and that change in attitude, more than anything else, made the difference. I don’t remember us getting any ducks the next day, but it was a great weekend already.

Good equipment provides more aid than its functional description alone would suggest. Good equipment is a talisman, a token of power. It whispers to you, be bold. The right clothing – or the right snow tire – frees your mind from doubt, and a mind freed of doubts, soars.

When it comes to B.C. snow rallies, I got plenty of doubts. I’ve been running up north for seven years, and every run has been humbling. If the driving is easy, the competition is tight; and if the driving isn’t easy, brrrr: makes me shudder just thinking about it.

With diligent effort, we’ve been chipping away at the top spot. It still looked like a lot of granite to go through. But we had a breakthrough last November, when we borrowed a supercharged* rally car and used it to finish first at Totem. That car was a talisman of power – all emphasis on the final word – and it was good equipment.

But the days marched on, and February arrived. February brings The Thunderbird, a snow rally with more entries and more frozen roads than Totem. If Totem is a granite boulder, then T-Bird’s a massive and harder granite monolith. It demands near perfect preparation and it demands exceptional execution. If you bobble either, the T-Bird pack’ll sweep by you without breaking cadence.

My preparation included some new-to-us skinny wheels for Marilyn, our red 325iX. Conventional wisdom holds that narrower snow tires are better in deep snow, and narrow tires work best on narrow wheels. We’d scrounged up some surplus Mini Cooper alloys left over from Gary Webb’s last trip to Anchorage. I figured some “Winter Alcan Winner” aura might still be attached to the wheels, and Gary threw that magic in without extra cost.

We headed to Merritt, BC, early, and our mid-afternoon arrival made the tire switchover leisurely. The leisure evaporated when I tightened down the lugs on the left front wheel, and found that “turning” was no longer part of the wheel’s job description. Ooops. I’d test-fitted the wheels to the iX at home the day before, but to the /rear/ end of the iX… I’d not tested the front end fitment. The front wheel wouldn’t turn because the wheel was riding the brake caliper.

Agony. We were 450 miles from home. Running the event on all-season tires was out of the question. This was a grand bobble, an enormous bobble. I thought we might have to retire before we’d begun.

  • to be continued –
  • turbocharging is one variety of supercharging

— continued –

I hadn’t panicked, yet, but my vision took on a crispness that I recognized as a sign of fear. My mind emptied, and I sat there dumbfounded until bystanders offered advice. “You need to add some spacers to those wheels. There’s an auto parts store downtown. They probably close at 5 p.m.” Gak! I grabbed one of the wheels and bummed a ride to the store. On the back wall hung 7 millimeters of hope, the last pair of aluminum 4-lug spacers in the place. I swept them into my basket, and we hustled back to the Niccola Inn.

So far I’d avoided sharing this problem with my co-driver, but she broke off her flirting long enough to notice I’d returned. She asked what was wrong. I summarized my bobble. I heard a small, quick, intake of breath, and then a careful silence. It was a reallly loud silence; I could hear nothing else.

Do I need to say that it was important that the spacers fit?

They did, and the front lug bolts had enough thread engagement. Ideally I’d have used longer lug bolts, but for some reason Lordco didn’t have a big selection of non-stock BMW parts. I torqued the fasteners, and we went out to set a starting odometer factor. The wheels stayed attached during our tarmac test run, and when I pulled one of the lugs afterwards, there was no sign of metal stress on the threads, so I torqued it back up and tried to forget about it. The keen fear had faded, but my anxiety swelled in its place. It wasn’t worry over the lug bolts – it was realizing the lunacy of not testing the front fitment before. Making that kind of mistake rattled me. It brought forth doubts.

How do we banish doubts, class? By concentrating on good equipment, sir!

The skinny Mini wheels were wrapped in Hakkapellitta 7 tires, with the new `horizontal diamond’ factory studs. The rest of our gear was reassuringly proven: 325iX, Timewise rally computer, readerboard by Larry LeFebvre, calculations via Excel. The human equipment (the driver and navigator) was jet-lagged but otherwise ready. Friday night we stayed up just late enough to double-check the calcs, and to tell the truth we faded before that task was complete. You should be wondering where we’d been to be so off-time.

Saturday morning there were forty-seven cars entered, with near-a-dozen previous winners among them. I was hoping for snow, and lots of it. Severe road conditions can negate the measurement advantage of two wheel drive cars, and our skinny tires should give us a leg up on the legion of Subarus. We had lucky number 3 on the car, and we rolled out after the drivers’ meeting into a clear partly cloudy day, not a speck of ice to be seen. I squinted and pretended to see falling flakes.

The dry roads lasted most of Saturday, then Minnie Lakes showed us its best waterholes, and right after that…. the HAM radio crackled. Control crews heading into the next-to-last section were talking about a blizzard. Huh? Where we were, a dozen kilometers behind them, there was no sign of a storm. Car #1 was revving its tiny engine, about to start the section, when the radio cautioned those listening that CAST was not achievable. The routebook called for 72 k.p.h., but the rallymaster was making barely 30 knots through the sea of snowflakes. Conditions can change quickly, though, in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, and we all knew it.

The competitors were reluctant to ease off. If the section turned out to be runnable, no one wanted to approach it half-heartedly. Thus car #1 gamely left on its minute, and the rest of us did likewise, pulled into the deep, deep white like links on an anchor chain. We just hoped that the leading edge of the chain would find purchase, and not plunge forever into the snowy waves. It wuz a strong an’ p’wrful blizzard. It should henceforth be called the “Snowout at Twig Creek”, as that was the name of the next-to-last section. Cancelled! Final section cancelled, too, and there was a general rush for Kamloops, the overnight stop.

Sunday morning, for us, arrived at 2:30 a.m. Jet lag still held our rhythms captive in regions far to the east. Only fitful sleep followed, and when the alarm went off, our fatigue got up first. We attempted a quickie breakfast at Tim Horton’s, but even the simplified menu there baffled us. Exhaustion draped over us like quilt. We found a BLT and good cheer at the ABC restaurant, and managed to organize our thoughts. They ran roughly thus:

Scores had not been posted. Most of Saturday’s roads were dry, or at least not slippery. On the tricky parts, the muddy hills or sneaky checkpoints, we didn’t feel too good about – that is, we didn’t think we’d done particularly well in the difficult spots. We guessed we were probably in fourth or fifth place, maybe. This … isn’t going to work.

Renee and I independently reached the same conclusion. It would be best to retire that morning, and have a leisurely drive back to Merritt and then to Portland. We didn’t need to debate it; all that remained was to pay our respects to the rallymaster and be on our way. We idled over to the hotel. The Saab team of Adomeit and Crippen hailed us as we parked, and came over, and as Renee opened her door to go inside and retire, we heard:

“You guys are in first by one point.”

And we said, simultaneously, “Crap.”

There was to be no rest for the weary*.

It’s hard to get into scoring position on The Thunderbird. In addition to near-perfect preparation and exceptional execution, you’ve got to have good luck on route. That set of cards doesn’t come up often. If you find yourself in first place on Sunday morning, it’s like being dealt a natural full house. You have to play out the hand; you may never get another chance like it.

Renee still went inside the hotel, but instead of retiring us, she got official time. I re-arranged cargo and checked systems. We loaded Sunday’s routebook onto the reader board, thirty pages taped end-to-end in a long paper curl. Each page’s addition to the spool added psychic weight to the monolith looming ahead. Every instruction represented a risk to our slimmest of leads. Many teams run better on the second day, so we had to, too. The gravity of the situation was sinking in, and we worked solemnly, speaking little. Other folks were already rolling out of the parking lot and heading for the first regularity.

The sky was clear leaving Kamloops, but to get to the ending location at Boston Pizza in Merrit, the rally had to go west over the roads that the blizzard owned the night before. That made me grin a little bit. We were tired, sure – but if we got into snow and ice, there was an ace in my sleeve. The opening section had none, but then, ahhh, yesssss: “Lac du Bois”. What a beaut! Paraphrasing Ron Sorem:

“Lac du Bois” Regularity started on broad dry gravel. Some time later, in the woodlands, snow /along/ the road became snow /on/ the road, and then, deeper snow /narrowed/ the road. When the route went left at a crossroad, the snow’s challenge started a completely different game. The checkpoint cars cut first path through the heaps, running very cautiously. There were 8km to our checkpoint corner, then the route followed the mainline Tranquille-Criss Creek Rd to End Of Section; 47.49km total.

Ron, being through first, saw no tracks. We in #3 saw only his, and the narrow path of the Sonnett.

The skinnier Hakkas are also taller, and the combination shifts the tires’ contact patch to a more elongated oval. I kept picturing them as sled runners, slicing through the surface layers, riding a thin layer of sublimating crystals, granting directional influence … in the sort of snow we had, the juggling act wasn’t in where your steerinq wheels were pointed, it was in how the car’s fore-and-aft axis was lining up with its vector. The CAST made us hustle a bit, but I plowed into a corner only once, and stopped short of the snowbanks. We got through Lac du Bois with a single point. If you check the detailed results, you’ll see that Jim Bowie and novice (!) navigator Ian Seal zeroed it.

But there were plenty who didn’t sail through that section. How do I know? Because the third section Sunday looped around, around, around… and lined us up for another pass. “Red Lake” started the road with the deepest snow at a CAST 5 kph higher than the first run, and my my MY, weren’t there a lot of holes in snowbanks? I got nervous at seeing the evidence of so much difficulty, and pert’ near punched a snowbank myself. But though we were dead stopped at one point (and kind of pointed left-ish), we didn’t get caught out of shape, and this time through we matched Bowie and Seal with a zero for the regularity.

In case you missed it, Totem and The Thunderbird altered their scoring rules after the zero-zero tie at T-Bird some years back. Winter scoring as we knew it is /gone/. What we have now is a touch more stringent… each control location has a perfect time calculated to the tenth-of-a-second. Around that perfect time is a window, nine-tenths of a second either way, and only if you’re in that window you’ll get a zero. You scientists know that in order to maintain the precision of the calculation, you’ve got to maintain the precision of the measurement; and this implies – nay, demands that the control crews are timing cars to 0.1 second.

To the tenth of a second? On snow and ice? Say… what?

It’d be absurd if it weren’t so absolutely necessary. The folks that turn out for The Thunderbird want to win it, and they want to win it convincingly. There are enough top teams there, every year, in every class, that the level of competition has reached (dare I say) absurd levels. No other rally in the PNW needs nor attempts more than 0.01 minute precision in timing. But without tenth-of-a-second timing, effectively scoring The Thunderbird would be impossible.

I’m still ranting, here: what is wrong with you people? How did you get the idea that chasing zeros is fun? And what in tarnation makes you keep pushing, pushing, pushing the envelope? Is there no length to which you will not go? What’s next, custom built software? (already produced, years ago, ask Glenn). What’s next, purpose built hardware for advising the driver? (already in prototype, ask Curt Thompson or Mike Daily)

I … I … I … I don’t know what to say. Next thing you know, people will be going north to Canada the weekend before to practice snow driving. Or going somewhere with lots and lots of snow (Colorado?) for a week to warm up.

Or spending ten days in Sweden, Finland, and Norway in early February, putting in 1600 miles on ice covered roads, driving driving driving — arriving back home in the States just two days before The Thunderbird. Somebody* might do that.

I bet it’d leave you jet-lagged, though.

By the time we reached Boston Pizza, our adrenaline was the only thing keeping us going. I couldn’t stop yawning while changing out tires to get ready for the trip south. Renee took the first leg, and I conked out ’til almost Sumas. We were passing through Lynnwood when we got news of the results: we’d held onto first place.

First … finally, it all came together: good equipment + lots of practice + good luck.

I’d like to thank the members of the academy blah blah,
and in closing, my advice to you, as always, is to make plans to attend one of these B.C. snow rallies.

  • a mild misquote of the biblical ‘No rest for the wicked’
  • the fjords are beautiful in winter

==================Draw Back The Curtains=========================

Draw back the curtains, and watch for the light.

We’ve turned the corner on Winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Night’s power is ebbing — slowly — and ere long we’ll be able to see where we’re going at seven a.m. Ain’t that a treat? Isn’t it funny how, no matter how many cycles you see, you can still be thrilled by seasonal changes? Sure, geargrinders living near the equator may’ve forgotten the wild swings of the diurnal cycle at higher latitudes, but the rest of us haven’t.

Things are starting up, or restarting. The Friday Nighter series will be back, with the opening salvo in March. I hear Rainier Auto Sports Club’s “Raindrop” (a good novice event) is on for 2013. And the chief harbinger of the rally season, The Thunderbird, is just over the horizon.

Last year’s T-Bird was an anniversary for its rallymaster. He’d been involved with that rally for 25 years [ this year is 25+1 ], and a whole battalion of TSD teams collected in Merritt to pay him their compliments. T-Bird hit its 60-car entry limit last year, and left a couple teams on the wait list. So far, the 2013 edition has room for you; best you get organized so you can go. Bring studs. STUDS. Reid, I’m talking to YOU.

Now, a confession. Renee and I’d proudly displayed the Pacific Coast Challenge trophy in our dining room for the past two years. We thought (well, I thought, anyway) that we’d have it in-house this year, too. But that plan cratered so hard I’m still shaking the sand out of my hair. /Somebody else/ has the PCC trophy on their cabinet this year. Some someone elses that are already signed up for The Thunderbird, probably already scheming schemes that would keep that lovely cup on their mantle for 2014!

Does that … even sound fair? Oneuvum’s not even a PNW’er anymore. I have to say… it rankles. Durn out-o-staters fly in to try to take our – OUR – cup. Phffft.

So I’m asking for your help. I don’t begrudge a team an honest win, no, wouldn’t do that — but dang it, we’ve got to put forth an effort here. We can’t let that carpetbagger Carlson repeat in a cakewalk. There’s got to be some DEE-FENSE facing him and Russ K., some solid Oregon DEE-FENSE.

Now c’mon, let there be strength in numbers, boys and girls. Let’s just swamp those SAABanauts with competing UNL and Historic entries, and improve our odds at keeping the PCC cup local. The place to start is British Columbia, and the time is… four weeks from now. Watch the website for the other events, and by gum! get in there and give it your best shot.

Remember: these are ordinary unpaved roads, and the CASTs are at least 10% under the limit. You can do this without hurting your car.

============How I Spun On Totem=========================

We’d just gone past a sideroad intersection hiding a checkpoint car. The nearby sign reference didn’t seem mileaged quite right, so we were puzzling over how we might have done at that control.

The discussion distracted me enough that the next intersection was a surprise. One road swept left, and a lesser road continued straight. I didn’t know the right route, so I braked pretty hard to gain time. My navigator supplied “We go Left!” to make up for my neglectful route-following, and I pushed the wheel over in response. I hadn’t quite come off the brakes, though, and the car was still nose-heavy. That made the front tires bite well… but the rear? Not so much.

All the instructors of the Primitive Racing Rally School will be shouting “Gas! Gas! Gas!” at this point, and Smooth Steve and Satch are both muttering, “I told him to left-foot-brake…”, but despite these valuable learnings I was just drifting into a spin, as numb and dumb as a sheep.

The best thing that can be said is that I’d scrubbed off a bunch of speed in the straight-line braking, so when the lightened back end came loose and rotated, it was a gentle departure from controlled driving. I saw the road ahead through Renee’s side window, then I saw the left side bank through that window, and then we went CUSHSHSHSSSS sidelong and backwards into the ditch.

Not too deep, though; we stopped pretty quick, and our attitude was neutral, not that unnatural tilt that comes with a good solid ditch-planting. I’d stalled the motor, and while I started it, Renee popped her harness loose to get out and push – don’t tell on her to the Navigator’s Union — but manual labor wasn’t necessary. The AWD bimmer pulled right out of the pocket on the first attempt. The driver (moi) tried to prolong the farce by re-entering the ditch, but the iX just crawled out again, and we were sitting wrong-way in the intersection.

Even when I’ve got plenty to do, I’m usually willing to give direction to those around me, so I suggested that Renee look ahead to the next hard reference in the route book and prepare to line us up (time-and-mileage wise) when we got there. Whilst speaking this, I got the car turned forward again, and then Fortune smiled upon us, for just past the intersection the road opened up, and we could see naught but ice. No other cars, no cows, no down trees, no exposure – just a wide white way,an open window for catching up.

We were .40 down on a 65 kph CAST. That’s a lot. Heck, we’ve got time for a reverie.

I remember an Autoweek article from the early Nineties, when electronics were just going mobile. Somebody’d produced a datalogging G-force meter for racecars. You affixed this thing to your car, then went out and drove the circuit, and you could plot, later, the longitudinal and lateral thrust your control actions produced. The writer’d put this product in a Turbo RX-7, I think, and then they ran the car through braking, acceleration, slalom, and skidpad tests. I remember it because they had driving, in addition to the hack* writing the story, a top-flight open wheel racer. Think his name was “Unser”. Anyhow, yes, the racer could generate larger forces on slalom and skidpad and acceleration, sure; but what amazed the writer was that Young Al could significantly better the writer’s numbers on braking – when both were using the ABS.

How is that possible? The ABS is a fixed-function system. The tires were identical; the surface was identical; the driver’s foot pressure on the brake pedal was (essentially) identical; it was all the same. Therefore the system should operate /the same/, right?

Ah, but even when both drivers had the brake pressure deep into ABS-land, there was a difference. The racer felt the vector and the balance of the car, and he was tweaking the steering wheel to keep that balance under control. That balance kept the tires optimally weighted; and that in turn let ABS interfere less; and so the car stopped harder. The moral is that good equipment is an aid to driving skill — not a substitute for it.

Right, end of lecture, back to the story. We’re forty down. We need to git goin’, and P-R-O-N-T-O.
Again hath Fortune smiled upon us; for we are in the Bad Dog.

Search the archives for more info on this vehicle, but for this telling you only need know that it has the power-to-weight ratio of a big-bore dirt bike. If it wasn’t all-wheel-drive, it’d throw roostertails like a sippywagon. Because it is AWD, it just “gathers speed quickly”. With it, we erased our deficit in short order and good safety.

Next B.C. Snow Rally: The Thunderbird, February 2013.
Plenty of time for me to take more Driver’s Education.


  • hack: an ironic term of endearment

======Were This A “Normal” Friday Nighter=========================

then your analysis of the main road would be perfectly cromulent, Satch. But the Autumn GTA is not a normal Friday Nighter. Rather, it’s a Saagerpalooza-looza.

Check out the Supplemental Instructions for the “Cast Your Vote” rally and see:

  • variable Main Road Determinants (MRDs)

“Variable” means that the set of MRDs changes as the rally progresses. The set is not always the well-loved ONTO->TOWARD->PROTECTION->SURFACE->SAP->LEFTMOST set that is tattooed on our wrists.

Of course, different rally series have always had different MRD sets… the Alfa club, for instance, inserts CENTERLINE and deletes LEFTMOST. When you run a series from a different club, you’ve got to follow those MRDs. We usually write up a little post-it note and stick it on the dash to remind ourselves that the elements have changed.

In Cast Your Vote, we’ll have little post-it notes for all the sets ready. You can figure out the sets in advance from the rally instructions. And as the NRIs “activate” each set, we’ll stick up the correct post-it note on the dash.

  • unique method for evaluating MRDs

THe RoadRallyRules (RRRs) do prescribe a procedure for determining the main road. Just as you say, the procedure is to evaluate the MRDs independently, and use the first MRD that uniquely identifies a single rally road leaving the intersection.

But Cast Your Vote also alters that well-known procedure. In CYV, every MRD gets a vote at every intersection:
* If the MRD you’re evaluating would have you go left, it’s a vote for the Doves.
* If the MRD you’re evaluating would have you go straight, it’s a vote for the Progressives.
* If the MRD you’re evaluating would have you go right, it’s a vote for the Hawks.
* And if the MRD doesn’t apply to the intersection (it talks about a Y, for instance, and you’re not at a Y), it’s not a vote for anybody.

Tally the votes, and go the way the winning party would take you (left, straight, right). Finally… if “no party has a clear majority”, then Stay The Course! (the main road is SAP).

On a dark Friday night, running on the clock, adapting to this pair of RRR alterations would be terribly tough. But the Autumn Scramble is run in daylight, and there’s no timekeeping involved. You’re just trying to follow the correct route, and answer questions based on things you’ll see on the way. Scores depend on correct answers to the questions; if you’re off course, you’ll see one too many “NEWBERG” signs, for instance, and your total for that question’ll be off.

Marinus Jebediah Damm

===============Dirge, ditch, dredge, drag=========================

… words with the letters ‘D’ and ‘G’ in them. Wait, ditch doesn’t have a ‘G’.

I’ve started messing around with Renee’s tablet, and found it’s got Scrabble(tm) installed. I thought I better just warm up against the computer opponent before I took on anybody challenging (like Jill Z., for instance), so I fired it up and commenced to spellin’.

Uhmph. I didn’t exactly dominate the game. But I was talking a lot, and most of what I said was rather blue, if you take my meaning. Sometimes laying down a line of psych-talk will rattle your challenger and they’ll miss a trick.

The computer seemed … unconcerned, and by the last tile it had me by 80 points. Owie (not a legal word).

Wonder if there’s such a thing as team Scrabble – maybe I could join up with Renee instead, and we’d be the WordPowerTwins. We would spend evenings allied, online, roosting past other teams that dared to call us out (“roosting”, from motocross: to spray your competitors with dirt from your spinning back tire. Probably adapted from the scratch-kick dominance display of a male chicken).

Well, nice dream, I guess. But I’ve got a long way to go before I can be part of a legendary Scrabble(tm) team. Dodge, duck, dig, delegate. Oh, bother: duck has no ‘G’.

In the meantime, I’ve got a new fondness for team play after The Thunderbird. There were eight different teams of cars at T-Bird this year, in addition to twenty-five rugged individualist cars. There was Team Alberta (whose members were interesting, carefree, and dynamic). There was Vancouver Subaru Club, all of whom drove (inexplicably) the same brand of auto. Team Arctic Challengers, always strategically assembled and inexhaustible (this week, Team AC is running the AlCan Winter Rally… I think they put something in the team water bottles). Of course, our team of the last several years, AFRICA! was there.

Yesssssss. AFFFRICA! wasssss there. But this year, we weren’t on that team. Instead, we were on Team HoneyBadger (the boys made Renee head badgerette).

Our change in allegiance occasioned some little comments in e-mail threads leading up the rally. There were veiled warnings, or shades of warnings. There was … posturing. There were rumblings, drums in the hills, hints that our “treachery” would be redressed. When we attended a pre-event gathering including some AFRICA! members, we encountered sideways glances, and hushed secrets being shared. Those of you familiar with the HoneyBadger will naturally expect that we gave not a whit for these things. HoneyBadgers … don’t care.

Came the Friday before the rally, and up! to Merritt we went. Six cars strong, Team HoneyBadger was everywhere to be seen. We filled the parking lot. Our musky scent … ew, nevermind, that’s disgusting.

Anyway, the Badgers made ready on Friday night, and ran off Saturday morning as cars #3, #5, #8, #13, #17, and #46. Before long, we noticed that cars #2, #4, #7, #12, #16, and #45 had .. a little something extra on their rear ends. Each of those cars, running immediately in front of a HB, sported a shiny new sticker on the rear window or bumper. It showed a handsome HoneyBadger likeness, with the International Symbol for “NO” (red circle with diagonal slash) overlaid. No HoneyBadgers.

No HoneyBadgers!?!! Why, those xxx and xxx’s, wait, wait — remember: HB don’t care.

But you know what was odd? Car #2 was not an AFFFRICA! car – no, they’d gone beyond merely personal mocking. They’d hired agents! This smelled of larger organization. This smelt of a campaign. As the day wore on, more and more evidence was revealed. There was a full-blown propaganda machine at work, and its target was one team, and one team only.

Pish. HB cares not a farthing. If we knew what a tinker’s dam was, we wouldn’t give a one ’bout this psych-war. We were, though, getting hungry.

Saturday night the Badgers took over three tables in the restaurant, regaling our novices with tales of our past conquests and our derring-do. As it happens, our novices were kicking butt in that class (are you surprised?), so we made much merry and still managed to collect ourselves (with clean snouts) in time to honor the rallymaster on the 25th Anniversary of his work on The Thunderbird. (go see the majesty of the award: and )

That was a fine, fine night. The restaurant ran out of beer, of course – but HB … doesn’t care.

And at the end of Sunday, Team HoneyBadger took the team prize easily.
We rate it: tasty.

That other team? Oh, you mean AFRICAn’t? They finished … somewhere.

The team dynamic is quite a lot of fun, both within the team and between teams. And we (that is, Renee and I) look forward to next year’s The Thunderbird. It’s level of competitiveness has reached a new high: and the jockeying for starting position, parking location, team allegiance, and most of all, finishing position can’t start soon enough.

p.s. I beg your pardon for anything said that seems arrogant or proud. I seek only to amuse.

p.p.s Hey, I just realized what made me think of motocross: DG Performance was an early supplier of hop-up parts for Japanese two-stroke MX bikes.

==British Columbia in February is delightful===========
========= (whistling past the graveyard)========

I spent some time on USS Saratoga, cruising the Mediterranean,
supporting flight ops. On that oil-burner I met a special group of
Marines. Now there were some squadrons aboard whose aircraft were
configured for ground attack, and whose personnel wore camo pants
rather than blue denim. Those aviation Marines were just like us
squids, really: same goods in different packaging. Their hydraulic
systems mechanics wore oily work clothes just as ours did. Their
maintenance sergeants weedled and whined just like our chiefs. We sat
intermixed on the mess decks, and those AVmagreens belched too. Just
like us…

But then there was the Marine Detachment, or MARDET. They lived in a
spotless barracks in the lower decks. They wore perfect uniforms. They
stood with taut posture; I never saw one of them slouching, leaning,
or yawning. When they drilled, they did so at top speed, and with full
force and follow-through. Yet they were cordial, and as instructors
for a small group of us training for a ceremony, they were helpful.
But there was not an instant during the time I spent with them that
any of them was less than ready. The MARDET were aboard to protect
certain critical assets, and they concentrated on that mission.

In another sense, the mission concentrated them: the level of
individual performance within the group didn’t plot a bell curve – it
was a solid bar. They formed a structural unit whose inner flaws had
been determinedly erased, and whose only visible marks came from
deflected impacts from the outside world not yet wiped clean. I mean
you could as easily view those smudges as evidence of the surrounding
environment’s failures as of any shortcoming of the group. I am proud
to have met them, and yet I am terrified that such a focused force can
exist in our world.

Which brings us to The Thunderbird.

Like last year, Saturday’s sections were relatively easy; no snow to
speak of on the roads, but the CASTs were set when there was some. We
weren’t making any big errors, and we figured the experienced teams
weren’t either. Had the organizers not retired the grace periods of
Winter Scoring this year, there could have been another awkward tie at
“no error”. No need to fear: the first tie on Saturday was at the 13
point level.

No – wait, go back. There was reason to fear; there IS reason to fear.

See, one of the cars tied at 13 was #2, last year’s winners, Glenn &
R. Dale. They obviously know what they’re doing. They were obviously
ahead of us (and they stayed ahead of us through Sunday). The Arctic Challenger team stood, unchallenged, at the head of the Unlimited class both days. As imposing as that is, it’s not what scared me… what /scares/ me.

No, what scared me is a silly little SAAB Sonett, a fiberglass two-seater
with a powerplant from a German farm implement and a transmission from a washing machine. Last year that car couldn’t even wipe its own
windshield… this year it whipped all our butts.

On an “easy” Saturday, with over 20 cars running full rally computers,
nobody got closer to the SAAB than twice its points. The SAAB was car #7;
they had… 7 points. I shudder to think they did that just for style. I will not
mention the driver and co-driver, I trust you already know the names.
And I confess I’m a little spooked by it, maybe a little superstitious
too. What… what are they DOING in there?

I think they must be concentrating on the mission. Odin help us.


Time is Relative

Einsteinian physics says that key characteristics of events involving motion (such as the distance travelled, or the time-in-flight) will vary for different observers. Science says these different observations are both real; it’s not that one observer’s right and the other’s wrong.

This dis-agreement would cause no end of problems for us Earthers if it weren’t tempered by another factor: the magnitude of the difference is related to the speed that the observers are travelling vis-a-vis one another. At low speeds, the differences are too small to perceive. You have to really be moving to notice a difference; like near-to the speed of light.

So there we were, on Day One of the Oregon 1000 rally. This every-other-year production starts just outside Portland, and runs down to the southern Oregon coast for an overnight stop. Day Two returns competitors to I-5 around Corvallis. It’s one thousand kilometers of backroads driving, packed with scenery and wildlife and friendly competition. As with all TSDs, speeds are tightly controlled, and enforced at multiple timing locations along the route. We’re driving to the coast, not racing to it.

Just before lunch, we were on a paved section. We were perfectly on our average speed until we reached a tight uphill hairpin turn, followed by a steep climb. At the crest thereof, I’d fallen behind a bit, so when the road straightened, I accelerated to regain the time I’d lost. The car we’re in has a lot of power, so it should take only a few moments. I floored the accelerator pedal. Car said “oooooOMMMMMMAHHHH”.

A few moments later, we were approaching the average (and besides, the road curved ahead) so I lifted my foot. Hmm.  Car was still saying “oooooOMMMMMMAHHHH”, and we were still accelerating.  Uh-oh: the throttle was stuck, wide full open.  🙁

I got hard on the brakes, and our acceleration lessened. But the motor joined the battle with the brakes like a dog playing tug-of-war on its leash.  I had, though, a trump: the ignition key. I turned the key to the ‘off’ position, and the motor’s roar was quelled.

But I turned the key one notch too far, and engaged the steering wheel lock. We were still at a goodly pace — and pointed, sadly, off the pavement.

time    slows     down

ahead on the wide overgrown shoulder a thicket of saplings hides whatever boulders and dropoffs there are

the steering wheel won’t turn

the brakes are slowing us but not enough

my hand moves with the speed of an advancing glacier toward the key

we’re mowing through the saplings

the key’s turned and the steering wheel is free

foliage across the windshield 

slowing but not stopped and somehow no boulders

I popped the clutch, and the motor fired, no longer stuck wide open. I steered up toward the road and gassed it, and we smoothly returned to the pavement. Relatively smoothly.

The co-driver had a few questions at that point, because I’d not clearly communicated the predicament that led to the detour. No time for chit-chat: we were somehow still on our average speed, so we kept going… and when the control came up 0.9 miles later we zeroed it. After the excitement wore off, we made a series of mistakes that took us off course and had us backing up thrice and …   a mess of leftover neuronal activity.

So anyway, though the physicists say that differing observations of time can’t be noted without near-light speeds being involved …  I beg to differ.