A Complete Rally Story (Mine) and why I want to make this film.
This was originally posted on my now pretty defunct driving website, i've edited it a bit to post as an update here. It's pretty much my rally story. I'm posting it not because I think it is that much more spectacular than any other rally drivers story. Quite the opposite. We ALL have stories like these, that's what needs to be put into a film. When I think of the most awesome moments in my life, a big chunk of them involve rally.
People can easily watch 6 hours straight of women fight with each other over the color of their pants on Real Housewives, and that's not even interesting. Rally contains, and is the most interesting competition, travel, scenic and most importantly, human stories I know of. Let's make a film about it.
Back in High School (2000ish) the WRC used to be on TV immediately when I got home from school. I used to pick up bits and pieces and thought, "Man, this is so rad". I was most amused by the off's, and the drivers unique expressions and vocabulary. Tommi Makkinen and Colin McRae were the one's to watch.
2001 rolled around, I graduated from High School and moved in with 3 buddies. Being a huge internet dork I stumbled across this epic video making it's way around the forums called WRC-2001.wmv It was created by a dude named Pou from Quebec, and to this day it is a superb motivational tool. This video, combined with 18 hours of straight WRC coverage during a post New Years Speedvision broadcast that year had me totally pumped to buy a rally car, and a tiny bus to tow it around with and sleep in. I didn't really have a job at this time, and what better job to have than professional rally driver!
At the time I had a turbo'd Volkswagen Corrado, and at a VW meet somewhere a guy handed my a photocopied ad for a SCCA ITB Scirocco for sale. I checked on the web forums, and it appeared that an ITB car could be made into a rally car pretty cheaply. Never mind the fact that Sciroccos are generally giant pieces of total crap. But it was a deal.
Picked that car up, fashioned a skid plate, added a co-driver seat, made some repairs and then left it sitting in front of my apartment building for 3 months while I saved money to finish the other things. Somewhere in here I decided that building a former ITB car into a rally car was completely retarded on a number of levels, and sold it to a guy from PA.
A Honda Civic was a much better idea!
$900 later I had a 1992 Honda Civic CX purchased from a Saxophone player in Kalamazoo Michigan. A few grand later and I had a superb roll cage, new Maaco paint and we (myself, and my friend Ian) had accomplished all the stripping of the interior and interior paint. All of which occurred while the car was parked on Wealthy street in Grand Rapids' Heritage Hill neighborhood. My noisy lesbian neighbors gave me lots of funny looks. (They were also stealing my cable tv, but whatever)
During the summer of 2003 I moved to a new apartment and scored myself a crappy garage to work in. Less street work, but also less new homeless friends. I sold my TV and a bunch of other things to get the money for safety gear and a new motor so that I would have my new rally car ready for the 2003 Cadillac Forest Rally... on September 13 03'. Only an hour and a half from my house, how lucky!
So a big rush to get everything ordered (And paid for!) in time for September. The week of the rally rolls around and I still don't have any sort of suspension on the car, and I still need to get it inspected to get a logbook. I round up some Honda guys from a local website and they help me get it running, and enough suspension on the car to make it move. I'm able to drive it out to the guy's house and he give's me the ok, and a logbook for the car. He then gives me a decent list of what needs to be fixed before the rally. I take a day off work and try to get everything done. Last minute my dad lends me $450 to buy shocks for the car so I wouldn't have to use the stock pieces (still stock springs though). Peter (whom I barely knew at the time) comes over to lend a hand on the shock install, and breaks the rusty bolts holding the stock pieces in.
With exactly 24 hours before I need to be in Cadillac Michigan for the rally, and with my co-driver Jeremy already on the way from Vermont (1000 miles away or so) I have no suspension (or rally computer, wheels, rally tires, exhaust, intercom and so on). I figure I can deal with the rest of the stuff at the rally, but I can't drive the car up there (100 miles, no tow vehicle yet) without suspension. So I take the car to a local shop to have the install done, they promise it back that night (Thursday night, gotta be in Cadillac Friday night). Anyway, Thursday night comes and goes and the car isn't back to me, and nobody is at the shop to answer the phone. Friday arrives and I call them first thing, they apologize and promise it Friday afternoon..... great.
I'm about to crap my pants from the stress fest I'm having, but am finally able to pick up the car with my new Bilstein HD shocks at 3pm... 2 hours before I need to leave. I get the car home and realize both rear shocks are 100% locked up and not moving. The installer left the stock metal dust boots on, and they have locked the shocks up, so back to the shop.
6pm now and the problem is fixed. Kelly (my girlfriend at the time, now wife) and her brother are packing my personal stuff, and Ian is packing my daily driver Jeep to bring up the next day (service vehicle!). Finally I am on the road, with uninstalled mudflaps, computer and intercom riding in the passenger seat. I meet my co-driver, register for the rally, and then spend 8 hours installing all the gear the best I can in the hotel parking lot. Dead Tired.
And then we start my first rally.
We finish it, and not dead last and somehow I break my finger. We do the night stages with no rally lights, only the stock, crappy, 11 year old Honda headlights. (I didn't have the $$ to buy any yet)
Instead of spending another hotel night in Cadillac I drive the car home with Kellys brother in the co-driver seat. To this day, I do not remember a single mile of that drive, but apparently, it was VERY scary.
First rally under my belt, and I'm on my way to being a pro :) Unfortunately, my checking account is negative about $1,700 after Cadillac, and I cannot compete in any of the other rallies close by, not until the first in 2004, the Sno-Drift rally. Luckily, Kelly is able to convince my bank manager to give me back $350 in overdraft fee's. Awesome!
Oh - Somewhere in here I get a sponsorship from a company I had messaged that makes brake pads. They call early and wake me up but I am so stoked about it anyway. Until I realize they thought I was the other Matt JohnSON. Bummed.
Before the rally I buy this absolute PIECE OF CRAP 1989 E150 Clubwagon from a bigtime Jesus fan. It runs on 3-5 cylinders, has BARELY functioning brakes, little to no heat, and leaky everything. On the plus side, it was $800, holds a ton, and you can put sweet stickers on it. I borrow a trailer from a local co-driver and off we go to Sno-Drift... well, after the rally car falls off the trailer while trying to load it. Oh! also in here I got "Asked to leave" my apartment with the garage. A few friends (Peter, this new guy DARKLOAD) and I decide it would be rad to split a "garage" to work on our cars... and so we do, it's called the Honda Lab, and it's a trash-hole
Thanks to Pbomers for this photo, I didn't think we had any old photo's of it!
Anyway, off to the Sno-Drift with a freshly rebuilt ghetto motor that needs race gas not because it is fast, but because it is not tuned whatsoever and has 13.5:1 compression. I've got a new co-driver for this event too, a guy named Stephen Zoeph. It is his first rally (my 2nd).
The rally is pretty straightforward, and we finish 2nd in class, and 5th in class (it was actually 2 regional rallies) not because we were fast, but because everyone else spent time in the sno banks, and we didn't (well a little, but not as much)
Ok awesome, let's do another. After a few months of saving pennies, we enter the 2004 Susquehanock Trail Pro Rally. We load up the van, and are on our way 600 miles to Pennsylvania. In the first 100 miles the van burns 6 quarts of oil, so Peter adds some Lucas oil and it stops (true story). Doesn't burn a single quart the rest of the trip. We also get a flat on the VAN, average 6 miles per gallon, and cannot make it up the hills in PA.
Oh but wait, going up the hills sucks, but coming down sucks even more as I blow through stop signs and traffic lights with no brakes whatsoever. But we get there.
We start the rally (After some serious drama at tech inspection because of my safety harnesses not having pins in them) and promptly blow the engine in STPR's famous end of stage 1 water crossing. Hydro locked, and blown to bits. On the plus side, I got to use my rules-mandated SCCA legal spill kit to try and prevent the oil that was draining from my motor from entering the stream.
So, blown motor, first DNF, and on our way back 580 miles to Grand Rapids. About $3,500 down the drain. Oh! and after towing us back to town, Peter gets the van towed after leaving it in the wrong parking lot. Oh Peter.
The trip home is no-less eventful as the van near-explodes on all uphill grades, repeatedly shifts out of "D" and refuses to slow on the downhills. By the time we get to Detroit to drop off Stephen, two of the vans brake lines have corroded away, and are leaking fluid. I crimp them off, leaving us with 2 functional (probably) brakes, and refill with my new Motul brake fluid I had bought for the rally car.
STPR 2004 put me in the hole about $3,500 after everything was said and done, and then I had to buy a new motor and gearbox. So it wasn't until October of that year that I was able to compete again, at the 2004 Lake Superior Pro Rally. I had another new co-driver for this event, the chap named John who let me use his trailer. The rally was pretty uneventful actually - other than John leaving a night early because Fitz the Jamaican was keeping everyone awake with his massive cheeseburger fueled snoring... Oh, and I was slow as snails. Bummer.
And so we come to Tall Pines 2004. A national Canadian event that is famous for being awesome. Only 1 month after LSPR it was a stretch getting the $$ to attend, but luckily Canadian events are much cheaper than U.S events (at least then). Again I am going to work with a new co-driver. A young fella named Rallybrat (Alex Kihurani). This guy has been around for years (since he was like 6) and knows how to get down with co-driving. We hit the rally hard, and mesh pretty well. We actually set fast class times, and lead our class until I go off for a few minutes. But we were nack on the road with Alex's enthusiastic pushing. We had some big jump drama during the event, and smashed the radiator. We had no service crew for this event, so at service I kinda smashed things back into place, Alex bought me a good hamburger - Only time I ate all day. Anyway - We ended up finishing second in class. The position is not important to me. What is important is that I felt comfortable and confident in the car, and was moving along quickly. The combo of Rallybrat + Canada + Growing a pair seems to be working.
The ride home see's me crimp off one of our remaining 2 van brake lines, and get a SERIOUS inspection at the USA/Canada border. But that's it for 2004. With Tall Pines finishing my little season on a high, I am feeling pretty good.
2005 starts and back to Sno-Drift. I rent a tow dolly to use behind the van, and it set's me back $300 and sucks every bit of the way. Rallybrat is back in the other seat and we set some good times. We are entered in the National to try and get a bit more exposure for potential sponsors, and we end up winning our class. Completely unplanned, but now we lead the Gp2 class National Championship. That's rad. But I felt slow at Sno-Drift, yuck.
Somewhere in here the Honda Lab completely floods multiple times, destroying a ton of Honda parts and Harbor Freight tools. Knee deep water for weeks at a time. Finally, with assistance from a big plummer I dig out the 8foot deep main building drain that is filled 100% with crap and dirt, and that helps a bit. Except I am covered in crap. Literally.
Back to STPR in June and we have done a little work on the car. My friend Chris the Art Director whipped up a new graphic design for the car and it's lookin hot!
I've also secured some sponsorship from Optima Batteries, Cobalt Friction and Hankook tires. Yea! With Rallybrat on board again we win our class in the rally, again. Now we have a pretty serious lead in the national championship, even though we didn't haul all the way out to Oregon, because the guys there went off the road or blew up, or something. Now, we start to think, "Hey, we could win a National Champ" and that would be pretty cool, so I plan to attend Maine Forest later that summer in August. I figure a championship would look great to sponsors, and really help me move on up eventually to the WRC. Oh did I mention I sold the van to pay my entry fee for STPR? It was a piece of crap anyway. That left us driving the rally car the 1,100 miles round trip from Michigan to PA for the rally.
I REALLY did not want to drive the car all the way to Maine (1200 miles each way) and so I asked on the internet for help. This guy Ben Slocum shows up at Luke's house the day before we need to leave with a piece of crap F150 and a MUCH bigger piece of crap single axle trailer for the car. I happen to LOVE piece of crap vehicles and am so stoked that he wants to help us out. We have to take the rally car over to Fitz the Jamaicans shop so that he can install some new upper control arms, and then we leave, at about 2am. For this trip we have Ben, Myself, Luke and our friend Adam who is a superb fabricator crazy person who works too hard but has a real hot wife. The F150 doesn't have a back seat, but that's ok, we just snuggle up, and stick our feet out the rear window for the ride. Rally brat is with another driver for this event because of a scheduling mishap, and in his place I have recruited math teacher friend Luke into his place. This is his first try at co-driving.
After getting lost, and turning a 14 hour drive into a 22 hour drive, We ran into some big drama at tech inspection. Turns out my gearbox was dumping all of it's oil on the tech inspection floor. They tell us we need to fix it before the car gets passed... Fix it? We "Fix it" by draining all the remaining oil from the gearbox, and driving it back to tech dry as a bone. Done deal.
We take the start of the rally with the box re-filled, but still leaking. It leaks so bad in fact, that the oil is hitting the exhaust enough to fill the car with smoke, causing us to almost pass out (and cars behind us!). This doesn't last long though, and by the first stage the box is completely dry again. This continues for the entire rally, we fill the box again with oil we may or may not have luckily found in the middle of the highway, and it goes dry during the next stage. A testament to Honda build quality, the gearbox lasted the entire event..... + every other event the car has done!
Unfortunately, the steering rack broke free of the sub frame somewhere during the rally, and we had to complete the last 2 stages of the rally with little to no steering input. We lost a good 10 minutes. Adam tried to re-weld it the cast aluminum rack during the 20 minute service and told me it would hold if I did not hit any rocks. Maine is made of rocks. It did not hold.
We still finished, and gathered up some points. By this point, we had pretty much won the Gp2 National Championship. I began to heavily consider what to do for 2006. I could run the Civic again, but I was almost completely broke by now. I had moved back in with my mom, sold my jeep, and everything else, but still could not afford to do more than 4-5 events/year. In 2005, I spent about $25,000USD on rally, which may not sound like a lot in motorsports, but considering I was paying for it all myself, and didn't take home that much more at the ol job... it was tough.
An idea had cropped up in my head that it would certainly be easier to get financial sponsorship for the World Rally Champ as it was much more visible and marketable. At first I looked at the Junior WRC, but the high price tag turned me off a bit, and I figured my driving needed to improve for that level. I also looked at trying to round up some $$ for an Open class car in the USA, but the cost of that was almost as much as the JWRC, so that was out. I didn't really have a plan, but knew I wanted to try something on the world level. Perhaps a national championship in one of the euro countries? Who knows, where do you find this stuff out?
So I started asking a few drivers with more experience, and some suggested France, and so on, but there was a limited amount of options. I began hearing a rumor of a new one-make championship supported by Ford, and sent some e-mails to M-Sport, The company that runs the Ford WRC program.
Anyway, we were off to LSPR. Rallybrat was back in the seat, and we went pretty quick. We beat my 2004 times on some stages by over a minute, and set quicker times on some stages than one of the fastest guys around. After the rally finished on Saturday we celebrated the champ win at the famous "Library" in downtown Houghton MI. It wasn't until 4:30 am that we got to sleep, a little late considering we had to be up at 8am to receive our national championship trophy.
While at the hotel during LSPR I got some e-mails back from M-Sport with the details on their new Fiesta Sporting Trophy International. A one-make championship that would take place during 2006 at 6 selected WRC rounds. It was aimed to be highly competitive and cheaper than other options... Hello, Matt? I couldn't have asked for a better goal to shoot for, and I flipped into 100% raise money mode. I was going to the WRC in 2006, and I just needed to find a couple hundred grand. No worries.
Extra motivated, I put the Civic up for sale. After 11 rallies, and literally thousands of man-hours, I needed money to pay my Fiesta Trophy entry fee. Kelly thought I was crazy (so did most of my friends) but you need to take risks right?
One last rally for me and the Civic. Luke in the co-drivers seat we took on the 2005 Tall Pines over Thanksgiving weekend. A much more experienced driver told me if I could beat or equal a very fast Gp2 driver named Jon, I was probably getting close in speed to the JWRC guys. Ok, I'm beating Jon then.
Tall Pines comes, we leave our families for thanksgiving and Luke puts mustard on my turkey sandwich. Thanks, but no thanks Luke (I still feel bad about that, but I hated mustard). The rally is PURE snow and ice, we get completely stormed on coming through Toronto on the way there. We stop outside Toronto and Luke buys 5 snow tires for the rally car. I will pay him back in a few weeks. For the mean time, we mount the snow tires to my daily driver 1991 Honda Civic we are driving up to the rally. I picked IT up for $127. The rally car was coming up a day later, being towed by a local fella named Matt Westveld, thanks a lot Matt!
The rally comes, and first stage with Luke's second time on the notes we beat Jon. Second stage we get beat, third also, but not by much. We are close enough that I feel like we are on the same level, and I know where I am leaving the last seconds on the table. Unfortunately, Jon goes off, and I don't get to continue following his times. Luke and I work together well, he misses a few notes, but not bad. I miss a corner and on the ice we slide off. It cost's us 10 minutes or so.
We finish the stage flat out, Luke with no intercom because he lost the plug in the going off shuffle, what a hoot. The rest of the rally is flat out. We pass a car on a 6ft wide snowbank lined road, and then immediately get a flat. We drive the last 5kilometers of the stage and change the flat in a little under 2 minutes... Harbor Freight impact wrench to the rescue. All in all, we end up finishing first in class. But most important to me, is that we set very quick times. Especially considering it was only Luke's second time co-driving, and his first time with Recce (the process used in some rallies to make your own notes before the rally starts).
After the rally my car sells. Everyone asks if I am bummed to see my first rally car leave the driveway. I am, but not really, as I am 100% motivated to get to the WRC.
In early 2006 I pay my entry fee to the Fiesta Trophy WRC using the proceeds from my rally car. I also am spending 6 hours a day after my day job calling marketing directors and sending letters. Desperately trying to gain partnerships to help me get to where I need to be with the $$. M-Sport, and ISC (the company that owns the TV rights to the WRC) are super helpful, giving me some advice, and trying to point me in the right direction. Unfortunately, I am having little luck. It seems to be a problem that most of the U.S based companies don't really care about rallying as a marketing platform, and most of the Euro companies are either already involved with someone, or have been in the past. Why would they help out some American when there is a perfectly good German? Good question. I spend $500 out of my funds to print some pretty epic marketing guides with matching envelopes and other goodies. It will take me another year before learn that flashy materials impress nobody.
It is suggested that I attend rally Cataluyna in Spain, the first WRC round of the Fiesta Cup. There is going to be a big launch for the championship, and since I am entered, I should be a part of it (never mind that I'm broke). So off to Spain I go. I do the marketing bit, and talk to everyone that will listen. I get a couple of interviews, and do the Fiesta launch. I felt a bit silly for sure, since I didn't have a car. Got some spectating in too! (It was my first WRC after all)
I spend the rest of the spring of 2006 trying to schedule meetings, and generally harassing anyone with a checkbook who will listen. I get some good feedback, and some decent interest, and some commitments. But It becomes apparent that I will certainly miss the first half of the Fiesta cup.
And the second half.
and now I am working on 2007. I started late in the 2006, and hoped an earlier start for 2007 would help. I printed up some more marketing guides that I had spend weeks on, and killed another $600. I also went to some conferences on garnering sponsorship, trying to educate myself on this mysterious area of marketing.
Somewhere in here, April of 2006 I got invited to attend the Rim of the World Rally and compete in a borrowed car, which I did. Unfortunately the car I was SUPPOSED to drive never showed up. We missed the entire Friday portion of the rally, but by Saturday some VERY kind Polish souls donated their Galant VR4 to me for the day. I tried to drive the wheels off it with a new co-driver in the seat (Ian Pinter) as Rallybrat had a proper gig for the event. We went pretty quick in a car that I never drove before stage 1, but then it started overheating.... and it died.
I can't give enough thanks to the owners of the car for letting me use it. They didn't even seem mad when they came to get it from the side of the field we were sitting in.
Back on the funding train for 2007. I upgraded my cell phone plan for 1500 minutes a month and was determined to use them all calling every person on the planet who has a dollar. Ultimately though, it was too be the same result as 2006.... Nothing.
The second part of this story is when I buy another car, an Acura Integra, get a second (and sometimes third) job to pay for it (delivering pizzas!). - to make a monster machine for the Gp5 class. But that's an entire huge story in of itself. So not for today. Plus, I had a crappy camera for lots of that so there is some videos out there documenting it too.
So, if you actually read this. Perhaps you might know get a feeling of where I am coming from. If you are a driver/co-driver/crew or similar, you can probably replace a lot of names in my story, and it would be yours. I'd always thought someone should make a film about this crazy stuff - and now I have the skills/gear and desire to do just that. I hope you think it would be cool too.