The Last Day is the Best Day — WRC Rally Mexico With Darkcyd Racing

With the team feeling better about Saturday’s successes, rolling into Sunday with less apprehension and the level excitement seen on everyone’s faces. Though the crew knew that lurking above was the harbinger of doom: will the brakes last another day of racing?IMG_0713 - Version 2.jpg

Trailing just a few minutes behind Fricke and his Rally Team of Dreams and a few minutes ahead of Mexican American Guillermo Sánchez and his Mitsubishi Lancer. Yet failing to complete a stage because of accident, mechanical failure, or getting lost on the complex maze or roads that wind through León and the surrounding mountains would mean not finishing WRC Rally Mexico.

Darkcyd Racing Team technicians (as they’re called in WRC lingo) would have fifteen minutes to inspect, clean and lubricate brake rotors and pads. No further problems with the power steering and alternator belt, though the mud, dirt and dust of the harsh terrain meant the windows of Darkcyd’s venerable Subaru would need a cleaning. At least they’d be clean for 10 minutes.

Robb and Ben contained their excitement, with Ben falling into classic co-driver mode: time is everything and focus is key. But the hordes of fans pushing past the yellow border tape were hard to resist. Though the hard work and challenges of the last three days had taken its toll on the crew. This is a long rally and it tests (and taxes) the endurance of everyone.

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Our guide and former rally team manager José Fredo cheers on Petter Solberg as he cranks around a tight turn at Comanjilla on Sunday at WRC Rally Mexico.

To make sure I could get good position for photos and viewing, and with the advice of José Fredo, decided to head directly to the second stage of the day: Comanjilla. The Comanjilla stage is about 18km and extremely difficult with a steep uphill start, through a series of hairpins until breaking into an open flowing road. But this doesn’t last long as it turns twisty while adding the challenge of deep drainage channels through the road and a series of jumps. The first state of the day, one of the longest of the rally, was cancelled due to safety conditions before Darkcyd’s Rill and Slocum could start.

This meant that Darkcyd needed to not only complete the Comanjilla stage, it would try to make time to maintain its second place position among the Rally America class of vehicles still in the race.

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Nassar Al-Attiyah would later learn that a minor technicality would cost him from qualifying his score for this race

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Pedestrian risk is high as these high-speed rally cars spew dust and big rocks.

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Rill and Slocum pilot the Darkcyd Racing Team Subaru through the gnarly and tough Comanjilla stage effortlessly and take the team to it’s first Mexican rally finish—and in second place!

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There’s nothing like crossing the finish line.

While the sun beat down, and several more WRC drivers falling victim to the treacherous conditions of Rally Mexico, Team Darkcyd cruised through the final stages successfully while gaining valuable time and ultimately finishing second—a trophyposition on the WRC Rally Mexico podium. As one of only six cars out of more than 30 competitors to claim this position, Mexico finally belonged to Robb Rill, Ben Slocum and the entire Darkcyd Racing Team.

Before they could retried their trophies, Rill and Slocum had to weave the Darkcyd Subaru around the Poliforum and Explora park to the podium where thousands of fans cheered, begged for autographs and jockeyed to get a photograph with the winners. the team grabbed team boss and his Robb’s wife and set her on the back of the car as the WRC Rally Mexico Turntable spun the car around and ultimately launched it into another crowd of frenzied fans just hoping to see the winning Rally Mexico teams.

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Darkcyd driver, Robb Rill, signs the shoulder of a rally fan before marching to the winner’s circle.

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On the podium the entire Darkcyd Racing Team basks in the glory of its 2nd place win at WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

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At the trophy presentation in the Poliforum, nothing can hold back the happiness and smiles of driver and co-driver.

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Team boss is happy to see that Robb not only finished a mexican rally, but this time they take home an impressive second place trophy!

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Victory splash as lead technician Ken Anctin and driver Robb Rill pour the chilling water from the team water cooler over co-driver Ben Slocum.

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The 2nd Place Winning Darkcyd Racing Team, (clockwise from top left) Ben Slocum, co-driver; Robb Rill, driver; Ed Stockline, technician, Kenny Thorstenson, technician; Tara Rill, team Boss; Gary Grahn, technician; Ken Actin, lead technician.

Inside the Poliforum the lucky fans with tickets who not only could hover around the pits of the pros and the Rally America teams, but could get front row access to the trophy presentation where Robb thanked the Mexican fans and tipped his hat in accolades to the technicians and team that helped him achieve his dream: a win in Mexico.

That evening after a long awaited victory dinner at one of León’s best restaurants, Me Come No, the team headed to the closing party where many of the pros, now freed from the intense pressure of high-speed racing, could let loose and relax. We met several drivers and lead technicians including Petter Solberg and his co-driver.

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The victory dinner wasn’t just for Darkcyd Racing Team, the tenacious Recon Rally as well as first place winners Rally Team for Dreams joined the celebration as Rally America teams completed aggressively against the top-notch pros of WRC.

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Tara posing with WRC finishing team Petter Solberg (r) and Chris Patterson at the WRC Rally Mexico finale party!

Robb, Tara and the team couldn’t hide their excitement and joy from finally finishing—second place—at one of the toughest rallies in the WRC schedule. I am just happy to be a part of it. I must admit, I’m now addicted. Don’t be suprised if you’ll be reading more about rally racing here on

Darkcyd Deserves A Brake: Day 2 WRC Rally Mexico

By the time the second day of WRC Rally Mexico started, only 5 Rally America group cars were still in the race. The rough roads, intense heat and constant beating of cars had whittled the pack in half. The Darkcyd Racing Team strategy was simple: finish the race.

Around the pit there was apprehension about the brakes. Yesterday the calipers had seized. Lead technician Ken Anctil had exhausted every possible angle to find suitable replacements for brake rotors, pads and lines. But it was useless. This is Mexico, so we have to work with what we’ve got. If the brakes seize on a competitive stage or in transit to one of the stages, Robb and Ben would be stuck in the high desert and the car would have to be towed back to the pit area at the Poliforum. If this happened, the crew and Robb would be devastated.IMG_0437 - Version 2.jpg

Darkcyd has made two previous attempts in competitive Rally Races in Mexico—both the Baja 1,000. Though Robb competed using different vehicles, due to a number of difficulties, the team never finished those races. Bring the team deep into Mexico for this WRC event is a big risk. We’re days from a US border, and this race is much different.

After last nights second place finish in the Super Special, Robb was feeling okay with the brakes. The technicians weren’t so sure, especially since Day two is the longest of the rally where Darkcyd would take on nearly 160km (96miles) of competitive racing over nine stages. These include repeats for the Leon Street Stage and last night’s Super Stages at the Leon Autodrome.

As we climbed the scrubby landscape to the first stage of the day at Ibarilla, we hiked up the dirt road to the first hairpin turn, I thought this would be perfect for photography. With the sun behind me and a long straight away the launches into a tight hairpin, but the local police and WRC officials wouldn’t let us stay: safety reasons. So we continued hiking and found a spot on a ledge about 4 feet above the road surface.

Ibarilla is a 30km run that loops from Ibarrilla to Mesa de Reyes, just north of Leon. The road is narrow and riddled with a number of gate posts and culverts, so drivers must be careful. Seven-time winner Loeb and teammate Olgier blasted by us in blazing speed spewing dust, rocks and spitting gravel and those on the road surface. Fearless, José Fredo stood by the side of the run and in true racing fan form, twirled his arm around like a windmill each time a car blasted by us.IMG_0555 - Version 2.jpg

Though several Rally America cars fell out yesterday, Bill Caswell managed to get his car running and rejoined the pack. By the time Darkcyd’s Rill and Slocum fired up the gravel road, pedestrians had already started to make their way down. Hearing the sound of the cars, one young boy dove between two fence posts under sharp barbed wire, only later trying to rub his wounds but couldn’t reach his back with his short limbs.

Several of the pros took their toll on Ibarilla this morning. The Citroen team’s Dani Sordo went off the road and broke the wishbone part of his suspension taking him out of the race. He will fix the car, but the service will take more than the time allocated and he will miss several stages and therefore he will finish the race in what is called “SuperRally” status. SuperRally simply means that only driver/teams that complete each stage of the rally can appear in the final classification. This means that they can still race, but their results will not be counted.

What happened on Ibarrilla stage this morning is a testament to focusing on strategy: to finish, is to win. Not only did Sordo have problems but both Matthew Wilson and Ken Block faced doom on one of the longest stages of the rally. Wilson slipped on loose gravel while braking and went off the road and beached his Ford on some big rocks where he couldn’t get off. And American hopeful and GYMKHANA legend, Ken Block lost traction under braking and went into a rock face which busted his suspension and broke a wheel. Both drivers will fix their cars and compete again tomorrow under SuperRally.

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The rough twisting and loose rocks of the Duarte stage took Ken Block out for the day after he ran off the road.

A bit tepid due to the brake issue and follow the strategy “to finish” Robb and Ben took it easy on the first stage, placing fourth out of five cars running the stage in 28:18.1, nearly a minute behind the winner in the Rally America group, Rally Team for Dreams. To put this into perspective, the winner of the WRC group, Sebastien Loeb ran the 29km same stage in 18:25.8.

Back in Service Anctil, Grahn, Thorstenson and Stockline were busy trying to do the impossible. Figuring that while replacing the rotors was out of the question and finding brake pads to fit the custom aftermarket brakes was impossible, they set out to do the impossible: make new brake pads. Kenny was able to download a schematic of the brake pads from the manufacturers website. With basic specs in hand they found pads that were as close to the specs as possible and proceeded to grind, cut and drill holes to match the aftermarket pads. They spent the whole morning pulling this together so that when Robb rolled into service, it would be an easy swap.

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It’s a team effort. Ken Anctil, Gary Grahn, Ed Stockline and Tara Rill work to turn lemons into lemonade by using schematic diagrams from the aftermarket brake manufacturer to convert standard off-the-shelf brake pads into pads that will fit Robb Rill’s Darkcyd Racing Team’s rally car.

After Ibarrilla Robb and Ben still had another 50km of racing in two stages, Duarte and Derrmadero. These stages were so far out in the mountains, we’d never make it before the pros would start and the road would close. So we headed back to the Poliforum so we could watch the teams second run at the León Street stage and then meet them for the 30 minute afternoon service break. By the time the cars showed up for the short 1.5km run on asphalt, only three Rally America cars remained in the competition, Caswell and Campos both were saddled with mechanical problems. On the street stage, and without the baggage of a broken power steering belt and a loose battery flopping around the Rally Car, Robb and Ben jammed through the stage in 1:38.2, just .8 seconds behind Andrew Frick and his Rally Team for Dreams Ford Focus.

The team had the brakes ready when Robb pulled into the pits. “The brakes feel fine,” Robb insisted to Gary, who felt they should use the service time to fit the brakes. “They’re fine,” Robb repeated, “I don’t think we should change them. I haven’t had a problem all day.” After some of the most grueling stages of the rally, Robb’s attitude was simple, if it isn’t broken, let’s not try to fix it. So the team cleaned and lubricated the rotors and inspected the vehicle before sending it out for the afternoon stages, which would be a repeat of those run in the morning.

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Kenny Thorstenson, Ken Anctil and Gary Grahn shove Rill and Slocum out of the pit and on time so they can continue Day 2 of the WRC Rally Mexico in León, Mexico.

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Petter Solberg passes me in heavy Saturday traffic on his way to the Pemex gas station up the road where we meet him and other WRC pros (below) who take a minute, even in the heat of the race, to sign fan autographs.

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Up the road a bit we run into Solberg again, where Darkcyd Racing Team boss, Tara Rill, tries to convince Petter to step out of the race, insisting that Rill/Slocum got it covered. In the end, Solberg convinces Tara to accept his autograph on the Team pit pass before heading to the tough Duarte stage here at WRC Rally Mexico.
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Solberg puts the pedal through the floorboards as he jams out of the starting gate at Duarte stage in WRC Rally Mexico.

While racing through traffic to get to Duarte 2, one of the stages we couldn’t make as spectators this morning, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw WRC pro racer Petter Solberg. He was on my ass, so I pulled over and let him pass. He jumped onto the shoulder and starting passing other cars. Without hesitation I cranked the wheel of my VW Jetta to the right and followed him. Cars started splitting away and Tara pulled out her camera and started to video the chase. Obviously in a transit stage, but Solberg was trying to make it his next fuel stop. By the time we rolled into the Pemex station crowds were jammed and two other WRC cars were already there. Petter was fueling. We find Petter and Argentinian Villagra pulled over up the road checking their vehicles before proceeding to the Duarte start gate.

We raced with WRC cars ahead and behind to the Duarte 2 stage, parked and hiked to the best vantage point looking down on the cars. Duarte is about 23km and probably the twistiest stage of the event, though has a long straight in the middle where the cars can get up to speeds of 100+ mph. But there are a number of steep climbs, and hairpins, so it’s one of the more dangerous, too. The end of the stage, the course climbs to nearly 8,000 feet in elevation. Thankfully, Robb and Ben faced no problems and the brakes held out, finishing where several pros didn’t.

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Robb Rill and Ben Slocum power up a steep incline on the twisty and tough Duarte stage.

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Locals join in and cheer for Darkcyd Racing as Robb and Ben twist through another hairpin.

Darkcyd Racing Robb Rill and Ben Slocum powering up Duarte Stage at WRC Rally Mexico 2011

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Fans of all age turn out here in León, Mexico to cheer Darkcyd Racing and the others who just hope to finish one of the most grueling races in the WRC Rally Racing series in 2011.

The day ended with the 2.2km Super Special stage which each team must run twice and head to head with the closest competitor. Tonight we faced Frick and Rally Team for Dreams, and going over one of the jumps we watched a piece fly off the Darkcyd Subaru. Yet that didn’t impact our performance, as we beat Frick in both runs.

With only three Rally America cars left competing in our group, we ended the day in 2nd place, and 6:23.3 behind Frick, this includes a two-minutes in penalties due to the longer service from yesterdays near disatarous brake seizure.

Feeling much better the crew crashed knowing that if we can just complete all the stages tomorrow, in the finally day of the rally, we will place and celebrate by being on the winner’s podium tomorrow afternoon.

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Before jamming out of the pits, fans convince Robb to sign more autographs. Don’t have any paper? Don’t worry, Robb is happy to sign a shirt–or whatever!

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Darkcyd cruises to a first place finish in both Super Special 1 and 2 on Saturday night at WRC Rally Mexico. A beautiful end to a hard day of Rally here in León, Mexico.

Facing Challenges: WRC Mexico Rally

With the first day of real rally racing ahead, the team was up early and ready to send Rob and Ben off to the first Alfaro stage, a 26km (15.6 miles) of wide and sweeping turns on a fairly good gravelly surface which gets tighter and more twisty in the last 5km. . In rally racing, for the most part, there are pre-set times when the team can service the vehicle. So at the end of each day all vehicles are parked in an area called Park Ferme. A secure parking lot watched by WRC officials. Entering Park Ferme any time other than when when the vehicle is brought in, or when it’s scheduled to exit.

Friday morning marks the first service during the three day race: 15 minutes. Team Darkcyd had a few simple goals. Fifteen minutes doesn’t leave much time for anything. However, the team had the car for nearly two days before the start of the race. First, they needed to change the tires from those used on the short 1.5km tarmac Ceremonial Stage to newer tires better suited to the rocky and gravel surfaces for Friday. Adjustments were made to the in cockpit camera system and overall inspection of the vehicle.

When the WRC officals came by our pit, we reviewed the results of the cermonnial stage the night before. Good news: our team was not penalized for an early start. Phew!

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Ken Anctil changes tires and Gary Grahn inspects the engine compartment.

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The starting line for the Alfaro Stage at WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

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Spectators try to find safe viewing areas, but the craggy terrain challenges them.

WRC Rally Mexico 2011 is essentially made up of 2 different groups—not exactly classes, because in each group there are several vehicle classes. There are the WRC professionals, which, for 2011, included 24 vehicles in 4 different classes and the Rally America group which included 10 vehicles from both the United States and Mexico.

While there are a huge number of differences between the two groups, the most interesting is how the starting order is set. With WRC, the fastest cars go first in ascending order, based on the run time from the previous stage. With Rally America cars, the cars start in descending order with the fastest cars starting last. Plus, the Rally America group is split by those entrants from North America and those from Mexico.

The racing takes part in stages, and each stage is set either in the surrounding hills of León or in the city limits. Because this is Mexico, Tara and I decided it would be best to find a local race fan who could guide us to the stages to makes sure that we found them and got there before the stage starts.

José Fredo (Fredo), thin, handsome and with salt and pepper hair in his late 50’s, is a bit of a renaissance man. He’s written several books including one on the history of the La Carrera Panamicana, the Pan Am—now infamous, but only run for 5 years between 1950 and 1954. José Fredo speaks several languages, including French, Italian and English. For us unfortunately, he is less literate in English. No problem, I am able to speak to him in Spanish and translate as needed.

Also joining us for the day was Lonnie Watson, the father of two young boys from another Rally America team, Recon Rally Team USA. Armed with a video camera and a bag of gear, Lonnie didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see his boys race their first international rally in their VW Rabbit. Driver Brian Watson and one of his mechanics drove three days straight from Seattle, without stopping, sleeping and switching drivers along the way.

By the time we got near start of the race, WRC officials and local police had closed the race to the starting line. Because we’re driving the same vehicle that Robb and Ben used to do the “recce” on the stages, we had a large official sticker adhered to the passenger side of the windshield. Plus, we were sporting lanyards with official “back stage” passes allowing us access to places others could not go.

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José Fredo, our guide; Lonny Watson and Tara Rill haning in the heat waiting for Darkcyd Racing’s inaugural run at 2011 WRC Rally Mexico.

With some 65,000 miles of international driving experience, I know how to quickly adapt to the local driving style. And in Mexico, it may as well as be rally racing. Yet, when Fredo instructed me to keep driving past two police officers on a dusty gravel road, I hesitate. “Go. Go. Go, Allan,” he yelled as I rolled down the window to talk to one of the officers.

“No talk, Allan,” he’s saying while tapping my shoulder from the back seat. I say good bye to the officer and slowly pull forward. The officer puts his hand on his holster and unfastens the button holding his gun. Hmmmm. Maybe we should stay. I would learn later that Fredo can easily talk his way nearly anywhere. He seems to know everyone working the rally, and that combined with our credentials would later serve us well and save many miles of tough high-altitude climbing.

However here at the Alfaro 1 stage, we had to hike up a rocky road, often instructed to walk on the other side of yellow and red tape that delineated the course and its pedestrian danger zones. Climbing through sandy, thorny and craggy terrain of the Sierra de Lobos mountains we positioned ourselves just outside the first turn and waited. Helicopters hovered about, and soon a WRC truck flew by with sirens and lights spewing dust over the spectators gathered to watch the race. Race officials, worried about pedestrian safety, cleared the area on the outside of the left-hand sweeping turn.

When seven-time and current world champion Sébastien Loeb, took that first turn I got my first taste of WRC Rally Racing, as well as an eyeful of the dust that trailed him as he blasted through the curve going side ways and then powered up the straight away from us. Wow. Loeb, who turned 37 years old just a few days before the start of “recce” here in Mexico, as well as his teamate Sébastien Olgier are French and drive French-made Citroen DS3 WRC vehicles with 1.6 litre turbocharged engines.

While dusty and hot as the morning sun grew hotter, I was energized by the adrenaline of a motorsport I’d long knew about and briefly tasted in 2004 when I happened to be in Monoco during the WRC Monte-Carlo Rally. The speed at which these cars travel over roads that twist, turn, climb, descend, switchback and pass through remote villages and desolate landscapes is impressive. And with three days of nonstop driving in 90+ degree temperatures tests the endurance, focus and abilities of both man and machine—cars, drivers, co-drivers and teams.

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Sébastien Loeb tears up the first turn in WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

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Nassar al-Attiyah dusts the crowd as he aims to place in this years Rally Mexico.

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Norwegian Petter Solberg grinds the dirt coming out of turn 1 at the Alfaro stage at WRC Rally Mexico 2011.

In Rally Racing the strategy isn’t simply to have the fastest time. Because the dangerous terrain, extreme temperatures and constant acceleration, braking and shifting, to win a rally like this is to finish. Finishing faster and on time is certainly the goal, but one mustn’t lose sight that if a driver or car is pushed to or even beyond its limits the likelihood of mistakes increases exponetially. While this kind of racing is always as risk, the best drivers know how to keep that risk in check and do what’s needed to survive the grueling days of racing.

With the WRC drivers powering through and then the Mexican representatives of the Rally America, it’s clear why the professional WRC racers are the top in the world, because even the slowest of the cars are driving much faster than most people reading this blog will ever drive on these kind of roads.

The danger in rally racing isn’t always confined to those in the cockpit of the cars, it’s the pedestrians who, after watching the pros and not aware of the time gap between groups, start walking, riding their bicycles or walking their dogs down the dusty track. Fortunately, the other spectators are quick to scream, yell and often make fun, all in an effort to clear the road for the drivers and the safety of the people. Though, due to the ignorance or stupidity of some, accidents do happen.

When Robb and Ben, the last of 34 cars, came careening through the corner we cheered and watched him face into the dust trail he left behind the Darkcyd Racing Team’s ’05 Subaru. The start of a long weekend of racing.

Tara, Lonnie and I headed back to the Poliforum, where the pits and the afternoon León street stage, Super Special, would be run later this afternoon. Due to the distances between stages, and the rough roads required to get there, we decided best not to try to make it before the street stage and the next pit stop, an official 30 minute service just after the street stage.

The short Street Stage is 1.5km and winds around the León Explora Science Center, an interactive and museum and park, which sits just behind the pit and service area. The entire stage is on asphalt with several flat out corners then turning into a rapid succession of haiprins and 90 degree turns. While watching the pros at speed then slam on the brakes as they wind through the hairpins and corners, I receive a text message from Robb. It’s urgent. The power steering and alternator belt has snapped. I get word to the team and though we didn’t have a spare, they find one in record time. Soon after, the car lost power and they had to summon a passing car on the street who was happy to help Robb out with a battery. Problem is, now Robb must ride through this winding, twisting, albeit short, stage without power steering. To be sure, not all race cars have power steering. But when fitted with such, losing power steering actually makes turning harder than if the car never had it fitted. Plus, since the Subaru is four-wheel drive, powering it through these types of corners is tough. Plus, with the old battery in the rear of the cockpit, it will roll around and make for an uncomfortable stage.

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Recon Rally and Rally Team for Dreams launch their bid at the 2011 WRC Rally Mexico under the Rally America group.

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Rally racing brings out fans of all ages. I enjoyed talking with the kids who found balance watching the race from a fence nearby.

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Robb Rill pulls out of turn one and guns it around the corner on the first day of racing in the dirt at WRC Rally Mexico.

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Spectators sometimes make no sense. With many more cars to run, they risk getting gunned down by a speeding rally car. But the kids still hang and wait for the next competitor.

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Running the Alfaro Stage, Robb Rill and co-driver Ben Slocum compete in 90+ degree temperatures.

Yet watching Robb take the corners as I snapped dozens of photos, I wouldn’t have guessed he was tasked with these challenges. After winding through the stage, the Subaru battery fails and the car has to be pushed through the Poliforum, past all the pit areas for the professionals. When it finally arrives in the pit for service, co-driver Ben Slocum nearly collapses from heat exhaustion. The team moves to recharge the battery, replace the broken belt and check the car for damage and potential problems. As Ben regains composure and is hydrated he goes back into form.

We learn that the Recon Rally team piloted by Lonnie’s sons has fallen out of the race. They’ve blown an engine. Another Rally America car in a Dodge Neon ran into a tree. And Bill Caswell, the 2010 Rally America winner at WRC Mexico suffered mechanical problems and would be towed back to the pits. Still another, one of the Mexican cars, rolled and would show up later on a flatbed. Fortunately, nobody is hurt. But that takes the pack down to six cars.

“Three minutes,” he yells while telling me that I shouldn’t bother Robb with another interview, they must focus and get suited and in the car. Ed and Kenny recheck the torque on all the lug nuts while Ken and Gary examine brake and fuel lines.

“Thirty seconds,” Ben’s voice louder and with conviction and authority of a football coach. They fire the engine and back out of the tent.

But there’s a problem.

The car doesn’t move smoothly and sparks are flying out of the wheels as Robb back and then pulls the car back into the tent. He tries again. It’s seized. More sparks. The team jacks the car up and pulls the wheels off. Now they’re going to be penalized. Taking more time in service will cost us time. But the car can’t go. Gary discovers the brake calipers are seized. With some hammering, WD-40 and a little bit of luck they get them released. But will they last?

After Ben and Robb blast out of the pit, the team moves to solve the problem. After a team meeting and many phone calls it’s impossible to get new brake calipers and pads because those fitted on the Subaru are specially designed aftermarket products that are not sold in Mexico. Contacting the US supplier yields the answer I already know: it will take at least 4 or 5 days to get parts shipped due to customs holds. Alternatively, the team could replace the entire brake system with original stock parts, but finding these in Mexico in time is impossible. We try to convince a Mexican team who’s bad luck that day took them out of the race. But they’re convinced they can fix the car and get back in the race after many repairs. Our team doesn’t think so. But there’s no convincing them.

An hour later I receive another update from Robb and Ben. They say the next stage has been cancelled due to a “red cross” situation. We imagine the worst: someone badly injured, or even killed. Some time later they roll the Subaru into Park Ferme. The brakes worked for the transit to the beginning of the stage, but since they never got to run the stage, which is a second stab at the first stage of the day, there’s no way of knowing how the brakes will perform under stress of racing.

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Though the street stage is 100% pavement, the WRC brought in a little dirt to add some excitement.

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Thousands of people come to watch Rally Mexico, sponsors like Coca-Cola and Corona do its best to capture their attention and make and impression.

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Then again, Monster energy drinks perhaps makes an even better impression with the only American driver in the WRC pro class, DC shoe founder, Ken Block. Though his Ford is plagued with electrical issues throughout the race.

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Robb Rill of Darkcyd Racing challenged with a broken power steering belt and a loose battery bouncing around the cockpit, but still scores good time on the WRC Rally Mexico Street Stage.

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The battery dies after the street stage, so the team and more have to push Darkcyd’s Subaru through the Poliforum pro pit area and out to the Darkcyd service area.

Turns out that the next three stages are cancelled. Not because anyone got hurt. But because of the attrition of cars falling out of the race, the gap between cars has expanded. You see, officials must wait for the official start time for all cars who started the day at first stage. However, with four cars out of the race the space between the last car to actually run and the time Robb is scheduled to start is too big. Fans, thinking the stage is over, start walking down the track. The danger and risk is too high. To avoid an accident and focus on safety, they won’t let Robb run.

Since Robb was the fastest, he goes last. Perhaps it’s a blessing given the brake situation, but it still means not completing the stage. Though Robb and Ben ran the same three stages in the morning, there’s a bit of disappointment in the air. As far as scoring, the team will still be saddled with the service delay penalty, but race rules dictate that we will be assigned a time equal to the slowest time of the last car to complete the stage. Ben assures Robb and the team that this is fair and normal.

The last stage of the day is called Super Special 1 and Super Special 2. It’s a paved tracked at a racing track and complex outside the city of León. At 2.2km, two drivers compete and race at the same time. They race the course twice. This is perhaps draws the densest crowd of the rally because it’s close to town, offers spectator viewing from bleachers and has a number of high speed sections, twists and turns and two jumps. The good news is that the team has another 45 minute service which gives them time to look at the brakes. The car should be fitted with a light bar that contains four high-intensity halogen beams, but there are problems hooking it up due to damage to the undercarriage where the light bar should be bolted. Robb must run without lights.

Even with questionable brakes, Robb pilots the Subaru to second place, just 2.5 seconds behind Guillermo Sánchez and his Mitsubishi Lancer.

Back at the pits the team tries to solve the brake issue. Robb remembers that Petter Solberg used a Subaru during the Recce stage and so did Nassar al-Attiyah, the 2011 Dakar winner. But so late and with no real connection to these teams, we can’t find anyone willing to listen to our plight.

The team heads to bed exhausted, if not a bit dejected. But tomorrow is another day. This is rally racing and in many ways, to win is to finish.

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Tara makes sure security is on top of their job while Gary tries to fit the light bar for the Super Special nighttime stage.

We’ve set our strategy. You never know, tthings change by the stage.

From Reconnaissance to Scrutineering—Final Countdown to Racing.

WRC_rally_mexico  1222.jpgThe preparation, logistics and communication required to participate in a professional world class rally competition is enormous. The task is compounded when importing a vehicle, spare parts, tools and additional equipment into a foreign country, in this case Mexico.

DarkCyd Racing has compiled a competent technical team, most arriving late yesterday, including lead technician, Ken Anctil from Rochester, New Hampshire, and technicians Gary Grahan from Seattle, Ed Stockline from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and, of course, Kenny Thorstenson from Muskegon, Michigan.

Today Robb and Ben took another ‘recce’ (pronounced ‘wreck key’ and meaning reconnaissance) tour of most of the 13 stages. With only the first stage on pavement, the 3-day rally will take them from the cities of Silao and Guanajuato to high in the mountains. Most of the terrain is dirt, sand and loose gravelly rock. With a number of switchbacks and very rural road conditions, the teams pacenotes must be detailed and during the actual race stage, Ben and Robb must be in sync so that there are no problems or mistakes.

While Robb and Ben were on “recce” the technicians prepared the car for the first stage of the rally which starts tomorrow evening in the town of Guanajuato. In addition to checking all the mechanical functions of the vehicle, the team ensures the car is fitted with the safety equipment required by the event organizers, WRC.

Darksyd Racing Team – WRC Rally Mexico – 2011

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Robb Rill, driver; Ben Slocum, co-driver; Ken Anctil, lead technicial

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Gary Grahan, technician; Ed Stockline, technician; Kenny Thorstenson, technician

With the temperatures pushing 90° and the sun beating down on the car, it was clear that the pit area needed additional shade and the technicians clamoring for cold beverages and snacks. Also, the hydraulic lift the technicians were using wasn’t sufficient for working on the car—especially for later in the week when pit stops need to be efficient and quick. We needed a heavier duty lift. So Tara and I headed into town looking for provisions.

Now I’m sure many reading this blog, and who have not been to this part of Mexico may think that such provisioning might be difficult. Not to worry. At times I feel like I’m in the states. The main road through town, Boulevard Lopez Mateos, is linked with retailers one would likely fine in big box America, including Office Depot, Home Depot, Sam’s Club, WalMart, Costco and even a Starbux. So Tara and I stocked up on supplies at Costco, including a 3.5 ton hydraulic lift for the technicians, and a pop-up canopy to keep tools and refreshments ready and cool. In doing so, we feel we might have broken the record for packing a Mexican-built chevy Malibu.

Make no mistake, León has its charm. And it doesn’t come from the nearly 200 shoes stores that seem to be on every corner of the city. True, León IS the shoe capital of Mexico—and maybe North America, but beneath the veneer of retail and US-based big-box brands there’s a charming and historical feel to the city. Though nearby Guanajuato may get all the attention do to its UNESCO World Heritage Site status, but León also contributed to the start of the Mexican revolution in 1810.

As we walk the streets of the central historic district we’re treated to the neo-classical cathedral with baroque influence build in 1765, it features four secondary chapels, one dedicated to Saint Joseph includes eight domes and one central cupola through which natural sunlight passes during the day. A large arch marks the entrance to the city, built in 1910 to celebrate the centennial of the Mexican revolution, atop there is the symbol of the city—a golden lion.

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The people of León take pride in their city. We noticed many renovation and maintenace projects on classic and historical buildings and sites.

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However odd, there is something endearing about the sculpted ficus trees on Plaza Principal in Historic Downtown León.

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While neighboring Guanajuato gets the attention for historic sites, León has its charm.

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New concept in promotion and marketing — public bathrooms and walking billboards. Wow!

The people of León take price in their city. The Plaza Principal is lined with benches that sit under ficus trees meticulously groomed in geometric shapes. We spot scaffolding around many historic buildings including the post office, churches around the plaza and religious statues outside the cathedral. And the people of the city, like most in Latin America, are genuinely interested to help foreigners and will go out of their way to do so.

By the time Robb and Ben return to the pit after their day of “recce”, all that’s left is do on the car is to fit the WRC-suppied GPS unit to the car. This allows the judges and timekeepers to track each car, ensuring it follows all the rules. Once this is fitted, the car is ready to complete a final inspection by the organizers. This inspection, called “scrutineering” is the final phase before the car is approved to compete and drive on the rally course. Failure to successfully complete “scrutineering” means modifications, repairs or otherwise must be made to the car or else it is disqualified from competition.

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Kenny and Gary making final adjustments to get the car ready for scrutineering and racing!

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Final touches before scrutineering — the official race logo and assigned car number.

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Gary, Ed and Ken go over technical details and specifications for Darkcyd’s Subaru before scrutineering.

The technicians assure Robb and Ben that all will pass the inspection, scheduled for 8PM tonight. So the two return to the hotel for much-needed showers and a good meal before the start of the intense 3-day competition.

Bienvenidos a Mexico: León City. State of Guanajuato.

Other than a slightly delay in our departure from DFW and a 100-mph headwind causing an hour delay in my arrival, the trip to Mexico was smooth as can be expected. I was met at the airport by, Kenny, one of Darkcyd Racing’s newest team members. With accommodations and the other earlier arrivals from our team waiting in León, Kenny piloted our rented VW Jetta out of León/Guanajuato Airport.corona-rally-mexico-logo.jpg

It didn’t take long for Kenny to realize something was wrong as we headed into “Centro” off Mexico Ruta 45. “I think I made the wrong turn out of the airport,” he said, slightly embarrassed. So we retraced our route from the outskirts of León, a nondescript industrial Mexican city perhaps most famous for its leather industry, but also home to several auto and truck manufacturing facilities. We passed a massive General Motors plant, Volvo truck chassis assmebly plant and where they seem to be making vintage VW cars.

“The cars they’re making here are 10 years old, but they’re making them new,” explained Kenny, “why update? There are no safety regulations to adopt to,” he said slapping the center of the steering wheel of the Jetta, “no airbag in this car, nothing.” From Muskegan, Michigan and just 21, Kenny not only is a capable mechanic, he’s also worked with computers in the IT department at the local university. “Before I got into rally racing, I used to spend all my extra money on building computers, now, it goes into the car I’m working on.”

On top of my hour late arrival and our unintentional tour of Silao, México, Robb, his wife Tara and co-driver Ben Slocum were patiently, albeit very hungry, waiting for us to arrive. From Gainesville Florida, I’d last seen Robb in July when I was in Orlando for the National Speakers Association convention. And though we’ve emailed and I’d heard many stories about his wife, this was the first time I’d met Tara.

At dinner I learned that for the next two days Ben and Robb would pre-run and do reconnaissance, or “recce” on the 13 stages of the rally so they can make detailed “pacenotes.” Co-driver Ben will make shorthand notes that he will be able to relay back to Robb during the actual competition. These notes help the driver understand the conditions and how to best drive each stage. Notes include turns, road conditions and other items considered important by the driver.

As I noted earlier, this race is part of the World Rally Championship series, perhaps the most-watched sport in Europe save soccer or possibly F1 racing. The series started in January with the first race in Sweden and continues through November totaling rallies in 13 countries spanning 4 continents. The Rally Mexico, now in its 8th year, is sponsored by big brands such as Corona beer, Coca-Cola, Monster beverages and DC shoes (now part of Quicksilver). The series sponsors include the city of Abu Dhabi, Michelin, Edox Swiss Watches, and FX Pro. This is big business and as such there are a number of very well financed teams.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to me is that the cars competing in rally racing, all must be street legal and registered to drive on ‘normal’ roads. While some of the pro-racer cars can cost in excess of $300,000, the rules of rally racing mandate using a production car with a production run of at least 2,500 units. Allowed modifications to the production car include engine with displacement of no more than 2.0 liters, chassis strengtening, weight reduction to a minimum of 1230 kg (2,711 lbs), four-wheel drive and a sequential gearbox, aerodynamics and a roll cage for safety. There are a number of restrictions regarding maximum airflow of turbo-charged systems. I’m still learning about various classes and differences in vehicles, so in a future post I’ll have more data. These regulations and the definitions and requirements are set by organizations like the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA, a governing body for many of the most popular auto racing events in the world and, Rally America the governing body for most of the rally races held in the USA.

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Signage through the towns of León, Guanajuato and Silao tout the upcoming rally, which is expected to bring more than 65,000 international tourists to the area.

As I look over the city of León, I feel the heat (it’s going to be 90°F/32°C), but the grey muddy air looks a lot like smog—though as the breeze picks up the sun shines and the skies turn blue.

As for the actual racing, it’s fairly simple. There are two components to the driving: 1) stages; and 2) transit. Both stage and transit driving are timed. During the stages, which are usually 3-6 miles, the drivers must drive as fast as they can within their capabilities. Pushing to hard during the stages can result in an accident or driving the car off the road where it’s impossible to get back on without assistance or tow. The drivers are timed how fast they complete each stage. During the transit phase, the team is given a card with a time stamp and are told at what time they must arrive at the beginning of the next stage—as such, they are simply transiting to the beginning of the next competitive stage. But here’s where it gets tricky. If they show up earlier or later than the posted “arrival” time, the team is penalized. The penalties around to minutes that are added to their total time in which they completed the stage component. The best drivers get zero penalties. It’s the co-driver who must monitor and direct the driver to control speed so that they arrive at exactly the right time.

For those of you who don’t know about, or haven’t experienced what type of driving goes on in a road rally race, I urge you to watch this short video clip to get an idea of the driver skill, competency and endurance required: Ken Block Monster Subaru

Heading To Mexico – World Rally Championship

Sitting at gate 27 in the San Diego International Airport, I will soon board a flight to Dallas/Fort Worth where I’ll connect with a small jet aircraft and head to Guanajuato/Leon airport in the Guanajuato state of Mexico. Yes. I’m flying and Doc, my fabled bike sits home alone.

With more time, I’d make the trip on two-wheels. But this trip to Mexico is for a special reason. My friend Robb Rill is racing in the World Rally Championship (WRC), Rally Guanajuato Mexico – a three day rally made up of multiple stages that runs through the historic city of Guanajuato and through both the Sierra de Lobos and Sierra de Guanajuato mountains including a number high-altitude tests with a mixture of mountain peaks and flat open valleys. The altitude has its downside, however, as the engines struggle to breathe in the thin air and suffer a drop in power of approximately 20 per cent. The road surface is dry and sandy, but with rocks getting pulled onto the road the race can be very dangerous.


Darkcyd Racing’s 2005 Subaru WRX STi – driven by Robb Rill, co-driver Ben Slocum.

Robb and co-driver Ben Slocum are driving Darkcyd Racing’s 2005 Subaru WRX STi. I’ve been asked to join the 5-person crew to support as needed, serve as the team photographer, translator and blogger. For the last several month’s Robb and his team have been coordinating and managing the painstaking details of not only preparing a race car for a Rally, but dealing with the logistics necessary to transport a vehicle to a foreign country. Co-driver Ben Slocum has consolidated the details of this event into a 20-page ‘movement’ plan.

While I have been a fan of motorsports my entire life, I’ve never been to a true European-style road rally race. I’ve always dreamed of one day perhaps racing in the infamous Dakar, but like most Americans, my understanding of the actual rally format, rules and scoring is very basic. Helping Robb by participating on his crew in Mexico will change that.

For those of you interested, Rally Racing involves using street-legal cars on both normal streets and roads in towns, cities and country as well as off-road on gravel, mud, dirt and such. So there is no set track, instead, there is a course. The course may change from year-to-year, and it is usually done in stages. Often these stages take place over several days. The Mexico WRC rally takes place in 13 stages over 3 days. All but one of the stages are on dirt and gravel roads. Of course, during the actual stages, the roads are closed to the public.

These stage rally races are huge in Europe, perhaps in teh top 2 sports. In the USA, there are rally circuits, but they don’t get much visiblity beyond the local communities where they are staged, or in the close-knit group of fans, racers and crew. The Mexico Rally will be broadcast live throughout Europe. In the USA it will be broadcast slightly delayed on the HD Theater channel, so if you’re interested in seeing the action, tune in.

I will bring more information on the Rally, the rules and stages and how our team, Darkcyd Racing is faring over the next week. There are two days of preparation and pre-running and more logistics that I’m just beginning to understand. Many Rallys feature different classes of vehicles, and sometimes motorcycles—think Baja 1,000 and Dakar.

More to follow.