‘Like A Race With Only One Lap’ — A Crash Course In Rally Driving

Writing about cars on the internet is a little like writing about guns or parenting — commenters will rush to correct your smallest miscue, question your credentials, and deliberately misinterpret things you’ve written, all while being as pedantic as possible. “Umm… actually, you can tell that’s a .762 cartridge because of the tapering.”

A few weeks ago I wrote about The Fast And The Furious — a movie that, let’s remember, posits that any old Toyota Supra or Mitsubishi Eclipse is capable of 10-second quarter miles and hitting 140 mph as long as you have a laptop and some NOS. Realism didn’t seem like a priority, yet almost immediately I got told to stay in my lane. “This guy should NEVER have been allowed to write this article! Go write about movies that are about something you are into and leave us car peoples movies alone!”

I’m not asking for pity, I’m just saying it happens. Fittingly, I happened to be on my way to cover a car event when I read it. Toyota had invited a handful of journalists out to promote their rally program, and it seemed I was the token non-car guy. Which isn’t entirely fair, just because I’ve never taken one apart doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate going fast. (In all honesty, not taking autoshop in high school is one of my biggest regrets). Still, it’s fair to say I was out of my element.

“So what’s a rally car, anyway?” a friend asked me, as I was packing for my flight.

“It’s, uh… where they race around in the dirt? I think?”

I had the broad strokes correct, at least. The guests of honor at Toyota’s Rally Rav 4 event were driver Ryan Millen and Christina Fate, Millen’s fiancée and navigator. As Millen described it, a rally race is “like a racetrack where we only do one lap.”

The way it works is, the rally teams get to drive through the course once at “road speed” — generally 25 mph or so, much slower than they’ll be driving it during the actual stage — where they film it and try to memorize the course while the navigator takes pace notes. This reconnaissance lap is called a “recce,” and teams can get penalized for going too fast (as Ryan and Christina had at a recent event in Pennsylvania, where they finished second). Then, during the race, the navigator will call out turns in order of sharpness, on a scale of 1-7, with 7 being the sharpest. There are various other scales for doing this, apparently, but 1-7 is generally known as the Aussie/New Zealand system. Ryan’s father grew up in New Zealand and is also a racer, and the Millens are something of a racing dynasty. Christina’s mother, meanwhile, is a risk manager for Wells Fargo. Which seems very close to being the plot of a rom-com where someone learns to loosen up.

Likewise, there are about a million women-be-shoppin’ jokes you could make about having directions screamed at you by your wife while you try to drive as a job (this British Onion-style article about a rally driver having no idea what his navigator is talking about goes around every few years), but in all honesty, I can’t imagine many things that would put as much stress on a relationship as a partnership that involves 1) working together 2) in a competitive, high-stress environment 3) with one person in an entirely advisory capacity. Competitive IKEA furniture building, maybe. Millen compares the navigator’s role to a hockey goalie — “they can’t win the game, but they can lose it.”

Yep, that still sounds terrible.

Unlike other types of racing, rally teams actually have to drive their cars between stages (which are 100 miles each), sometimes as much as 400 miles — meaning the cars have to be street legal — and that the teams are putting in a LOT of car time together. “It’s like going on a road trip for a weekend,” Millen says.

Uh-huh. But, like, a not-for-fun road trip, and every weekend.

One thing that makes that easier in Millen/Fate’s case is that they’re doing their traveling in a car that, at least in its bone stock incarnation, is designed for commuting. On a circuit dominated by small sedans and coupes — Cooper Minis, Ford Fiestas, Honda Civics and FITS — they’re the only team driving a small SUV. With an automatic transmission, no less. And front-wheel drive. And, they claim, a stock power train. And yet Millen and Fate have finished first or second among two-wheel drive cars in their last four races. Even a guy like me who barely knew what rally racing was a few days earlier knows enough about cars to be surprised by this.