Our Eventful 2004 Rally of Rotorua

Photos courtesy of Graham Hughes www.proshotz.com

Sara at Service ParkThe 2004 Rally of Rotorua was set to be a good one. I was really looking forward to putting into practice all I had learnt at the Elite Motorsport Academy the week before. Carl Rabbidge took the co-drivers seat and I was very much looking forward to learning from him. I knew he could pick out areas that I needed improvement on and for me that is a big buzz.

After giving the car an intense cleaning on the Sunday and Monday beforehand, we bedding in some new brake pads and gave the car one last check over before Carl, Mum, Caity and I left for Rotorua. We were lucky to get through the Desert Road ; it was amazing all the snow that covered the area surrounding the roads and reminded me of our last event – the Rally of Southland. After a quick stop for a quick snow fight we arrived in Rotorua with plenty of time to spare before Carl and I were needed anywhere – it meant we could relax and have more time to sort out last minute things.

Wednesday was recce day, we packed the car up with a picnic basket full of what I'd learnt at the Academy is ‘the right kind of food' and we were off to check out the roads and make adjustments to our notes. I learnt a whole heap doing recce with Carl, we went over the roads twice and it was a real eye opener as, though I've done recce many times before, I started looking at the roads, the lines and the notes in a totally different light and they became attack notes as the day went on.

My favourite stage, the Motu was on our plan for recce, on our second pass it turned quite dark (being around 5pm ). However something unexpected happened, a large rock fell down the bank between the car in front and us. We hit it but continued on driving until I realised we were running out of gears fast, and after a quick inspection we found that we'd hit the transmission sump and the oil had drained out. The conclusion, no gears and no quick fix.

Bert during the second dayThe Motu is one of the most famous stages in New Zealand rallying, its reputation and even its name sounds frightening. After coasting the car down the hill we managed to get out into the clearing but we were 27km odd into the Motu and had about 20km odd to get out from the other end, with no visible sign of life in between and no cell phone coverage. By this stage it was getting darker and darker as Carl and I realised we needed to try and stay warm and calm. Luckily we had brought reasonably warm clothes, had quite a bit of snack food left and of course Carl had his trusty and powerful torch with him. There isn't much we could do, as rain started pouring onto the windscreen and thunder and lightening filled the sky we just put our seats back and had a light and very broken sleep. Carl comments that I nearly jumped through the roof as there was a very very very close lightening strike and heavy thunder to follow. I think I was more scared of the crosses that were illuminated up on the hillside just in front of us. Even though there wasn't a person for miles, I can't say there wasn't a soul for miles as my fears were reinforced in the morning seeing a cemetery on the hillside in front.

After a pretty stressful night, in the morning we decided to walk out to at least a cell phone coverage area which we assumed would be a fair distance away. Leaving extensive notes on the car and a big arrow if a helicopter came our way we were off. We'd walked between 8-9km up a very steep and windy hill when we heard the best sound I've ever heard – Mum, Dad and Caity coming up behind us in the Explorer. We'd been there for 15 and ½ hours but we'd had a whole lot more sleep than they'd had, staying up the whole night trying to find us. Mum has since been saying that she just can't stop looking at us, as being good parents they had thought the worst when they realised we were missing.

After towing the car back to Opotiki, the Sump was welded up and oil was shoved in. Carl and I then, after a quick refuel of our own, joined back up with recce, however having missed two stages all together and 3 stages of the first pass. It wasn't too hard to focus again but was pretty hard only seeing the roads once and after going through in the rally there were several things I would have liked to have changed.

We arrived back in Rotorua and basically crashed, grabbing a quick nap before we were due for the ceremonial start. I think it ended up that Carl and I had by far more sleep than Mum, Dad, Caity or JC and half of the staff running the Rotorua Rally along with Search and Rescue and the Whakatane Police!

Day one of the rally dawned fine, I felt set for a good day of rallying. I was shocked after stage one at the difference in the car, it felt excellent and I knew there was plenty left to get out of him. We set a pretty good time but the rest of our day didn't go so well time-wise as we both struggled to get through the day. We ate the right food to recharge our batteries but physically and mentally we were still pretty exhausted. We had intercom problems where Carl couldn't hear a word I was saying (probably a good thing at times) and I could only hear him in my left ear! The crew worked hard all day, fixed my intercom and Bert was in excellent shape, hardly a scratch on him. I was very impressed at his speed and felt him on the limiter in 5 th a few times. Carl taught me a lot on day one and after a simple change in my seating position we gained faster times. We still had made a large improvement on the same stages as last year, gaining over 2 or 3 minutes off the 30km odd stages which is a HUGE improvement. We went well on Motu two and I can tell you that I remembered our little camping spot and the 8km after it very well, until we had to stop for another car.

Bert in action - note the line ready for rapid takeoff!Day two was going to be a charge day, with it being held in the forestry. Unfortunately there were only two stages that we did proper recce on due to our ‘Motu adventures' but we were still looking to get some good times. Come the two we had recce-ed properly - stage 12 we were in the groove and ready to go, we set a good stage time and we were both really happy, however I still knew there was more speed left in us before the days end and I was determined to find it. Stage 13, the last stage of the rally was only a shortie – 8km odd. We pushed right from the start and getting to the end of the stage I'd never worked so hard before, but it felt SO good and so right. It was a great feeling to see our times, we didn't take any big risks and again I knew there was plenty more speed left in us yet, it was not a perfect stage but we were fastest of the NZRC 2WD class in our little 1600cc baby. The whole team was totally stoked and I'm still smiling from the experience, the feeling of knowing you had done a good stage but could do much better is hard to beat.

Driving the long distance back to Rotorua and the finish ramp, Carl and I went over a lot of things from the week and we both learnt a whole heap - I'm sure we were not the only ones. It was an excellent rally, I love the roads and It's such a great experience to be running in such a professionally run event. Analyzing our times from last year we improved on some, especially the last by around 7sec/km which is a significant increase that will keep the whole team smiling for a long time. I can put that down to the improvement in the car, Carl's experience and influence, a well run crew and the skills learned attending the Elite MotorSport Academy the week before. All factors combined to make it a great event and a great learning curve.

Unfortunately the Motu claimed two of the 2WD NZRC guys, Kayne Barrie and Shane Watkins. I guess we were lucky it had only claimed us on recce, the famous stage struck several times this year. Shane rejoined the rally the next day.

Many thanks to the organisers, the competitors and others who gave us plenty of support after the whole ordeal. It was great to have such encouragement and good to know we were both worried about. Thanks to Carl for co-driving and preparing the car, you have taught me a whole lot and it continues to amaze me how much you know and can teach. A special thanks must go to my parents, as usual their support before, during and after the rally is priceless and I know their stress levels went up dramatically but thanks for being there for me and thanks for saving us. JC, Sven, Ian and Michelle did a good job servicing; luckily we gave them nothing major to fix on the car. Michelle also took on the role of joint-team chef.

Cheers to all our supporters out there, everyone's support and encouragement is priceless. Special thanks to Christina Orr - one of my Academy friends - who was out there watching and supporting us.

I'm still buzzing from the rally, still buzzing and ticking over all the freshly learnt information in my mind. It has been a real highlight of my rallying career to date and I just can't wait to get stuck into the roads of Hawkes Bay . Having been visualising driving the car again since Southland, I am so excited to have him back home – even if it's just to drive him down the driveway to dry the brakes out, its still fun and what I live for.

Bring on Hawkes Bay rally in three weeks, Carl, the crew, Bert and I are all rearing to go and I can't wait to put more of what I've learnt in the past two weeks into practice.

Sara