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Exciting Times

[At a meeting of the Oberon Writers Group in 2021 I was asked to write something which would explain some of the thrills of rallying to people who knew nothing at all about the sport. This was my contribution to the next month's meeting.]

Competing in car rallies is always exciting, but let me tell you about three times when too much excitement was almost enough.


The level crossing

We were approaching a railway level crossing on a shire road. The railway line was on an embankment above the surrounding farmland, and the approach road was also on an embankment at the same height as the railway line. I remember the instructions provide by the organisers very well:

Caution! Railway level crossing. Watch for trains
200 metres, turn left at T junction

The line could be seen for about a kilometre each way so there was no danger of being hit by a train and I knew that I could stop the car from top speed in far less than 200 metres so we arrived at the level crossing going about as fast as my Datsun 1600 could go.

What the organisers had forgotten to put into the instructions was that although the road was at the same height as the railway line on the approach side it was at the bottom of the railway embankment on the other side.

When the car became airborne off the level crossing I had three things to think about:

  1. Take my foot off the accelerator to stop the engine blowing up because the wheels were no longer on the ground. (No electronic rev limiters in the 1970s.)
  2. Keep enough accelerator pressure to ensure that when we landed the driving wheels would be rotating at approximately the right speed to avoid damaging the transmission or drive train if the wheels were rotating too slowly or suddenly accelerating and leaping forward if the wheels were going around too fast. Either could cause instant loss of control
  3. Doing the trajectory calculations I'd been taught in the army to determine the approximate landing point of the car.
Luckily my navigator was highly experienced and knew when to keep quiet while I had lots on my mind.

We landed, bounced and turned left just where we were supposed to do it.


The loose wheel

My job was to drive the car and not do much else. To keep me busy and out of mischief at the start of events I was given the job of making sure the wheel nuts were tightened (the wheels were removed between rallies to replace the brake pads and do routine checks for damage so a pre-event check was always a good idea).

But one time I forgot. Maybe I was busy doing something else.

Not long into the first competitive stage the car developed a severe wobble in the steering. I stopped to locate the problem and found that the right-hand front wheel was being held on by two rather loose wheel nuts. There was a bare stud where another nut had been and the remains of a stud that had broken off. I didn't carry many spare parts in the car but I did have spare wheel nuts and studs (if a nut rolled under the car when changing a wheel it was a waste of time looking for it – much quicker to just get another one out of the toolbox). I jacked the car up, removed the wheel and knocked out the remains of the broken stud. Replacing the stud required putting my hand very close to the brake disk so I had to wait until it had cooled down. Stud replaced, full set of nuts fitted (and those on the rest of the car tightened!), jack safely stowed and we were ready to proceed.

Cars started the stage at two minute intervals. Three following cars had passed us while I was fixing the problem, so we had lost at least six minutes. I must have been more than a little angry with myself (the loose wheel was my fault) because I caught and passed all three of those cars before the end of the stage. My navigator asked if I could drive like that all night but I wisely advised him that vastly exceeding the abilities of both driver and vehicle while in a rage was not advisable for any extended period if we wanted to stay alive.


The darkness

I put a lot of effort into ensuring that bits didn't fall off my cars. Nuts and bolts were either wired or secured with Loctite thread adhesive. Where possible screws were replaced with pop rivets, and if I didn't think something would ever need removing the pop rivets were backed up using Araldite adhesive.

One night something came loose.

We were about twelve kilometres from the end of the last competitive stage when the lights suddenly went out. A quick examination showed that the driving lights were glowing faintly so it wasn't just a blown fuse (fuses were another spare part I carried), so the problem had to be something to do with electrical conductivity through the car. By switching off the driving lights and headlights there was enough power to support the navigation light, the light for the Halda tripmeter and the dashboard lights.

A brief council of war and we decided on certain facts:

  • The instructions provided by the organisers were as good as any we'd ever seen – all cautions were appropriate, all intersections and road changes were right where they should be.
  • Road conditions had been good for the whole rally, with no surprises.
  • Our Halda tripmeter was precisely calibrated to the one used by the person who had created the instructions – we had not seen a difference of more than ten metres between the road book and our readings all night.
  • The navigator had made no mistakes calling out the instructions at the right places and times.
  • I had done what I was told to do correctly and when I was told to do it.
  • The car had performed perfectly and done everything asked of it.

The decision was almost easy – keep going.

There were a few times when corners appeared out of the dark a little before expected, but that's what brakes are for. When we stopped at the finish control I could see the glow on the ground from the red hot brakes, but the control officials agreed to move the car backwards and forwards to avoid damaging the disks by uneven cooling and off we went to the official end of the rally in some CWA or Scout hall somewhere.

When we arrived at the hall I lifted the bonnet and immediately saw what the problem was – an earthing strap from the engine block to the body was loose. It was secured to the block by a large Phillips headed screw. The screw was still there but there wasn't enough contact for the necessary electricity to get through. I decided that it could be fixed later.

I soon had a lesson in body chemistry, specifically the interaction between the very large amount of adrenalin that was still coursing through my bloodstream after the excitement of fast driving in the dark and a small amount of alcohol. I had one, count them, one can of beer in the hall with my crew and went out to tighten the earth strap. I was legless drunk. I couldn't work a screwdriver. I didn't feel that I could drive so someone else drove the car back to the motel.

At the after-rally maintenance that screw went back in with a drop of Loctite on the thread.

This article was my contribution to the Oberon Writers' Group in June 2021
It was also published on the ausrally.com web site.




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