I never thought my first experience on a rally stage would be in a passenger seat.
I’ve always been at the wheel when it came to adventures like this. But when the opportunity came along to co-drive for a friend at the , I couldn't pass it up.
Here's what we were up against. Neither the driver, The/Drive's Aaron Brown, nor I had ever competed in a real, actual stage rally before. We’ve both done a few rallycrosses in the past, but nothing like the real thing. But Aaron’s lack of experience didn’t stop him from buying a rally-ready 1987 Subaru RX, complete with a cage, bucket seats, and a serious gravel-road suspension setup. It had everything Aaron needed to hit the stages, save for a co-driver willing to sit beside him.
That’s where I came in.
Against my better judgement, I agreed to co-drive with Aaron in this year’s NEFR. I’ve never so much as volunteered at a rally before, so I didn’t really know what I had gotten myself into. I’ve read about co-driving in the past, but that’s it. No ride-alongs, no Team O’Neil rally schools, nothing. I had about 16 hours between our arrival in Maine and rally-start to figure out how to read stage notes and transit directions. Not optimal.
Fortunately for my sanity, we ran into cheap car racing legend and all-around interesting person Bill Caswell at registration. Caswell is known for his and extremely enthusiastic attitude. He appreciated our all-in approach of showing up with no spare parts or crew, and introduced us to a flurry of knowledgeable competitors, all of whom offered tips on how not to get us lost in between stages, and more importantly, how not wrap to ourselves around a tree. People like Erin Kelly, co-driver for the number 909 Outback Sport, gave me pointers on how time cards and transit directions work, while Craig Drew, co-driver of the number 75 Subaru Vermont SportsCar STi and current Rally America champion, assured me we’d make it out on the other side.
The biggest thing I learned (besides the need for a wrist watch to keep an eye on timing), was to reset the odometer at the beginning of every stage. This way, if we missed a turn or got lost, we could measure just how lost we were, and get ourselves back on track. This method, while simple, proved invaluable as the weekend went on.
By the end of the night on Thursday, I had a (very) rough idea of how to co-drive. All that was left to do was go rallying.
Unsurprisingly, Aaron was placed last in line to exit the park exposé staging area at the Sunday River Resort thanks to his lack of previous experience. This meant we had plenty of time to note what other teams were doing and prepare. Things like packing water and making sure the intercom system worked seemed like standard procedure, so I followed suit. As people complimented Aaron on the uniqueness of his 30-year old Subaru, I was stressing about how to read the transit notes to get the stage, and how accurate the car’s odometer would be with those fat gravel tires mounted. Soon, 11:46 a.m. came, and we were off.
Thankfully, getting from Sunday River to the first stage wasn’t too bad, as we caught up to the team in front of us on the way there. Aaron followed them, allowing me to prepare to read the stage notes.
This is what stage notes look like. It might just look like a bunch of gibberish, but to a co-driver, it’s a detailed list of directions read aloud to the driver to inform them what turns are coming up ahead. The meanings are easy enough to remember (4R means “four right,” SmJmp means “small jump,” ][ means “bridge,” etc.). It’s being able to read all of those things with enough timing and clarity that it all makes sense to the driver. At first, delivering directions in such a way that Aaron could commit to them around a blind corner was tough, mainly because I had to keep one eye on the road (to see which turn we were in), and another eye on the notes (to tell Aaron what turn was coming up next). It wasn’t until a few stages in that I developed a rhythm that worked.
Of course, I lost my place in the notes mid-stage at least a dozen times throughout the weekend. Every experienced co-driver I talked to said it would happen, and it did. A lot. It's best not to panic when you lose your spot on the page, and immediately inform the driver when you don't know what's coming up next. It wasn't too much of a problem given Aaron's beginner pace, and most of the time, after about 10-20 seconds of fumbling with the pages, I found an identifying note to locate my spot and got right back to reading off turns.
We weren't going fast enough to have any huge "oh crap" moments, but some of the larger rocks scattered throughout the roads gave the car a few serious knocks. Luckily, none of them did any real damage.
By the end of the 12th stage on Saturday, I could pretty much read the notes in a clear, linear fashion without losing my spot mid-stage, and get us from the end of each stage to the beginning of the next. The rally was over by then, but now, I could actually co-drive. That means I'll be ready next time.
Co-driving was an adventure, but I couldn’t help but think the whole weekend how much I’d rather be in the driver’s seat. Aaron seemed to be having the time of his life, while I was stuck figuring out how to decipher symbols in a book. I’m sure the next time wouldn’t be nearly as stressful, and what I learned will stick with me forever. But spending all of that time and money not to drive just didn't scratch the motorsports itch.
Of course, there are a lot of positives to being a co-driver. I didn’t have to pay an entry fee or buy a car, nor did I have to worry about if that car passed tech. Crashing, breaking, or servicing the RX throughout the weekend was never a worry for me as it was for Aaron. Plus, as a co-driver, you undoubtedly get the best seat in the house. I've spectated at more than a few rallies in the past, and there's nothing like actually being in the car. And once you get good at it, the satisfaction of helping your driver win is surely a great feeling. That's why some people devote their lives to the right seat.
While I'll definitely run another rally again soon, odds are it’ll be from behind the wheel.