Bringing up the Rear at the Empire State Performance Rally

We led the sweep team for one of the most challenging rallies on the east coast—until we fell victim, too.

Justin Hughes

After switching from tarmac to gravel in 2015, the Empire State Performance Rally has gained a reputation as one of the more challenging rallies on the NASA Rally Sport calendar. The Drive was there last year as Ryan Symancek and Alan Jagger struggled to keep the $2,000 dollar BMW running

I was there as well, driving one of the sweep team vehicles, with my wife, Elana as my co-driver. Sweep is a group of trucks and SUVs that follow the competitors through the entire rally. When—not if—they crash or suffer mechanical failures on stage, we're the first on the scene to help them immediately after all of the competitors have finished. Sometimes all they need is a quick yank back onto the road before continuing under their own power. Other times they're broken or crashed so badly that all we can do is get them safely off the road and leave them behind for their crews to pick up. In fact, that's exactly what we, personally, did with Ryan and Alan's BMW last year. 

This year, with our usual team captain unable to make it due to a last minute parts mix-up with his Jeep, we found ourselves as the most experienced sweep drivers at the rally and became the sweep team captains. We would lead the three-vehicle team in her Ford Flex, flying at a brisk pace down each stage to disabled competitors, then stopping to determine what help they needed. We would assign one of the trucks behind us to do the work while the rest of us continued down the stage to the next stricken competitor. Only if three cars needed a pull would we be pressed into towing service, but with the Flex's 3.5-liter EcoBoost engine and a towing shackle attached to the receiver hitch, we could absolutely tow if needed.

Forrest Gump would say that a rally's like a box of chocolates—you never know what you're going to get. This event would throw a few unexpected twists at us, as well as the competitors. In the end, we would even get a taste of what it's like to need the sweep team's services ourselves.