Bill Caswell is a man known to the motorsports world for three things: building cheap cars, racing the wheels off them, and partying like mad after the competition ends. (And on occasion, before then.) He's a larger-than-life figure who's been around the block enough times to know what's what. So when my co-driver and I ran into him while registering for the American Rally Association's New England Forest Rally last Thursday in Newry, Maine, we had no idea what our next three days would be like. It was, after all, our very first rally. And thanks to some help from Caswell, it was a damn good time.
If you're unfamiliar with the motorsport maniac, you might remember that he's the guy who "quit his life" as a banker to fulfill his racing dreams. That led to him competing in Rally Mexico with a $500 BMW E30 3 Series, taking on Pikes Peak, and pulling off other car experiences most of us couldn't even dream of. Caswell is the real deal, and as it turned out, he was ready to help us by drizzling some of his racing expertise onto us.
We hadn't planned on running into Caswell—in fact, neither myself or my co-driver, Brian Silvestro, had ever really met him. But once we introduced ourselves and explained our rally intentions, he couldn't help but involve himself. Caswell said what he saw in us reminded him of when he attempted his first stage rally. We were unprepared, didn't have a service crew, had no experience listening or reading stage notes, and had never been on a rally stage before. But we were there, and we were ready to take on whatever NEFR had to throw at us.
From the beginning of the two-day event to the end, Bill Caswell stood by our side as our media guy (there's video to come, I promise), our personal racing trainer, and our makeshift crew. Basically, he became our hard-partying, plastic-pouch-margarita-sipping rally uncle.
So the wisdom he passed on to us, we now pass on to you. Here are Uncle Caswell's best tips to ensure a successful rally weekend.
Promote and tell your story
According to Caswell, there are multiple reasons to go out and talk to people. Think sponsors, getting to know other competitors (it'll be helpful when you need to borrow their tools), and the feeling you get when the people you spoke to hours ago tell them how "you looked sick out on that last stage."
"Think about the way parents shamelessly promote their kids," Caswell said. "You need to be like that because now you're an adult and your mom can't come with you and tell everyone."
Caswell called this "The Caswell Method."
"If you want to race cars today and not pay for everything yourself. You need to be in people's faces, telling them your story, telling them why it's relevant, and reminding them why it's relevant. That's the only way you can build a brand or a following."
As Silvestro and I learned from Caswell, being receptive, approachable, and talking to other people are all necessary if you want to have a good time while rallying.
"This stuff is expensive," Caswell said. "Most people will never get to the point where companies will pay them to go racing. If you want to offset that cost and have a lot of fun, you need to be out there self-promoting...sponsors and relationships are all about promoting. The quiet guy who just puts a helmet on and finish first—that doesn't work."
"The easiest way to do that is to do it when the fans of rally are right there in the parking lot in front of you."
Capture it all—your first rally will only happen once
"When I did it in 2009, video wasn't that strong," Caswell said. "You couldn't produce memories of those adventures that easy without someone who didn't have the skill or the right gear. I looked back to my first races—the craziest ones ever—then my story blew up and I didn't have any of the video."
In addition to not being able to look back on it all years ahead, documenting your races makes it possible to share the experience with your friends who couldn't make it.
"Rally is a really hard sport to spectate...the more I documented it, the more my friends and family got to see."
"Life goes by fucking fast, man. Your first rally was last weekend. It happened and it will never happen again. It only ever happens once."
Look far down the road
It's something that you never stop hearing in racing, but it sure didn't hurt having Caswell ingrain it deeper into my mind right before going hot on a stage.
"Never ever look off the road—it's like that stupid 'golden brick road' in The Wizard of Oz. Keep your eyes on the road and focus on the road. If the car starts to go off the road, don't look. Looking at it is never going to change the impact under any circumstances. You need to be scanning for rocks sometimes, but the car goes where you look."
Don't let your inexperience intimidate you—just go out and do it
As a spectator, a rally can be incredibly intimidating. You get lost attempting to find the stages; the race teams, for the most part, all have serious service crews and massive race haulers; and the race cars look and sound like they could destroy any road car with one blip of their exhausts.
But just because some people take it really seriously doesn't mean that the competition isn't approachable to the inexperienced.
"You don't need anything other than a car and a co-driver," Caswell said. "You look at Subaru and all these other programs and they have teams and crews and fancy service rigs...if you don't have that, you're going to have to drive a little slower. You can't just pound rocks—you have to make your car last."
As long as your car passes tech inspection—my car, a 1987 Subaru RX, somehow managed that—and it's safe enough for you to compete in, go enjoy yourself and just try to figure it out. As I learned last weekend, there's nothing wrong with taking it easy and attempting to just finish your race. According to Caswell, simply being there is almost as important.
"Just show up. Try it. Realize that it's not that hard—it's hard to be fast, it's hard to be good at rally, but it's not that hard to compete in a rally."
Rallying can be very confusing, but it's all about having fun
There are endless ways to become confused during a rally. Without doing a RallySprint or participating in something like the Team O'Neil Rally School, you're not going to know what an ATC is, nor an MTC, or even how to interpret stage notes. This is all stuff that is more or less unique to rallying, and it all plays a massive role in how the race is conducted. If you're going to compete in a rally, it's best to know how all of that works—and to respect the rules that revolve around those things. If you don't, you'll take on penalties...and probably wind up on the wrong side of the volunteers who devoted their weekend to standing out in dust clouds all day so you could have fun.
"Autocross is kind of easy...even if you don't know anything about the sport, you know you're going to finish," Caswell said. "Rally is just so complicated with route books, pace note books, schedules...no one ever says what something is in rally...they just give it a weird name—'MTC, ATC...' What the hell is the difference?"
He's not exaggerating. Even after competing in my first rally event, I don't think I could tell you what those things precisely mean, or how the rules differ between them. But that didn't stop me from respecting the rules and enjoying myself out on the stages.
"it's just two friends in a car," Caswell said. "They close the roads and you go as fast as you can...you just need some balls to show up and drive fast."