Sweeping Rally Stages in a Ford Flex
We assisted stricken competitors as best we could until we, too, were stricken.
The Empire State Performance Rally sweep team gathered early Saturday morning at rally headquarters. Each of the three vehicles had two people, a driver, and co-driver, as well as a ham radio for communications amongst ourselves and with net control. Each co-driver had a road book consisting of instructions on how to get from one stage to the next, as well as rudimentary directions for each special stage. We did not have stage notes like the competitors—"100, right 4 over crest into left 3 don't cut," and so on.
We were restricted to a maximum speed of 40 mph, and our job was to be on the lookout for disabled competitors, not to drive fast on the stages. That said, there were certainly some places where we could run a bit faster than we normally would if the road was open to the public, and we did. That's where the information in the road book, such as "bridge at mile 4.63," was handy so that we could slow down before the hazards. We proceeded as quickly as possible, but in the Flex we were rarely able to hit 40 mph. Though some of the roads had been graded before the rally, some of them still resembled a goat path more than a road, according to one competitor.
When we came across a competitor on the side of the road, we would stop and ascertain the situation, then leave one of the other sweep trucks to tow the car off the road if necessary. We caught up with Joshua and William Girtain just as they finished repairing their Ford Fiesta. We allowed them back on the road ahead of us to finish the stage. They went on to win their class as the only two-wheel-drive car to complete the rally.
Gabriel and Patricio Espinoza stalled their Suzuki Swift GT and were unable to restart the engine, but knew that a simple push start would get them back underway. We left the other sweep trucks behind to take care of that while we pressed on to help other competitors. A few miles later I heard a rally car behind us and pulled over to let the Espinozas pass. Their clock was still running.
On Special Stage 8, we stopped for Dan Levy's Mitsubishi Evo X, which was safely off the road with a broken rear suspension. Co-driver Karen Jankowski politely asked us for a tow off the stage. Unfortunately, our instructions prohibited us from doing any more than getting a car safely off the rally stage and moving on. We had provided this service last year, but our instructions from management were explicit. They were understandably a bit flustered. We offered to drive them back to service to fetch their truck and trailer, but they declined. We pressed on.
The Empire State Performance Rally has a reputation as one of the toughest events on the NASA Rally Sport calendar. It took out The Drive's $2,000 BMW last year, and Levy's Evo was far from the only car to suffer mechanical failures on the rough roads. A mile from the end of Special Stage 8 we were proceeding through an extremely rocky section of road at about 15 mph. Suddenly, the dashboard beeped and gave us a low tire pressure warning. We proceeded with caution, but a couple of minutes later I felt that the steering was not as responsive as it should have been. I stopped. We checked the tires and found that the right front was flat. ESPR had claimed yet another victim—us.