Rapson's Revenge Or
The Mills of the Geeks Grind Slowly
Fooling around with old rally instruments can
be as rewarding---or frustrating---as tinkering
with the cars themselves.
Following our devastating humiliation of the Historic
Hordes at Thunderbird, I expect we'll hear a certain
amount of puling from the whingers: "No FAIR!
They. . . they USED A COMPUTER!" This never-never
land of what should and what shouldn't be allowed
in Vintage/Historic/Beater Class has been going
for some time; in fact, that's what led us to
this year's strategy.
It started when Martin Wilson and John Rapson
had the temerity to show up with a Brantz odometer
at Thunderbird five or six years ago. Nobody said
anything about it that year, because the Porsche
911 spent the weekend wallowing in deep snow---or,
rather, tobogganing across it---but the following
year, they had the nerve to win the Historic Class.
. . with an electronic LED-readout odometer of
recent manufacture. "Booooo!" cried the Luddites.
And all of a sudden a new rule appeared: It said
that Historic cars could use MECHANICAL instruments
made any old time. . . but if they wanted anything
electronic, it had to be 25 years old. Take THAT,
Wilson! Take THAT, Rapson!
That's when the Alaska Rally Team set about searching
for a genuinely vintage rally computer, something
from back in the Zeron 550/660/770 era, and sure
enough we came up with one of these behemoths.
Jack Christensen of TimeWise fame got it to light
up, spit blood, and produce numbers, and we installed
it in one of the Too Many Saab Sonetts that litter
the grounds of the ART estate.
Now, just as the Lancia Stratos was the state
of the art in its day, TSD rallyists of the '70s
were constantly tinkering with cutting-edge paraphernalia.
The Pacific Northwest was a hotbed of electronic
jury-rigging, with many geeks fashioning their
own versions of the Hot Set-up in rally computers.
And today, just as it is rewarding to tinker with
older cars and coax them across the rally route,
so, too, it has been an interesting experience
to get an old Zeron to produce calculated time.
Just as you have to remember a careful routine
if you want to find reverse gear in a Sonett,
so, too, you have to remember not to inadvertently
cancel the Zeron's clock settings! Unlike its
modern counterparts, such as the TimeWise 798A,
the old electronic box---should that be "electronic
boxcar"?---has quaint and unpredictable habits,
such as manufacturing numbers when its input speed
The rationale behind a computer in a "drivex"
event is the same today as it was thirty years
ago: Only the most able and skilled navvy can
crank out numbers on a Curta when the car is being
pitched thither and yon by a manic lead-foot driver.
Of course, it takes quite a bit of skill to address
the computer properly---especially when it's an
ancient box that requires certain Druidic procedures
to work at all---but at least that level of ability
can be attained by any proficient navigator who
isn't prone to The Technicolor Pukies. In fact,
the arguments for computers in Historic are the
same as those for other classes: They level the
playing field more than any other element of TSD
Years ago---1988, to be precise---I argued against
the use of computers in Jerry Hines' AlCan rally.
"If you let them in," I said, "it means a guy
will have to buy a computer if he wants to win."
"Right now," Hines replied, "he has to buy a Tom
Grimshaw. Computers are cheaper---and there are
more to go around."
That was the point that swayed me to the Dark
Side of Electronic Intervention. Now, I have always
rallied in pampered luxury; that is, I have had
1. navigators who were spot-on, muy excellento
2. equipment that could measure to a gnat's kneecaps,
whether it was a Halda Twinmaster fed through
an adjustable ball-disc integrator, a Zeron 700
odometer/clock, or a TimeWise 797/798 A box.
I like to win; but rallying is mostly a game
of personal best, since we are always trying to
attain an impossible ideal score. I have never
taken a lot of pleasure in "beating" other rallyists
in TSD events when their instruments are inaccurate
or nonexistent. But as a driver, I have always
tried to minimize everything that distracts me
from the chores on my side of the car, like navigator
input: hence a simple read-out that says, "You're
early, dude!" or the more-likely-in-Canada statement,
"You're late!" I prefer it when we eke out a win
by dint of---dare I say it?---a certain amount
of driving skill.
After all, the computer may be able to multiply
two numbers, compare the results to a clock, and
tell me I'm late. But how hard can that be in
an event like Thunderbird?! Yeah, I KNOW I'm late---but
the damn computer isn't doing diddly to get me
down the road any faster. In fact, our greatest
pleasure in Thunderbird 2001 was our battle with
Bob Chandler and Mark Clemmens in Chandler's ancient
240Z---and since it was equipped with an Alfa
computer, the Zed car wasn't even running in the
Historic class. "My goal," said Chandler, "is
to be the top-finishing two-wheel-drive car."
Obviously the Alfa gave no particular advantage
in the traction department, and we were barely
able to squeak out a score with a front-wheel-drive
Hakkapeliitta-churning SAAB that was lower than
a rear-drive, tail-happy limited-slip Datsun!
Those who want to dismiss our success in Historic
with "They've got a computer!" are not only selling
navigator Russ Kraushaar short---spend a ten-hour
stretch behind a Zeron sometime before you decide
it's a cakewalk---but they are also missing the
true nature of Thunderbird. The truth is that
at one point Sunday morning, we were two minutes
down. First of all, the stupid computer had done
absolutely nothing to keep me from flinging the
Sonett off the road, over the ditch, and onto
the rocks; it didn't even help push us back on
the road. More important, it did nothing thereafter
but chronicle our slow efforts to wind ourselves
back into a respectable position; that we were
able to do so had to do with luck (if the timing
control had been closer, we would've been hosed,
eh?) and a certain amount of Alaska experience
that enabled us to get down the road at a reasonable
clip. Oh---and when we did finally slide past
the timing control, the box gave us a cheerful
estimate of the penalty we were taking.
Another argument against equipment---in Historic
or any other class---is that it raises the costs
of competition. True enough; it's always going
to cost more to fill your toybox. But there is
certainly no cost advantage to equipping a car
with vintage mechanical devices (or reproductions)
over vintage electronics. Our ball-disc integrator
cannot be found at any price (and ours isn't for
sale!). As I write this, the bidding for a Halda
Twinmaster on eBay has just passed $700 with three
days to go; Tripmasters are fetching between $400
and $800, with Speedpilots around $500. A fair
hand with a Curta---between $400 and $1000 on
eBay---and an accurate odometer ($200--$500 in
modern form) can produce the same calculations
as a rally computer. We paid $300 for the Zeron
after Christiansen refurbished it.
At this time, my own corner of the Alaska Rally
Team toybox contains the Zeron rally computer,
a Zeron odometer/clock, two Halda Twinmasters,
the ball-disc integrator box, one Halda Tripmaster,
a Halda Speedpilot (hey, nothing looks cooler
than a Speedpilot!), and enough gears and cables
to tie this stuff to just about anything that
rolls, along with three Curta calculators---and
I'm the driver; navigator Kraushaar has another
two Curtas and two Tripmasters. There's
also the TimeWise 797A and the TimeWise 798A for
when we're not in vintage mode; Russ also has
one of each.
The Sonett ran the Grand Canyon Rally with the
TimeWise installed, but there was no vintage class
at that event. Actually, my preference is to run
the same set-up we had at Thunderbird, since it
represents "the cutting edge of technology" we
were trying to achieve a quarter-century ago;
the big clumsy box with its humongous knobs and
buttons is kind of quaint, and the sound of Russ
madly pushing buttons to adjust the computer is
a perfectly appropriate counterpoint to my mad
search for gears in the four-on-the-tree column-shift
transmission. Since my vision of historic competition
is to compete exactly as we did in the Olden Days,
burgeoning electronics and all, I plan to run
the Sonett with its Zeron set-up in as many events
as possible this season.
That way, any time we take a modern car and a
TimeWise to a rally, Kraushaar will be so grateful
for the vacation that he'll be willing to pay
for the beer!
It's always good reading to receive anything
from Satch - never let anything get in the way
of a good story! Fact is, Satch did exactly
what we did in Thunderbird some years ago; read
the rules and saw what was legal and what was
not. When Martin and I used the Brantz,
the rules, whether inadvertently or otherwise,
permitted the use of an electronic odometer, as
long as there was no time computation capability.
Computer or not, no-one can take away the fact
that Satch and Russ did a hell of a job to horse
that elderly Sonett around those roads with only
30 penalties, albeit with a bit of luck regarding
control locations. Rallying, as Satch says, is
a matter of personal best, and part of that is
making things work to your advantage - when Satch
organized the Mayflower Rally in the mid 90's,
and told crews that control locations would always
be at the bottom of the minute, it was clear that
the way to stay clean was to calculate mileage
for the bottom of every minute and just keep hitting
those points. Having figured that, Martin and
I were mildly chided by Satch for having done
just that, and all entries advised that the rules
would be changed the following year. As
always, rallying remains a challenge thrown down
by the organizer and taken up by the competitors!