Adventures in Agriculture
by Gary Charpentier
It was so nice to be on the road again. After almost four months of unrideable weather, my trusty KLR Frogwing and I were back in the wind on a beautiful Sunday morning. Under a brilliant blue sky with high, wispy cirrus clouds for company, we headed out of the city on our old friend US Highway 61.
South of St. Paul, Highway 61 is an unfortunate battleground of competing suburban zoning visions. Strip malls and Walmarts rub elbows with cracker-box townhouses, and so much of the landscape is torn up for road construction and banal commercial “development”, the smell of freshly-turned earth is everywhere. A rider can’t help but feel the urge to escape into the soothing rural countryside. Luckily, my assignment for the day was to travel east on US Highway 10 into the dairy farm country of southwest Wisconsin, to the little town of Arkansaw, where the SCCA Land `O Lakes region was holding a Rally-Cross event in a meadow near the moto-cross facility there.
We turned left on Highway 10 and trundled across the bridge into Prescott. This is a beautiful and historic river town that offers the traveller fine dining and lodging, and is a popular stop for any number of large motorcycle rallies. Frogwing and I had gotten a late start, so we passed through town and headed farther east for a breakfast stop in Ellsworth. On the way, I looked up at one point and noticed the contrails of aircraft, fanning out like fingers from a distant point, which must have been a local airport. Once again, the smell of freshly-turned earth was heavy in the air as we loped along at a comfortable 60 miles per hour. Everywhere I looked, the fields were plowed and ready for planting. The farmers out here are getting an early start on the growing season.
In Ellsworth, we stopped at “Duwayne’s on Main” for breakfast. This is a little bar and grill which I have passed many times before, but never sampled. Parking at the curb, I had no qualms about leaving my digital camera and tape recorder in the soft luggage on the bike; so different from my habits in the cruel city. I love small-town America… this is exactly what I bought Frogwing to explore. Once inside, I found a seat at the bar and perused the menu. The “Everything Omelet” caught my eye, and I ordered that, with extra cheese of course. This was delivered quickly, along with decent coffee, and it was an absolute delight. Filled with ham, sausage, onions and peppers, all nestled in excellent Wisconsin Cheddar, it was just what the doctor ordered for sustenance on this idyllic Sunday morning. I finished my meal while watching the latest bad news from Iraq on the TV above the bar. Since the races were scheduled to start at noon, I had to get back on the road before I was absorbed into the deep political discussion that was gathering steam amongst the regulars.
Not quite 30 miles farther on Highway 10 brought us to the County Road N turnoff for Arkansaw. Those miles were filled with hills and gentle curves that have the relaxing rythm so typical of this part of the country. That freshly-turned earth smell combined with the aroma of cattle manure to leave no doubt that we were traversing America’s Dairyland. Entering the 25 mph speed zone through town, we pulled alongside a fellow riding an old John Deer lawn tractor along the shoulder of the road. Since he was looking in the other direction, I beeped my horn to get his attention, and he practically jumped out of his pants! I guess people in these parts aren’t used to loud noises and impatient city-folk. Once he calmed down and shut off his engine, I asked directions to the track. He told us to follow N through town, past some farms, to “double S”. Take a right and follow that all the way up to County Road D. Turn left on D and follow that to the track. I thanked him, and apologized for the commotion. We had no trouble finding the Rally-Cross from there.
Pulling into a large flat meadow of short grass, I could see the course laid out with orange cones. My friend Denny McGinn was standing alongside his black Audi Quattro rally car. His co-driver Guy Reithmeyer was nearby, talking to rally master Breon Nagy. I parked next to the Audi, and proceeded to get acquainted with the rules and protocols of the event. After signing a waiver that basically stated that I was solely responsible for my own safety, Breon told me that it was OK to stand in the infield to take photographs, but to avoid the outside of turns, as that was where the cars would run-off if they got out of control. This is typical of most motorsports events, and it is the main reason why most amatuer photographers get less-than-stellar pictures of the action. The professionals often station themselves at the outside of corners, with long lenses to maximize their distance from the mayhem, in order to get those dramatic shots with the cars sliding sideways and dirt flying everywhere. But I opted to obey the rally master until I could convince him that I knew what I was doing and could be trusted to take riskier photos without becoming a casualty.
Rally Cross is an event similar to parking lot Auto Cross in that it is a timed run through a course defined by cones, but in an off-road environment. Each cone hit during a run means a two-second penalty. Courses are typically 1/8 to1/4 mile in length, very narrow with tight and technical corners. Most cars never get out of second gear. This is all about cornering skill, and much less about all-out speed. The cars participating range from showroom-stock, two-wheel drive “winter beaters”, to fully-prepped, all-wheel-drive rally cars. Denny’s Quattro is kind of middle-range, as it is a totally stock all-wheel-drive running in the Open Stock class. His competition on this day would be mostly Subaru WRX variants.
So I stationed myself in the infield, snapping photos of cars going through the decreasing-radius hairpin at the halfway point of the course. After spending the entire winter indoors, I had forgotten all about the hazards of solar radiation to my balding pate, and I could feel the sunburn by the time we took a break after the first series of timed runs. During the break, I asked Breon if I could photograph the action from the backside slalom. This was a series of left-right-left turns where the cars were accelerating towards the finish, but where it was highly unlikely that any of them would go off-course. I picked a spot where the cars were carving left after the middle right turn, suspensions fully-loaded and dirt flying everywhere. The sun was at just the right angle to capture the action without troublesome glare at the highest possible shutter speed. I got at least one good shot of each car racing, while ignoring the sizzling sound coming from the top of my head.
After these second runs, it was determined that the course had to be modified a bit. Deep ruts were forming at the entrance to some corners as the cars plowed in under full-braking, then accelerated out under full-throttle. We moved the cones outward and made the course wider for the third and final series of timed runs. I felt that I had gotten enough photographs to capture the action and spirit of the event, and had decided to find some shelter from the raging sun. At this point, Denny asked me if I would like to ride shotgun on his next run. Grinning like an idiot, I grabbed my helmet and mini recorder and jumped into the right seat of the Audi shouting “Let’s GO!” Here is a direct transcript of the tape as I rode along:
“OK, I’m sitting in the Audi Quattro. Driver Denny is ready and we are in line for our run. The Audi is surprisingly comfortable for a race car, nice deep bucket seats, which are heated, by the way. My sunglasses are steaming up already, and I’m not even driving! … and here… we…. GO! (Loud sound of five cylinder, double overhead cam engine roar!) OK, handling the first chicane well… a bit bumpy there in the ruts… entering the hairpin wide and cutting a tight apex… on the gas hard now!… it’s tough to do commentary when we’re bouncing around like this… quick acceleration now as we exit the hairpin into the backside slalom… barely missing the cones and…. YEAH! Very nice… nice and clean. Great run!…”
As we savored the adrenaline rush, Denny said, “Yeah, you’re just driving around in a farmer’s field. But you’re racing the car! You’re takin’ it to it’s very limits, sometimes a little beyond… no matter how fast you’re goin’… maybe forty’s the top but you’ve got four wheels spinning and sliding and you’re really racing!”
So, as a moto-journalist, at this point, I figured my day was done. I had photographed the drivers doing their thing and even ridden along on two competition runs. I was tired and sunburned and looking forward to a cold shower when I got home. We went to the driver’s meeting at the end of it all to find out the times and results, and it turns out that Denny and Guy were within .02 second of each other over the course of 3 timed runs. Very close indeed. Then the rally master said, “OK, we can pack up the cones and go home, or we can do Fun Runs. What do you guys want to do?” I asked Denny, “What’s a Fun Run?”
He looked at me with this crazy grin and said, “You wanna DRIVE!?”
Oh, My, God…
“Well, YEAH!” I said.
So I was allowed two untimed runs through the course in the Audi Quattro rally car. After fiddling with the seat position I was able to reach the wheel and pedals comfortably. The mirrors didn’t matter, of course. I donned my helmet and cinched the belts down tight, put the beast in first gear, and rumbled up to the starting line. The old pre-race jitters, the adrenaline pump that had been my friend for so many years showed up immediately. But conspicuously absent was the fear of violent dismemberment I used to feel every time I rode my Ducati on the racetrack. But here I will go to the post-race tape to give you a taste of the raw emotion of the moment. This was narrated in breathless adreno-babble, so please forgive the punctuation:
“(Wild laughter…) OK, I just made two runs in the Audi… (more laughter) The old fangs came out just like back when I was roadracing… What a blast! The first run I made a hash of… first time in the car… missed a gate… probably hit a cone on the far side… that hairpin at the other end is really tough! But I’ll try to talk my way through the second run, which was pretty good… This time I revved it to three grand before releasing the clutch… we got a much better start… car LEAPED off the line!… We managed to go wide enough to get through that first chicane… hard on the power down the straightaway… hard on the brakes into the right hander just before the hairpin… but still a bit out-of-shape getting through it… not enough acceleration out of that corner… didn’t know how much power it would take, didn’t know how much brakes I needed… that’s a function of learning the car, I think… I can see now why so many of the guys were cutting the hairpin tight… just seems like the natural thing to do… you try to get the power down but don’t realize that you’ve got that second apex to deal with… the backside slalom was pretty easy… I just kept my foot on the floor and clipped the apexes… MAN, What a ride! My heart is pounding… more than a minute after the run, my pulse rate is STILL at least 120-plus! It wasn’t nearly as scary as motorcycle roadracing, but the excitement factor is still there… it’s uh… Racin’ is racin’, you know? …I’m much more excited in a car like this than I would be, say, in a go-kart or something. What incredible fun! I’m gonna want to do this again some day…”
A dispassionate observer might say that we spent the day driving various cars around cones in a farmer’s field. From an objective standpoint, this is the truth. But the amount of fun had by all participants would give the lie to such a concise observation. My own experience tells me that this is one of the best-kept secrets in American motorsports. You can take the cheapest of cars out here and thrash it to death while testing your driving skills against other drivers, and it’s all LEGAL!
At the end of the day, we left that farmer’s field freshly-plowed with nicely curved furrows. As I mounted Frogwing to head back home, I thought, “Hey, there’s that smell again.”